By far, Sebastian De Souza is the kindest and most down-to-earth artist I’ve interviewed this year (perhaps ever). Lest you think I’m being hyperbolic because I was swept away by his charming easy nature, let me divulge how went our 30 minute+ candid phone conversation. Right from our ‘hello’s, we bonded instantly over how we’ve been both quarantining with our parents, we chatted about how our families outside of our respective cities are doing and even joked about how the leaders of our respective countries (he’s in the U.K., I’m in Canada) have been handling the pandemic. At the ten minute mark, I had to remind myself that I was conducting an interview and not catching up with a close old friend. Not only was De Souza easy with whom to talk, he is also a very humble and very giving interview subject. This is the man who co-wrote the feature Kids in Love, has two (!) novels on the way (Kid – A History of the Future, and Stuck – How to Survive Accidental Isolation), is an accomplished songwriter, plus he’s currently developing a YA television show for Disney AND stars in two of the biggest shows of 2020 (Normal People and The Great). I was incredibly honoured to speak with Sebastian De Souza and the following is a condensed and edited version of our lovely phone interview.
Brief Take: I was recently listening to your podcast, Stuck.
Sebastian De Souza: Oh you were?
BT: You make all the voices so distinct and I especially love the voice that you do for the mother character.
SDS: Yeah my mother would kill me. She has listened to it and I mean I think it’s probably closer to her voice than she’d like to admit. But it’s done with great, great love and admiration for her. You’re very sweet, by the way, to listen to it, thank you, that’s incredibly generous of you. The character of George, who is based on a younger, kind of angrier version of myself, comes across as… [trails off] Really I stopped. I was going to see it through and have the podcast but then in the third episode, the character of Lucy enters and she sort of wonderfully, but also kind of irritatingly, she presented too many opportunities to take the story in a certain direction. So I started recording the episodes and now I’m writing the book because the heroes of the podcast are the voices so the funny part are the funny, silly voices, well I don’t know how successful they are. But they stopped me from thinking about the story, so I’m just going to write the book and then if you want to carry on listening, which I’m sure you won’t [laughs], I’m sure we’ll be able to put it up there.
BT: You’re also writing Kid, or is that fully written now?
SDS: Kid is finished and has been finished for quite some time, but we’re finishing the final edit right now – John, my editor, and I, are doing that. Basically, because of the nature of the way the book is being released, the process of editing a book, typesetting a book, all of those things are happening…we’re having to be very well equipped on them now because I don’t know how much is out there or how much you know, but the book is actually going to be serially released from January 2021 through another 18 weeks. And so we’re coming at it in a different way because the subject of the book, well it’s science fiction but it involves the communication of two young people in two different periods of time – Kid is in 2078 and Iggy Perry is in 2021 and it’s all kind of happening in real time over social media, so we’re trying very hard to let the thing live and breath in real time online. Anyway sorry, I think that’s a much longer answer to your question than you wanted. [laughs]
BT: You have a lot of creative outlets, including writing and singing beautifully heartfelt songs such as ‘Primrose Hill’. Tell me about your writing process and from where you find inspiration?
SDS: Oh, thank you for asking and thank you for listening to the songs. I suppose I’m, like anyone really, get inspired by whatever I’ve got in front of me or around me. When it comes to the songs that I write, it’s always been a huge delight for me to write music. My Dad is a composer and my family are all musicians, much more accomplished musicians than I. So it’s always been around me and I’ve always wanted to do it and have always loved doing it, but it’s never been my job. So that’s given me a lovely freedom in it and I adore all genres of music and all types of storytelling in music. So I do a little bit of this thing on Instagram, [laughs], I was thinking the other day how ridiculous I am. This is isolation for you. On my Instagram, I put these little explanations of why I wrote the song, and I was looking at them the other day thinking “who do you think you are? I mean no one wants to listen to this music anyway and you’re putting up explanations as if you’re gone triple platinum?”. I retroactively try to do the True Hollywood Story of songs that nobody’s heard. [laughs] That’s a testament to all the free time I have. But part of that is because I really do love telling stories in song, so I really like to share why I might have written each of these songs and where they’ve come from. I think they come from, very often I feel like a lot of music comes out of times of anxiety and perhaps sometimes heartache, but what I try to do with the songs is find a way out of the negative place, do you know what I mean? Instead of it just languishing in there. I feel like also, I have this theory, that all actors want to be rock stars. So deep down I think I just want to be Elton John.
