On Acting (May 2008)

Matthew Macfadyen: 'Sometimes it's just out of your control'

One medium is not that different to another, but Matthew Macfadyen admits that sometimes you just have to leap right in

Acting, on film as on stage, is a mixture of guesswork, experience, and just jumping in and hoping it works. There's surprisingly little difference between the mediums; in some ways I'd say there's the same kind of difference between acting on film and acting on the stage as there is between being on stage at the Globe or the Olivier, and being on at the Finborough [ground-breaking and tiny theatre in Earl's Court, London]. You do have to bear the medium in mind - you've got to remember with film, for example, that you're going to be on 40-foot-high cinema screens. But if I walk across a stage I'm not going to walk in a different way to the way I walk on screen.

I've got no set pattern in the way I approach a part; I try to keep a fairly loose approach to it. I start with the script; I use my imagination and try to be as open as possible. Some actors get very dogmatic about their research, or are much more methodical: they go to Oslo if they're going to play someone Norwegian. But that's not really the way I do it. Perhaps it's laziness, but I do what I fancy; sometimes I work really hard in preparation for a part, and sometimes I just go with it.

I always think that a lot of stuff is going on when I'm not actually thinking about it - when I'm making tea or going into town. I like the idea of leaving some of it up to my subconscious, although obviously there are moments that don't quite work - when you've got to drive a tank, say, or play the saxophone.

When it comes to getting hold of the emotions of the character, I think of what Declan Donellan, a director who has been a great influence on me, used to say, that there was no use trying to wear yourself out creating emotions because what people in real life do is react to other people around them; they don't walk around summoning up states of anger or fear. There's a thing that happens in soap operas, where someone is getting bad news on the phone and they burst into tears. But that never happens in real life. In real life you don't know how you feel, you're trying to make sense of what you've just heard, trying to work out how to react. As an actor you have to make sure you are active, and reacting; you have to be doing something to somebody else all the time. It's not about you, it's about something outside you. It's terribly releasing; you stop being conscious of what you're doing. But it's very difficult to get to that point sometimes.

I suppose that is one advantage film has over theatre: on film the audience is looking in through a smaller window and you can do a bit less to allow them in. When you're in a theatre you've got a huge window and you have to work a bit harder to let them in. But when a camera is focused on just your eyes and face, you don't have to do anything, you can just let it happen somehow.

It can be a little unpredictable. I've been moved to tears by close-ups where, quite possibly, the actor has been thinking about their shopping list. Sometimes you watch scenes you thought you were good in, and they're rubbish. Other times you watch something where you were actually briefly distracted, and it looks perfect. The thing about film is that it's out of your control: you do your bit and then months later you see it all cut together and it can be utterly different to what you expected.

Shakespeare is a little bit different to everything else: it's so front-foot, so active. You can't hang around with Shakespeare, it's so rich, and you've got to be quite brave. You've got to go for it, you can't just dip a toe in. But once you've jumped in, it's terribly rewarding. There's nothing quite like it.

I don't have a plan really. I never know what's coming my way. I love doing all mediums, and the funny thing is that whatever medium I'm working in at the time is usually the one I love most.

• Matthew Macfadyen's forth-coming films include Enid Blyton

The Guardian, Saturday 9 May 2009