Warriors Interview (Nov 1999)
Matthew goes to war The heroics of British peacekeepers in Bosnia have been turned into a powerful BBC drama. JASPER REES talks to one of the leading players
IN THE most powerful scene in Warriors, the most powerful drama of the year, a Liverpudlian squaddie rummages through a lorryload of Bosnian Muslim corpses, searching for one man still breathing. He gently lays the groaning body in the mud, where Croat soldiers jab at it desultorily with their bayonets and boots. Enraged, the squaddie marches up to the Croat commander, unzips his flies and, with a young female interpreter at his shoulder, ritually insults the Croat before offering himself up for rape.
"You look around and it's not a huge leap of imagination to think, I am actually there," says Matthew Macfadyen, who plays the squad- die. "I just sort of launched into it." The scene, which was shot in one blistering take, distils to an essence what Warriors tries to say about the conundrum of peacekeeping, above all in the early days of the UN mission to Bosnia. The British Army had to work within the restrictions of a mandate which left them impotent to intercede on the part of civilians threatened by ethnic cleansing. Macfadyen's character writhes against the straitjacket more than anyone, with the result that, in an outstandingly acted drama, he turns in the most compelling performance.
When I first met him, on a wintry day in the Czech Republic, he was in uniform, hair cropped. Also on set were some of the 40 or so British soldiers in charge of the Warrior vehicles without which the drama could not have been made.
THE actors thus found themelves surrounded every day by people whose work they were attempting to portray. "If I've ever felt like a luv, it was on the first day. You've got all this kit on and you're not wearing it properly. You feel like a total ****. And they've all been to Bosnia. You are aware that it is so much artifice."
Within days, though, army and actors found a way of bonding. The squaddies would casually ask the cast if they were gay, and point out that filming and soldiering both involve hours of tense hanging around.
"But when they asked 'How much are you getting paid for this?' we all froze. We said 'We can't really say'.
Then Ioan Gruffudd and I were in a tank and we could not get away from one guy who wouldn't let up. Eventually we just picked a figure which was about half of what we were getting. 'What? No!'" Although Warriors was meticulously researched by distinguished documentary film-maker Peter Kosminsky, the soldiers on set provided their own source of research. "We'd go in twos. I'd grab Ioan and we'd take a deep breath and go into the huddle and try to chat.
There was one scene where I said to one of them, 'Does this look real? Are you buying it?' 'Yeah, more humour though.
Where's the jokes?'" They also demurred at MacFadyen's big scene where he displays the contents of his flies. "The soldiers all cleared off. I remember some of them coming up and saying 'I'm not sure about that'." In fact, like almost everything else in Warriors, it is based on an incident which cropped up in research. And even if it hadn't happened, MacFadyen's performance makes the frustration and rage seem bitterly real.
Kosminsky says: "Matthew is the kind of actor you come across once or twice in a generation. He is that thing which I find electrifying, an actor who is at his best on take one."
It is fair to assume that his is a face that will become familiar. Before Warriors, his best work had been under the umbrella of Declan Donnellan's Cheek By Jowl company. He got his first job as Antonio in The Duchess of Malfi, then played Charles Surface in The School for Scandal. He was next cast as Benedick in the company's valedictory production of Much Ado About Nothing, opposite Saskia Reeves's Beatrice. "I had been out of work about four months. I was down to my last 30 quid when my agent rang. I refused to believe it. I kept ringing him and saying, 'Are you sure it's Benedick?' I would never get cast as Benedick here or at the RSC."
Not yet, anyway. "Here" is the National Theatre. Six months on from the Czech Republic, Macfadyen, who is still only 25, has restored his head of hair and dyed it. He looks softer, less grimly focused. He is in rehearsal for Battle Royal, Nick Stafford's play about the constitutional crisis triggered by the marriage of George IV to Caroline of Brunswick. He plays Brougham, a stridently ambitious young lawyer who takes up the cudgels on behalf of Caroline. As soon as he got back from the Czech Republic, he was cast in Ben Elton's IVF comedy Maybe Baby. "It was the perfect antidote to Warriors. Elton's a total arse, and he runs around screaming at Hugh Laurie."
Warriors, BBC1, Saturday and Sunday. Battle Royal previews at the National Theatre from 2 December.
Box office: 0171 452 3000.
Evening Standard on 17th November 1999