BT: Other than Elton John, who are some of the songwriters, screenwriters, authors, musicians, and actors that you admire?
SDS: Thank you for asking. In terms of writing and the output of stories, I’ve always been enormously fond of really lush and textured story environments, I call them universes because it seems like a pretty apt way of putting it. All of Tolkien’s work – The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit – I think when you read those books, what’s so remarkable is that he’ll refer to tiny parts of the legend or tiny details, seemingly insignificant pages of description about pieces of history that take place within this fictional universe, they’re never really referred to again, and I think JK Rowling, in her way, has done the same thing with the Harry Potter universe. They’re incredibly rich, textured, planned, thought out worlds, and I have the greatest amount of respect and interest in people who don’t just tell standalone stories, they provide people with worlds that they can kind of exist in and feel deeply connected to, and I think that’s something that I try to do in my own work, I don’t know how well, but that’s what I try to do. And equally, I spend a lot of time reading work that firmly has two feet in the real world. For example, I’m not alone here, and this may sound a little obvious, but stories like Normal People, Sally’s (Rooney) story, it’s so important for almost the same reason why The Hobbit is so important, and they’re two stories that you probably wouldn’t put in the same sentence. What Sally does in her story, is that she turns the mirror back on us and says “this is you, isn’t it?” or “this is you” or “this will be you”, and you recognize this is a real, true, genuine human experience and, at the same time, what Tolkien says in his books is “this isn’t you, but isn’t it fascinating that all these people are going through the same things that you do, but there are orcs everywhere and they’ve got swords, and there are fairies and elves”. And I think that actually that’s the loveliest thing about reading books and watching films and series, is that, even the horrid ones, are very reassuring because it reminds you that you’re a part of something bigger, which, in isolation, is very important.
BT: Absolutely. And we need great works of art, like Normal People, in both mediums, now more than ever.
SDS: I’m a very small part of Normal People but I feel honoured to have taken part in it. Yes, it’s a phenomenon for sure, it seems to have taken the world by storm, and I can see why, but on the other side of it, what’s so wonderful about Normal People, at least the adaptation of the work, when we were doing it, it felt like a deeply true process. It was very honest, we felt like we were telling a story for the sake of telling a story and being as true to the story as we possibly could. I think so often, especially because the book had been such a huge success, you know people can get really carried away with the hype. And there was no believing of any hype on that set, the story was the only thing that mattered. Daisy (Edgar-Jones) and Paul (Mescal) are just remarkable and Lenny (Abrahamson)…it was unlike any experience I’ve ever had with a director and maybe will ever have in the future, because the way he works is he dedicates himself fully to the truth of every scene with no distractions. It’s crazy working with this guy. He’s the most soft spoken, most gentle, gloriously kind artist of a man, and yet his work…it rips your heart out, actually. [laughs] I feel incredibly lucky to have taken part in that.
BT: Speaking of ripping your heart out, you’ve been on the other end of two of the most heartbreaking goodbye scenes on screen this year, in your final scenes in Normal People and The Great. Tell me about crafting those very different relationships with Daisy and Elle (Fanning).
SDS: Gosh, that’s quite a thing to be part of two heartbreakers. It wasn’t art imitating life because it was two gloriously beautiful and charismatic people who would be completely out of my league in the real world. But I’m used to things not working out that well for me in love, so that wasn’t so far removed. But it was two very different experiences with one unifying factor, which is that both Daisy and Elle are beautifully and gloriously very brilliant actors. It’s a wonder that I did any acting at all because most of the time I would just sit there thinking “god, you’re so good at this! This is so annoying. What am I supposed to do? Let’s scrub out the part that I’m playing and just watch these ladies.”
