Middletown: Matthew Interview (Nov 2006)

Acting Holy

Although hesitant when discussing acting, his style, or his starring role in Brian Kirk's Middletown, Matthew Macfayden still has a lot to say to Sheena Sweeney.

The first thing that springs to mind before meeting Matthew Macfadyen is what a good actor he is.

His breakout role came when he played Agent Tom Quinn in the TV series Spooks, and later when New Zealander Brad McGann cast him as a weary war photographer alienated from his family in In My Father's Den.

Macfayden gave a further sample of his considerable depth and range before he was introduced to the world in Pride & Prejudice last year.

And now, in grand over-the-top style, he is playing the role of Gabriel, a fundamentalist Northern Irish cleric preaching fire and brimstone, in Brian Kirk's debut feature Middletown.

The most striking thing about Macfayden in person is how different he looks from his screen self. He seems much larger in a lumbering kind of way, with floppy hair and a reddish hue to his nose. He has the accent of a public schoolboy and the charming manner of an Evelyn Waugh character, slightly bewildered by it all.

My impression of him prior to our meeting is that he might be quite contrary, and doesn't like talking about acting. I am only half wrong. He sits back in his chair, and laughs often and easily. But he doesn't like talking about anything to do with acting and is reluctant, in fact, to give a concrete answer to almost anything.

Even a simple question about which actors he admires induces a lengthy obfuscation about how there are so many and such varied styles, before he eventually admits uncomfortably to liking Sean Penn and Meryl Streep. The reason for this, he confesses later, is for fear of 'sounding like a dickhead'.

Stopping and starting

Macfayden is immediately likeable, not least because – in spite of his obvious talent – he is endearingly unsure of himself, frequently speaking very quietly and often beginning a sentence before thinking better of it and letting it trail off awkwardly. And he regularly changes his mind mid-flow as in 'Yes I do think that every actor demands attention… but actually no I don't really, because of the idiot who stands up and shouts at a party – it's not like that. Of his latest role, he says he hasn't seen Middletown properly, and he doesn't generally like watching himself on screen. 'It's always quite uncomfortable. You're sort of thinking "well that's not bad", and then you're appalled that you're thinking that. It's either rising panic or rising… delight. Not even delight. It's very strange.'

Given his uneasiness, it seems like a good idea to start with something not too challenging. Did he, I wonder, have any experience to draw on to portray the kind of religious conflict Gabriel experiences in Middletown? 'No. I have nothing. It's just interesting…' I try again. How do you approach something like that? 'Well, practically, you just sort of play the scene and imagine that you're there. Acting's quite simple, I think, and because it's simple, it can be quite difficult. Because actors can tend to over-colour, you know, over-complicate things. It's a very simple story and that fundamental religious belief is very black and white, whether you're an Islamic fundamentalist, or a Protestant, or anything like that where there's no debate, there's no discussion, there's no grey area. You'll either burn in hell, literally, or you'll be saved. You either believe this or you're out of the church. And it's very attractive, it must be very attractive to a lot of people. So it's interesting. Great for actors. Because you can sort of jump in.'

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 113