“I do think that taking apart that machismo or the bravado of the perfect crime fighter feels more relevant to the times we’re living in,” Henry Lloyd-Hughes tells HuffPost UK.
The actor plays an unrecognisable Sherlock Holmes in new Netflix series The Irregulars. He is weakened and on drugs, and going through something of a reckoning.
It’s the famous character reborn in a way audiences may never have expected, yet fans have to wait until the end of episode four before he finally reveals himself.
The plotline decentralises the detective, focussing instead on The Irregulars, a set of street kids paid by Sherlock and Dr Watson to help them solve crimes. The group featured in three of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories.
With the surprising new depiction of Sherlock, the idea was to turn heads with a “nuanced, modern” representation inspired by “personal fall and emotional torment,” the Killing Eve actor says.
“To have someone examine themselves and really do a deep dive into the mistakes they’ve made and go on a journey of redemption, or dare I say accountability,” he explains.
“That feels like that has a bit more potency to a modern audience than someone who just always has the answer. I feel like we’re ready for that level of introspection and deconstruction.”
Throwback scenes depict an energised Sherlock with luscious long hair, but purists will be shocked by scenes revealing a practically bed-ridden detective, coming off - or riding high - on a cocktail of drugs.
“When Netflix released the first image of me they tagged me in the tweet, and there was lots of, ‘Hang on a second, what have you done to this iconic character? What have you done with him,’” says Henry.
Of the weakened look, he admits: “To be honest I was kind of expecting people to have that reaction. In a way that was partly what we were aiming for.”
Henry reveals things got physical in order for him to really get into character. “Running round the block, doing press ups to try and elevate my heart rate if I needed to be incredibly agitated,” he says. “Trying to really take myself down for some of those bedtimes scenes where I’m coming out the other side of that cold turkey.”
Make-up could take three hours if both ailing and throwback Sherlock were needed on the same day. “I felt so liberated playing a character that didn’t have to look good,” he says.
The 35-year-old actor describes it as “freeing” playing a character who could have dirt under his fingernails. “The only thing they would do throughout the day was make me look worse - if I started to get a bit too clean, they would come and reapply dirt to my hands. I loved that.”
It’s for the benefit of crafting vulnerability - a state which unintentionally mirrors how many of us have been feeling for the last twelve months. “There’s a lot of people who feel incredibly vulnerable and incredibly isolated, because of all of the pressures that are being put on people,” says Henry. “Yeah, I mean, look, [The Irregulars writer] Tom Bidwell couldn’t have predicted the pandemic…”
The new Sherlock isn’t the only thing shaking things up: so are The Irregulars themselves. A diverse group of youngsters with progressive opinions, they feel like characters that could have been written for a 21st century story.
“Of course this is the 1800s in the Victorian times, but I hope that The Irregulars opens your eyes that you’re watching the same kids [as today]. It’s the same kids, coming from broken homes, without the right influences in their lives,” McKell David, the actor who plays Spike, one of The Irregulars, told HuffPost UK.
For Henry Lloyd-Hughes, the prestige of playing Sherlock may be what elevates him to named actor status - but if he doesn’t end up being pegged as the new Robert Downey Jr, that’s okay too.
“It’s not my first rodeo and I’m a pretty salty sea dog at this stage in my career,” he says. “I never have any set of expectations tied to a single moment or a single character.”
Smiling, he says one of the roles he’s still most recognised for today bares very little resemblance to Sherlock: that’s playground bully Mark Donovan from The Inbetweeners.
“When we were making that a million years ago no one ever thought that twenty years later people would still be shouting ‘bus wankers!’ he laughs. “It’s never the ones you think.”