The King and I
Best known for his role as Carl King, Tom Lister talks to Joy Tibbs about acting, faith and his work with Hope for Justice.
Emmerdale’s Carl King wasn’t known for his altruistic side. Best known as a womanising troublemaker, he was involved in three suspicious deaths and left a trail of destruction in his wake. He couldn’t have been more different from the actor who played the part, Tom Lister. However, Tom had an amazing time playing the part and believes God is actively guiding his career.
The Yorkshireman has also been led by God in his spare time, not least through his work for anti-trafficking charity Hope for Justice. On hearing the story of a girl who was taken from Latvia to Southampton and sold into prostitution, Tom and a team of volunteers flew out to her home country and cycled back to the UK port city, covering 1,800 miles in 19 days. The £250,000 they raised was enough to establish a new UK-based team of anti-trafficking investigators. In 2015, this team rescued more than 100 victims of human trafficking.
Whether he’s on the stage, in front of the camera, at home with his family or carrying out challenging sporting feats for charity, Tom’s faith is what motivates and underpins him.
How did you get into acting?
I kind of fell into it really. I’d grown up in church and done little skits and sketches and things like that with my friends. I grew up thinking I was going to be a PE and geography teacher, but then when I started doing A level geography I was bored to tears.
I started doing English A level and we had a great teacher who started getting me interested in Shakespeare. He asked the school football team to audition for a show they’d written, which was all around the 50th anniversary of VE Day about this football team going out to fight in the war. So we all auditioned for it and I got the lead. And then I got the bug!
What was life like as Carl King?
Oh, my word. Well, if you’ve ever watched any of the soaps, if you’re in them long enough you end up getting yourself into all kinds of scrapes. Over my nine or ten years on the show I had countless affairs, marriages, fights, blackmails and romantic liaisons. And I was involved in three people’s deaths. So just an average village boy in the Yorkshire Dales!
Was it hard playing a villain as a Christian?
No, it wasn’t, because it was obviously a heightened reality. One of the things I love about acting is that you get to play people in extreme circumstances and I love figuring out why people do those things. We’re all fallen men and women and we’re constantly in a battle with ourselves. I find that intriguing, and that’s why I love the job I do.
How did people react to you (or Carl) when you were out and about?
One of the things I used to get was old ladies slapping my wrist in Asda and things like that, which was always comical. Although my character did all these things that weren’t so great, I tried to play the part a bit like he was a lost soul. So all these old ladies used to go, “Oooh, you’re a one, you are! Oooh, I tell you, I need to take you home and sort you out!” I used to say, “I’m not evil, I’m just misunderstood!”
How did you feel when you heard Carl was being killed off?
I’d been in Emmerdale for such a long time and I’d pretty much done all the things I could do. It was such a blessing for us as a family because through that period we got married, had kids, bought a house and settled down, so it saw us through all of those early days of setting our life up. But there was part of me that had all these other dreams and ambitions. I didn’t want to be somebody who only ever did one role for the rest of his life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t for me.
I could sense they were struggling to write new storylines and come up with fresh ideas. It was all around the time of Emmerdale’s 40th anniversary and they were having their first-ever live episode. There were two people giving birth, there were a couple of weddings, and then they needed a death. I think the hat must have been passed around every single character in the cast, and it ended up landing on me. I think it made sense, actually, and I couldn’t have picked a better ending.
Is it difficult being a Christian in such a secular world?
Some people think all actors are completely debauched and get up to hedonistic things every single waking moment. But the reality is that’s not the case. I work with wonderful people on a daily basis, some of whom are married with children, and who do it because they love it.
I don’t know why I’ve ended up in this industry, but I have. It’s something I’ve always had a passion for and luckily I’ve got a bit of a talent and managed to make money out of it. If somebody meets me and happens to see something different about me and wonders what that is, then that’s enough for me. If I can point them to my faith and the thing that’s actually underpinning all of my life, then I think that’s the best I can do, really.
You’ve being doing musical theatre, among other things, since leaving Emmerdale. How have you found that?
