Another Matthew Interview: Secret Life (Apr 2007)

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The Secret Life: Matthew Macfadyen speaks About Paedophile Role

Fans of Matthew Macfadyen’s incarnations as a maverick MI5 operative in Spooks, or a smoulderingly mysterious Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice are in for a shock in the actor’s latest drama. In Secret Life, Macfadyen plays a convicted paedophile, living in a sex offenders’ rehabilitation centre and desperately trying not to re-offend.

Normally known for his romantic and heroic roles, Macfadyen gives a harrowing, tragic and sometimes repellent performance as Charlie.

Talking in a Soho office, Macfadyen discusses why he wanted to take on such controversial subject matter, what it’s like to work with the great Michael Gambon, and the time his wife, Keeley Hawes, met a ’spy’ in John Lewis.

Tackling such a complex subject matter, Secret Life is going to be seen as controversial. Why take that on?
Because of the script, and because it’s something completely different for me, and a great acting part. I thought it was a really beautifully-written, well-judged film. I was struck by how much I was reacting to reading it. It was such tough thing to read, but it was a very simple story - which all good drama is. I didn’t feel that it was manipulating me. I found myself heartbroken at the end, but repulsed at this man.

It’s almost a reaction to the whole campaign of demonisation, isn’t it?

Well, the drama doesn?t pull any punches and my character who is shown to be a corrupt man who has committed terrible crimes, we do not try to avoid or excuse facing this but this is a story about a paedophile’s struggle not to re-offend. And, no I don?t think it is helpful to demonise. What’s that doing? Who’s it helping?

It’s a harrowing film to watch. Was it difficult to play?
It wasn’t that difficult, in the sense that it’s a job, and you film it and then go home and get on with life. But there were some bits that were tough, if I’m honest. There’s a scene where Charlie is in the fairground trying to pick up young girls, and I found that horrible. A lot of it was improvised, and that scene was filmed only a few days into shooting, and that wasn’t easy. Of course there are no scenes of abuse and none of us would have been involved in the drama if there had been, it is not a drama about the act of paedophilia, it is about how society can protect more children by looking at the greater need for provision to prevent re-offending post prison.

What kind of research went into the project?
Well, for me, the information is there in black and white on the page. With a script like that, all the research has been done. But I know the writer researched the whole subject very thoroughly. A lot of it was based on a real centre for sex offenders who had been released from prison ? called the Wolvercote Clinic. They would stay there and go through a psychological treatment programme to stop them re-offending. The place was closed down in 2002 because of lack of funding, but it had the most incredible successful track record.

One of the key aspects of the drama is the closure of the centre, due to the protests of local people. It’s a very emotive issue. How do you think you would feel if a centre like that opened in your area?
It’s a very difficult question to answer. The liberal part of me likes to think I’d have no problem with it, but in the real world, of course you want to protect your children. I think the truth is that I don’t know how I’d feel or in what way I’d react.

Did the experience of making the film make you fear for your children more?
No, no more than I already do. I already have nightmares about what might happen to them in life, just as all parents do.

Secret Life is utterly heartbreaking and enormously affecting. What would you like its legacy to be?

That’s a good question. I’m not absolutely sure and the drama doesn?t offer any one solution. It is a too emotive and complex issue for that. But I think that dramas like this can do something other genres can’t, and I hope this makes people think about the issues involved. You can’t just throw all paedophiles down a well and forget about them, no matter how much people might want to do that. So there has to be a grown-up way of talking about this. You either have the debate or you don’t have the debate, and personally, I am proud to have made a film that contributes to that debate.

You’re from an acting background, aren’t you?

Not exactly, no. My mum trained as a drama teacher, and acted some of the time, but it wasn’t strictly speaking an acting background. But it was always my ambition to get into acting, there was never anything else I wanted to do, certainly by the time I was 17.

So getting into RADA must have been like discovering the Holy Grail.

