Tom Bateman stars in Peacock’s binge-worthy dark comedy series Based on a True Story as Matt Pierce, a charming plumber whose ready smile masks an inner darkness and a terrifying secret — he’s a murderer. When Matt befriends a Los Angeles couple — realtor Ava (Kaley Cuoco) and former tennis pro Nathan (Chris Messina) — in need of his services and money to pay their mortgage, they soon discover his true identity and team up to host a true-crime podcast and cash in on America’s favorite obsession.
The classically trained Bateman attended the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), where Shakespeare and sonnets were key to the curriculum and he appeared in the classic Much Ado About Nothing before making his way to London’s West End, where he performed several of the Bard’s greatest hits. His performances caught the attention of Sir Kenneth Branagh and his Garrick Theatre, which cast him alongside Dame Judi Dench in The Winter’s Tale. Feature opportunities soon followed thanks to Branagh, who cast him in both Murder on the Orient Express and its sequel, Death on the Nile.
Born in Oxfordshire, England, where his father was a music teacher and his mother was a primary school teacher, Bateman is one of 13 siblings and half-siblings, as he has a twin, Merlin, who is an artist in his own right, though Bateman is the only sibling who set his sights on acting — this after moving to London at 19 to attend the aforementioned drama school.
Above the Line spoke with Tom Bateman via Zoom video from his home in the U.K., where early evening thunderstorms were looming, at times briefly disrupting our connection. Bateman’s beard was a little fuller than Pierce’s close-cropped stubble, as the actor is busy preparing for an upcoming role he couldn’t disclose, but he was otherwise open and amiable with a disarming smile, much like the character he plays in Based on a True Story — though thank goodness that’s all they have in common!
Bateman talked about drawing on his own Shakespearean background to play a serial killer, and he also discussed America’s fascination with true crime, as well as why he tried to make his character as charming as possible after researching psychopaths. Additionally, Bateman revealed what he did in his audition to land the plum part, which was a tricky one for the producers to cast.
Above the Line: Hi Tom, I was impressed to learn that you attended the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. That’s no small feat.
Tom Bateman: I did. Do you know about LAMDA? Nice. It was a really cool school. I mean, there are so many amazing drama schools in the U.K. I could only afford to apply to a couple of them, and LAMDA was one of them. I was so lucky to get in. It’s an amazing school.
ATL: So how did your Shakespearean knowledge prepare you to play a serial killer?
Bateman: [laughs] I guess trying to make sense of some pretty crazy and out-there lines helps. I’m not sure anything quite prepared me to play this serial killer. It was pretty much, “Let’s grow and explore this guy together,” you know?
ATL: So lead me into it… what sort of research did you do to tap into playing a serial killer?
Bateman: My big thing was that I read this book, The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson. It’s an amazing book, and he interviews a lot of psychopaths, and I found it so helpful. When I first got offered the role, I thought, “How are you going to play this guy?” He’s nuts. I mean, the whole show is such a big swing. It’s so out there and crazy and cool and funky, and I’d never read anything quite like it. That was just the same with this character. I thought, “My god, who is this guy?” He’s a serial killer. He’s charming, he’s funny, and he’s sweet. He wants to play darts. He has a kid. How do you go about approaching this?
And this book that Jon Ronson wrote was really interesting because, in these psychopath interviews, he says, “God, they’re all so charming and normal.” I can’t believe that they’re capable of doing these awful things. And this psychiatrist who’s talking to him about these people he is interviewing says that’s exactly how they operate. They are fascinating. They have no empathy. They wear these masks, and they perform the role of a human being back at you. And they’re very quick to scan and figure out how you want them to be. They’re like chameleons, and they just sort of change their skin. For me, that was a huge foot in the door of this character because I thought, “That’s fascinating. That’s how this guy operates.
ATL: This was written by Craig Rosenberg who wrote The Boys. I can only imagine what he was like on the page.
