Secret Life and Radio Times (Apr 2007)

A huge thank you to Perfectlymatte of MMonline for the images and the interview!  (the rest of the images are in the gallery)


Shouting at the TV screen is a pointless exercise. There is a moment, however, in Secret Life (Thursday C4) when you just can't help yourself.

Charlie, played by Matthew Macfadyen, is a polite, repressed young man, desperate for human contact. Quite near the end of the film, he starts to flirt and it's like watching a flower bloom. Hope sparks in his eyes, his stress-locked limbs become graceful, his character seems lit from within - and it's profoundly horrible. Because Charlie is a convicted child sex offender flirting with a 12-year-old girl.

"It's a really horrible moment," agrees Macfadyen. "I just let it pass through me. It's my job to do what the character does and try to make it look as real as possible, but I'm quite good at switching off. I came home afterwards, cooked dinner and played with the kids. But I wouldn't say I clutched them to me more closely than usual."

It's rare to find an actor taking credit in inverse proportion to his effect, but you're inclined to believe the 32-year old star of Warriors and Spooks when he says he's dreading the publicity his role in Secret Lift is bound to engender.

During a peripatetic childhood in the Far East (his father worked for an oil company), he read actors' biographies "to a fairly obsessive degree. I think what I adored about these people - the Gielguds and the Oliviers - was that they would give these fantastic, life-changing performances and then the curtain would come down and the actor would disappear out the stage door and into the night. It's sad now, because actors are required to publicise their productions more and more, and that glamour has been lost. "I can't bear the endless magazine articles, the camera following you down the road. . . I still love that image of the curtain coming down and the actor being anonymous."

This is not encouraging to an interviewer, but it's more than offset by Macfadyen's affable, open manner. If he has no ready-prepared soundbite about paedophilia to offer, it's because paedophilia is a huge, unwieldy subject offering no easy conclusions.

Secret Life, written and directed by Rowan Joffe delivers a bruising volley of questions about society's treatment of sex offenders (Charlie does his time and leaves prison determined not to re-offend, but finds himself without support when his rehabilitation centre is closed down). Answers are harder to find.

"You have a kind of sympathy for this guy who's struggling not to re-offend, but he's repellent because of who he is and what he's done," explains Macfadyen. "You wish him well in his struggle, but would you want to go for a pint with him? Not really. I've got three kids and I have a fairly good idea how I'd feel if a rehabilitation centre for paedophiles opened in my street. So what do we do? Transmigrate them all to the Brecon Beacons?

There's a kind of terrible fear surrounding paedophilia in this country, which is understandable, but unhelpful. We're so afraid of it we can't even bear to look at the problem. I just love the fact that Secret Life takes the debate into people's living rooms. Actors can be a bit snooty about TV, but I think this is a good example of how how important - and wonderful¬a medium television can be."

So no qualms at all, then, about taking up a part that will have half of Britain baying for his blood? "No, because I'm pleased with the way the story has been handled. As an actor, you can't judge your character. Otherwise you'd never play Macbeth. In the great mulch of human behaviour, people do terrible things and they do beautiful things. Either is good for an actor."

Macfadyen married actress Keeley Hawes, his co-star in Spooks, in 2004. When they first got together, Hawes had been married for a matter of months to someone else, prompting a brief flurry of tabloid interest. "If I'd been seeing someone who wasn't an actress, nobody could have cared less," reasons Macfadyen, "but you don't get to meet that many marine biologists or geography teachers in this profession."

The couple live in Twickenham, west London, with Myles, Hawes's six-year-old son from her first marriage, their daughter Maggie, two, and six-month-old Ralph, whose favourite time for playing is 3.30am.

When we were expecting our third child," recalls Macfadyen, "Keeley and I thought, well, it's just one more of the same. But it's not. It's like having another ten."

His tone is trying for tetchy man-of¬the-world, but comes out closer to delight. Nonetheless, running three children and two freelance careers is something of a challenge. Nor are the kids impressed by their parents' starry professional lives. "Keeley played Lady Macbeth in the modem version for the BBC in 2005. We were watching the scene, on video, where she's naked, covered in blood and gore. Myles came downstairs, flicked a glance at the screen and said, 'Why can't you guys ever be in anything good, like Madagascar?"

There are no immediate plans to court Hollywood. "I hate the idea of touting myself," he says simply. "And I've been very lucky with work here."

Good judgement, you suspect, is part of that luck. He has worked more often than not with noted "auteurs" such as Stephen Poliakoff (Perfect Strangers) and Peter Kosminsky (The Project and Warriors) and is equally at ease in period drama. He played Prince Hal to Michael Gambon's Falstaff, to critical acclaim, at the National Theatre, and stepped bravely into Mr Darcy's breeches in the feature film of Pride and Prejudice. "If the material's good, it feels relevant, whether you're wearing a frock coat or a flak jacket."

That said, he seems to have a peculiar gift for chasing the eitgeist. As Tom Quinn in Spooks, he frequently found himself in scenarios that mirrored actual events. "Some of the episodes were prescient," he agrees. "You'd come home from shooting a 'dirty bomb' sequence in Pinewood, switch on the telly and find the same thing on the news."

His next project, the film Incendiary, is adapted from the novel of the same name by Chris Cleave (about a woman whose husband and son are killed in a terrorist attack), which was due to come out the same day as the London Tube bombings. "The publicity posters had to be ripped from the walls," he says.

He sounds almost wistful, but he beats it down. Publicity, however hateful, is part of the job. "The thing about acting," he offers, "is that you can't do it on your own. You're part of a process. You need other people. Other people need you. That's the heartbreaking thing about it."

Yet again, Macfadyen's "grumpy old man" act fails to hit the mark. He's about as happy as a man stirring up a national controversy could be. "It's funny," he says. "We're connected to each other technologically more than we've ever been. And yet we're more disconnected, because we're more nervous of each other. There's something frenzied about our fear of any outsider in society. I'm not saying people shouldn't be concerned about these things. But it's either a debate worth having or it's not. And I really think it is."

Secret Life and Radio Times (Apr 2007)