Upfront with Matthew Macfadyen (Apr 2004)

Matthew MacFadyen by Phillip Matthews

Last September, British actor Matthew MacFadyen was named in Variety magazine’s annual “ones to watch” list, alongside Bend It Like Beckham star Parminder Nagra. A review of the TV series Spooks – in which MacFadyen plays MI5 agent Tom Quinn – in the same magazine compared him to John Cusack: “an appealing, capable actor … wry, smart and attractive, but not too good looking”. Nice, serious praise. So, it may seem somewhat inexplicable that, while all this fuss was being made of him, MacFadyen was preparing to come to New Zealand to shoot a low-budget movie called In My Father’s Den. In this adaptation of a Maurice Gee novel, MacFadyen plays Paul, a photojournalist who returns home – to Otago, in fact – after years away. Although Otago was played by Otago, interiors were filmed in West Auckland, where the Listener met him one afternoon as the shoot was coming to an end.

So, who is this Paul? He left the South Island when he was 16 or 17. He went to Wellington and then disappeared to Europe, fell into journalism and conflict reporting. He doesn’t come back until he’s about 33, 34. He comes back on the occasion of his father’s death. He’s a … troubled man. I think he’s … it’s difficult. Some terrible things happen.

Have you read the book? No.

Me neither, but apparently there’s a lot about the story that we shouldn’t reveal. It operates on a lot of different levels. It’s a South Island murder mystery on one level. It’s a thriller. It’s also a very … it’s a portrait of a family. A character-driven, quiet piece. It was the best script I’d read in ages and ages. I read it in one sitting in the bath. Which is the acid test, really. Sometimes it feels like terrible hard work. It was a fabulous part, so in a way, it was a no-brainer. I met the director, Brad McGann, a couple of times in London. There was a long tussle about whether I’d get the part. The only drawback has been … my girlie. She couldn’t come, she was working. So I’ll go back and … reintroduce myself.

Are there any advantages to being down here? It’s nice, it’s lovely. I’ve been doing this show in the UK called Spooks. It’s popular and whenever you’re on the telly, certainly in London, the opportunities to be anonymous disappear a little bit.

Describe Spooks for us. It’s a show about the MI5. We’re saving the world every week. It’s partly a bit hokey, but it’s good fun. It was influenced by 24. It’s topical. It did well because it’s not another cop show. It’s a different take on it – we’re charging around in designer clothes fighting terrorists. I’m very serious in it. I notice that I don’t smile very much.

In My Father’s Den doesn’t look like a sitcom, either. In the Gee novel, the setting is West Auckland in the 60s, but West Auckland is no longer that rural – hence the shift to Otago. Could you see its beautiful, ominous scenery from that bath in London? It was great that we shot the South Island stuff first. We shot there for three weeks. I got an idea of the landscape. And a weird claustrophobia, too: the small town with mountains around it. Small towns are more intimidating than big cities, in a way.

Brad was talking about the man alone thing, too, which I didn’t know … The New Zealand idea of the stoic man. There is some of that with Paul. He’s very good at thinking without feeling. Which is part of why he does what he does and why he fell into it. He’s protected by the lens.

All this sounds very specific to New Zealand: a New Zealand consciousness. As the film is co-produced with British partners, how do you think it will translate in the UK? It’s difficult to know. You lose your objectivity after a while. But I hope it does well. It’s just a fabulous story. I don’t think it will hurt that it’s set in New Zealand. Certainly friends of mine are tired of the popcorn films. Everyone’s looking for the next P T Anderson, you know what I mean?

Certainly do. You were also in the WWII drama Enigma, but I can’t place you. Were you one of the Bletchley Park guys? No, I wasn’t a code-breaker. I was a naval officer who’d been badly burnt. I had a lot of facial scarring. There’s a funny story to that: Brad’s sister saw Enigma and rang Brad, saying, “I’ve found Paul!” Which is bizarre to me, because I looked about 60. I had four hours of makeup and an eyepatch.

So, how is the UK industry at the moment? What kind of product is being made? There isn’t a lot, really.

For a while, it was all idiotic British gangster films, in the wake of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Thankfully, that seems to have finished. There’s only a certain amount … A lot of that was bollocks. There are an awful lot of scripts that you read, where they’ve been green-lit and you can’t believe how … it’s just dross. Unless you’re talking about directors such as Mike Leigh or Michael Winterbottom, there isn’t much good stuff going on. I think that TV in the UK can be fabulous, though. Some actors feel snobbish about TV, but the writing is better, that’s it. There are also a lot of Brits in LA trying to bag a movie. It’s Brit Central.

You must get more attention in LA now, on the back of that Variety notice? I went to LA to publicise Spooks, but that Variety thing hadn’t come out. I did get a couple of scripts. One was a sub-Top Gun thing. But I can’t take myself seriously with things like that, because: a) I’m not going to get it, and b) it’s shite.

There’s also this terrible tendency to cast British actors as villains: Alan Rickman, Jeremy Northam. Oh yeah, it’s nonsense.

So, would you work out of LA? I’d love to if it was something good. But the idea of going there and hanging out and being available on the back of nothing – I’d upset myself. I’d get lonely. I’d rather stay at home and do a play or some telly.

Speaking of plays, this isn’t your first trip to New Zealand, is it? I was here with a Royal Shakespeare Company tour in 1997. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was Demetrius. Never knowingly underplayed, especially when you’ve done 360 shows …

It became increasingly over the top as it went on? Just to make it interesting. It was ridiculous. Colin Moy, my co-star in In My Father’s Den, saw that and told me that it was crap. I said, “I know!” It was very tired.

It went to Auckland and Wellington. It was the end of a five-month stint, after Australia, Hong Kong and Japan. I did three world tours when I left drama school, two with a company called Cheek by Jowl and one with the RSC. With Cheek by Jowl, I did The Duchess of Malfi and Much Ado About Nothing. They’re a fabulous company. They’re doing Othello.

I miss theatre now. I haven’t done a play for a couple of years. But I couldn’t do another world tour. I’m getting on now. I’m the grand old age of 29.