He made headlines for becoming the first actor with Down syndrome to star in a primetime BBC drama when he appeared in blockbuster series Line of Duty in 2021.
Since gaining prominence and winning hearts across Britain, Jessop has said the next big dream on the horizon is to become the new James Bond.
“Bond, James Bond,” he told crowds with a glimmer in his eye, confirming those plans to delighted cheering and applause, when he accepted his honorary doctorate from the University of Winchester last July. Yet, since his role in Line of Duty, life has been quiet on the acting front for the 38-year-old actor, much to his disappointment.
“We thought Line of Duty would lead to bigger roles for Tommy, but it hasn’t. He’s been waiting for the phone to ring,” his brother Will, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker behind shows including 25 Siblings and Me, explains in new BBC documentary, Tommy Jessop Goes to Hollywood.
His mum Jane, who is also Tommy’s manager, says the actor, who has also appeared in the likes of Holby City and Doctors, should not be sidelined because he has Down syndrome.
“I think it’s very important for other people with Down syndrome that Tommy is given a big role – because it’s their dreams and it changes the way other people understand who they are.
“And he’s proved that he can, so why is it not happening?” she asks in the warm and emotional hour-long documentary, aired last night.
“Tommy wants to change our minds about people with Down Syndrome,” Will says in the BBC programme, which shines a light on our society’s deeply embedded prejudices towards those with the chromosomal condition.
Jessop, after playing Terry Boyle in Line of Duty, a vulnerable man with Down’s syndrome exploited by an Organised Crime Group, explains, in the heartwarming and thought-provoking documentary produced by Will, that he wants to play a Superhero for a change. And why shouldn’t he?
After his agent poured cold water on the actor’s hopes of being the next 007, Jessop decided he wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He and Will are setting out to shake up the industry by producing their own screenplay, Roger the Superhero – which takes inspiration from Tommy’s teddy bear, named Roger Mitchell, and was the subject of last night’s BBC doc.
While the idea of Tommy writing his own movie might seem ambitious, it is clear that he possesses a focus and a passion, along with his brother Will, to really make it happen. He has been told no, he says, countless times. But he refuses to let himself get deflated. He only seems to have been spurred on by the industry stalemate confronting him.
They have set their plans in motion, and after meeting with some of the industry’s heavyweights in Hollywood, have now returned to the UK to finish the script.
“If no-one will give me a leading role, then I will write one myself,” Jessop says with unquenched determination. “I want to show that people like me can be heroes too.”
— Tommy Jessop (@tommyjessop) August 21, 2023
Produced by BBC Studios.
— BBC Studios (@bbcstudios) August 21, 2023
Jessop’s appeal lies in the fact he is vulnerable enough to show the world exactly who he is. He is talented, he shows a masterful sense of self-awareness, and a great deal of inner strength. He has a dry wit, good humour, and a wonderful self-confidence.
Kit Harington talks about his cousin Laurent in BBC One's special "Tommy Jessop goes to Hollywood".
Full special airs on August 21 at 9pm on BBC One pic.twitter.com/C3Gzah5WR5
— Kit Harington's Projects (@sersisknight) August 16, 2023
Also the first professional actor with the condition to tour theatres as Hamlet, It’s remarkable what he has achieved considering that as a small baby, his mother was told he wouldn’t go on to do very much at all.
Jane recalls, in one of the most emotional moments of the documentary, how the outlook for the tiny baby was not good.
“We didn’t quite know what was going to happen […] When the doctor came to see you, he told me that you would never read, you would never speak, and you’d never do anything very much.
“But when you were only about a year old, you suddenly woke up. And you’ve never looked back. If only that doctor could see you now.”
“Did he think I was a mistake?” Jessop asks, to which his mother aptly responds, “You’re not a mistake. You’re a miracle.”
Tommy says he has watched countless superhero films, and tells producers: “I think it’s about time that there should be a superhero with Down syndrome.”
The main character’s first superpower, he says, is changing people’s minds, something which no doubt, he has already done. Jessop, when asked what his own superpower in life is, responds by telling the visibly moved Hollywood producer, that it “might be the extra chromosome.”
“And It’s also trying to be a voice for other people with Down syndrome,” he proudly adds.
The movie script the brothers are trying to sell – maybe against all odds – to tinseltown casts Jessop as Roger Mitchell, a hero who has three superpowers – changing peoples’ minds, reading peoples’ minds and telekinesis, the moving of objects without physical means.
It’s tempting to assume the film could end up a bit niche, starring a hero with Down Syndrome, but the message Jessop wants to promote is one our society is in need of hearing, and the plot he has proposed deals with serious and real issues. He says he will use the movie to address the issue of screening – a blood test which is available between 10 and 14 weeks of pregnancy,
Routine screening has resulted in a 42% increase in abortion for the condition in the space of 10 years, with the problem only getting worse. Last year, the number of abortions for the Down syndrome in Britain saw another surge – rising by 24 per cent.
While big brands have seized on the trend of using people with Down syndrome in glitzy campaigns which preach inclusion, such efforts have not really translated into more acceptance of bringing those with the condition into the world.
There is still clearly a fear of the condition which needs to be met head-on. Jessop’s film promises to do just that.
Using his powers, Roger will set out to defeat the film’s baddie, Nole Skum. Jessop explains that Skum is a scientist who may be “trying to screen people out” which, he explains, basically means “getting rid of people with Down syndrome.”
“And I might be a man on a mission to stop that happening.”
He decided on this theme after he met with several writers, who told him to focus on topics which mean a lot to him. It’s telling when Jessop says that screening for Down syndrome is something which “scars me more than anything else.”
“That is what I want to fight,” Jessop says. It is perhaps a sad indictment of the way things are, for all of our virtue-signalling, that the lead character in his new film is “trying to prove that he’s not a mistake to the world.”
His mother Jane says the issue of screening – which has led to 90% of babies with Down syndrome being aborted in the womb in Britain – is so upsetting that she can’t talk about it with Tommy.
“Just think about it,” she tells the documentary. “Someone singling you out, they don’t want you to be born, what that does to you.”
Jessop and others have been forced to be their own ambassadors, with other disability advocates like Heidi Crowter and Charlie Fien having blazed a path of public awareness about the widely accepted discrimination those with Down syndrome are subjected to, that is, even before they — if they do — make it out of the womb.
“We can at least see some of the potential that’s out there,” Jane says, welcoming how society has moved on from “hiding” people with the condition in homes and special schools. But it’s clear, through rising abortion rates, and Jessop’s own failure to secure acting roles, there is still much work to be done.
I think many will agree that the time is ripe for a superhero with Down syndrome. And no-one fits the bill better than Jessop. He is brilliant, inspirational, and above all, he’s not afraid to tackle the taboo others are castigated for mentioning, when it comes to the routine and widespread screening out of people with Down syndrome.
“You think I’m weak, but you are so wrong,” he declares. From watching last night’s heartwarming, deeply moving and acutely honest documentary, I’ve learned a lot more about all the great talents and colour and wonderful traits people with Down syndrome bring to our world – if only they are given the chance. Jessop, and the joy he brings to his family and the people around him, is a great example of that. And I think that if Tommy Jessop succeeds in making his own superhero blockbuster movie, it will be, as he would say himself, absolutely ‘Wicked.’
You can watch Tommy Jessop Goes to Hollywood on BBC iPlayer here.