Thomas Mann Discusses New Rom-Com About Fate, His Career, And More - Exclusive Interview

The trusty sidekick, the heartthrob, the dumb jock, and the chosen one. These are the common archetypical roles of male characters in film and television year after year that are oftentimes agonizing and predictable to watch, but there's a seasoned actor who has seemingly defied all of those clichés during his decade-and-some-change career.

2012 was the year that launched Thomas Mann's breakout role in the outlandish teen party drama "Project X," where he played the lead role: an awkward but endearing high school senior who seeks popularity and self-acceptance through throwing a the party of the year that can't stop spiraling out of control. Three years later, Mann starred as an offbeat teen in "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," creating an indie movie trail for himself. Eventually, Mann's career took a wider path, landing more diverse roles in films like animated mockumentary "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On" and sci-fi thriller "Chariot" starring John Malkovich.

Now, his new movie, "About Fate," depicts him in a different light, continuing to intentionally choose roles that defy our expectations of what a protagonist looks and feels like. Starring opposite Emma Roberts, she and Mann play millennials who are caught up in trying to catch up to their loved ones' romantic lives, but fate can't seem to stop getting in the way, no matter how much they try to act otherwise.

His journey as an actor isn't a linear one; in fact, Mann recently sat down with The List to discuss finding his footing as a first-time leading man in a romantic comedy, almost quitting acting during the pandemic, and the things he looks for when choosing projects.

Hugh Grant was a major inspiration for his character

What was it like to be the lead in a Russian Christmas classic rom-com New Year's Eve?

When you put it that way, it sounds like a lot more pressure than it actually felt like. While it was based on that — this very classic Russian movie that's almost five hours long or something, which I haven't seen — we were basically making an updated version for an American western audience. In that way, it felt like, "How can we make a rom-com that feels like it's for people now and today?" I didn't really consider the fact that we were doing a remake that much and wanted to make a movie that stood on its own and felt specific enough that it worked based on the characters and our chemistry together. That was the most important thing to me.

That being said, did you consult or research any rom-coms for influence for this role?

Yes, actually. I did quite a bit of a Hugh Grant research. I think it's because I wear glasses in the movie that were actually my own glasses, but they were my own a year ago when we shot it. He wears glasses in "Four Weddings and A Funeral." It reminded me so much of Griffin, because he has longer hair. I was like, "This is the energy that I want for Griffin," so Hugh Grant was a good inspiration. I would fall asleep watching a rom-com every night.

He reveals Emma Roberts personally wanted him to play her screen partner

I want to talk about you and Emma Roberts' relationship, because I know that you two have known each other for over a decade from working on "It's Kind of a Funny Story" [released in 2010]. You guys go way back. What was it like reconnecting during this time in your lives and portraying these roles now?

It was a nice surprise to hear from her, because the script came out of nowhere. [In] the beginning of 2021 is when I got it and I had not worked for a full year. I was [like], "You know what? Maybe I won't work anymore. Maybe I'll just move on to something else." It's not a great time mentally or where I thought I was at in my career. Then, the script came along, and Emma brought it to me like, "This director's doing this and I would love you to be opposite me in this movie. We would be a nice dynamic. It could be really cool."

I was so flattered and so excited. I read the script and I was really moved that she thought that I would be able to do this, be a leading man in an actual rom-com movie. It felt like a great responsibility and something that I hadn't had the chance to do, but that I could do well and would have a good time doing. I jumped at the chance. I was like, "Are you kidding? This is such a great, fun role, and it feels like me." It felt like my voice in a lot of ways. I knew it was something that I wanted to do pretty much immediately.

Mann on if he thinks rom-coms are making a resurgence in popular culture

Do you think that rom-coms are back or are they making a resurgence in this horrid time?

I don't know. There's a certain kind of movie that's gone away. I don't know if it's rom-com, but there's a certain kind of movie that is $15 to $20 million [to make] that's just about people, the performances, the characters, and it's not some high concept and it's something that's a little bit more grounded. That happened in the mid-2000s, we started those movies. I don't know the rom-com is back, but I would like to bring back this kind of movie where it's relying heavily on the chemistry of the leads, the characters, and the moments and not necessarily the concept. It's about the moments.

I do think rom-coms have gone away a little bit, but I was hoping to bring some of my indie sensibilities to a movie like this to keep it a little more grounded. Then, there's moments where I have to do something that's like, "I don't want to say that line," but then Emma's like, "You have to. That's what this movie is." I was like, "You're right. Okay." She's like, "Just give the people what they want," and I was like, "Okay." She was great in that way if I was in my head about something, she'd be like, "Just do it. You're great. It'll be fine."

He sees a lot of himself in his About Fate character

You spoke with us when you were doing press for "Chariot" and you had said during that interview, "Every time I take a part I try to find a new version of myself to be." What version of yourself were you playing while being Griffin Reed? How much of yourself was in that role?

Quite a bit, actually, because it's not a period thing. It's playing a modern young person working in the world and trying to find love. It's not so far off from who I am. I haven't played a guy who wasn't depressed in a long time. I feel like I'm some version of depressed. I was like, "I want to be the fun, charming guy," and I hadn't had a chance to do that yet. I was tapping into that side of myself, my own sense of humor and taking the moments that were funny in the script and making them funny to me or making it feel what relates to me.

He credits fate as a factor in his career

"About Fate" tells us that if we lean into fate, we can change in both beautiful, unexpected ways. Do you think you've experienced fate in your life thus far?

I think so. I would like to believe that I have. Even working in this industry, I've seen certain instances of fate for myself and  how things come back around. It's too beautiful to be a coincidence that was like, "Oh no, this is how this was supposed to go." I don't know if you have something like that in your life where it's like, "This is too cool. This is too good to be true."

You oftentimes play these quirky, endearing characters sometimes but you can also really tug on our heartstrings in dramas. Do you feel like you've made your younger self proud? Is this where you maybe envision him/yourself to go where you're at now?

Yeah, I would like to think so. I've always been ambitious and I've always been like, "Okay, now what's next? I want more." If you told me when I was 17, when I moved out here, that I would be starring in movies when I'm 30, I would be like, "Okay, good. I'm doing the right thing. I didn't waste my time or whatever." I would like to think he'd be proud, or he'd be like, "Why don't you have a f***ing Oscar? What are you doing?"

Mann's future in film and TV is getting to be more selective

Besides looking for roles in which you see yourself, what else do you look for before signing onto a movie or TV show?

At this point in my career, I want to work with great directors, great filmmakers or other great actors — people who I am inspired by [and] make me feel like I'm challenging myself in a way. I don't know if I'll do less indie movies, but I'm probably not going to take as many things. Now, I'm doing TV, which I've never really dipped my toes in before, but that's a whole new world that I enjoy. 

It's following good writing and in the case of [one of] the two shows that I'm on now, "Winning Time [The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty]," I've always wanted to be on an HBO show. After a certain point, I don't want to act just to make anything. I've reached a point where if I'm going to spend time doing something, I want it to be of some certain quality and I have never really been able to choose my projects. I can say no to certain things, but I've never been able to be like, "Oh wow, Paul Thomas Anderson's making a movie," or Christopher Nolan or "I want to part in that. Let me have it." It doesn't work like that.

Unless you're like Robert Pattinson, you're not picking your movies. The longer you work, the more you get to be picky. I'm at that place where I would like to work with directors that are going to elevate my performance instead of me having to elevate material to get it to a certain point.

"About Fate" is out in select theaters now.

This interview has been edited for clarity.