Laurence Fox has just got back from the morning school run. ‘It was misery,’ he says, with the good-natured, almost cheery dolefulness that characterises much of his speech. With his wife Billie Piper working away, he’s been left in sole charge of their sons Winston, 7, and Euegene, 3. ‘That’s the real work,’ he admits. ‘I’m thoroughly knackered by half-ten.’
Weekend has got the 37-year-old actor – best known as the laconic DS Hathaway in ITV’s Lewis – on the phone to talk about his career left-turn as a singer-songwriter on his (rather good) debut album, Holding Patterns. But he’s barely started explaining how he started playing music as a drama student when he’s called away to a vomiting dog incident. ‘Apologies,’ he says when we resume a few minutes later. ‘Baxter decided he didn’t want his breakfast in his stomach, he wanted it on the kitchen floor.’ Lovely.
Fox may not have picked up a guitar until he was 20, but he always had a bit of rock and roll swagger about him: at the fee-paying Harrow School, where he was two years behind Benedict Cumberbatch, he was constantly in trouble for drinking and smoking, and was eventually expelled for ‘something to do with a girl at a dance’.
‘I’m just not very good at being told what to do,’ he explains. ‘If someone put a rule in front of me I tended to break it, like most sensible young men.’
He lists his musical influences as Ryan Adams, Bruce Springsteen and Scott Matthews, and describes Holding Patterns as ‘like a diary’: ‘It’s a collection of things I wanted to say to people but didn’t say to their faces, or observations of things I couldn’t articulate at the time. There’s quite a lot of despair in it, and a certain amount of hope, I like to think.’
Fox hasn’t abandoned acting, but admits he finds it ‘difficult, frustrating and laborious’ at times, whereas music allows him to be master of his own destiny. Of course, it’s impossible to resist pointing out that his wife – who he met in 2006 when they performed together in the West End play Treats – took the opposite career trajectory, shucking off music for acting without so much as a backward glance.
‘It’s a different thing,’ he insists. ‘She was a manufactured pop star. And there couldn’t be anything less manufactured about me. I’m old, craggy, and I growl like an angry, out-of-tune chimpanzee.’
His hero Ryan Adams recently covered Taylor Swift’s 1989 album in its entirety; is Fox tempted to do the same to Billie’s Honey to the B? ‘You’re not the first person to suggest that,’ he says. ‘But I’m not familiar enough with her oeuvre. Occasionally we’ll come across a video on a music channel, and I’ll do impressions of her dance moves, and she will call me a ****er.’
He has more time to devote to music following the recent final series of Lewis. Was he ready to say goodbye?
‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘These things have to finish. Once I’d realised it was 10 years of my life, that came as quite a big shock.’
Weekend ventures that Kevin Whately’s stated reason for giving up the title role – because he didn’t think he should do more episodes of the Inspector Morse spin-off than John Thaw had done of the original – has some of the integrity and decency of Lewis himself.
‘What you see is what you get with Kev,’ agrees Fox. ‘He’s a lifelong friend and an amazing human being, and I’m very, very lucky to have met him.’
Talk, inevitably, has turned to a Hathaway spin-off. ‘I’m not sure about that,’ he muses. ‘I’d have to see what it was. If it was any good, I’d think about it. I don’t think they’ll do it – they’ll probably wait for a few years, then forget about it. But he’s such a good character, so who knows?’
Is there even a word for a spin-off from a spin-off? ‘No, there isn’t. ITV did try to get me to audition for a character that was almost identical to Hathaway the other day. I said, “no, sorry”. I think they think I’m a bit… confusing.’
Fox seems determined to downplay his success (‘If I put as much time into acting as I do into music, I’d probably be doing a lot better’) but he was doing okay even before Lewis came calling: having graduated from RADA in 2001, he was combining regular stage work with a growing film and TV profile, largely specialising in soldiers and airmen, both British and German.
Despite being a member of what journalists are contractually obliged to call an ‘acting dynasty’ – including his father James, uncle Edward and cousins Emilia and Freddie, among others – his eventual career was by no means a given. ‘I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,’ he reflects. ‘I still don’t know what I want to do.’
Growing up, he felt ‘cocooned’ from the famous Foxes after his father temporarily gave up acting and moved to Yorkshire to become an evangelical Christian. ‘We were the weirdos to everyone else,’ he says. ‘We used to go to Christian conferences and stuff like that. I was more like a missionary’s son.’
Is he still a Christian? ‘That’s an interesting one. I think I’d have to go into a booth and tick that one privately.’
Are there any Foxes who can’t act, or is it in the genes? ‘The best actor in my family is my eldest brother Tom,’ he says, ‘but he won’t go near it with a bargepole. He was fantastic at school – I can’t remember Benedict Cumberbatch acting at school but I can remember Tom. Now he’s in a refugee camp in Greece feeding Syrian people.’
For all his apparent diffidence when it comes to acting – and, indeed, acting dynasties – Fox is happy to share what is possibly the most showbiz story Weekend has ever heard.
‘Sir Peter Hall, who directed me in my first ever play, was being particularly unpleasant to me before the first night,’ he recalls. ‘I was in bits, and I phoned up my dad. He said: “Now, you listen very carefully. You smile, because that’s what you’re paid to do, then you skip down the stairs and sing There’s No Business Like Showbusiness – we smile when we are low”.’
And did it work? ‘Well I got good reviews, so it must have.’
It’s a lovely story, made all the sweeter because Fox seems the least likely actor in the world to be heard belting out perky Irving Berlin showstoppers. Unless, of course, he did it in the style of an angry, out-of-tune chimpanzee.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 11, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend