Discovering Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s “John Adams”)


Originally published at Blogcritics magazine

t always gives me great delight to “discover” an actor. I don’t mean in the Hollywood sense (because I’m not an agent or producer, nor do I have any clout whatsoever), but “discover” in the sense that I’ve not really ever heard of the guy before. It happens to us all, I think. You see a film and something in the actor’s performance or looks (or both) touches you in a way that makes you want to see more of what he’s done. For me, it’s always a soulfulness that seems to lurk about the eyes and expression. (See Reflections of a Recidivist Fangirl.) Then, wham. I just have a need to find out who the guy is and what else he’s done and find out what I’ve been missing. All I can say is, “Thank God for Google!”

My latest “discovery” is Stephen Dillane, the brilliant British (you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) stage and film actor. Most recently, Dillane played Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s John Adams miniseries. It didn’t hurt that he played my favorite Founding Father exactly as I had always imagined him: an enigmatic intellectual, at once fiery and guarded; eloquent and shy. I was immediately hooked. Who wouldn’t be? It was a terrific performance, right down to his accent, which began as slightly Gaelic, but as Jefferson aged over the course of some 50 years, so did the accent – to more of a relaxed “southern” drawl. Nice touch.

I was delighted to find out that Dillane is starring in not one, but two forthcoming films, bookending the month of May. Later this week, Dillane opens in Fugitive Pieces, a film about a boy rescued from the horrors of the Holocaust, who now, as an adult (played by Dillane), is haunted by his childhood memories. It is written and and directed by Jeremy Podeswa, and based on the novel by Canadian poet Anne Michaels. I’m looking forward to reviewing that film for Blogcritics when it opens.

Dillane also stars with Julianne Moore in Savage Grace, (opening May 30) based on the controversial life of the Bakeland family (who invented “Bakelite“). Both films look intriguing, dark, and serious. Can’t wait. Later this year, Dillane will appear as Charlemagne in the film Love and Virtue which takes on the French epic poem The Song of Roland. So lots of things coming up for us newbie fans of Mr. Stephen Dillane.

Dillane is an accomplished stage actor, having recently performed a one-man rendition of Macbeth in London, and whose Hamlet (also in London) has been considered amongst the best. He has won major stage awards, including a Tony (for Leading Actor) in 2000 for Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. But unless you want to dig through YouTube (yeah, I’ve done it) for snippets, you’ll have to stick to film and television DVDs to catch up with Dillane’s works. And lucky for us, there are quite a few.

I am slowly digging my way through his film oeuvre, so here are a couple of suggestions to start:

Welcome to Sarajevo is based on the true story of a British journalist who, in an act of impulsive bravery, rescues a young girl from the hell of early 1990s Bosnia. Dillane, as the journalist is wonderful at expressing the world-weariness of the protagonist Michael Henderson. The story is intense, and at times nearly unbearable for its tragedy. Woody Harrelson gives a disarming and surprising performance as Dillane’s American colleague. It’s a great and serious film.

Déjà Vu is about as romantic a film as possible. Not a chick flick by any means, Déjà Vu is a story of love lost and rediscovered; of destiny and soul mates. It’s gorgeously shot with Henry Jaglom’s signature realism (despite the fact that the film has strong supernatural overtones), with much of the dialogue improvised from rough sketches and notes. Dillane is fantastic as an English painter drawn hopelessly to an American designer, whom he encounters in a series of coincidence meetings. She is equally drawn to him, although they are both tied to other partners. Terrific supporting performances by Vanessa Redgrave and Noel Harrison (anyone remember him from the old ’60s series The Man From UNCLE?).

I look forward to many months of catching up on my new discovery! And I’m open to suggestions.

7 thoughts on “Discovering Stephen Dillane (Thomas Jefferson in HBO’s “John Adams”)

  1. No HBO out in the boonies where I live, so I haven’t seen the “John Adams” series. I have read David McCullough’s book, and I have portrayed Mr. Jefferson professionally for 18 years.
    We don’t know whether Jefferson was eloquent in speech, but it’s doubtful. He very rarely spoke in public, and when he did, his voice could not be heard.
    The rest of your adjectives are correct EXCEPT “fiery.” Mr. Jefferson was anything but fiery! Nothing could be further from his true nature.
    I did get to see just 10 minutes of one “John Adams” episode from a hotel room during a business trip. It portrayed a conversation between Adams and Jefferson which did not occur. A professional friend who portrays Franklin has noted a number of historical inaccuracies regarding his character.
    Enjoy the series if you like. Just don’t presume that it’s accurate.

  2. Thanks for your comments. Jefferson was not a great public speaker. I also know that. He was fiery in his use of language, but in writing, not speaking. Dillane portrays Jefferson as reserved and quite admitting that he was not one to speak. Yes, things are fictionalized. I do think they did get it right (as much as we can know)–we cannot presume to know every conversation that took place. Or did not.

  3. I’ve just finished the 7 episodes thanks to Netflix. Stephen Dillane is the most intriguing man I’ve “discovered” since Christian Bale who remains my current favorite actor. Another sexy man from England.
    His portrayal of Thomas was thoughtful and reserved – I loved it. He never married a second time – wonder what was going on in his private world. Now I want to see Monticello in the future.

    1. What was going on in his private world? He was banging a slave 30 years younger (who happened to have been his wife’s half-sister), of course …

  4. A little late to the table but none-the-less total obsessed with Stephen Dillane. Loved him in John Adams (rewatching for the third time!) which was so compelling even if some people claim it is not 100% accurate! Having trouble finding more info on Mr Dillane beyond his plays and movie appearances. Any info? Is he still acting on stage or is he stictly film now? Does he live in England still? THANKS!

  5. Just finished watching Deja Vu. An uneven, badly executed film but a decent story. Loved seeing Mr Dillane in this film and can’t wait to see more. Any one have any more info about this elusive actor?????

  6. Like you, I discovered Stephen Dillane throught John Adams. He’s mesmerizing! If you haven’t already, you MUST check out his movie Firelight! I believe the entire thing is uploaded in several installments on youtube.
    Anyway, yes…he’s wonderful. He is very private and stays out of the limelight though…which is actually admirable and makes me like him all the more. He’s amazingly talented and incredibly easy to look at!

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