Matthew Macfadyen - Spooks (Jun 2003)

Sunday Herald, 1st June, 2003, by Laura Barton


In the best British cliffhanger since Michael Caine said 'Hold on lads, I've got an idea', Matthew Macfadyen was left waiting to see if his girlfriend would be killed in the BBC drama Spooks. Off-screen he only has to save his real-life girlfriend from the paparazzi, he tells Laura Barton

The smell of breakfast sausages hangs limply over the mid-morning clutter of the Barbican Thistle Hotel. There is a scraping of china, a rattling of coffee cups and the listless thrum of distant hoovering. It is ten minutes past ten when, into the gloom of the foyer, strides a slightly befuddled looking Matthew Macfadyen. He is tall and dishevelled, with a pair of shades pushed absent-mindedly on to his head.

He looks bewildered.

Macfadyen is barely recognisable from the clean-cut, well-laundered Tom Quinn, his character in the BBC spy drama Spooks. This morning he looks a little rough around the edges, his beard has sneaked beyond the realms of designer stubble and he carries the slightly startled expression of one who has recently been wrestled from his bed.

The last time we saw Matthew Macfadyen it was in the final episode of Spooks, his nose pressed anxiously against his living room window, his on-screen girlfriend trapped inside, on the brink of a bomb exploding in his house. It was the kind of deliciously unfeasible cliffhanger one had come to expect of the programme and one that guarantees, that when the next series appears on our screens shortly, its loyal following will be watching avidly.

Today he orders a double espresso and asks that we move tables so that he can 'have a ciggie'. Macfadyen finished filming the second series of Spooks two weeks ago and ever since then he has been sleeping 12 hours a night. Thick, fudgey sleep he can't heave himself out of in the morning. His exhaustion is quite understandable -- they had, after all, been filming solidly for seven months, working 11-hour days. 'But it was good fun ...' he says. 'It was great fun ... It was ...' And then his words fall away unexpectedly, like a docked tail. In fact his sentences do this a lot, sort of dancing off into the ether, with little high kicks of 'great' and 'fun' and 'lovely'.

But he has enjoyed the making of this second series more than the first, when everyone was anxious about ratings and TV reviewers. 'But it did really well,' he says. 'After the first episode they phoned me up and said 'We've got 41 per cent of the share!' and I was like 'Great!' but I didn't know what it meant. I was, 'Ooh, only 41 per cent? What? Is that good?''

He says the writing in the second series is much more relaxed. 'The whole thing's much more confident. The first series I was absolutely terrified, because I'd never been in a series before. I'd never played a character where he just sort of goes on forever. I'd always played characters where you can see,' he draws a great curve in the air, 'the arc, see the journey'.

He was wooed by the quality of the scripts and by the simple fact that he thought it would be 'great fun playing a spy'. At the audition they asked him what he thought of the character Tom. Macfadyen pauses, draws on his cigarette, 'And he is what he does, y'know,' he says, vaguely, blowing out a steady stream of smoke. 'Anyone could play him. He's kind of a job man. So er ... yeah, great ... it was really good ...'

He's always been one for spy novels and his favourite writer is John le Carré. 'And that was one of the reasons I went for it,' he says. In preparation for the series the cast met two real ex-spies, one from MI5 and one from the CIA. 'They were kind of how I imagined them to be. Well, I don't know how I imagined them to be,' he says, again meandering off into vagueness.

'They were kind of very ... this MI5 guy was very kind of tall. I can't really remember what he looked like, he was the sort of face you'd forget. Just kind of a grey man. A nice man though. They took us to this spies club. It was this special members club in West London, where there were a lot of Russians and Americans. They all kind of conformed to their national stereotypes, the Americans for instance were all very loud, and the Russians were all very little and serious and they told us [adopts accent of sceptical duck-feeding Russian spy] 'You know your series will not work'.' And the Brits? 'They were all kind of twinkly, you know? Drinking gin and tonic.'

