The History Boy (Apr 2005)

Times Magazine - Hannah Betts - 30 April 2005

The History Boy
Having abandoned his career as a TV spook, Matthew Macfadyen has turned his talents to more serious matters. Next week he'll be on stage as Henry IV, then he'll be setting hearts aflutter as the big screen's new Darcy.

"Sweet" is the last way any man would want to be described, but it is difficult to get away from the term with Matthew Macfadyen . At 31, he is younger in the flesh than he appeared as Tom Quinn, his clenched alter ego in MIS thriller Spooks. His hair sticks up in great urchin tufts. He is softly and rather beautifully spoken, earnest, but with a great bark of a laugh. The words "no!" and "yes!" pepper his speech as he endeavours to contain his many enthusiasms.

As both an ecstatic new father and as Prince Hal in the National Theatre's Henry IV Part I and Part II, Macfadyen has every reason to be enthused, but this was far from the case a couple of years ago, when the collision of his personal and professional lives cast a tabloid-shaped shadow over his life. After he and his (then married) Spooks co-star Keeley Hawes fell in love, they were hounded by the paparazzi, even when the actress was heavily pregnant. "I'm sure it happens all the time if you're on a soap or whatever;' he reflects. "But we hadn't been through anything like that. It was terrible for Keeley and for Spencer, her ex-husband:' The actors married before Christmas and his relief at getting the issue done and dusted is palpable. "We all get on well. It's all fine. It's all nice."

Also rather nice is Macfadyen's return to the role of Shakespearean leading man, which may come as a surprise to those who only know him through his TV work: in Poliakoff's Perfect Strangers, as Felix Carbury in Andrew Davies's The Way We Live Now, then Spooks. But his acting career began on stage a decade ago with Declan Donnellan's audacious Cheek by Jowl company. Indeed, his 21st birthday was celebrated playing Antonio in The Duchess of Main, a perfomance that remains etched in the memory. Hal, meanwhile, is a role that will confirm Macfadyen as one of the most compelling actors of his generation. ITV's South Bank Show has deemed it important enough to broadcast, tomorrow night, a documentary of director Nicholas Hytner rehearsing the cast.

An early pointer to Macfadyen's stage prowess came in his being accepted into RADA at 17 - most successful applicants are in their mid-twenties. "I didn't really tell anybody," he confides. "I kept getting recalls, then I got in and it was blissful. You think: 'Well, that's my life sorted.' I don't think any thrill has matched it since." Was he mothered by his fellow students? "One girl, when we went to the pub on the first day, said: 'You shouldn't be drinking, should you, sweet?' and I thought" - he growls surlily - '''F*** off!'"

Sitting before me at the National, he could not be more charming, yet trawl through his press cuttings and a certain froideur is in evidence: the occasional "next question" and more than one "no comment". He tells me: "It's strange. You know those people who look at you as if they've got you worked out and you think, 'I'm going to throw myself on to the railings in a minute if you don't shut up.' It's cobblers." Far from being a tight-lipped individual, his emotions appear engagingly near the surface. Remembering one nightmare interview, he looks suddenly flushed, rheumy-eyed, stricken. But at the mention of his four-month-old daughter Maggie, his face immediately relinquishes all tension. I remark that he looks unusually rested for a new parent. "Yes! She's a sleeping baby! She sleeps all the way through the night and has done since she was about nine weeks old. It's gross, really. She's just really, really lovely." Although, as he observes, her name failed to meet with universal approval. "A lot of people said, 'Is that what you're really going to call her?' Even the midwife said, 'It's still Maggie, is it?' And we went, 'Yeah.'

The exuberance about his new role is of a more rumbustious quality. "The plays are so dramatically different," he enthuses. "The first is so full of excitement and joie de vivre. And then the second play feels very dark: Falstaff's dying, the King is dying, and Hal can't do what he did before. He can't be that libertine because he knows he has to turn into the nice little fascist that is Henry V. It's that young man's thing. Not being able to be who you're supposed to be. I guess it's the condition of being a prince. "Apparently the first part was one of Shakespeare's most popular plays; the second wasn't as popular, but is kind of richer. Nick [Hytner] compared them to the Godfather films: The Godfather stands alone; Part II isn't a continuation, it's totally different - darker, more complex." The Empire Strikes Back to Part I's Star Wars? He booms with laughter. "Yes, yes! There's a thesis in there."

Hal bucks the trend of Macfadyen characters: reserved, stoical types - such as Darcy in the forthcoming Pride and Prejudice film whose reticence comes under attack, typically by women. Does he resent being typecast? "No. But I'm wary of roles like Mr Darcy. There's a lack of imagination sometimes." Macfadyen was keen to reveal the youthfulness in Austen's hero, too often associated with stuffed-shirt middle age. "I think he's still grieving for his parents, has this huge responsibility and doesn't know who he is. What's that lovely line? 'I do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have never met before.''' As he delivers the words, his posture becomes rigid, more constipated. "He's saying that to Lizzie, and it's such a huge admission. It's not disdain or aloofness - he just can't. He's heartbreaking, Darcy, heartbreaking." There was some hysteria among Austen fans when it was revealed he hadn't read the book before shooting. (He has since, and adored it, but is yet to see the BBC serial that made a sex symbol of Colin Firth.) "The point is to do exactly what you like as an actor. There should never be any dogma about that whole research thing."

On the matter of Macfadyen's own sex appeal, does the actor get mobbed by ardent fans? He is mortified: "No. No way. No, no, no! I'd tell you. I really would. I don't. No. Not at all." I explain that many of my female acquaintances expressed envy at my meeting him. He yelps with mirth. "Right. Hmmn. I can't get a handle on it. Besides," he adds, "I don't think I look particularly attractive as Darcy." It's true that his hair was swept into a curiously Neanderthal mullet, but still, it proved good enough for Keira Knightley's Lizzie ; The movie will be released in September.

Another, the awardwinning In My Father's Den, will appear in June. ("I didn't mind my hair in that," he grins. ) Beautifully accomplished and taut as a wire, this New Zealand thriller is built on powerful performances from Macfadyen and his co-star, Emily Barclay . The role of disillusioned war correspondent Paul Prior is vintage Macfadyen territory - wounded, misunderstood, articulate and inarticulate in equal measure.

Recently named as one of Variety's "Ten Actors to Watch", Macfadyen is yet to be sucked into Hollywood. Would he consider a part in a vast, silly blockbuster? "Er, yeah, I guess. But I don't get excited by the whole zhooshiness factor. I'm sure people will say, 'Bollocks, of course you do,' but I don't. And that's why the theatre's so great, because it's them and us and a curtain not about how adroitly you talk to a journalist or how you wear your clothes. "I'd love to play Hamlet, I'd love to play Richard II. Apart from earning an awful lot of money, why would you want to go to LA and try to bag a film regardless of how crap it is, when you could be struggling with such a challenge? It's bullshit." Perhaps the occasional foray to finance further theatrical exploits? "Bliss. Bliss." Bliss would seem to be the operative word. Unlike the troubled characters he plays, the Macfadyen cup runneth over. "It's a nice time now," he admits. "It really is a nice time."