Film Ireland Interview Full (Nov 2006)

My Film Ireland magazine arrived today and I have scanned in the 3 interview pages.(Edit the full transcription of all 3 pages is below. Be sure to click on read more to see the full article! )

Acting HolyMiddletown

Film Ireland


Although hesitant when discussing acting, his style, or his starring role in Brian Kirk’s Middletown, Matthew Macfayden [sic] still has a lot to say to Sheena Sweeney.


The first thing that springs to mind before meeting Matthew Macfadyen is what a good actor he is. His breakout role came when he played Agent Tom Quinn in the tv series Spooks, and later when New Zealander Brad McGann cast him as a weary war photographer alienated from his family in In My Father’s Den. Macfayden [sic] gave a further sample of his considerable depth and range before he was introduced to the world in Pride & Prejudice last year. And now, in grand over-the-top style, he is playing the role of Gabriel, a fundamentalist Northern Irish cleric preaching fire and brimstone, in Brian Kirk’s debut feature Middletown. The most striking thing about Macfayden [sic] in person is how different he looks from his screen self. He seems much larger in a lumbering kind of way, with floppy hair and a reddish hue to his nose. He has the accent of a public schoolboy and the charming manner of an Evelyn Waugh character, slightly bewildered by it all. My impression of him prior to our meeting is that he might be quite contrary and doesn’t like talking about acting. I am only half wrong. He sits back in his chair, and laughs often and easily. But he doesn’t like talking about anything to do with acting and is reluctant, in fact, to give a concrete answer to almost anything. Even a simple question about which actors he admires induces a lengthy obfuscation about how there are so many and such varied styles, before he eventually admits uncomfortably to liking Sean Penn and Meryl Streep. The reason for this, he confesses later, is for fear of “sounding like a dickhead”.

Stopping and starting

Macfayden [sic] is immediately likeable, not least because – in spite of his obvious talent – he is endearingly unsure of himself, frequently speaking very quietly and often beginning a sentence before thinking better of it and letting it trail off awkwardly. And he regularly changes his mind mid-flow as in “Yes I do think that every actor demands attention… but actually no I don’t really, because of the idiot who stands up and shouts at a party – it’s not like that”. Of his latest role, he says he hasn’t seen Middletown properly, and he doesn’t generally like watching himself on screen. “It’s always quite uncomfortable. You’re sort of thinking “well that’s not bad”, and then you’re appalled that you’re thinking that. It’s either rising panic or rising… delight. Not even delight. It’s very strange.” Given his uneasiness, it seems like a good idea to start with something not too challenging. Did he, I wonder, have any experience to draw on to portray the kind of religious conflict Gabriel experiences in Middletown? “No. I have nothing. It’s just interesting…:” I try again. How do you approach something like that? “Well, practically, you just sort of play the scene and imagine that you’re there. Acting’s quite simple, I think, and because it’s simple, it can be quite difficult. Because actors tend to over-colour, you know, over-complicate things. It’s a very simple story and that fundamental religious belief is very black and white, whether you’re an Islamic fundamentalist, or a Protestant, or anything like that where there’s no debate, there’s no discussion, there’s no grey area. You’ll either burn in hell, literally, or you’ll be saved. You either believe this or you’re out of the church. And it’s very attractive, it must be very attractive to a lot of people. So it’s interesting. Great for actors. Because you can sort of jump in.”

The more we talk, the more comfortable Macfayden [sic] becomes. After a while it becomes clear that he’s surprised by his success; surprised, it seems at being an actor at all. He tells me that there was no “real acting” in his family. His father worked in an oil company, but then he goes on to say that his engineer grandfather was an enthusiastic member of an amateur dramatics society, and his mother trained as a drama teacher. He grew up in a middle-class background in Norfolk on England’s pretty east coast, and says he never really thought too much about becoming an actor. “I applied to do something at college, but I really had no idea...” What did you apply to do? “Drama” he says and then laughs loudly, perhaps because it is clear that he really did have an idea. Either way he stuck with it and graduated from RADA in 1995 at twenty-one. One of the things that puzzles him most about his career is that he frequently finds himself playing deep characters, at odds with themselves. “It’s odd really because I don’t think of myself as particularly conflicted at all, but I have been playing those types of roles. Like Mr Darcy [from Pride & Prejudice] is unsmiling. But I would never have cast myself as that, I would always cast myself in a funny part. And I’ve played a lot of parts like that in the theatre, but I think you play a couple of parts of a certain type on the telly and people think of you in that way. So you kind of just go with what people imagine me as. Like I played that spy part in Spooks, and that made me so uncomfortable. Initially I felt “this is not me, it’s not working”. I just thought I’m being really ghastly, just wooden – some people might agree with that” he stops to laugh at himself, “but it did really well.”