Bateman: In Craig’s writing, whether he meant to or not, the first thing he does is see these tennis trophies, sees this kind of loser of a guy, panders his ego, and says, “Those trophies are yours, yeah, I remember you. God, you’re amazing.” It’s a way to sort of get in there and seduce him and make friends with him, and that’s what these guys do. So that’s kind of how I started to go into it.
But I really was interested in playing with this idea that he’s almost different with every single person. Did you see that flash of lightning there? Did you see that? Oh my God, that’s nuts. Yeah, so I really wanted to play with this idea that he’s different with every single person he talks to. That was a really fun thing to play with, and it kept it really interesting for me. In each episode and each scene, I could do something different. Craig and [director] Alex Buono were both so great, open, and enthusiastic about that.
ATL: Well, you couldn’t have two better scene partners than Kaley Cuoco and Chris Messina. You must have known to be gentle with Kaley, who was with child at the time.
Bateman: I love those guys. I did know that. I mean, I didn’t know it when they offered me the role. I knew they were both attached, and I’m pretty sure the first episodes I read showed she wasn’t pregnant, and then suddenly she was pregnant in these new drafts before I flew out. And I thought, “This is great. Why have they chosen to do this?” Then I landed, met Kaley, and went, “Oh my God!” [gesturing to a pregnant belly]. She was so incredible. I can’t believe her energy, kindness, and grace throughout. It was just insane. She was in every single day, basically the whole time, and I was honestly blown away by her every single day.
ATL: You have such boundless energy in this role and you’re constantly smiling. It must have been exhausting in a way to play him, no?
Bateman: Oh no, it was kind of easy because, in fact, the hardest thing about him was not laughing at Kaley and Chris because they are the funniest people and I love them so much. It’s interesting what we do because we get to work with so many amazing people, but you never quite know how the chemistry and the alchemy [between] each other are going to work. Every now and again, it’s like an unquantifiable, indescribable thing. I
think all three of us just knew how to get along with each other. There was never anything other than total joy in working with each other. But Matt, I found him so fun to play because the concept of this show is so crazy and wild and out there, and [he] as a character is even crazier and even more out there, that there were almost no rules to what I did, and I found it so fascinating.
ATL: Were you given free rein to try different things in the scene?
Bateman: Usually you’ll try something and instinctively feel it in your bones, and the director will invariably say, “That doesn’t quite work.” And you go, “Oh yeah, no, it doesn’t. Oh yeah, we’ll try something else with this.” I sort of do something, and it works quite well, and then I do something else, and it works. And I thought, “God, this character can almost do anything.”
We have four amazing directors, and any of them will come up and just go, “Hey, can we try something nuts? Could you try doing this? Could you try just screaming in their faces? Could you try just looking at them and smiling? Can you try giving them nothing? Can you try giving them a charming smile throughout?” And none of it felt fake. It all felt pretty within the realms of reality in this crazy show.
ATL: I think that this crazy show, as you call it, could make you a really big star. Mark my words. What were you up to before this?
Bateman: [smiles] Oh, ok. I don’t know what to say! When I left LAMDA, I worked mainly on stage for about three years in the West End. I was very, very fortunate. I did Shakespeare and modern plays. I worked at the Royal Court, one of about five different theaters in the West End. Then I started doing some television and film work. But with Ken Branagh, I first started working with him for his theater season in London, where I did The Winter’s Tale opposite the amazing Jessie Buckley. Ken, from that, put me in his movies. He was doing the Orient Express pretty much after that. I did a movie and a play in between those, and then he asked me to come and read for Express, and yeah, that’s sort of how it went.
ATL: Do you think they cast you from your work in Kenneth Branagh’s films?
Bateman: I kind of know that they had a bit of a tricky time casting this role, Matt, because, as I said, you can go so many different ways with him. I think when they first started meeting people, they might have committed (I don’t know, by the way; this is all supposition). They might have committed to one thing too much — the comedy or the scariness.
