Hugh Skinner on Phoebe Waller-Bridge, playing posh Brits and shaking off imposter syndrome

Eleanor Steafel
Hugh Skinner - Rii Schroer

One evening this summer, there was a knock on Hugh Skinner’s hotel room door. A gaggle of hotel staff were in the corridor sniggering. “We’ve got a present for you, from Cher.” A little box contained a necklace with his name on and a note ‘Love from Cher, aka Ruby’. Such antics were par for the course by this point in the Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again! experience, which frankly sounds like the best fun you can have with your clothes (just about) on. “This is a rare moment when I’m not wearing it,” says Skinner. “I was beyond thrilled. The whole thing was just deeply surreal because the first time I met Cher and Meryl [Streep] was when we filmed the final sequence with everyone dancing to Super Trouper in skin tight spandex.” 

On set in Croatia, the film’s creatives “just wanted us to have a good time, and we really did.” Many of the young cast were already pals before filming began; part of the current set of bright young things who came through drama school together and are now dominating our screens. Skinner and Lily James, its star, were half way through their performance of Waterloo when they realised they had done a National Youth Theatre musical together some two decades earlier. 

Now 33, Skinner has spent much of his career being mistaken for James’s boyfriend, Matt Smith. Before meeting him for our interview in a cafe nearby his flat in Brixton, I read a slew of tweets to this effect. “I’ve definitely been mistaken for him a few times,” Skinner says when I put this to him. “One of the worst times was someone I actually knew years ago congratulating me at a party. At the time I was doing this very low rent play in a theatre of about 30 and eventually I realised they thought I was Matt, and they were talking about Doctor Who. 

“There was another one at the theatre when these people came over and were like ‘so, have you met the royals?’ Naively I thought they were talking about [Channel 4 comedy] The Windsors. They were like ‘oh, and you’re not coming back for the next series, that’s so sad’. And I was like, ‘I think I am…?’ They went ‘No, no you’re not, gosh sorry, we’ve heard it’s a new cast next series’. Eventually I realised they were talking about The Crown.” 

Hugh Skinner is in Zog on BBC One on Christmas Day Credit: Rii Schroer 

He is far too British to do anything other than nod and smile politely, of course. Bumbling Brits have become Skinner’s bread and butter since he first hit our screens as Felix Clare in Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 2008 opposite Gemma Arterton. The lovably useless Will Humphries in W1A, Wills in The Windsors, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s pathetic boyfriend Harry in Fleabag have all contributed to this image: he likes “playing people who are crap at things”, he says. “I think the gulf between how people want to be perceived versus how they actually are, and the space between that, is very funny. 

“Sorry, I’m suddenly becoming aware of the irony of this while talking in an interview about how you want to be perceived.” 

How would he like to be perceived, then? “Well obviously just really sexy and cool. Suave, debonair. I mean I don’t want to write it for you but…” 

He finds being interviewed utterly terrifying, he concedes, and spends most of our time together nervously sipping a cup of tea while trying to convince me I shouldn’t be interviewing him at all. We’re here to talk about Zog, the animated Julia Donaldson Christmas story airing on BBC One on Christmas Day, about a princess called Pearl who would really rather be a doctor. “It’s got this fantastic feminist message in it. My contribution [he voices Zog] is so minimal but I just thought it was amazing. I took a whole crew of friends’ kids to it and they loved it.”

He seems to have done consistently varied work since leaving LAMDA. And yet he still suffers, he says, from a major case of imposter syndrome. He is painfully aware that as a young, white, good looking, middle class male, he should have less cause for feeling like an outsider in his industry than many, though he has spent much of his career, he adds, trying to shake off those labels. “I think you always feel like a fraud in terms of acting,” he says. “The uncomfortableness with being a middle class white man is… you know I’ve been trying to deny that for most of my life. I went to private school but I was always aware that I was relatively posh. I desperately tried to deny that for a very long time.” 

Hugh as W1A's Will Humphries Credit: Jack Barnes 

Being gay, he says, has always made him feel slightly like an outsider. He chews his words, trying to find the right way to frame the sentiment. He wrings his hands anxiously: he feels some responsibility for talking about his sexuality in interviews. “I find it nerve wracking. I feel like I have to say something on message about things. I feel like if I talk about being gay I have to say something and I don’t know what to say other than that just is my life and I haven’t got anything very interesting to say about it. It just is.” 

Really, he says, he’d rather not have to talk about his sexuality at all. “I just think the less you know about actors the better. But you don’t want anyone to think you’re not saying it because you think it’s a bad thing, because obviously there has been a tradition of that, more for leading men I think. But you don’t have to sit around talking about being a heterosexual.” 

It certainly hasn’t prevented him from getting big prime-time roles. When his old drama school friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who he is "not surprised is a complete star now" cast him as her sad sack of a boyfriend, Harry, in Fleabag the pair spent most of their time on set falling about laughing while shooting their brilliantly funny sex scenes. “They were impossible not to laugh through. If you know the person it’s even funnier. They were just absolutely ridiculous,” he recalls."

The next 12 months are, he says, a fairly open book at the moment. The Windsors, which he is terribly fond of, and is brilliant in as a bumbling Prince William, is set to shoot a new series next year, and the second instalment of Fleabag will air in the Spring. Otherwise, his main aim is to “get through Christmas unscathed” and hope that good, interesting work continues to come his way. Though he does seem to have a slight problem in that he keeps being cast as floundering chaps called Will or Harry. 

“As you can see I’m just deeply awkward. I can’t actually act, I just turn up.” I suspect he might be doing himself a disservice there. If the past year is anything to go by, his star is sure to continue rising.

Zog airs on BBC One, Christmas Day at 4.50pm