With a breakout role as Badger in How To Have Sex, Shaun Thomas is ending 2023 on a high.
What does it mean to be a “breakout” star? For audiences that have had the chance to see How To Have Sex, that actor is Shaun Thomas. Despite his character’s somewhat goofy persona, Thomas’ Badger is one that has gripped audiences — sometimes so much that his presence puts them at ease.
Since first getting into acting over a decade ago, Thomas has mostly been known for roles in projects like The Selfish Giant and Ali and Ava. Now, with How To Have Sex, audiences can see just how far Thomas’ dedication goes to his character. The film tells the story of Mia Mckenna-Bruce’s Tara and her friends travelling to Greece on a ‘rits-of-passage’ type of trip for all teens. Many will find themselves in Tara, the last of her friends to lose her virginity, who is eager to party and hang with her pals. The film, which is directed by Molly Manning Walker, explores everything from consent, girlhood, and friendship and crafting it all with a deft touch. It’s a story that shouldn’t just be seen across theatres, but should be viewed in classrooms across the globe.
There is a childlike charm to Thomas, likely the same characteristics that made Manning Walker to select him for the role of Badger. At first glance, it’s easy to judge him — tattoos are adorned across his chest — and, admittedly, it’s a judgement that forces everyone to look in the mirror and reflect on why, exactly, certain attributes or features make people uneasy about others. Thomas toys the line between who we think Badger is and who he actually is — keeping all of us on our toes.
Sitting inside the iconic Corinthia Hotel in London, Shaun Thomas speaks with 1883 Magazine’s Kelsey Barnes about prepping for his role in How To Have Sex, working alongside the infectious joy that is Mia Mckenna-Bruce, and more.
Growing up, was there a specific story from your childhood that made you want to pursue acting?
I grew up in a household where we had limited film — we didn’t have a library of movies to pick from or a library of TV channels. We watched the films that we had in the house. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the British show Shameless, but I watched that quite a bit when I was younger. I never really got inspiration from other actors until I was on the set of The Selfish Giant and Sean Gilder who was in Shameless ended up playing parts in the film. That was a big moment for me — seeing those people on TV and then getting the chance to work with them. As a kid, it made me think that I wanted to keep doing it.
Now that you’ve been in the industry for a decade, is it easy for you to see how you’ve grown?
I have grown an awful amount since my first debut film The Selfish Giant. I was picked from obscurity. I grew up on an estate in Bradford and I wasn’t really engaging in school and stuff. Then, director Clio Barnard was looking for a boy to play a character who was very, very similar to me at the time, so I auditioned and got the role of Swifty. Going into that job, I was just a naive young 15-year-old boy who didn’t ever anticipate going into the industry.
Once I made that film, I realized that I had the ability to do something. As I was growing up I thought I wasn’t good at anything and finding out that I was actually able to do something gave me inspiration. I was thinking how I had an opportunity now and I come from a place where there aren’t a lot of opportunities, so I needed to seize this chance. I really soaked up as much information as I could as an actor and as a person as well. I feel like this industry has really helped me evolve as a person and as an actor as well. The stuff I’ve learned from the people along the way and the experiences that I have had really painted me to be the man I am today. I’m very grateful for the opportunities and I wouldn’t I would not have it any other way.
When you first got the script for Badger, what part of him really resonated with you? He’s such a character.
I think it’s his energy, really. I really relate to his energy. Going back to being in school, I really enjoyed trying to make people laugh, pleasing people, and being the class clown. When I read Badger, I saw a lot of my younger self in him. You see little snippets of these moments of him wanting to be accepted and he feels he’s got to make people laugh. I can relate to that as well. There were a few things that really stood out to me in his traits as a character. Once I read the script, I realized on top of him having the desire to have fun and be outgoing, there is this part of him where he is quite empathetic and very aware of people’s feelings, situations, and how people may be feeling. I think he is very aware and emotionally intelligent.
Now that you bring up how perceptive he is, I loved how much he notices things with Tara that her friends don’t even notice.
Yeah, exactly. With Badge, it was very easy for me to be the party guy and it seems like all he might be is someone who is fun when he’s drunk. I wanted him to have those moments of depth and intrigue that give him a little bit more intricacy to his character. It helps that Badger has a younger sister who gets briefly mentioned and that helps him connect with Tara. I always used to ask Molly if Badger would be thinking about his sister in a certain situation. That was something that Molly really enjoyed playing with. Again, with her being such a great director, she never turns down an opinion. She’s just amazing to work with. In the moments where you can see Badger process a situation or work something out, my thought process in those scenes was thinking about a sister. I think that really added a good balance with him and the foundation he needed to give him a little bit of a standout personality.
