Don't Get Personal (Apr 2005)

Don't get personal...

Former Spooks heart throb Matthew Macfadyen has grown used to showbiz reporters hanging around outside his house, but as he prepares to appear alongside Michael Gambon in Nicholas Hytner's production of Henry IV, he explains why he is ready for a new level of stardom

Stephanie Merritt
Sunday April 24, 2005
The Observer

Matthew Macfadyen appears alongside Michael Gambon in Henry IV at the National. Photograph: Jane Bown

There's a certain degree of wariness on both sides when I meet Matthew Macfadyen in a small office tucked away in the warren of tunnels that run backstage at the National Theatre, where he has just come out of a rehearsal of Nicholas Hytner's Henry IV plays. In the last interview I read, he was reported as having told the journalist to 'mind your own business' when asked about his role as Mr Darcy in Joe Wright's forthcoming film version of Pride and Prejudice opposite Keira Knightley; for his part, he is tired of the press's fixation with the circumstances in which he met his wife, former Spooks co-star Keeley Hawes.

Beyond this, there is the fact that Macfadyen, now 30, is clearly very sharp - smart enough, certainly, not to be cajoled into baring his soul, and to be aware that actors talking about acting all too often sound as if they're crying out to appear in Private Eye. A couple of times he prefaces an answer with, 'I know actors trot this out all the time, and it probably sounds terribly trite...' When he shrugs off a question about political theatre with, 'I don't know - I'm just an actor, passive and dumb', it's offered with a grin. Obviously neither, he seems to have concluded that this is a safer position than to say too much and risk being misquoted. You can almost hear him self-editing as he goes along, often embarking on an analysis that is left hanging, as if halfway through he'd thought better of it.
He explains this reticence partly against the backdrop of the current feverish celebrity culture, but also in terms of the fierce admiration he felt for the actors he admired as a teenager - Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, his present co-star Michael Gambon. 'I actually don't want to know everything about somebody because it takes away some of the mystery. It makes it harder to believe in someone as a character because on some level you're thinking, "There's XYZ, I've seen him with his arse hanging out carrying a Waitrose bag." It doesn't matter. That's something I do feel quite strongly about.'

Given that he's on the cusp of a new level of fame as the pre-eminent romantic hero in English literature, this understatedness is refreshing. His is not the kind of beauty that would make you walk into a lamppost if you passed him on the street, but his face is elevated beyond the merely good-looking by his Peter O'Toole eyes, and there are occasional flashes of humour that make you suspect he'd be good company in a different context, where he wasn't so cautious about presentation.

His background is fairly straightforward: after spending time as a child in the Far East, he was sent to boarding school in the Midlands, where he nursed an ambition to be an actor, which he kept quiet until such time as he was sure he might have a realistic chance.

'I secretly auditioned for drama school around A-level time, not really thinking that anything would come of it, but feeling that I ought to try for these mythical places like Rada and Central.'

Secretly, because he was afraid his friends would laugh at him?

'I was just afraid I wouldn't get in. I'd auditioned for the National Youth Theatre and I didn't get a place and it was terrifying. Then a few days later I got a letter from Rada saying I'd got in and that was a great moment, because you just think that's the rest of your life sorted out.'

For Macfadyen, this does seem to have proved true: since leaving Rada, his longest period of unemployment has been three months, between his first touring production (The Duchess of Malfi, with Cheek by Jowl) and another tour with the RSC, before television opened up with the BBC Balkan drama Warriors and Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers, in which he played Michael Gambon's son, a dynamic they have revived for the Hal-Falstaff relationship in Henry IV. '[Matthew] is an extremely charismatic actor, who responds with great intuitive intelligence,' says Nicholas Hytner. 'He speaks Shakespeare with an ease that makes it sound as if it was written yesterday.'

Nevertheless, for the many people who will never see him play Prince Hal at the Olivier, Macfadyen is most famous as MI5 agent Tom Quinn from the BBC series Spooks, a role exalted into notoriety by his off-screen relationship with Hawes, who played fellow spy Zoe Reynolds. They were photographed together when Hawes was only five months into her first marriage, to the father of her young son. Both have since left the series, were married in a quiet ceremony last autumn and now have a baby daughter, Maggie, yet their relationship is still a source of interest to the diary columns. Does he feel that he was naive about the level of attention they attracted?

'Inevitably I was. I think everybody is until it happens. You never think it's going to be you until you're there at the supermarket check-out and suddenly you're in Heat magazine.'

Does it make him angry?

'It did at the time, but it goes away when they realise it's not ongoing. There's no story now, I haven't got a story, unless I go to a lap-dancing club or something. The Mail on Sunday sometimes pitch up in the street and it's strange and vaguely unpleasant but I try to ignore it. It's just very dull, really.'

But isn't this sense that you're a public property only going to intensify with Pride and Prejudice

'You never know how films are going to do and it is daunting if I think about it. I would want to be careful about keeping my daughter away from that kind of attention but if they want to get you, there's nothing you can do. But I can't see that it would ever get like that. I don't even know what I'm doing after [Henry IV] finishes.'

So there is no truth in the reports that he is lined up to play Prince Charles in a new drama about the Camilla/Diana love triangle, to be called Whatever Love Means? For the first time this provokes a blast of real, unfettered laughter.

'Whatever Love Means? Is that the title? That would be a good one. No, I've never heard of that.'

There are two easy cliches about an actor's deep motives: you do it because you need to be the centre of attention, or because you're happier being someone else. Does he recognise either of these elements in himself?

'I'm sure they're components in the mix. But also if you're good at it, and people tell you you're good at it, it's an incredibly enjoyable thing to do, it's extremely satisfying to tell a story well.'

So acting for him is essentially all about storytelling?

'Oh fuck, yeah!' he says, suddenly animated, nearly getting out of the chair. 'And in the theatre, if there are a thousand people there and they're all... [he mimes being open-mouthed] it's fabulous, not in an egotistical way, but it's meaningful because you're sharing an experience. When it's like that it's such a high. That's why I wouldn't want to leave it so long before doing a play again, I get very stolid and sluggish if I do too much telly.'

In September, he will move from the gravitas of the National to the opening of Pride and Prejudice, with its circus of international junkets - not an appealing prospect for someone who dislikes talking about himself. It's traditional for interviewers confronted with subjects who won't lay their psyches on the table, OK-style, to dismiss them as grumpy and uptight; both have been said of him, with no justification that I can see. He mentions the 'Mind your own business' headline and tries to explain that he hadn't meant it to sound as it did ('She asked me about the third series of Spooks and I couldn't give it away so I sort of told her to... well'). I thought you were going to be a right chippy little prince, I say. 'Oh God, did you?' He looks aggrieved. 'It's a real skill to be able to publicise yourself,' he says, with a sigh, and leaves the rest of the thought unspoken.

· Henry IV is at the National's Olivier Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) from 4 May