For want of any other current spy dramas to discuss, we talk about 24. Macfadyen is a big fan. 'Well 24's like ...' his hand hovers high above the table. 'It's like an elder brother or something. My girlfriend bought me the box set for Christmas and I watched it, episode after episode into the night. It's terrible. There's always such a hook at the end, so you have to watch the next one. The stakes are always through the roof, it's perfect. And the plot is ...' he chuckles, 'really quite ludicrous!'

I nod. 'Especially now they've got the cougar in there,' I say. He laughs again, a big blurted, Ha! 'Well, I haven't watched the second series yet ... The cougar? Ha Ha Ha! Yeah, yeah the killer octopus ...'

He doesn't know what he'll do next, but he'd like to take a holiday. 'Somewhere hot. And quite close. Not Hong Kong. Not South East Asia.' I suggest he might also like to steer clear of Indonesia at the moment. 'Actually, I lived in Indonesia for a time,' he announces, lighting up another cigarette. 'Yeah, I lived in Jakarta for a few years -- my dad worked for an oil company.' But Macfadyen was born in Glasgow, wasn't he?

'No. No. I don't know where that came from. I was born in Norfolk,' he laughs a little and looks a tad bemused. Every single interview I have read in preparation for this meeting has mentioned, if only in passing, that Macfadyen was born in Glasgow. I feel a little cheated. 'We did live in Scotland for a while -- Aberdeen and Dundee,' he offers, by way of consolation. I ask him precisely how many Dundee cakes he has eaten in his 28 years. He laughs, and smoke blows out of his nose. 'What I do remember is my teacher at school, I went to Robert Gordon. Her name was Mrs Wire. It was the equivalent of someone being called Mrs Strict or Mrs Knife or something. She scared the life out of me. We used to sit there drinking our milk, our little lips trembling.'

Today Macfadyen lives in London, ten minutes from the hotel we are sitting in. Having moved around a lot as a child and then been on three successive RSC tours straight out of drama school, he has kind of shaken the travel bug. His first tour was with Cheek By Jowl, playing Antonio in an exceedingly muscular version of the Duchess of Malfi, directed by Declan Donnellan. He couldn't believe it when he got the part fresh out of RADA.

'I mean, some people went straight into jobs, but the people you thought were going to go straight into jobs didn't.' And was he not one of the obvious candidates? 'I dunno really. I'm not sure ...'

He becomes a little bashful and changes the subject awkwardly.

'I couldn't imagine working with a better theatre director then Declan. I shouldn't say that, should I? But he understands actors. With Cheek By Jowl there's a lot of ... showmanship. Sometimes they're overstylised as shows. But that works. They're great. I also did Much Ado with them.'

Is it likely he will return to the theatre soon? 'I'll wait and see,' he says. 'But at the moment I miss theatre. Oh God yeah.'

He mentions again the need for a break. Time off to sleep, read, do nothing, before the next role comes along. 'I haven't got a plan, but I really don't feel jittery about it. I need a break,' he says, yet again.

'I really feel I need a break.' The last time he had any time off was after The Project, Leigh Jackson's drama about New Labour's rise to power after 18 years of Conservative rule. It followed the paths of four Manchester University graduates who all become embroiled in the election fever -- Macfadyen's character, Paul, for example, finds employment as a press officer for the Labour party, helping to propel the party to power in 1997. But Jackson's drama charted the disillusionment of Labour's bright young things as, in the aftermath of the landslide victory, they are forced to abandon their original ideals in favour of the party whip and, in Paul's case, the pressures of spin doctoring.

Despite The Project's impeccable credentials, and the fact that the BBC launched the drama with a great deal of fanfare, it notched up viewing figures of just three million. 'I felt a bit bad for it,' says Macfadyen.

'I know that a lot of people thought it didn't work. I think people expected it to be this big, searing, exposé of New Labour. I think it maybe ... it just was what it was.'

He says he'd like to see it again now, 'because when it first came out I couldn't really watch it. It was too close.' He still finds the story quite enthralling, 'all those people, very bright and very young and they were in Downing Street. It must have been incredible. They must've gone in there thinking they could change things ... And they can't.'

But he says he doesn't know much about politics, and that really, like most of his generation, he can't conjur up any great interest in the subject. He read George Monbiot's book and Stupid White Men and found them 'kind of scary' but he couldn't help feeling it was all quite removed from his own life.

