Drama up close and personal

01:16, Jul 12 2011

British actor Tom Riley has swapped period costume for hospital scrubs in medical series Monroe. He stars as anaesthetist Dr Laurence Shepherd and best friend to cynical neurosurgeon Gabriel Monroe (James Nesbitt).

Before he was helping save patients on the operating table, Riley was best known as Mr Wickham in quirky Pride & Prejudice mini-series Lost in Austen. Earlier this year he made his Broadway debut as Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia.

Monroe has been called a British version of US medical drama House. Is this fair?

The comparison is an inevitable one, but the truth is that aside from the fact both shows are set in a hospital, and both revolve around a central male protagonist, the differences actually outweigh the similarities. Our show is not a diagnostic one, we gradually move away from the case-of-the-week outline, and Monroe is a far more kindly and sensitive protagonist than House. That said, we do do a lot of walking briskly down corridors.

Dr Shepherd seems like the peacemaker. But is he really as nice as he seems?

I see Shepherd as a good guy with a complicated past that he avoids with good humour and an ability to see the world fairly and optimistically. He is certainly a very good friend, if perhaps not the best boyfriend.

Do you think Shepherd and Monroe would be friends outside of work? What's the key to their friendship?

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Their friendship, like so many, is based on a shared sense of humour and a shorthand that means they know each other inside out. Despite their differing ages, they work together so closely that the anaesthetist/surgeon relationship that is so important within the hospital has become a real one outside of work. Their paths may never have crossed so intensely outside of the workplace, but now they have, they're both very grateful for each other. Whether Monroe would ever admit it or not.

Is it true you witnessed real brain surgery as part of your preparation for the role?

It is. Jimmy (Nesbitt) and I were lucky enough to experience a few operations up close and personal. It was one of the most incredible mornings of my life. To be that close to human thought, as the neurosurgeon put it, was extraordinarily humbling.

Have you ever ended up in hospital?

A kidney stone once put me in hospital for a week. I was watching a late night episode of something and in the space of the commercial break I went from sitting happily on the sofa to writhing on the floor whilst my flatmates panicked and offered me water. The water didn't help.

Do you have any tricks for learning the complicated medical jargon?

No tricks. We all just cross our fingers and hope it all comes out in the right order.

What qualities does James Nesbitt have that will make him a good dwarf in The Hobbit?

His height. He is only three-foot tall (less than one metre), and plays the part of Monroe almost entirely on stilts, which makes his performance doubly impressive.

You've been performing on Broadway. What's the biggest difference about working in America?

The scope and spectacle of everything. It feels like you are on the world stage, and the response and reception is on a far greater scale. It's both exhilarating and intimidating. These last six months in New York have been among the best of my life.

You studied English Literature. What literary character would you most like to play?

Being able to play Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia on Broadway, having studied it at university, feels like I've been lucky enough to have that dream come true already. That said, if Hamlet came my way . . .

Will there be another series of Monroe?

You'll just have to wait and see!

The Dominion Post