Free of style

How would he describe his acting style? He titters, “I’m just not very eloquent on the subject. I don’t know what my style is. I don’t know. I worry… eh… I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I’d like not to have a style.” Along the lines of Philip Seymour Hoffman? “Yeah, not even that, I’d just like not to have a style. Like Matthew as a priest, Matthew as a soldier…”

Do you like acting? “I love doing it, but I don’t like all the stuff in between. I don’t like….” The publicity side of it, I suggest only half joking. Because he has had his share. It was while working on Spooks that he met his wife, the actor Keeley Hawes, who had been married for five months when she and Macfayden [sic] got together. Subsequently when Pride & Prejudice became a big hit, Macfayden [sic] found his private life splashed across the British tabloids. “That was just weird, because it was quite new. You imagine that kind of thing will never… and it wasn’t it wasn’t a big deal really. You’d just be in Sainsbury’s and you’d see yourself on the cover of a magazine and it’s just weird. You’re almost kind of interested like “what’s he up to now?” And you’re aware of people taking shots of you...” Which of course has nothing and everything to do with being an actor in 2006. Returning to the thought that he is more suited to comedy, he tells me that one of his favourite parts was a humorous role as Felix Carbury along with David Suchet. “That was great fun, I didn’t want it to end actually. Carbury was such a total twat and so stupid. A baby, no responsibility.” And unexpectedly but perhaps, as he says, only because of the kind of gloomy roles he has been cast in, Macfayden [sic] is funny. Later I ask him if he has a philosophy for living, and he thinks hard. You know, I say, something that gets you through the day… “Yes” he erupts, “is it too early to have a glass of wine?” And later still when he mentions the sobering and joyous effects of having children, and the fact that he just had a second child, I congratulate him and inquire as to what it is. “A boy” he says, and then with perfect timing, “a huge greedy bastard. He looks like a really worried bouncer!”


Difficult simplicity

Given that sense of humour it seems safe now to ask him why he’s so reluctant to talk about his craft. Perhaps, I suggest, it’s because he finds it awkward to embrace the “star” idea that people have about actors? “I don’t know really, I haven’t….” and we’re back to trailing off again. He once tellingly said that he thought acting was quite shallow on one level. “Yeah. I think a lot is made out of it. A lot of bullshit is spoken about actors and acting. I really think acting is quite simple, and that’s what makes it difficult.” This is the second time he mentions the simplicity and simultaneous complexity of acting, and I’m still not quite sure what he means. He begins to explain, “good acting is… well certainly the actors that I admire, there’s something very unfussy about them: they sort of leave themselves alone.” And then he stops abruptly to say, “it’s terrible when you tak about acting because you sort of wind up… but it’s em…” You wind up what? He laughs apologetically and says “well talking about your ‘craft’”. He says it as if it’s something to be embarrassed about. “Because it’s impossible to quantify. You sort of feel your way into it and, em… you know… And I find it hard to try and… you’re kind of out of control as an actor as much as you try and… I suppose if you get to a certain stage you can have your own projects, if you become very wealthy, but mostly are just beggars really.” Although Macfayden [sic] does take risks in his performances – and Middletown is a perfect example of that – it’s difficult to imagine him personally, with all his hesitancy and caution, being out of control. “I mean you can’t plan a career. You can say “I won’t do this, I won’t do that”, but really you’ve got to make it up. You can’t say” and here he puts on a deep serious voice, “’by the end of the year I’m going to have worked with Martin Scorsese’, because it doesn’t work that way.”

So with all of that, all the shallowness and bullshit, why do it? “Oh god I don’t know. It was the thing that made me happiest.” And then instead of the usual pat speech that one often hears from earnest American actors, Macfayden [sic] finally forgets his reluctance to talk. “I don’t think I’m gonna come and save people, I’m much more selfish than that. I don’t give a fuck, really.” He laughs at his own flippancy, “I mean I do, you know, obviously. I mean… you know, you know.” He stops as if frustrated, and then thinks for what seems like a long time. Then he assumes a mock intense demeanour and says comically, “I’m helping people understand their shitty lives and I’ll be able to shine a light. I mean, you know, it is quite wanky and all that, isn’t it? Actors, doctors, surgeons… It’s all the same” he punctuates this with an ironic dismissive flick of his hand. “But then in another way – I was at a RADA lunch yesterday, and Richard Attenborough made a speech, and he was sooo brilliant. There were all these business people there, and they’re trying to raise funds, and he made a speech about the importance of acting and why people should give money to the arts; and it was just off the cuff and it was brilliant. I was quite choked, everyone was quite moved, because he kind of made sense of it, because he said it eloquently and not in a precious way. And why not? Because it is uplifting to read a book or watch a film. But that’s not why I do it. I do it for the sensory pleasure. The kind of literal pleasure. I do it because it gives me a rush.” And why not? As the man said.


Middletown is released on 3rd November.