Guardian Interview for Private Lives (Feb 2010)

A brand new interview with Matthew Macfadyen has just been published for The Guardian and can be found online HERE.

Photo by Linda Nylind

Matthew Macfadyen: 'I do have a good eye'

After playing Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Matthew Macfadyen decided to start being fussy about roles. Harriet Lane hears how all those months of turning down scripts finally paid off

    * Harriet Lane
    *, Wednesday 17 February 2010 21.30 GMT
The voice of Harrods … Matthew Macfadyen. Photograph: Linda Nylind

I hear Matthew Macfadyen long ­before I see him. Deep, rich, sonorous­, his voice fills the ­corridor before the lift doors have fully opened, as distinctive and as old-fashioned as cigar smoke. Naturally­, he's much in demand when it comes to high-end car ads. No commercial­ break is complete without Macfadyen banging on luxuriously about diesel particulate filters or torques­ or Nordic oak trims. "Wolf from the door," he says, only a little sheepishly, in his defence. He does Benylin­, too, and Centerparcs, and Smirnoff, and the Harrods sale. In fact, he's the voice of the Harrods tannoy. "Ladies and gentlemen, we'd like to take the opportunity to remind you that tonight the store closes at eight o'clock . . ." "If you don't have a ­Harrods reward card . . ."

But there's something unassuming about his appearance – that pliable, vaguely melancholy face, the dark overcoat with the collar up, the satchel strap across his chest – that means you'd probably miss him in a crowd. He's about to star in Noël Coward's Private Lives, with Kim Cattrall, under the direction of Richard Eyre. It's a role that, for rehearsals, requires a commute from west London to a studio in the East End; apparently, he attracts no ­attention on the tube. "It must be odd, being recognisable. I would hate to lose that anonymity. It happened for a while with Spooks. No one notices me now." That's the way he likes it.

For a while, Macfadyen, born in Norfolk, ran the risk of having a very different sort of career. After boarding school, Rada and several productions with the Cheek by Jowl troupe, he landed the role of MI5 section chief Tom Quinn in the first two series of Spooks, and started popping up in the red-tops and weekly gossip mags. Initially, this was due to the success of a show that, with its super-slick production­ values and rococo plotlines, quickly became a BBC cash cow. But when his co-star Keeley Hawes left her new husband for him, Macfadyen found himself famous for other, more complicated reasons (they've since married and have two children, Maggie and Ralph). And then Joe Wright cast him opposite Keira Knightley in 2005's Pride and Prejudice.

In an unguarded moment, Macfadyen­ calls it "the curse of Mr Darcy". He and Colin Firth met for the first time recently and had a good laugh about the syndrome. But it wasn't so funny right afterwards, when the only scripts coming his way were endless crappy romcoms. Spooks had already given him a sense of what it might feel like to end up stuck in one kind of role. "During those two series, I felt myself getting very sluggish and fed up, doing one character for so long. It felt wrong. After Darcy, I thought, 'No, I'm going to be fussy.' So I didn't do anything for six months, just sat around getting ­fatter and fatter, feeling grumpy, getting on my wife's nerves, and thinking, 'Oh no, I've missed the boat.' It might have been different if a well-written romcom had come along, but it didn't."

Eventually, other sorts of scripts started to trickle in, and a rather more interesting career took shape – the career of a character actor, rather than your garden-variety romantic lead. "I went through a stage [after Pride and Prejudice] of thinking, 'Hmm, maybe I'll only do films now', but in many ways TV here is fantastic: there's less pressure, you can take bigger risks, there are fewer people controlling it. Some British actors are snobby about telly, and I don't understand that."

The actors he particularly rates, such as Michael Gambon and Jim Broadbent, have no such hangups. Like them, Macfadyen has become one of those rare, handy people whose name tends to be a reliable indicator of a quality script. He looks chuffed that I've noticed this. "I think I do have a good eye. It's quite liberating, being in a position to read a script and say, 'No.' It's really the only power you have, as an actor." If he is attached to a TV project, the chances are that it'll be worth watching. Think of the luckless first Mr Blyton in Enid, the controlling husband in Criminal Justice 2, the convicted child-sex offender trying to do the right thing in Secret Life. ­Macfadyen seems to have a talent for finding the "edgier, interesting stuff", the nuances in awkward characters.

"Nobody's really unsympathetic, I think. People do good and bad things. If a character's totally unsympathetic, they're not real and I'm not interested. Even the real monsters have to have a spark of something you can relate to."

The reverse is true, too. Private Lives' Elyot and Amanda (the exes who find themselves honeymooning with new spouses in adjacent hotel suites) may sparkle and glitter but, according to Macfadyen, "they aren't terribly sympathetic. They're moneyed, they float around, pop off skiing, this and that. In many ways," he says, warming to his theme, "Elyot is a shit. I've sort of decided he's a hedge-fund manager." But their wit makes them appealing. Again, it's all in the script.

"Apart from being hilarious and perceptive and all the rest of it, it's so beautifully written that when we're [doing it right], it's very rewarding, because­ it looks after you. It's like a piece of music, and if you get all the notes you think, 'Woo-hoo, this is it.' It's like stepping on a moving walkway. And if you don't, it's very unforgiving, like you're knocking into something." He's deftly gallant about the fact that Cattrall is 53 to his 35: "She obviously doesn't look her age, and I tend to play above my age – so we meet in the middle."

When I ask him to tell me something unexpected about Cattrall, he pulls all sorts of agonised faces, before finally saying simply: "I'm not au fait with Sex and the City, but I can see she has the personality to deal with something that big."

Light years away from Private Lives is the Russell Crowe vehicle Robin Hood, due this summer, in which Macfadyen plays the Sheriff of Nottingham. "I didn't have much to do with Russell Crowe," he says. "He has a terrible reputation, but I thought he was rather sweet." The usual rules simply didn't apply to this behemoth, it seems. "People, trucks, equipment, 60 horses, they built a village – it was like an army going­ to war."

Robin Hood with Ridley Scott

Macfadyen said yes, despite originally having only four scenes. "I thought, 'Well, it's Ridley Scott. It'll take a few days, and it'll be fun.' But in a film like that, there's no real script; it just disintegrates after a while, new pages just keep coming, there are teams of writers going, 'What if Robin . . . ?' Anyway, at first I was killed, stabbed by Cate Blanchett. Then new pages came, pink pages, and I wasn't stabbed by her any more – I was killed by Mark Strong. Then new pages, and it was 'unnamed thug with crossbow'."

At this point, Macfadyen had yet to do any acting. When he was finally summoned on set, he found himself glued into "this ridiculous beard and wig. I looked like a demented Jesus. I thought, 'I haven't got much to do. I'll just make it quite big.' And Ridley liked it, so he kept me alive." He makes a modest sort of face, pleased at having earned this stay of execution.

Macfadyen does seem content with his lot. "I think it sits quite happily with me, the condition of being an actor," he says. "I see some people ­getting quite eaten up with it, with the insecurities. There are times when I long for continuity and stability, but I also love the idea of not knowing what I'll be doing next – or even if I'm going to work. The security comes, as an actor, in knowing that you're not in control. If you try to control your career, or how people perceive you, you'll make yourself unhappy, because life doesn't work like that. So much is luck. It's much better to let yourself off, to think, 'There's nothing I can do.' You walk into a room for a meeting, and it's out of your hands. It'll always be like that – until I can't remember the lines."

Guardian Interview for Private Lives (Feb 2010)