Antonia Thomas is telling Clash about how she responded to the news that she’d earned a Best Female Newcomer nomination at the Empire Awards earlier this year.
“What? That was my reaction,” she exclaims. “Really?”, “Oh my God!” and “Wow!” soon followed. She’d been shortlisted for her role in Dexter Fletcher’s 2013 musical based around the music of The Proclaimers, Sunshine On Leith.
Initially known for her performance as Alisha in E4’s hit series Misfits, Thomas’s Empire nomination has inevitably elevated her to a higher level of recognition, partially because of the company she’s been keeping. “All of the other ladies that were nominated are extremely wonderful, so it’s lovely to be in the same category as them,” she says of the shortlist that also includes Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years A Slave, The Wolf Of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie and her Sunshine On Leith co-star Freya Mavor.
Although the phrase Best Newcomer is inevitably associated with an overnight success story, it’s usually the case that anyone who has that honour bestowed upon them has grafted for years to earn the nomination. Thomas is no different. Performance seems to be inherent within the family genes. Her older sister, Emma, is trained in musical theatre and urged Antonia to do likewise, while her father David is an opera singer (or, as she clarifies, “a classical baroque bass singer”) of some repute. She initially learned towards musical theatre too, spending two months touring Japan with a production of Pendragon at the age of just 14, before moving her focus onto acting.
Thomas relocated from her family home in Greenwich to study at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. She repeatedly auditioned for Misfits in her final year and finally landed the part of Alisha the day after she finished her studies.
“It was terrifying, and amazing,” she recalls, her face reflecting a very palpable combination of overwhelmed wonder. “It wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing immediately. We did a little bit of TV training at drama school, but they can’t in any way prepare you for what it’s really like. It was an incredible experience and the best way to learn.”
Combining sex, drugs and telepathy, the character of Alisha wasn’t “exactly a wilting wallflower”, in Thomas’s words. “It was a steep learning curve,” she recalls, “and I was thrown in at the deep end, so the next thing I did wasn’t as scary.”
Misfits immediately placed Thomas in the public eye. It was, she admits, really strange to be repeatedly recognised in public throughout the show’s three series. “Fame has never really been something that’s interested me,” she affirms. “It’s a by-product of the job and if it happens to you, you have to just get used to it. It comes with the territory. But it’s really lovely: you appreciate people’s appreciation of your work.”
Such interest still occurs sporadically over two years after her character departed in a gruesome (“and very sad”) ending. Yet with the award nomination and the success of Sunshine On Leith, the next wave of public attention can’t be too far away.
When the possibility of featuring in Sunshine On Leith first appeared, Thomas’s reaction was one of enthusiastic bewilderment. “I did think that it was quite random and I didn’t really know their music, but I’d love to go in for it. In England we know ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, ‘Letter From America’ – we know the big hits. I didn’t really realise that The Proclaimers are huge in Scotland.”
Thomas plays Yvonne, who together with recently discharged serviceman Davy – performed by another new star, George MacKay – is one of three pairs of couples who are experiencing the rocky road of romance. It’s no surprise that their Will they? / Won’t they? relationship culminates with the film’s uplifting flash-mob set-piece performance of ‘(I’m Gonna Be) 500 Miles’.
The cast spent a week pre-recording their vocal performances in the studio. The big numbers in which most of the cast perform together – ‘Over And Done With’, ‘500 Miles’ – are obviously, as Thomas says, “just a lot of fun”. But the more intimate songs, such as ‘Misty Blue’, were a much bigger challenge. As for the reasons behind film’s surprise success?
“When we first started, I thought we might get a really gritty Scottish musical, like Fish Tank the musical. No!” she chuckles. “Although it’s a musical – you can’t really get away from an element of cheese because of that – Dexter wanted to keep it as real and as grounded as possible. He wanted the songs and the music to really come from out of a truthful acting moment. I just think it was a collaboration of really great things that all worked.”
Also confirmed as part of the cast of Survivor, a film based around a terrorist plot and headlined by Milla Jovovich, Thomas had spent the day of our interview rehearsing for her second season in Home, a play which runs at The Shed at The National Theatre until the end of April. It uses the real-life testimonies of young people to explore the issue of homelessness in London.
“The situation of the hostels since we first did it last summer has changed: the government keeps cutting the funding and people have been evicted, the situation is getting worse and worse. We’re really hoping to get some policy makers along and to try to make a difference to it. It feels like one of the most important jobs that I’ve done.”
Thomas’s future ambitions are varied. She’d love to perform Shakespeare at The National’s Olivier Theatre, and would like to return to another music based-role (there’s also been Spike Island, Coldplay’s Charlie Brown video and the upcoming Northern Soul), this time playing a singer or jazz musician. Most of all, though, she’d love to work with 12 Years A Slave and Shame director Steve McQueen. Go on, Steve, pick up the phone...