But actually, when I came in and read with Chris Messina and all the guys, Alex Buono, who was directing the episode, and Craig, Roxie Rodriguez, and Michael Costigan, the producers, Alex gave him this great note. He said, ‘Tom, can you really scare us? Can you really intimidate him? Can you really charm him? Can you be sympathetic? Can you be sad?’
He gave me all these different notes, and then he said, ‘Can you do one where you just do all of them at the same time and turn them off and on randomly?’ He said it doesn’t have to make sense. Just go a bit nuts. Even if one of these lines is supposed to be very scary, just do it with a smile on your face, and vice versa. It was supposed to be a very charming line — just really dead-eye him. I got really excited by that.
They’d just flown me out, and I just got off the plane the morning before, so I was like jet lagged, head spinning, and suddenly I just sharpened up because it’s such a fun note to play. That’s kind of the springboard for where we went from. Then a couple days later, they said, ‘We’d love you to come and play him.’ Another flash of lightning there.
ATL: That actually stopped the Zoom call for a second.
Bateman: Imagine it just striking the house! That would make for some interesting interview material. [laughs] But, yeah, I’m not entirely sure. I think they’d seen me do a few slightly similar things. I did a movie with Liam Neeson called Cold Pursuit, and I think there might have been something in that character. The director (Hans Petter Moland) of that said, “Look, Liam Neeson’s one half of the movie and you’re the other, and Liam’s very solid. He’s like an oak tree.
And he said, ‘We are going to need you to be the opposite of that. We need you to just sort of go totally crazy and big and go for sort of this darkness.’ It had a similar sort of tone — very dark humor. Ronna Kress, who cast this, I think she might have seen that and gone, and I think this guy might be able to do that kind of thing. I don’t quite know why they gave me the role, and I don’t want to ask the question. I’m just happy to have played it.
ATL: Does acting run in your family? I understand it’s a big family and you have 12 siblings, is that right?
Bateman: [Yes,] in fact, most of them are half-brothers and half-sisters. But we all grew up knowing each other. You just sort of get told this person’s your brother and sister, and by the time you are old enough to learn what a half-brother or sister is and that they’ve got a different mom or a different dad, by that point they’re already your brother or sister, so you don’t really care about that.
It’s funny because people think it’s so crazy, but obviously whatever you grow up with is the norm. It doesn’t matter what extreme, bizarre circumstances you might grow up in; it’s normal for you. It’s when you sort of start stepping out into the world and people go, “Wait, you are one of 13.” You go, “Oh, I suppose that is a bit different.”
ATL: Like I did! And you’re a twin?
Bateman: I’m a twin. I’ve got the most amazing twin. He’s [named] Merlin, and he’s amazing. It’s a beautiful name. My mom gave it to him from a bird of prey from Wales called the Merlin Bird. So she named him after that. You know what? He does actually appear in Murder on the Orient Express. He and his wife wanted to come to the set because he’s not identical. Ken allowed them to be extras. So they’re both actually in the crowd scene where the Orient Express leaves the train station. But Merlin is an incredible artist. You can actually Google him if you’ve got five minutes. It’s called Merlin Bateman-Paris, and his artwork is truly amazing. He’s won a bunch of awards, and he is represented by an amazing gallery in London.
ATL: So there’s a lot of artistry in your family.
Bateman: You know what? We’ve got so many of us. There’s a lot of everything in our family. There are artists, teachers, restaurant workers, air hostesses, milkmaids, and shepherds. There are all kinds of people. We’ve got it all.
ATL: That’s so great. So what was your favorite scene to shoot in this series?
Bateman: I loved doing that big, crazy club scene because it was just hilarious to be with everyone and go to those places. But really, the most fun I had as an actor were the sort of quieter scenes with Chris and Kaley, where it was us in a diner or in their house, where we were just playing mind games with each other. The writing was just so fun. If I did have to choose a favorite, I think it would be at the beginning of Episode 3, when I turn up at Ava’s door and she knows that I’m the serial killer. I know she knows, but she doesn’t know I know she knows.
