'Mr Darcy? Mind your own business' (Sep 2004)

'Mr Darcy? Mind your own business'
(Filed: 07/09/2004)

Matthew Macfadyen is famed for his role in TV's Spooks and an affair with his co-star – will Jane Austen alter his image? Elizabeth Grice meets him

On his way to our interview, Matthew Macfadyen's eye was caught by a headline on the cover of Radio Times, advertising Sir Ben Kingsley's thoughts "on an actor's urgent need to communicate some essence of his soul". He cringed and hurried on.

Matthew Macfadyen
Matthew Macfadyen: his Darcy will be his own

The hype, the hubris, the possibility that a fellow actor had been made to look foolish by talking about his craft to a journalist, seem to have confirmed his worst fears about his present ordeal.

You don't catch Macfadyen wanting to communicate the essence of his soul, or indeed, anything much else. He sits in a fog of gloom, anxious not to sound like a "total, monumental, precious..." actor.

Though he'd deplore such a cheap remark, in terms of sheer tight-lipped obstinacy, he is the perfect choice for his current part - Mr Darcy in a new film version of Pride and Prejudice. The barely speaking role was made famous on television 10 years ago by Colin Firth, who generated a lot of sexual tension in a damp shirt. Firth has since refined the art of taciturnity as the wordshy painter, Vermeer, in the film of Girl with a Pearl Earring - but Macfadyen could run him a close second.

Fine as he was, Firth is now thought to have been a bit long in the tooth to play Jane Austen's youthful Darcy and the production company, Working Title, was looking for a fresher piece of male kindling to ignite Keira Knightley's passion as Elizabeth Bennet.

They auditioned more than 100 twenty-something actors, over eight months, before they found 29-year-old Macfadyen's combination of sensitivity, machismo and "ability to control the screen". He thinks the "faffing around" may partly have been because the film studios wanted a more established Hollywood actor who would sell the videos.

Some actors are said to have been wary of taking on a role Firth made so completely his own. Not so Macfadyen. "It's nonsense," he says. "You would never play Hamlet if you thought like that."

How different, then, will his interpretation be? "It's none of your business," he says, charmlessly. This is pretty rude, as well as plain wrong, but as we have barely met, it seems best to press on. "I don't know," he adds. "I've only been doing it for three days."

"When did you first read it?"

"The script?"

"The book."

"I haven't read it. It's not the book we are shooting, is it? It's the screenplay. If you've got a good screenplay, which we have, stick with that. I think people ought to do what they feel useful at the time. If I do things because I ought to do them, I switch off."

It may be discourteous to Jane Austen not to have read her novel, and it's certainly incurious, but Macfadyen's approach hasn't broken any commandment. Scarlett Johansson didn't read Tracy Chevalier's book and no one thought her performance in Pearl Earring less luminous because of it. So his defensiveness is odd.

He says he doesn't have a set way of approaching things. "Everything is particular to the part and the job in hand. How I am on the day. I couldn't possibly have a firm idea at the beginning. I make decisions late in the day - probably too late, sometimes."

His irritation at being drawn on Firth's Mr Darcy is really quite simple: he didn't see it - and he didn't think it would be "particularly useful" to see it once he'd got the part. "People always assume that actors get terribly stuck with other performances. That is not really the case."

He says it's interesting - meaning annoying - that people are so proprietorial about the BBC version, even though it was, he hears, "fantastically good". Flattering as it was to begin with, Colin Firth was stuck with the Darcy "bodice-loosening" nonsense for years, long after he had moved on. Does he fear that the same might happen to him?

"No," he says. "I don't think it will happen, for one thing. I would worry if I was offered James Bond."

I think we would all worry.

Perhaps the problem for Macfadyen is that the interest in his quite impressive television career - the Balkans drama Warriors; Daniel in Perfect Strangers alongside Michael Gambon, Lindsay Duncan and Timothy Spall; Felix Carbury in The Way We Live Now, and the MI5 drama, Spooks - has been temporarily diverted by gossip about his private life and it is making him bearish.

On the set of Spooks, he fell in love with his co-star Keeley Hawes (of Tipping the Velvet fame), who had been married for only five months and had a young son. It was messy for a while - "Much harder for her than for me," he says - and they were shocked to find themselves making newspaper headlines.

"It was new for both of us. You just never think you are going to be on the cover of some s--- magazine. You get angry and then you just let go. It was all rubbish, anyway. But it does take the shine off things a little bit. When a couple get together in those circumstances, I think there is a certain expectation that it will go wrong. People love that aspect of it. They are waiting for the next one."

They are expecting a baby in December and it's exciting. He's glad there's no immediate work after the third episode of Spooks because he wants to be on hand. He assumes he will be an involved father. And yes, he has had some useful practical experience, looking after Keeley's four-year-old son, Myles, so "it's not total fear of the unknown".

He knows life will never be the same again and that's just fine. "I can't wait," he says. "I feel like the time is right. I feel good about it."

You wouldn't call the conversation flowing, but there are little volleys of information, no doubt none of my business, that suggest Macfadyen is responding to the challenge of paternity like any other prospective first-time father: in a daze of pleasurable anticipation, but not wanting to seem soppy. And Keeley? "She is five months pregnant, so she is sort of blooming. She is also utterly beautiful."

Will they marry? "Next question."

After he has gone, I buy the Radio Times to see what it is Macfadyen has to fear from making a Faustian pact to publicise his current piece of work. Kingsley, revered actor though he is, does come across as insufferably pretentious. But, in trying to avoid the same trap, most of the time Macfadyen comes across as just grumpy and uptight. He can't bear to appear silly and seems to think that confessing enthusiasm of any kind is going to make him sound a prat.

When he was a teenager, he devoured actors' biographies and the Rada section of his copy of Kenneth Branagh's book Beginnings was dogeared within a week. When he met Branagh recently for a script reading, he wanted to tell him how inspirational it had been. But he said nothing. "I would have felt such a dork, you know."