It’s been great. Fortunately enough, I’ve been able to do four or five. I’ve actually just come back from South Korea. We went over there with Legally Blonde: The Musical for two weeks. I played the sleazy professor. How depressing is that? He’s in his early 60s in the film! But he wasn’t in this production. We played him more like Harvey Specter from Suits.
What advice would you give other aspiring actors?
It’s important to know the voices in your life that you trust: the people who knew you before. I’ve always had great people in my life to ground me, from my parents, to my wife, to great mentors who’ve helped me in lots of different ways.
I quite often get asked this by people who’ve got children who want to get into acting. Their parents are worried sick because they don’t want them to go through the heartache of going up against all these other people. That’s one of the things my faith has really helped me with. God’s got a plan for my life and he’s numbered all my days. If something isn’t right, then there’ll be something else that’s more right.
What would your dream acting role be?
Me and my wife love watching Spooks. I always used to watch it thinking, “Man, it would be so cool to be in that show; running around being a spy and talking into your ear all the time.” I’d love to do movies, I’d love to do drama, I’d love to do things in the West End, so I’ve got lots of dreams and ambitions. I’m excited to see what’s to come.
Who would you most like to work with?
I met Judy Dench at the BAFTAs once. I walked past her and she smiled at me, and I was like, “You are so flipping cool! And not only are you cool, you’re an absolutely unbelievable actress.” Anybody I’ve met who’s worked with her before says she’s an absolute hoot as well. So anybody like that would be wonderful.
How did you get involved with Hope for Justice?
When I was on Emmerdale we used to do a lot of charity events. I did the Great North Run and the London Marathon. I’ve done those about three or four times. I went and did the London Triathlon and I’ve done outdoor swimming events – Great North Swim, Great Manchester swim – and things like that. I was doing it for this amazing cause called Bloodwise, but I felt like there was something missing; a cause I felt personally passionate about.
I was at an event in Life Church in Bradford once and I walked past the Hope for Justice stand. I’d heard a bit about it but didn’t know that much. So I wandered up and said, “Look, I’m interested in helping you guys out. This is who I am, just let me know if I can do anything.” As a result of that I went and met [CEO] Ben Cooley about five years ago at a Starbucks in Leeds. We shared some muffins together and had a couple of lattes. Sparks flew, emotions ran high, it was love at first sight!
He just told me these incredible rescue stories and the fact that people were being trafficked into our country and exploited in horrendous ways. Scales fell from my eyes.
What was different about this charity?
Just from that first meeting something inside me broke, and I felt God saying, “This is something I want you to put some of your energy into, all of the stuff you love doing for charity. I want you to help these guys out.”
Ben had told me about a girl called Zoe who was trafficked into the UK from Latvia. Basically, she was taken to a hotel where she thought she was going to work, and given some underwear to wear. She was like, “I’m not here for that. I’ve come here to do a proper job.” By this time they’d taken all her identification papers off her. She was only 19 years old and she’d come over on her own.
They said, “You’re going to do what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it.” From that moment her world just came crashing down around her. She was sold from man to man, from town to town, all across the UK. She tried to put an end to her own life because what was happening to her was so horrendous. Thank goodness Hope for Justice were able to rescue her and start her on the road to putting her life back together.
How much time do you devote to the charity?
It really depends on the work that comes in. I was on the road with the musical Calamity Jane for about 18 months. I couldn’t really give a lot of time then, although we did another ridiculous bike ride while we were on that tour. I manage to corral people into joining me on these stupid things. When we finished that I decided to take a break and spend a bit of time at home with Jen and the boys, so I was able to give a lot more time to Hope for Justice.
What do you do in your spare time?
Cycling is something that’s come in more and more. The boys are obsessed with football, so they’re old enough now that I have to drive them round to training and football matches, and take them to Anfield and teach them that there’s only one football team to support: Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool! I mean, Jesus supports Liverpool, just saying [Tom laughs]. He doesn’t support Man. United, that’s for sure.