It was such a fun scene to play, and it was like a sort of Hitchcockian game of cat and mouse, and it was just me and Kaley all day with an amazing director, Anu [Valia]. It was one of her first scenes for that. She was the new director for that episode, and it was just so fun. We could just do whatever we wanted. We did a lot of handheld camera stuff, so we could kind of just play in the space. I love just spending the day playing with Kaley. It was a really cool day.
ATL: What I love about this series is you never actually see him committing the murders, right? You really have to use your imagination.
Bateman: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because, I mean, we see him kill Natalia Dyer‘s character, Chloe, at the beginning, but because we’ve already seen someone else kill her, I suppose you kind of go, “Oh God, that was him all along.” And then a lot of it is imagination. Then we get the fantasy thing, and then Priscilla Quintana’s character (Ruby) just turns up on the doorstep. So, yeah, I guess you do have to imagine, and I think that’s really what I kind of liked about the show because it’s a strange, tricky territory, I guess.
You know, there are so many things made about real-life serial killers, and it’s a very difficult space to navigate because why are you doing it? Why are you glorifying them? Are you? I think this show, instead of trying to say something, is asking questions instead. I think it’s kind of probing for an answer: what is it that makes us so titillated by this? Where’s our fascination coming from? And I think maybe not showing those murders taking place all too much, really just looking at the people around that and how it affects them, and if they are scared, [is better]. Every episode of me murdering someone in cold blood would become something else. I think.
ATL: The plot thickens when the three make a podcast together. I’m such a true-crime podcast junkie, which is why this show appealed to me. Is that your audience?
Bateman: It’s something that’s come up when being involved with this show. I wasn’t really particularly into true crime, for no reason. I don’t judge people who are, but it’s just not been anything that I’ve really explored. But going out to L.A., suddenly I was like,” God, people are obsessed with this!” My makeup artist, Lex Williams, would listen to a true crime podcast on the drive into work, and then she’d make a TV show about the true-crime podcast, and then she’d go home listening to another one. It seems to be a huge thing out there in America, and I’m not sure why that is, but it was sort of news to me.
ATL: Is podcasting even a thing in the U.K. as much as it is here?
Bateman: It is a thing. True crime documentaries, I think, do a little bit better here. I watched that documentary called The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, and I thought, “My God, that’s kind of fascinating. So I can see it; the real-time reveal (where Durst admits in the bathroom he was the murderer, not knowing his mic was on) on camera was insane. Nothing’s as big as America, right? You guys just do everything bigger. But we do love gossip. We’re a small little country, and we like to just whisper sideways at each other.
ATL: Are there whispers about Season 2 for Based on a True Story?
Bateman: They set it up to be. I mean, Craig, even when we started working, he already had ambitions and ideas for multiple seasons. He wants to go and go, and I honestly haven’t had this much fun on a show for a long time, so I’d love to do it. I really think it’s such an interesting space. It’s asking so many interesting questions and has such a bizarre, weird tone. It’s such a preposterous idea for a TV show that I think it could go anywhere. I think it definitely has legs too, and I think that talking with Kaley and Chris, I think they’d love to do one as well, so fingers crossed.
What I’d like to see Matt do if we were to go for Season 2 is explore new spaces, and I think that the cliffhanger being what it is really sets us up for that. I think this idea of Matt pulling Ava and Nathan more into his world would be a really interesting road to go down. You know, how far they are willing to go for this? When is the right time to kill? Is it possible that we just kill horrible people? I would also like to see him get into some hot water.
It was interesting playing him; looking back, he never really panics, you know. Matt’s always got an answer for everything. He sort of operates in the shadows. He’s always like 10 steps ahead of everyone. I think it would be quite fun to see something happen where he has to really think on his feet and see what happens when you back a monster into the corner.
Based on a True Story is now streaming on Peacock.