Times discusses Secret Life with Matthew Macfadyen (Apr 2007)
Lust, lies and the final taboo
Matthew Macfadyen’s image may never be the same again. In his latest TV film, he plays a paedophile, says Jasper Rees
After Matthew Macfadyen put on the famous breeches in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, he received “a really nice note” from Colin Firth. Its contents remain private, but we can speculate that it wished him well in any future attempts to escape the long shadow cast by Mr Darcy.
Through no fault of his own, Firth has never had the luck to be offered something that will truly besmirch the abiding image of him as a Regency romantic lead. Towards the end of last year, however, just such a role was offered to Macfadyen. In Secret Life, a one-off drama for Channel 4, he plays a convicted child sex offender. He’s not the first actor to portray a paedophile, but he is the first to make such a long migration. You can see the tabloid headlines now: “Mr Noncy”; “Paedos and Prejudice”.
On receiving the script, Macfadyen calculated the high likelihood of such a response and chose to plough on regardless. “I thought about it for a little bit,” he says, “then I thought, I don’t care. Part of you wants to surprise people. People are more proprietorial about things on the box because you’re in their living room. It’s awful, but on a clinical level, this is a great part for an actor, in the same way that slaughtering and raping in Coriolanus and Macbeth are a treat.”
Secret Life was written by Rowan Joffe, the son of Roland Joffe (director of The Killing Fields and The Mission) and the actress Jane Lapotaire. The idea suggested itself to Joffe in 2002, when Britain’s only residential rehabilitation unit for child sex offenders was closed, despite a remarkable track record in preventing paedophiles from reoffending. Through the fictional story of Charley, played by Macfadyen, Secret Life dramatises the argument about how society deals with the child-molesters in its midst. Lock them up and throw away the key? Leave them in the care of over- worked probation officers and tacitly allow vigilantes to take the law into their own hands, even if that spells collaterally bad news for paediatricians?
Joffe’s script measures the consequences for one man as he struggles to vanquish his own corruption in a society that, however hard he tries to be good, will never find him anything but repugnant. It makes for a morally complex piece of television, all the more so for the casting of the tall, handsome, ramrod-spined Macfadyen.
It’s not difficult to see why Joffe plumped for him. In the 32-year-old’s personable guise, the drama makes the point that paedophiles prey on their victims by deploying the seduction tactics used by men everywhere. The actor himself is aware that what he calls his “pudding face and cow eyes” make him appear naturally sympathetic. “I felt,” Joffe says, “that by casting a charming actor, we were moving towards a more accurate portrayal of child sex offenders than conventional portrayals in telly drama and even, to a certain extent, in the news. It was important that the audience would be able to feel something of the sympathy towards him that, presumably, the kids he abused did.” But there’s more to Macfadyen’s performance than playing the antithesis of the sleazy man in the raincoat. He has occasionally played the antic buffoon, notably as the feckless, fortune-hunting Sir Felix Carbury in Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, but directors have tended to look to him when they want an inscrutable mask on which faint traces of emotion dimly flicker. In Stephen Poliakoff’s Perfect Strangers, Peter Kosminsky’s The Project, the New Zealand-based film In My Father’s Den and, above all, in Spooks, Macfadyen has presented the poker face of a blue-eyed everyman. Joffe compares it to “a really well-written short story that manages to be about a great deal, but ostensibly says almost nothing. You watch his face, and it seems as if there’s a tidal wave of back story going on, a huge amount of emotional information twisting and changing”.
No character played by him has had less opportunity to show his cards than Charley, whose all-consuming quest is to keep a lid on his own nature. For much of it, he successfully deploys techniques to keep himself from temptation. He avoids buses, gets a job gardening and breaks the nose of a paedophile who tells him where he can find willing underage partners. Then the rehabilitation unit is closed, terminating his regular sessions with a counsellor, and he has to fall back on his reserves of will-power. As vigilantes chase him, and a family of refugees is tantalisingly housed in the flat across the landing, those reserves inevitably dwindle, until he finds himself one afternoon in the middle of a fairground heaving with pubescent girls. He goes quickly to work.
These are, naturally, the most unpalatable scenes in the drama, and, thanks to a quirk in the shooting schedule, they were filmed during Macfadyen’s first two days on set. “It was a pukey beginning,” he says. Part of his queasiness was due to the fact that he was not initially handed a script, just instructed by Joffe to improvise his way into the head of a paedophile on the prowl. After a couple of foiled approaches to girls played by extras, he manages to engage one in conversation.
Macfadyen has never been a particularly analytical actor. Rather than bury his nose in books about paedophilia, he trusted to the accuracy of Joffe’s research as manifested in his script. “I love the idea,” he says, “of actors chatting in the wings and strolling on and being in the moment.” No wonder Secret Life, Channel 4, April 19 Kosminsky says of his performance as a Scouse squaddie in Warriors: “He is that thing I find electrifying, an actor who is at his best on take one.”
For the climactic sequence of Secret Life, however, Macfadyen had to think harder than normal about how to play a man playing at being trustworthy. “You can’t play being a paedophile,” he says. “As an actor, you can’t really play feelings; you’re just playing actions. You think, ‘What do I want this person to feel about me, and what do I do to achieve that? What do I do to get her trust?’ So you just be as lovely as possible to her. That’s as far as it goes. I’m thinking, I’m going to make this little girl laugh and think I’m cool, so that she’ll go on the dodgems with me.”
As the denouement unfolds, Joffe makes it clear that the dramatist’s primary duty of care is to the character and the story, rather than to the debate. You watch through your fingers to see what happens next. And nobody has watched more studiously than Macfadyen, an actor far from being vain. “It’s so revolting in the context that somehow it makes me feel sick. I was just fascinated watching myself be repulsive.”