Thomas Doherty wears a Linder cardigan and his own T-shirt, jeans and jewelry. Photograph by Chris Shonting, styled by Lizzy Wholley for W Magazine.
On the day before Valentine’s Day, the Greenwich village store Record Runner was empty. It would be only a matter of minutes before Thomas Doherty, the young heartthrob who plays one of Zoë Kravitz’s many paramours on High Fidelity, would walk through the door. The shop is situated on the same street depicted on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (a copy of which you can find if you have the patience to dig through the store's myriad bins of Madonna and David Bowie records).
When Doherty pops inside, he appears to have miraculously dodged every drop of the rainwater that's coating everything else outside—he grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, so this weather is not unfamiliar to him.
Doherty takes in the sight of the small space—the walls are covered with posters for albums by some of the great artists of the past decades, which the actor says his costars would listen to on set. “Zoë and David love music,” Doherty says. “They know all the bands. They were talking about, like, Foals and David Bowie. But Prince: They love Prince.”
In the Hulu series adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel and the John Cusack–led film of the same name, High Fidelity begins with its protagonist, a record store owner named Rob (Kravitz), in a state of shock after a breakup. Prone to making Top Five lists with her record store colleagues Simon and Cherise (played by David H. Holmes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Rob decides to revisit her Top Five heartbreaks to get to the bottom of why those relationships all failed.
Doherty plays Liam Shawcross, a Scottish musician Rob eyes during one of his performances. They eventually end up back at Rob's place, and only then does Rob realize he’s about a decade her junior (she’s cresting toward 30, but this doesn’t stop her from having a bit of an on-again, off-again thing with him throughout the series). When the actor auditioned for the show, he says he had no idea who Kravitz was at the time. “I went to one of the final auditions and was meeting the producers and casting directors, and then I left. My manager told me, 'Zoë really likes you.' I was like, 'Oh, okay?' They were like, 'Zoë Kravitz.' I was like, 'I don’t know who that is.' ” he laughs.
You may be shocked to learn that even though he plays a musician on television, he isn’t one in real life. He learned to play guitar for High Fidelity, and says he toyed with the idea of launching a music career, telling himself maybe he’ll form a band one day with his newfound musical knowledge. But at the end of the day, he says, “It’s not for me.”
“I like listening to music intermittently, but I wouldn’t say it’s a massive passion,” Doherty admits. “I’ll use it a lot for acting. I think it’s almost a quick fix of emotion, and it can certainly get you into that headspace.”
What does he like to listen to, then? He makes fun of himself for not being an authority on what’s cool, then admits he is very into Billie Eilish right now. “I think her brother Finneas, his writing and his production is amazing,” Doherty says with delight. “And the vocals. It’s really, really beautiful. I love David Bowie. Bowie, Billie, all the B’s,” he says with a laugh. “ ‘Creep,’ by Radiohead, that’s the song I love right now. Headphones in, it’s raining,” he says, pantomiming putting in headphones and bobbing his head.
High Fidelity is full of cameos by iconic New York figures, from Debbie Harry to Parker Posey. Doherty even filmed a scene at Electric Lady Studios, in which his character lays down a track with the producer Jack Antonoff, another celebrity he did not recognize in the moment. “I knew who he was, but I didn’t know it was him until like the end of the day,” he admits. “He’s a really cool guy.”
At 24 years old, Doherty is older than the character he plays on High Fidelity, but this role marks the beginning of a more grown-up departure from the work he’s previously taken on, most notably Descendants, a Disney film series about the children of classic Disney villains. “I always look at doing Disney as an apprenticeship,” he says. “It was an amazing platform. There’s a lot of exposure. You also get a young fan base that will hopefully be with you throughout your career, which is amazing. I do underestimate how influential the fans are. They really are supportive. But sometimes they know shit that I don’t even know! They’re very informative.”
Before leaving the record store and heading back out into the rainy street to find coffee, Doherty picks up a copy of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, a present for his girlfriend. She’s an actress, too, as well as one of his Descendants costars. You may know her as Dove Cameron, but Doherty refers to by her given name, Chloe. “Chloe, she’s just released music and is going to start doing shows,” he says. “So she’s really excited about that, and she loves music."
At a nearby café, Doherty gets into the particulars of his post-Disney work, included filming a sex scene with Kravitz for High Fidelity. His character, Liam, is based on the musician character played by Kravitz’s real-life mother, Lisa Bonet, in the 2000 film upon which the series is partially based. “When we were doing the sex scenes, I kept being like, ‘I’m your mum…’ ” Doherty says with a laugh. “Which was a bit weird. There’s no direct link, but it’s still a bit fucked up!”
The scene was not the first of its kind that Doherty has done. Recently, he appeared alongside Helen Mirren on HBO’s Catherine the Great limited series. “I mean, first ever sex scene, do it with Dame Helen! Why not?!” he says, in between bites of croissant and sips of coffee. Then, he remembers that it wasn’t exactly the first time he had to do something “a bit raunchy” on camera. “It wasn’t exactly a sex scene. It was in Legacies,” the CW series he appeared on last year. “But with the top off. Always with the top off!” he says, rolling his eyes in jest. “I’m like, ‘For fuck's sake, I’ve gotta do planks for like a week. Ugh, I’ll just keep my clothes on,’ ” Doherty says with a laugh.