It was a very nice day when I got in. I was very young, and I just thought ‘That’s my life sorted’, because that was the next three years taken care of, and at that age three years feels like a lifetime. I was thrilled.

Having RADA on your CV must have been very useful. Did you go through the whole actors’ experience of waiting tables for years?
I didn’t, but that wasn’t necessarily because of RADA, more just because I was very lucky. I got my first job was a ten-month tour, Cheek By Jowl, so I worked for long time on that, and then came back and had four months off. But basically I did three world tours on the trot when I left, so I was working all the time. RADA’s a great springboard, and it’s great for getting agents to come to see you, though, certainly.

You’ve kept up your theatre work alongside film and TV. Is that important to you?
Yeah. I panic sometimes that I’ll never get to play certain theatre roles that I really want to play. And if I don’t do a play every couple of years, I start to really want to. I don’t know what it is, I think it’s because you start of in the theatre. I’m hopefully doing a play pretty soon, though it’s not confirmed yet. It’s lovely doing a play. It’s live, you’re in the minute, the audience is right there, you’re using your whole body.

You recently played Prince Hal, opposite Michael Gambon. That must have been a real thrill.
Oh yeah. He’s lovely. I’ve worked with him before on telly, and it was great to work together again.

Do you still feel that you’re honing your craft? Do you study Sir Michael and pick things up?
Yeah, inevitably. I think you do that with anybody. Even working with the girl who played Jasmine in this film, who’s only about 14, you’re still watching how other actors operate - unless you’re so totally up your own bum that you don’t think you have anything to learn. It’s fascinating watching other actors work. And she was great, absolutely brilliant in this. As is Phil Davies, watching him, he’s just a wonderful actor.

When did you finally feel that you’d made it sufficiently that you could start turning down roles and parts you were offered?
I don’t know really. I would always turn down roles if I’d done them before - unless the house was about to be repossessed or something. Hopefully that’s not so likely now, though having said that, it’ll probably happen next week. But I try to be fussy about the parts I play. I think that’s quite prudent, it means you’re stretching different muscles, and you’re scaring yourself by doing something which is out of your comfort zone.

You’d had some great television roles before Spooks, but that was presumably the one that really raised your profile, wasn’t it?
Yes, because it was a series, and it was a hit. Inevitably it gives you a bit more welly. But, by the same token, the flip side of that is I will always be Matthew Macfadyen from Spooks, even though I haven’t done it for four years. I only did the first two series.

Does that jar after a while?

No, it’s fine. It’s understandable because it’s a frame of reference. I’m not likely to get called Matthew Macfadyen who played Prince Hal. Eight million people watched Spooks. And it happens to everyone. Michael Gambon is referred to as Dumbledore from Harry Potter or, for older viewers, The Singing Detective.

Do you still get members of the public coming up to you all the time saying “I’ve blown your cover” or “Be careful, we’re being followed”?
Keeley had a brilliant one the other day. She was in somewhere like John Lewis, in the electrical goods section, and a member of staff was explaining to her how a lamp worked or something. And suddenly, in the middle of it, he leant forward and said to Keeley “I’ve applied to join you lot.” And then he went back to explaining the lamp, and then looked around, leant in again and said “I’ve sent in my application form. I should hear something soon.” And Keeley said something like “That’s wonderful.” What do you say? It’s just brilliant!

Another high-profile role you played was Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, opposite Keira Knightley. But you were famously filling Colin Firth’s shoes after his iconic performance - did you find that unnerving?
A little bit, yeah. But actually no more than playing, say, Richard III. You’ve always got ghosts. That’s also what makes it so exciting, because you’re in such fantastic company. So it was quite galvanising as well as being a bit unnerving. I remember a journalist asking me how I was going to make it different from Colin Firth’s Darcy. But that’s the last thing on your mind. If you start consciously trying to make it different, you’d come seriously unstuck very quickly.

The Secret Life Will Air On Channel 4 On Thursday 19 April at 9pm on Channel 4