Ralph Whelan is a complicated man. English by birth, he’s a well-placed civil servant in India in the final years of the British Raj. Whelan’s psychological ties to India are at war with his professional loyalties to England. He might just represent the British colonial conscience abroad — entrenched and divided, in denial and guilt-ridden.
You may not recognize the name of the actor who plays him: Henry Lloyd-Hughes. After tuning in to the first episode of Indian Summers, putting that name to his face will no longer present a problem. With this role, Lloyd-Hughes makes a commanding impression as a leading man. He embodies the might and vulnerability of an empire in decline.
I spoke with Lloyd-Hughes about Indian Summers, his career in the U.K. and the independent film shorts he’s written.
It’s 1932 when Indian Summers begins, about 15 years before India gains independence from the British Empire. Can you place your character and his position there?
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: My character is in the Indian civil service, which is part of the governing body that England has put in place as part of the empire. Paul Rutman [the screenwriter] is very deliberate in the timing of when the show is set. He could have set it at any time in the previous 50 or 60 years and it would have been about the good old days, but the point is that for those who are connected to power, as my character is, because he’s the private secretary to the Viceroy of India, who is the kind of King-like figure, the king-emperors of India, he is treated with that level of status.
I am the person who is the controller of all information that comes from and to the Viceroy, from the rulers in England, and back and forth. On one level, it’s a role that is invisible with a ringside seat to power, but at the same time, it’s incredibly influential. That person has an amazing reach of influence right across to the highest level.
There’s a line that Ralph says to his sister when she arrives in India, “I just want everything to be perfect.” Do you feel that statement defines his character?
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: I wouldn’t say it’s a map, but I would go so far as to say he may be brainwashed himself for, or, rather that’s the role that he plays in his job, so far that it has bled into his personal life, does that make sense? I often think about Ralph — one of the fascinating things to play him, as an actor, is that he is an actor. He is acting a lot of his life. Superficially, he represents the establishment, but there’s something much more complicated and conflicted about him. A white man born and trained for the job, family have been in India — his heritage is there in terms of being part of the civil service and yet, he is not like that, he is twisted inside because his love of India is emotional. It’s molecular.
How do you think living abroad in their colonial outposts affected the English psyche?
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: To my understanding, the notion of Englishness that the people took with them when they went out to these places (Kenya and India as two examples), everything that was inside the people in terms of their ambitions, their hopes, their ideas about the kind of person they wanted to be, was amplified the minute they left England. You get all these people who were maybe lower-class when they left England and they arrive somewhere else, and you know what? “I’m middle-class.”’ If you were middle class or upper middle class to begin with, by the time you got off the boat, you were upper-class. You were like, “Oh, did I forget to mention? I’m basically aristocracy” because no one was there to check your back story, and that went the same way as far as flirtations, and trying to have your cake and eat it because there was this sense of mischief, of reckless abandon, of reinvention.
There are very few people who are trying to maintain a status quo that is tied to the past. Almost everyone is having to embrace a new type of future like Julie Walter’s character, Cynthia. She is a dinosaur in her refusal to acknowledge that the times are changing. Ralph may appear to not acknowledge that the times are changing but in his soul, of course, he knows they are.
But Julie Walter’s character seems to have carved out her own personal fiefdom, one that she might not ever have had in England.
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: Exactly right. She’s an embodiment of the kind of person that made a richer and, like you say, a little private universe of her own devising that wouldn’t have been possible to any degree in England, which is why of course she wants to cling on to India until her dying breath, because why wouldn’t you if you could reinvent yourself, make yourself grand and powerful when you weren’t powerful. It incentivizes you almost above and beyond your actual political leanings, your actual racial prejudices because what you want is to cling on to what you’ve got.
When you’re acting in a period piece like this, how do you go about erasing the modern world?
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: There are certain things, in terms of dialogue, in terms of dialect, it’s hard to explain but once you get into the rhythm of a period scene, the words and the rhythm of what you’re doing will transport you somewhere. There are drawbacks to filming on location on the other side of the world. I don’t see my wife, I don’t see my friends, I don’t see anyone I know, but having said that, the one value added, you are transported. You are transported to a place that feels other, and it feels like you are in a different place and maybe even in a different time.
For American audiences who aren’t familiar with your work, I wanted to talk about your filmography, starting with a short film you wrote “Acting = Intensity + Rebellion.”
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: I’m not someone who sits at the typewriter with a blank screen and goes, “oh, what could I possibly cook up?” Occasionally, for example, I have a very specific idea that comes to me fully formed. I wrote Acting in maybe 24 hours. A week later I was shooting it in L.A. As an idea, it was inspired by moody teenage heartthrob actors that maybe weren’t necessarily that good. The idea that one could come up with a formula for acting was really funny to me. What’s interesting is that you can be incredibly pretentious and still be a really good actor. In a way, that’s what’s frustrating about it.
Looking at your biography, you come from a family of actors.
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: I guess on paper, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It just meant that when that conversation came, there was a bit of, “We thought we’d exorcised this ghost and suddenly, we find that the house is haunted again.” My family was unsurprised, shall we say, that that particular gene had come back and come back with a vengeance.
You also appeared in a popular British series The Inbetweeners.
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: It’s a huge show in England, and has such a cult following that the minute they finish a show there’s a huge appetite for more. I think there will be more. I was the anti-hero, the baddie in that show as well, unfortunately. As much as I love doing comedies — and that was so satisfying doing a funny show with so many great comic actors — but I always play the straight guy.
Weirdly, I didn’t get to flex my comic muscles as much as you would expect given that it’s a very successful comedy, but I love the show, it’s very English. I don’t know whether viewers from America, if they want to watch it whether or not it might resonate in the same way because it’s about a particular type of English suburbia, but I would say a companion piece, an easy comparison, would be something like Freaks and Geeks. It’s not about the cool kids.
In 2016, you’re going to be in a Hollywood film, Now You See Me: The Second Act. What’s the difference between working in America vs. the U.K.?
Henry Lloyd-Hughes: The thing is: L.A. has its own language and rhythm. I almost feel like it’s a separate state. I think if you were to transplant someone from Iowa and take them into a restaurant in L.A. and overheard the conversations, I think it would feel pretty weird for them as well. There is a rhythm and a pitch to which people can make a deal, come after the deal, make a new deal. That is, in and of itself, some kind of magisterial dance that is both beautiful and incredibly ugly all at once.
Indian Summers on Masterpiece premieres on KQED 9 Sunday, September 27.