Tom Felton’s Television Villain

Published June 9, 2014

ABOVE: TOM FELTON IN MURDER IN THE FIRST. PHOTO COURTESY OF TNT

Tonight, the American audience will see Tom Felton through a new lens. Now 26, the British actor is best known for playing the bleached blond supreme school manipulator Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise. In the new TNT miniseries Murder in the First, however, the former child actor trades the wizardry of Hogwarts for the wizardry of San Francisco’s tech world. Felton plays Erich Blunt, a ruthless Mark Zuckerberg-esque computer prodigy and CEO of a fictional RPG game company called Applicon.

When Blunt’s estranged birth father and former staffer are both found dead, he becomes the main suspect in a police investigation led by homicide detectives Terry English  (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson).

Created by Eric Lodal and Steven Bochco, the latter of whom was instrumental in creating and shaping the procedural crime genre with shows like L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, Murder in the First is a slow-burning crime drama. Instead of offering up a case an episode, Bochco and Lodal use the popular 10-episode mini series format to follow two related homicide cases.

While the character of Blunt easily could be overwhelmed by melodrama, Felton’s performance is never gratuitous. Behind the venom-filled monologues Blunt expertly spits out to undermine his staff is a layer of anxiety—a boy who has always been a little bit removed from everyone around him.

Last week, Tom Felton spoke to us about moving on from Harry Potter and stepping into the shoes of the 21st century’s answer to a rock god.

NIKI CRUZ: You’ve done a fantastic job at playing these characters that have a bit of a sinister edge to them—all in various degrees. Is that something that feels comfortable to you?

TOM FELTON: I say yes because that seems to be the bulk of what I’ve done. I definitely get a mass enjoyment out of it. There’s something very intoxicating about playing someone so volatile and someone who can lose his temper at any second. Like you said, I think the characters that I have played with this note of cynicism [have] completely different reasons, and Erich more so than any previously. People like to say they’re villains, but I don’t think any of them are demons when I look back at them.

CRUZ: It’s been a few years since the Harry Potter franchise came to an end. At the time, was it difficult moving on from the Harry Potter series?

FELTON: Not really. It was a very sad time when it finished because it had been a home for us for so long; we were all so close to the crew for obvious reasons. But afterwards, it was exciting to see what else was out there. When you’re playing a character for 10 years, it can challenge you less than it did at the beginning, so it was exciting to take on some new shoes. Especially with Erich Blunt, because being a tech wizard wasn’t something I thought I would do after Harry Potter.

CRUZ: Steven Bochco has a unique voice within the investigative procedural genre, which paved the way for shows like The Killing and this year’s True Detective. Were you familiar with his work before signing on to Murder in the First?

FELTON: Less so the genre, though True Detective, I am a big fan of. I’ve certainly been a big fan of Steven’s work for a while. Mostly because my dad was a big fan, so I watched a lot of his work growing up. I think the great thing about this show is that it feels like you’ve known these characters for years, but it’s a completely new backdrop. San Francisco is such a great place aesthetically to shoot, but to include it in this tech world—it definitely feels like something new at the same time.

CRUZ: How is it playing someone that feels really contemporary?

FELTON: It’s really exciting, actually. It was something different for me. I had such a wealth of research material at my fingertips. Eric [Lodal] and I spent a long time sending videos back and forth of different CEOs of different companies and exploring that whole world. He defined it beautifully when he said, “These people are the rock stars of our generation.” The ones who, 20 years ago, would be deemed as the geeks and now they’re the power holders and the ones that are really in control of how we communicate. It was liberating to see how these people really are the cool kids of our generation.

CRUZ: Erich isn’t the most sympathetic character, but it’s apparent he is under a ton of pressure that kind of combats his arrogance. How did the character read to you on paper—was it difficult to humanize Erich?

FELTON: Yeah. that was something that I give a lot of credit to the writers for. It’s very easy to lose your temper quickly with this character, because he’s such a volatile human being and has very little understanding of people who don’t understand his train of thought. His train of thought is definitely above the rest of us, and because of that he doesn’t have much time for people who don’t understand that. In the further episodes we really get to see him as a flawed human.

CRUZ: Was playing into that at all intimidating?

FELTON: It was exciting. I’m far from a whiz when it comes to these things, but I’m a geek when it comes to gadgets. The technology that actually Erich Blunt is selling throughout the series has a massive relevance. It’s something that you may see now and think is still a bit pie in the sky, but give it a few more years and it’ll be something that’s very much on our doorsteps. It’s interesting to discover the ins and outs of what we were talking about technically.

CRUZ: Did you look into the earlier years of these larger-than-life guys like Mark Zuckerberg? Or listen to early Apple keynote speeches from Steve Jobs?

FELTON: Yeah, less so of Steve Jobs but more of the youngsters that are coming up today. Whether it’s Vimeo or Instagram, there was a lot of great material out there for me to look at. Not that we really used that as a staple, but it was educational. People with those fantastic minds weren’t always socially adaptable people, so that in itself was quite interesting.

CRUZ: Some of these brilliant minds are very rigid, and they’re almost vilified and worshipped in equal measure.

FELTON: It’s like in politics: You can have great intentions for the world, but if you’re not a good speaker and if you’re not the sort of person that people can intimately link with, then it makes it very easy to say, “Well, they’re not a nice person.” Erich is a really good example of that.

CRUZ: There’s this parallel where you can compare the fame that the head of a CEO has in the tech world to that of an actor. It struck me when Erich said in a kind of cavalier way that friends think he’s a cash register. Is that specific idea of fame something that you can relate to? [laughs]

FELTON: [laughs] Fortunately, no! I have very good friends. Erich’s the youngest billionaire ever, so he has somewhat more of a disposable income. Honestly I never even thought about that, but now that you say it there’s an unmistakable parallel between those two. Not only is he a youngster, but he’s also one of the most famous. I suppose unconsciously I tapped into that. There’s some beautiful moments with Erich, which I definitely could adapt to easier—it’s being in a room and noticing that he can catch people’s eyes, like people who clock him before they meet him. Looking back at it, that was an interesting parallel in certain situations.

CRUZ: Since the app world is heavily discussed, what are some of your favorites?

FELTON: I go back and forth. I used to be mad on the games, but I had to ban myself. I used to spend three dollars on games, [but] it adds up, so now I’m on the social side of things like Twitter and Instagram. I love my weather apps. I guess because all the Brits are obsessed with weather.

CRUZ: Some of these detective shows have been done so often, it’s kind of like paint by numbers, but Murder in the First unpacked a lot of rich background and twists just in the pilot. What were you most surprised by?

FELTON: Yeah, I wish I can talk more about those twists, but give it a few months and you’ll see the burden of information that I have in what these characters all go through. I was just saying to a friend, even the cast and crew were huddling around every day trying to come up with theories about who did what. We learned episodically. For all of us to be guessing who done what, I can only imagine what audiences are going to go through. I’m excited to hear about people’s theories and thoughts as the episodes go on.

CRUZ: Would you do something like this again?

FELTON: 100 percent. I’ve said to Steven and Eric if they need any of my services I’ll be there. It was so much fun more than anything. I’ve never worked like this where you’re doing nine to 10 pages of dialogue in a day. That was unheard of back when I was growing up, so it was hard work in some instances but the most rewarding in others. I felt very grateful to be a part of it. MURDER IN THE FIRST PREMIERES TONIGHT, JUNE 9, ON TNT.