However, The Project allowed Macfadyen to work again with Jackson, who died earlier this year. He had worked on one of his previous dramas, Warriors, playing a Scouse squaddie. When it came to The Project, Jackson wrote a part specifically for Macfadyen. 'It was just a delight to work with him,' he says of Jackson.

Macfadyen came to the public's attention playing Hareton Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. However his first TV role was in a sitcom, Holding The Baby, in which he played an Australian in a supermarket. 'My scene was with Sally Phillips,' he says, laughing. 'And I can't remember any of my lines.'
Since then there have been film roles too; as Daniel in Stephen Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers, as Nigel in Maybe Baby, and as Cave in Enigma, where he met Kate Winslet, whom he describes as 'Nice. Very earnest,' and got to wear a tremendous amount of stage make-up.

'But I try to avoid being typecast,' he says. 'You get offered roles that are like what you've just played. But it's not as interesting to do that.'

He was always auditioning for school plays as a child, 'but quietly. I'm quite a placid boy, really,' he says. 'At boarding school, I auditioned and auditioned but I got knocked back and knocked back,' he says. 'In Jakarta they did Joseph And The Technicolour Dreamcoat. And I wanted to be Joseph. I didn't tell anyone about the audition. I didn't get the part. And I went quiet, for about three days. I wasn't sulking. My mum tells me I just went very quiet.'

Why didn't he get it? 'I don't know! I couldn't sing ...' His mother was a drama teacher and his father was a keen follower of amateur dramatics. 'I think my mother encouraged me to do acting, because she could see I loved it. But she wasn't Mrs Worthington. I think when you see someone enjoying something, you just want to encourage them.'

When it came to auditioning for Rada he found he had to sing again. 'I did a Queen song. But it was an old one. Um ... Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon.'

And did he have the full bouffant rock hair for it? 'No, no. I just stood there and sang it with my hands behind my back.'

I ask him what his first part was in a school play. 'Um ... My first major role ... I played Caspar, one of the kings in the nativity play,' he says, proudly. 'And I guess it all kind of went from there ...' We discuss the fact that playing a king in the nativity trumps playing, for example, Joseph, or a shepherd, because you get to wear a crown, and usually some kind of ermine-style cape. 'Yeah, yeah, it's the status thing at that age,' he says wryly. 'The kings are the best parts. Unless you played Jesus. But I didn't want to play Jesus.'

He's vague about what he does when he's not acting. 'Reading,' he says, finally. 'I read a lot actually. I've just finished reading The Plague. And before that I read an old Ian McEwan one. I love Paul Auster as well. I read one, and then devoured the rest. I liked it so much I had to ration myself.

The last time he went to the cinema it was to see the Lord Of The Rings. 'Not the last one, the one before. But there was a bomb-scare halfway through and they had to evacuate the cinema.'

Famously, on the set of Spooks, Macfadyen began a relationship with his co-star Keeley Hawes. Unfortunately, Hawes was married with a child at the time. She left her husband and the tabloid gossip columns had a field day, snapping the dazzlingly attractive couple every time they popped out for a pint down the local or a stroll in the park.

'Can I ask you about your girlfriend?' I ask, tentatively. 'I'd rather not,' he says, coyly, but smiles sweetly and adds: 'But it's better. It's good.' The tabloids have eased off a little now, he says.

At first they'd find pictures of themselves in the papers and couldn't recall anything, not a flashbulb or a member of the paparazzi skulking behind a bush, nothing. He says it's funny when he sees himself in pictures in the paper, or on the television -- he doesn't look how he imagines himself to look. He has in his mind the character of Tom, as this well-chiselled, immaculate member of the secret service, but when he watches the programme he is distracted by what he describes as his 'plump face'.

He looks a little frustrated by this, 'If I could paint him, I know I could show exactly how he'd look.' Outside, in the sunshine of a Wednesday morning, he talks about the merits of the local public houses and how very much he's enjoying his time off. Then, with a warm shake of the hand he's off, down the street, ambling through the soft morning air back towards bed, and sleep.

Sunday Herald