BT: But you were necessary! Tell me about crafting your depictions of Leo on The Great and Gareth in Normal People.
SDS: It was really gorgeous to play a character like Gareth because in the book he doesn’t occupy many pages at all, as it should be. The way Sally has written her book is with a searing and totally devoted concentration on these two people, and so you don’t get very much of Gareth. So what was really fun and what was a great privilege was trying to fill in the gaps a little bit. I think I know lots of Gareths, perhaps I’ve been guilty of being a bit like Gareth some times. I think he’s someone that is desperately insecure and puts too much store into the grades he gets and the people he hangs out with. I think what I sort of felt was sorry for Gareth and tried, I don’t know how successfully, but tried to find the human being. He’s a bit like a bull in a china shop to me, the kind of really posh, the kind that just comes out with it because he’s been brought up to believe that everything that comes out of his mouth is the word of the Lord. But actually it’s all born out of deep insecurity, and I think in the moment where Gareth and Marianne break up, that was pretty brutal. I mean as viewers we’re happy that Marianne and Connell get together but I think that scene is quite brutal because Gareth doesn’t compute, no one has ever said that to him, you know? People like Gareth, people don’t break up with him, even though they should, and they do in this show and quite rightly. I think he’s not used to that, and that was a really interesting exercise. The saddest part of a guy like that is that within a day I think he’s kind of forgotten and moved on, in the sense of he has so much Earth shatteringly and unfounded and undeserved belief in that he’d think “oh, she was such an idiot. Her loss”. That would probably be his reaction.
Whereas I think Leo is a different kind of human being entirely. Thank you for wanting to talk about it because playing Leo, just the character of Leo, was just the most gorgeous…I’m actually jealous of Leo. Well in the beginning, not the end. [laughs] I think we can all safely say that we don’t want to be Leo in the end. The words to describe him isn’t laissez-faire is it, because that weirdly feels negative to me. He’s like “you know what? I think I’m going to bob up and down on this wave. I’m a boy on a very turbulent sea”, and he just does it with a smile on his face, and I’m very jealous of that attitude. Elle is obviously inordinately well known and loved by many, including many young people, and I hope that lots of young people can watch the show and I know I’m a very small part of it, but maybe they can take something out of Leo’s book. I know I certainly tried to. In this world of constantly being bombarded with “you know this person is better than you.” If you’re a 16 year-old girl or boy or anyone to be honest, and you’re looking at the Kardashians or anyone online, and if you’re a boy you’re thinking “oh my god, that’s the kind of person I’m supposed to go out with or marry?”, or if you’re a girl, you’re thinking “I’m supposed to look like that or behave like that? I don’t know how to do that”, and I think what Leo does is that he doesn’t have that voice in his head. He’s decided to let that voice go. I think a lot of people would say that Leo, actually I think Catherine says this in a scene, “you never talk about politics”, and he says “what’s the point in throwing oneself at the wall until the wall is still there but you’re bones and mush and a skinbag?”. And that always stuck with me because all you can control is your reaction to this very turbulent world, the turbulent sea. You can’t control the turbulent sea. You can get a motor and put some wood together and try that, and that’s progress, but you can’t control the sea. Look, he’s got it right, and I hope that it’s something all of us can learn from Leo – his attitude. Having said that, he does realize in the end that there is something more important than himself. Maybe it’s a self centred point of view, I don’t know, but he realizes in the end that he does want to stick around because he loves someone. So maybe it is important to play the game to get what you want, but still what happens happens, you know?
Normal People and The Great are both currently available on Hulu. Normal People is available on CBC Gem in Canada, and The Great is available on Amazon Prime Video Canada.