Mr Darcy Has a Mullet: A Jane Austen Hero for the 21st Century (Nov 2005)

Mr. Darcy Has a Mullet: A Jane Austen Hero for the 21st Century

by Sarah Lyall (The New York Times, 6 november 2005)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that playing the role from 'Pride & Prejudice' is a great challenge.

ANYONE signing up to play Mr. Darcy in a film version of "Pride & Prejudice" naturally takes on a lot of baggage. First he must contend with the character himself, one of literature's great romantic heroes and a man almost too exquisitely drawn on the page to be rendered faithfully on film.

Then there are the ghosts of Darcy's past. These include the gorgeous Laurence Olivier, whose long-lashed, Byronic performance in the 1940 film opposite Greer Garson shouted "Hollywood leading man." Fifty-five years later, the gorgeous-in-a-different-way Colin Firth captivated a generation of Englishwomen when he emerged, dripping and fully dressed, from a lake in the 1995 BBC version - a moment as indelible in its way as the one in which Marlon Brando shouted "Stella!" in his undershirt.

In the latest "Pride & Prejudice," which opens on Nov. 18, Matthew MacFadyen (pronounced as it's spelled) emerges as a moodier, subtler, more tormented Mr. Darcy than either of his predecessors. He has his own wet-T-shirt-moment equivalent when, toward the end of the film, he strides romantically from the mist. But he says that - in his own mind, at least - he was not an obvious choice for the part.

"I don't feel like a romantic lead; I guess I feel more like a character actor," Mr. MacFadyen confessed recently. Interviewed at the New York Times office in London, he had a shorter, neater hairstyle than the curious mulletesque do he wears in the film, and his eyes were a piercing blue. Dressed down in jeans and a sweatshirt, possibly unshaven, he lived up to his advance billing as the epitome of unstarry casualness.

"I don't look like Mr. Darcy in my head," he went on. "If I could paint Darcy, he would be dishier, darker-haired than I am."

In tackling the part, Mr. MacFadyen, a classically trained actor who enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art just after high school, tried not to be unnerved by the specter of his predecessors, particularly Mr. Firth, universally acknowledged to be the gold standard of Darcyness until now. Nor did he read Jane Austen's novel in advance, lest it muddy his understanding of the script - as had happened to him once when he appeared in a televised version of "The Way We Live Now," by Trollope (he has since read "Pride and Prejudice"). It helped, too, for him to think of Mr. Darcy as human rather than iconic, as suffering not just from the pride of the film's title, but also from an unease and awkwardness in his own skin.

"Nobody's just arrogant," Mr. MacFadyen said. "I've met people who are embattled and dismissive, but when you get to know them, you find that they're vulnerable - that that hauteur or standoffishiness is because they're pedaling furiously underneath."

"I found it heartbreaking and sympathetic," he went on, speaking of Mr. Darcy's emotional fragility. "He's a young man who doesn't know who he is yet. Even though he's 28 and comes from this ancient family and has a huge estate, he has that adolescent quality of taking himself very seriously and being very passionate. I don't see him not caring about anybody. I think he cares very deeply. He's just locked up."

At first blush, Mr. MacFadyen, 31, seems to share Mr. Darcy's brooding inarticulateness. Silences fall while he gropes for words, starts and fails to finish sentences, lets his thoughts trail off. It's not that he doesn't like to be pinned down, exactly; it's more that he can't seem to verbalize what he truly wants to say.

With mostly television and stage experience, he is not yet schooled in the Hollywood publicity convention wherein a movie star earnestly defines his craft and describes his grueling preparation for a part.

"Everyone goes, 'How did you prepare for the role, how did you approach it?' " Mr. MacFadyen said. "Well, you turn up, learn your lines, grow some sideburns, play the scene and go home.

"It really is as simple as that," he added. "You have to think about it and everything, but you can't describe your own workings out or thinkings or wonderings."

But then he tried: "The simpler it gets, the more difficult it gets," he said, referring to film acting. "You have to learn to leave yourself alone. Trying to be very simple and truthful is hard, because the tendency is to want to color it and add on."

