Tony Hawks: “I never had a plan. It’s been a hopelessly muddled approach to having a career”
Tony Hawks is a busy man. A bestselling author, comedian, musician, philanthropist, Radio 4 regular and now a filmmaker, he may not be a professional skateboarder (that’s Tony Hawk people, so if you could stop bombarding Hawks’ website asking for advice on your kickflips he’d probably be grateful) but he still has a formidable track record by anyone’s standards. Appropriately given that we’re chatting the day after Andy Murray’s noble thrashing at Wimbledon, Hawks is also an avid amateur tennis player, and it’s this interest that forms the basis of his new film.
Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, adapted from Hawks’ bestselling book of the same name, is based on an outrageous true story. Whilst watching England play Moldova in the World Cup Qualifiers in the late 1990s, fellow comedian Arthur Smith bet Hawks that he couldn’t beat the Moldovan football team at tennis. In the grand tradition of ludicrous drunken bets, Hawks took Smith at his word. Agreeing that the loser would have to strip naked and sing the Moldovan national anthem outside the nearest tube station, he travelled to Moldova to embark on this mission, and the result is an eccentric, low key, British comedy.
In both this latest film, and his previous self-penned feature Round Ireland with a Fridge, Hawks plays himself. I wonder how close the cinematic persona is to his real personality. “When we made Round Ireland we did go with me at the beginning being a bit more of an arsehole than I actually am,” he explains, “but with Playing the Moldovans it’s actually pretty accurate. And I have been preparing for this role my entire life. I was ready to step up to the mark!”
The journey from book to film seems to have happened almost by accident. Hawks admits that he had never considered filmmaking until he was approached by a couple of American producers over the rights to Round Ireland and was disappointed by the proposed adaptation. “It turned out they just liked the gimmicky idea of it and they wanted to take it and change it and ruin it really. And I was too close to it to allow that to happen. So in the end there was another attempt and finally we just did it ourselves… Events lead to that course of action.” Hawks may never have intended to make films, but in the end he seems to have been fully immersed in the process, writing, starring in and co-directing (with Mikolaj Jaroszewicz) Playing the Moldovans. Is Hawks something of a control freak? “It’s just actually cheaper if you do it yourself!” Hawks laughs. “It wasn’t about wanting control it was just about keeping costs down. You just have to work hard and think I can do this. I have to!”
For all his laidback manner and insistence of coincidences, the film is testament to Hawks’ formidable determination. Through roping in friends and calling in favours he’s assembled a fine cast of British comedy talent – Morwenna Banks, Laura Solon, Angus Deayton and Alistair McGowan all appear – and by using a Moldovan crew to keep costs down he was able to film on location in the UK, Moldova, Northern Ireland and Israel. The result is a film that looks and feels, in Hawks’ words, “pretty epic.” With long days and a tight schedule, the whole experience sounds exhausting. “It was enjoyable but harder work than I would like,” Hawks admits. “It’s not like I’m going ‘yeah, I’d really like to make another film.’ I would, but I’d like a good old rest that’s the thing.”
It’s also worth noting that Hawks had another, rather honourable ulterior motive for making the film. Playing the Moldovans is not simply a frivolous culture clash yarn. The surreal experience of travelling around Moldova hunting football players to beat on the tennis courts clearly affected Hawks, who witnessed at first hand the power shortages, gangsters and lawlessness afflicting Europe’s poorest country. The lasting impact of this experience on Hawks personally is highlighted in the film and still lingers a decade later – all profits are to be donated to the Hippocrates Children’s Centre in Moldova, which aims to improve the lives of chronically ill children from socially disadvantaged families.
Given the amount of projects Hawks is involved in, and his prolific record, it’s unsurprising that he’s a hard worker. He admits it can be tricky to keep all these projects going at once. “I get sometimes completely muddled and wake up and think I don’t know what I should be doing today. And some things that you’d like to do go on hold because all your energy’s going into something. But I’d quite like to do more music again soon; I’d like to write another book at some point. It is difficult. And you’ve got to balance it with having a social life and not having a girlfriend who keeps accusing you of never being available for her! I’m trying to get the balance right.”
Perhaps surprisingly for someone with such a varied body of work, Hawks seems to have fallen into this line of work almost by accident. He insists that that he never aimed for a career in comedy. “I always enjoyed playing the fool and messing around. I was constantly doing that at school and I guess enjoying that, but it was never something that I wanted to do as a career” Hawks admits. “It was only through performing and with music that I suddenly realised that I could get laughs. If things went wrong I could twist it and move around and people said, ‘Look you’re a natural at this, you should do this’ and that’s how it came about. Then I just started to apply myself more to that.”
After trying to make it as a serious musician Hawks’ breakthrough came in 1988, when his novelty record with comedy trio Morris Minor and the Majors, Beastie Boys parody “Stutter Rap (No Sleep Till Bedtime),” became a hit, reaching No. 4 in the UK album charts. It was a one hit wonder, but Hawks was briefly given his own TV series, and settled into a working the comedy clubs and slowly building up his profile as a recognisable comedic personality.
Although he remains as prolific as ever into his fifties, Hawks does seem to be relishing the chance to choose his projects. He admits that after ten years of playing comedy clubs and hosting nights it’s a relief to be taking his foot off the gas. “It wasn’t all fun by any means. I mean it was enjoyable but there was a lot of pressure to please audiences that were sometimes drunk and difficult. You were never able to relax.” After a ten year break Hawks returned to live comedy last year with his Random Fun tour. I wonder if it was nerve wracking to return to the stage after such a long pause, but he appears to have taken it in his stride. “You’re never fully relaxed because you know you’ve got a long time in front of an audience but I can’t say it was something I was scared stiff about doing” he explains, in typically casual fashion. “I had enough experience to know I could hold it together. I put together a show I knew how to do so I was OK with it.”
Like comedy, the writing also seems to have been something of an accidental career move for Hawks. “I used to write letters to people and they would say, ‘You’re funny, you should write…’ and that came about again because people said ‘You should do this.’ I seemed to have a kind of knack that people found amusing and engaging.” Hawks still seems a little incredulous that things have turned out so well. “I never had a plan,” he laughs, “it’s been a hopelessly muddled approach to having a career.”
Muddled or not, everything seems to be developing pretty nicely for Hawks. After a promotional tour of Playing the Moldovans, Hawks hopes to finish a teen novel he’s writing, and has written a comedy musical that he’s planning to stage at some point next year. Although he claims to have little ambition, no desire to do high profile TV work and seems quite happy to “just to chug along with a bit of a following,” Hawks clearly has remarkable drive. Yet whilst there’s plenty of work on the horizon his heart still lies in music and he confesses that this winter he’s considering playing a couple of nights somewhere. “I think, in a funny kind of way, I’m almost going full circle,” he explains. “I started off playing the piano in pubs and wine bars, playing and singing standards. At some point I just want to do that again. I even don’t care if I’m sitting in a restaurant somewhere and no one knows who I am and what I’m doing. I love those songs, I love that thing, just to sit and play.” An idyllic plan, but whatever happens, it would be a shame to lose Hawks from comedy entirely. For one thing, who would beat the Moldovans at tennis?
Tony Hawks is currently touring select cinemas with Playing the Moldovans at Tennis and providing Q&A sessions. Details can be found at moldovansmovie.com. Hawks is at the Tyneside Cinema tomorrow night. For details, see: tynesidecinema.co.uk.