The episode in which his character tangles with Kravitz’s was directed by Natasha Lyonne, a celebrity who, in contrast to Kravitz and Antonoff, Doherty actually was quite keenly aware of before filming the series. “She was amazing. Unbelievable. She’s so fucking good. She’s an actor herself, so she really connects with the actors on that level, which makes a massive difference,” he says, gushing over Lyonne. “She’s also just cool, with her glasses on, having a smoke, being loud. I still think there’s a lot of stuff on sets with male crew members feeling weird that there’s a female director and all that shit. But she was like, ‘Fuck it.’ She’s a really cool woman.”
When I ask what it’s like to work with someone as impossibly cool as Kravitz, Doherty says he is obviously a fan. “She’s really, really personable. She’s really kind with her time and energy,” he says. “She plays it cool, but I think she’s shy. I mean, she’s obviously extremely cool.”
“I think she’s just a human being,” he goes on. “Women in the industry are constantly objectified, not only with what they look like as sex symbols or whatever but also for their traits. People wonder, Are they cutesy or are they serious? But there’s a plethora of emotions that a human will go through at different times in their life,” Doherty says. “I wouldn’t say Zoë is one thing, but I would say she is kind. You seldom see her smile but when she does, her whole face lights up. I really, really like her.”
The conversation turns back toward the romantic themes of High Fidelity, and the lead character’s indecisiveness when it comes to sticking with a relationship. “I think everyone can relate to Rob in some respect,” Doherty says. “Films can be quite sugar-coated and romantic and cliché. It’s those patriarchal societal roles where the woman is very much your quintessential all-American hopeless romantic, and the guy is very much a cliché of a man. And it’s like, where is that in reality? It’s 2020. The recognition of gender fluidity is a thing now, and nonbinary stuff, and social labels are being taken into question now, which is amazing. I think Rob’s character definitely speaks to that. That past is getting pushed out because it’s unrealistic and medieval at this stage.”
He ponders a bit more about how he actually relates to Rob. “I guess with rejection,” he says. “I guess the complex nature of relationships. Two human beings coming together and that interaction and how that like…it’s love, but you want something else. I’ve definitely had that in my life, where I’ve loved someone but not been in love with them, and that’s hard, and moving on and finding someone else, but also loving this person. In that respect, I relate to Rob. And also just wanting a bit of everything, wanting my fingers in the…pie? Is that the expression?” he asks through laughter. “Different pies.”
For someone who describes himself as “quite socially anxious,” the actor appears relaxed enough to be open and honest about his real-life relationship to romance. “You grow so much with a partner who's amazing and will constantly challenge you, and constantly cause you to question your own beliefs and what you think and conclusions you’ve made,” Doherty says. “For me, my eyes have been opened so, so much about women and the inequalities that still exist today. Not even just the wage gap and things like that but social, ingrained in our society—the repression, I’d say. It’s hard. In that sense, there is so much you can learn from people in your partnership.”
“Recently, I have been like, ‘I am an individual. I am my own person. I want to share my life with this person,’ as opposed to, ‘My life is this person,’ ” Doherty says. “That differentiation is a fine line.”
How does Doherty relate to his own character, though? “Well, he’s obviously Scottish,” Doherty jokes. “I could identify with that. I think he’s naive, and quite, like, la-di-da. I’m very cynical, generally. It’s probably a defense mechanism. But I enjoy playing that oblivious thing. I think I was like that initially. When I started my career, I was like, Oh my god, this is amazing, it’s never going to end! But then you come into contact with the realities of rejection.”
Doherty points to a tattoo on his left wrist that reads memento mori. When asked how many tattoos he has, the actor says, “probably six or seven.” I remind him that most of the time, when people have more than just a couple of tattoos, they often admit that they don’t even know the exact number of designs permanently inked on their skin. “They’re so addictive!” he exclaims. “If I wasn’t an actor, I would be covered. I want to get my hands, my neck done. But I can’t,” he says, forlorn. “But ‘memento mori’ means ‘remember you must die’ in Latin. I think it’s a nice reminder not to resist stuff and keep moving because you are going to be dead.”
The actor also credits High Fidelity, which takes place in Crown Heights and was filmed mostly around Williamsburg and Greenpoint, with causing him to reconsider living on the West Coast. “I’m actually in love with Brooklyn. I love it so much. It’s so cool, so progressive. People are just chill, walking about, doing their own thing. I love that so much,” he says, eyes lighting up. “I’d just get on a Revel scooter last summer, when I was filming this. I’d go out, have my top off. I was living my best life. I was like, ‘Brooklyn!’ ” he shouts.
Doherty admits that he’s down for more roles that are “gritty or realistic,” he says in a tone that conveys his awareness of sounding like a cliché. “We’re at such a pivotal point in the history of humanity right now where everything has been taken into question,” the actor says. “And the patriarchal way that we all live has definitely been taken into check. I think society is changing for the better, but it is still quite confusing. And social media is so influential, so the way people see the world is different now. So current, real, gritty, but honest stuff is what appeals to me,” he goes on. “But also, just give me a job!”