Mr. MacFadyen specializes in playing characters with roiling reservoirs of emotion beneath deceptively cool surfaces: a conflicted but deadly spy in "Spooks" - called "MI5" in America - on the BBC; Prince Hal in both parts of "Henry IV," opposite Michael Gambon's Falstaff at the National Theater. More recently, in the film "In My Father's Den," he played a troubled war photographer who returns home to New Zealand when his father dies, and unearths terrible, long-buried family secrets.

While many male stars turn out to be disappointingly delicate in person, Mr. MacFadyen is 6 feet 3 inches of brawn. "I wanted someone who is a proper manly man, and not just a pretty boy," said the film's director, Joe Wright, whose career to this point has been spent making well-regarded British mini-series for television.

Mr. MacFadyen also impressed Mr. Wright and Paul Webster, one of the film's producers, with his lustful chemistry with Keira Knightley, who plays Elizabeth Bennet.

"He was our first choice," Mr. Webster said, "but it's equally true that we were making a fairly expensive film by British standards, for Universal, and we owed it to them to make sure that many of the more established actors were given a shot. Once he auditioned against Keira, it was clear that there was no competition."

"Pride & Prejudice" opened here in September, throwing the new Darcy into a raging argument about whether he was as good as Mr. Firth. "The Great Darcy Debate," read the headline in The Daily Mail, with women lining up behind the two men.

The writer Tanya Gold, for one, reckoned that Mr. MacFadyen was not as cute as Mr. Firth, and that the new Darcy was too sensitive for romance (at least with her). Referring to the British hospital for the criminally insane, Ms. Gold wrote that Mr. MacFadyen "plays him like a Broadmoor patient".

Rather than being a ringing statement of emotional assurance, she added, "his 'I love you' is a wild cry for help."

But another contributor, Victoria Coren, preferred the new Darcy - "softer, gentler, with a much less imposing and dominant manner," as she put it. "Fool that I was!" she wrote. "I laugh now for that silly schoolgirl crush I nursed on Firth. MacFadyen is the man."

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, the reviewer Jenny McCartney decreed that Mr. MacFadyen "brings the necessary charisma and a new sense of hidden vulnerability to the role." His Darcy, she wrote, at first seems simply arrogant. "Upon their second meeting, however, Lizzy circles the room with Bingley's sister - throwing verbal challenges towards Darcy like firecrackers - and it becomes clear from his expression (which only the audience can see) that he is both acutely interested and endearingly unsettled."

That is the impression Mr. MacFadyen was aiming for, he said - Darcy's being thrown off balance and captivated against his will. "By the end of that scene he should be on the verge of tears of frustration, because she wins the encounter," he said. "I had this idea that he would go back to his room and lock the door and collapse in fits of hysterical laughter, he'd be so infuriated and tickled at the same time."

What of Darcy and Lizzy after the story is over? There are two endings to the film: the British version ends with a witticism by Mr. Bennet, borrowed from the novel; the American version ends with the two leads canoodling in a very un-Austenian manner. "I think it seems like a perfect marriage," Mr. MacFadyen said. "It's the classic attraction of opposites, you know - pulling and pushing at each other. And fascinated by each other."

Alas for moviegoers with crushes, Mr. MacFadyen has his own object of marital fascination: the actor Keeley Hawes, his co-star in "Spooks" and the mother of his child. But his settled home life has not helped him feel comfortable in his new role as Big Star, no more than his good reviews have.

As an example, Mr. MacFadyen described seeing Mr. Gambon - who has replaced Richard Harris in the role of Dumbledore in the "Harry Potter" films - deflect a standard question from a fan about the challenge of filling Mr. Harris's shoes. When Mr. Gambon responded that yes, it had been hard, not least because "he had a size 10, and I'm a size 13," everyone laughed appreciatively.

But Mr. MacFadyen had no such luck when he tried the same joke at the "Pride & Prejudice" premiere in London, in response to a similar question about stepping into the shoes of Mr. Firth. It fell completely flat, he said; no one so much as smiled, and the woman who had asked the question gave him a look as if to say, "You idiot."

"People like to think that actors are terribly worried about ghosts of other actors in the parts they play," Mr. MacFadyen said. "But you just have to get on with it."

Matthew MacFadyen, in Joe Wright's remake of "Pride & Prejudice," is the latest screen incarnation of Mr. Darcy. Mr. MacFadyen's Darcy is more fragile than his cinematic predecessors. "He's a young man who doesn't know who he is yet," says the actor.