Interview with Rob Brydon, star of Swimming With Men

Rob Brydon was in Edinburgh to discuss his film Swimming With Men, which closed out this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival.

In Oliver Parker’s Swimming With Men, actor, comedian, writer, presenter and all round affable guy Rob Brydon takes on his first leading role. He was on hand ahead of the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s closing gala to discuss his new comedy, synchronised swimming and the future of The Trip.

How would you describe your character, Eric, in Swimming with Men?

Well, Eric is a middle-aged accountant, married with one teenage son, who has become disenchanted, he’s lost his mojo. He’s sort of stagnating, you know? I imagine that he was a bit of a whizz kid when he was younger, with numbers and things. But now he finds himself working for  firm that he doesn’t really like, with a boss that wants him to cook the books and come up with some dodgy tax avoidance schemes. So his solace is swimming, he goes to the swimming pool and he ploughs up and down, up and down. His marriage is disintegrating as a result, there’s no communication. His wife is starting to blossom, she’s become a local councillor and is starting to get some satisfaction in her life. That’s where they are when we find them, and he ends up joining this team. He sees these guys, training. Now this is a group of men who only meet up, they never perform anywhere, they just do it in and of itself. And Eric joins because he’s able to help them with a mathematical problem they have, because of his mathematical mind. So he joins them, and against their normal instincts and beliefs, they enter a competition.

How much is Eric like you? Have you had a mid-life crisis yet?

Not in the way he is, because things have gone very lucky for me but I suppose there was a time in my early thirties when I was very frustrated and I wasn’t making the progress I’d like to in my career. But I don’t know that that’s a mid-life crisis.

It’s a bit early!

It’s a bit early, isn’t it? Because if that’s mid-life, then I haven’t got long left!

How was the experience of having to carry a film instead of supporting?

It’s different, it’s a different thing. Traditionally, I would have played one of the guys in the team, and you have your thing and you come in and score. If you’re playing the lead, you really have to take the audience with you and they have to root for you and want you to do well. So to some degree, it’s a different undertaking to what I’m used to doing. If you think about my masterful turn in Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella for example, where I played the court painter. A much-acclaimed role, but on that, people don’t realise I was only in one scene and yet now, when you think of that film, you think of the painter, Master Phineus. This is very different, where it’s more of a slow burn in a way, also playing someone who’s a little depressed and quite quiet. Then plotting what you’re going to show, to chart his development, because as you know we shoot out of sequence, so it’s a bit, “where is he now then?”. Whereas in the supporting roles, it’s a bit more clean cut.

What was it like working with the other guys in the team?

Mostly very enjoyable, with a couple of exceptions. I won’t say, they know who they are and they have to live with it.

Did you do anything to build up the camaraderie?

Oh, well nothing above and beyond what the producers arranged. We had a two week bootcamp, swimming three hours a day, which is exhausting. So that gave us a sense of camaraderie, we would meet up every day I think at 9:30am at Stratford, the Olympic diving pool where Tom Daley does his thing. So we’d all meet up in the cafe, have a cup of coffee and then in we’d go, into our own little changing rooms, get into our trunks and then we’d plod out. With enthusiasm at the beginning of the two week period, but less as it went on! So that was quite team-building, that built up a real sense of us being in it together.

How was the swimming? Were you a keen swimmer before this?

I was an enthusiastic swimmer, I enjoyed swimming but I had no technique, so I was taught by a great teacher called Salim Ahmed, who runs a company called SwimLab. They take people open water swimming all across Europe. He taught me a great stroke, because the script said that Eric was a very strong swimmer, so he taught this…reach and glide is how I would describe it. It’s very lovely to watch. I’ve used it since, on holiday with my family, and they’re thinking, “look at him go!”. So that was good, and I tried some of the synchronised swimming moves, but if you don’t have your nose clips on you come a cropper, all the water goes up your nose.

How much of your swimming is in the film?

There are no doubles! When I read the script, I assumed it would be, especially since we’ve got swimming caps and goggles on. But we didn’t double any of it, and I think you can tell because the camera’s pretty close in when we do the loop under the water. That was hard, the underwater loop, when we all go head-to-toe, feet around someone else’s neck and someone else’s feet around your neck. I think I had Rupert (Graves)’s feet around my neck.

How were they?

They were Rupert Graves feet, I challenge you to find better feet. But he hasn’t stayed in touch.

In terms of the script, how much did you have to stick to what was written?

From memory, I had a few sessions with Ash (Aschlin Ditta, the film’s screenwriter) before and I think – I don’t want to say changed – I altered some of my lines to sound a bit more like me. Something I’ve noticed after working with Americans is there’s no shame in saying, “do you mind if I just say this here?”. So there was a little bit of that but it’s essentially what Ash wrote.

How does that compare to something like The Trip, where everything is improvised?

Well it’s very different because The Trip is largely improvised. What we do on The Trip is essentially write it as we go along. Michael (Winterbottom, The Trip’s director) writes the outline, where we’re going and all the pillars and posts as it were. Then Steve and I will improvise it, but then you finesse it with each take, so you have to be on the ball, remembering what you said, when you lifted the fork, so it matches vaguely. You sort of find a pattern, then you try to say the same thing again. I think when people hear it’s improvised they probably imagine we only do it once, but we don’t, we do it again and again. Each time, hopefully, it’s getting a little bit better though often you hit a sweet spot and that’s the one. So very different to The Trip, in that sense.

Speaking of The Trip, are there any plans to do another one?

There’s nothing firm, but I imagine that we will. We have been talking and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t.

Is there anywhere you want to go? Anywhere that’s been talked about?

Well there are a few countries that have reared their head, but it’s not settled yet.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a film, Simon Bird’s directorial debut, it’s called The Last Days of Bagnall Summer. With Monica Dolan, who’s fantastic. So I’m doing a little bit in that, a lovely part. Then I’m back on tour, I’m coming back here to Edinburgh, and Glasgow and one other Scottish city. I can’t remember if it’s Dundee or Inverness, or it could be Aberdeen. Definitely one of those! Then next year, we’ve got another Would I Lie to You? and there are a couple of other things that I’d love to tell you about but we’ve not announced them! But two things that I’ve never done before!