AS A former winner of Strictly Come Dancing, Tom Chambers is well known for being light on his feet. But it is only now, with the actor’s latest theatrical role, that he has mastered the art of levitating — or appearing to levitate, at least.
In the nail-biting new filmed play Apollo 13: The Dark Side Of The Moon, which marks 50 years since the infamously botched moon mission, Tom plays Jack Swigert, one of the three astronauts who were left stranded in space for a number of days after a spacecraft malfunction. In preparing for the role, he and his co-stars worked with a movement director to make it look like they were floating in zero gravity — when they were, in fact, each in their own homes.
‘We actually found that you could sit on one of those big round gym balls and roll around very slowly [to achieve the effect],’ he says.
However, that was far from the production’s only challenge.
With the cast linked up via Zoom, each actor was required to film themselves using an iPhone and a green screen, on to which backdrops could be superimposed afterwards.
‘You’re not just taking on an acting role, you’re becoming a [one-man] filming studio — it was unbelievably challenging,’ says Tom, reflecting on the experience.
Despite the play’s extreme setting, its story of trying to hold onto hope in adverse circumstances should resonate with an audience now, more than ever.
What’s more, in depicting people in peril while far above the Earth, it has a particular parallel with a terrifying experience in Tom’s own life — when, in 2000, he found himself on a plane from Nairobi to London that was hijacked by a man who briefly took hold of the controls.
‘It went on for two-and-a-half minutes and there’s no doubt everyone thought they were going to die,’ he recalls. Thankfully, he says, he was left relatively unaffected by the experience. ‘I was quite young and gung-ho then… but of course it made me value that you never know [what’s going to happen].”
How Tom got to where he is today proves the necessity of perseverance. After going to drama school, like many young actors, he spent a number of years struggling to get work and was on the verge of throwing in the towel. But before he did, he made a last-gasp attempt to get noticed by spending nine months perfecting a Fred Astaire tap dance routine in the hope of getting onto the Royal Variety Show.
When he didn’t make the line-up, he then filmed the performance and sent out 1000 copies to industry contacts instead. “I went to a factory and I got the DVDs and the jiffy bags, which I got down to 5p a bag. It was like being on The Apprentice,” he recalls, laughing. Among those who saw it were the producers of Holby City, and that led to him landing the role that made his name, as surgeon Sam Strachan in the long-running medical drama.
From there, however, it was Strictly that really launched him into the public imagination, as well as setting him up for the sprightly musical theatre career that he has since enjoyed, with roles in the likes of White Christmas and Top Hat. He still watches the show today with his wife Claire and three children, who “absolutely love it”, although he admits that for a couple of years after his stint he “did have a minor anaphylactic shock when I heard [the theme tune] … physically, it was fine because you naturally get fit but mentally it was so daunting.”
When lockdown hit, Tom was touring in a production of classic thriller Dial M for Murder. The hope is that it can resume early next year, although plans, as with everything in theatre at the moment, are up in the air. Tom says he’s found it an anxious time, as it has been for most actors: “I’m awake a lot at 4am. Your head starts spinning and you feel like you could be falling off the end of a cliff”.
But between homeschooling, and his multi-tasking work on Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon, he has been kept busy. Meanwhile his recent self-filming experience has inspired the germ of an idea to channel his love of tap-dancing into an online learning platform: he says he has just registered the website tapwithtom.com. “Tap is very niche but I’m going to try and make it fun and simplify it so it’s more inclusive for all ages … It’s a really good form of fitness,” he says. Might the Joe Wicks of dance be upon us? Watch this space.
■ Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon is available to December 31. originaltheatreonline.com