Unspun Reticence (Jun 2005)


June 16, 2005

Matthew MacFadyen

Matthew MacFadyen's unspun reticence hides an impressive actor

MATTHEW MACFADYEN says “Um . . .” a lot. A conversation with the 30-year-old actor is riddled with backtracks and false starts. It seems he sometimes has trouble finishing a sentence without sliding into “Oh . . . I don’t know”.
Some interviewers have read this as deliberate awkwardness or wilfully incommunicative behaviour. But this is to misinterpret what is one of MacFadyen’s most likeable traits. He’s not one of those actors who can glide through interviews on pre-spun soundbites. If he hesitates it’s because he’s giving each question, some of which are likely to be rather stupid, rather more thought than they probably warrant. And it’s because, like any normal person, he’s not entirely comfortable being interrogated.

It’s not that MacFadyen is inarticulate when either he or his profession is not in the conversational frame. I first meet him at the San Sebastián Film Festival, during a flying visit to support In My Father’s Den, an intelligent domestic thriller from New Zealand that gives MacFadyen his first cinematic leading role. He talks enthusiastically about architecture (he’s a fan of the Swiss Re building) and at length about the photographers he researched for the role. But ask him about the techniques he employed to bring such intensity and alienation to the character of Paul, a solitary, desensitised war photographer who returns home for the first time in 20 years, and MacFadyen looks profoundly uncomfortable.

When I meet him a second time, in the café of the National Theatre where he is currently starring alongside Michael Gambon in both parts of Henry IV, he admits: “I find it difficult to talk about acting because . . . I just can’t. Unless you can dissect it like an acting teacher, you can’t do it. I’m not clever enough to do it. I can’t analyse it like that. As soon as you try and generalise something, you lose hold of it.”

He drifts off into an anecdote about Marlon Brando. The big man used to do scenes with his tongue rolled slightly back into his mouth. MacFadyen demonstrates, doing a rather impressive Brando impersonation in the process. Michael Gambon, MacFadyen tells me, did a film with Brando and was told: “When I’m doing a scene with you, my tongue’s there and I’m just thinking about that; I don’t listen to a word that you say.”

Gambon apparently laughed his head off. “That’s part of it. It’s private and it’s mysterious but it’s also quite shallow, it’s nothing deep. It’s a fragile, precious thing. It’s silly as well.”

As ambivalent as he can be about himself and his chosen career, there’s no dispute that MacFadyen is an impressively talented actor. A charismatic, complicated presence in In My Father’s Den, he’s our guide through the film’s conundrum structure, an emotional wasteland of a man who is unexpectedly stirred by the discovery that his home town still holds a few surprises. MacFadyen says of his attraction to the project: “I liked the idea that it was something different. And it was a superb script. It reminded me of Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter.”

As Darcy, in Joe Wright’s excellent new film version of Pride and Prejudice he’s terrific. He’s a man painfully ill- at-ease in his tightly buttoned frock coat — the more his love for Elizabeth Bennet overwhelms him, the looser and more dishevelled his clothing becomes. He strikes exactly the balance between socially inept reserve and chilly aloofness that the role requires.

MacFadyen is uncomfortable during an onstage question-and-answer session after a screening of In My Father’s Den in San Sebastián, saying later: “I don’t like doing Q&As. I turned into a stuttering idiot.” The reticence is perhaps because he has already had to endure plenty of the “wrong” kind of attention in the chorus of orchestrated outrage that greeted his relationship with his Spooks co-star Keeley Hawes (she was married when they got together). That has calmed down a bit now, and the couple had a baby daughter at the end of last year.

Fatherhood is one of the reasons behind MacFadyen’s decision to take a time-consuming stint at the National Theatre, just as his film career looked set to move up a gear or two. “The rehearsing was busy, but at least I wasn’t away, I could get back. And now we’ve opened my days are free, apart from having to leave at five o’clock, just when Keeley’s opening a bottle of wine.”

Another lure that tempted MacFadyen back into the theatre was the opportunity to work with Michael Gambon. During our conversation in the National Theatre, Gambon wanders past sporting a beard that could conceal a whole hedgerow ecosystem and hauling a carrier bag that has seen many better days. MacFadyen breaks off and beams affectionately. “He’s a reprobate. Looks like an old tramp. I’ll be seeing him later on.”

Watching Gambon on stage, it turns out, was one of the young MacFadyen’s more memorable theatre experiences. “I saw Mike do Man of the Moment. It was so fantastic. So doing this with him was great.”

And although MacFadyen would have you believe that he can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in his life beyond the performances he gives on stage or screen, he then goes on to say something that suggests that even he is not immune to the fascination of actors. “I just loved the whole idea of being an actor. We were waiting by the coach to go back to school where I was, and I’d look at the stage door and think, these creatures — where do they live? Where are they going now? To the pub! Wow! What’s exciting is there’s a curtain that divides the audience from this other world. You want to see behind.”

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