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When you first see him, he’s covered in tattoos. Admittedly, I judged him and assumed he’d be the “bad guy” just based on a first impression. It made me really reflect on why I immediately judged him based on what he looked like.
That’s why Molly is so good! [Laughs] You have an opinion and you’re judging a situation before it’s actually played out and before you actually know the guy. I did that with the script, I was waiting for something to happen, like an injury or something. Then, when it got to the big moment, it really shocked me. I think that’s what Molly’s done really well with the writing — she makes you think about who you are and forces you to reflect on your flaws. When I first read it, there was a moment of reflection for me, too.
I know you’ve been in a few TV shows where you have a longer time span to develop a character but with film, you only have a snapshot of time to do so. You mention working with Molly, but what was your preparation for developing Badger?
I’m really interested in the backgrounds of the characters and where they’ve come from. Reading the scripts made me connect the dots with people who I’ve experienced in real life and the characters and I morphed it all into one. I was really concerned about making it authentic. I didn’t want him to be the typical party guy, I wanted him to have layers. I’m hoping that when people get to see it their reaction is that he is a very in-depth character.
The two scenes with you and Mia [Mckenna-Bruce’s] character first in the bathroom and then just in her room telling jokes to one another was really sweet and beautiful to watch. It’s a glimmer of goodness in a pretty intense film. How did you guys develop that rapport before shooting?
Have you had a chance to chat with Mia yet?
Not yet but very soon!
You’ll see but she has so much joy and so much energy. She’s absolutely brilliant. She’s an amazing, amazing actress. She has this ability to get really silly with a character and, in other moments, has this ability to really tone it down and captivate you just by being quiet. As a performance, she absolutely smashed out of the park. But as for mine and her chemistry, I think being the outgoing character that she genuinely is in real life made me take a massive liking to her instantly. She is very fun, she was always joking. We were relentless with the jokes, so I really, really enjoyed working with her. My favourite scenes in the film are definitely the scenes where me and Mia are just quiet and don’t say much.
She’d say these jokes and some of them were hilarious and I was just desperate to keep myself together. Others were pretty bad but she was just relentless so it made you laugh anyway. You can’t be down when you’re around Mia. There were times when I wasn’t on set they got an apple box that you use for height for filming and they drew my face on it. Mia thought talking to an apple box that was meant to be me was the funniest thing in the world. She encouraged me to be daft and pushed me a little further. Like when there was an inflatable alligator and we made a video wrangling the alligator. Even now, as I’m talking to you, I’m getting excited just thinking back to her energy.
She brought the energy you guys needed to make everyone comfortable!
She really did drive the energy. That’s not to say that she’s loud because she also has the ability to make you stop and just pay attention. It literally makes my hair stand up thinking about how able she is to do that. She’s going to go on to do so much great things. The fact that I’ve had the opportunity to work with her on such a brilliant film is a massive achievement.
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Was there a lot of room for improv while shooting these scenes?
There were moments of improv, like the types of jokes and stuff. We kind of worked on in rehearsals prior to filming and took that structure to Malia while filming. Molly was always a fan of being open for you to throw a line in if it felt like a natural thing to say. There’s not an aggressive bone in her body, she’s so gentle and welcoming. I know that if I had a question, I could ask her. There were times when I was off-set or even before we went to Malia and Molly would call me and ask me questions, like if I had a favourite football team so she could incorporate it into Badger’s story. She gives you a creative pass and that then makes you invest in your character even more. It makes you think more and more about your character and what they’d do. I’ll never forget her ringing me and just asking me about my character. I got off the phone and I thought, “I’ve been waiting for jobs like this.” With my character being from up north and from a similar probably working-class background I’m from, I feel like I have a good opinion and idea. My input is valuable to the character, which Molly saw and took it all on board.
How has it been navigating the response to the film?
It didn’t happen to me for ages until we watched it at Cannes and we got a standing ovation. Once the premiere happened, I called members of my family and I couldn’t even speak because of the emotion. I was just overwhelmed, it’s even making me feel it now. Just knowing that we’ve created such an important story and I’ve been given the opportunity to take part in it and to feel like I’ve done my job correctly… It’s very meaningful. It makes it all worthwhile knowing that the vision that Molly had and the voice that she wanted to speak from was given justice. People can go on and use this film to learn and teach their brothers, their sisters, their children, their nieces, their nephews, it can be used in so many different ways. It’s such a valuable piece of filmmaking.
When you look ahead, what are you dreaming of?
I want to work hard and just try to be good at what I do. That’s what I really want. I want to go and hone my craft and learn and become an established and well-respected actor who’s known for telling stories and putting great attention and effort into the role. That’s all I could dream of.
How To Have Sex is in UK cinemas from 3 November 2023.