Pride and Prejudice Interview *pudding head* (Sep 2005)

Newspaper article from 12/09/05

It's the role that's made many a steely woman swoon: but has Matthew Macfadyen - a self-professed 'pudding head' - got what it takes to play the dashing Mr Darcy on the big screen?

Absolutely, says Marianne Macdonald

In pictures: Pride and Prejudice

Matthew Macfadyen is the new Mr Darcy in Working Title's forthcoming film of Pride and Prejudice – and he is clearly stunned by the electrical storm he has already generated. At the end of a day of international press in a West End hotel he has the dazed look of a man who has been hit hard about the head. 'I guess I'm bemused,' he admits in his deep voice, rubbing his head rather wearily with his hand. 'I didn’t understand it was such a big deal playing Darcy. To me it was just another job. In terms of how daunted I was, playing Prince Hal [in Henry IV at the National Theatre] was terrifying – much more so than playing Darcy.'

Revelation: Macfadyen as Darcy

Had he read the book? 'No. And I hadn’t seen the Colin Firth version. I just knew Mr Darcy was Mr Darcy. So I had no preconceptions. And I wasn't burning to play Darcy. Perhaps I shouldn't say that. I think if I'd read the book, I'd have thought, "F— it, it's one of those parts."' He trails off. Has he seen the Firth version now? 'No. We've got it. I got it from my folks. It's in the video pile. So one day, when the family are all out, I'll probably sit down and watch it. But I just haven't. I'm not that curious, really.'

Macfadyen talks at the lowest possible pitch, rarely finishing his sentences. He fixes his gaze on the window or the floor as he tries to dig up the word for whatever he wants to say. The 31-year-old genuinely seems to be amazed that he is just about to become the nation's new sex symbol, though anyone could have warned him what would happen if he took the role of the proud heir to Pemberley opposite Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet. He admits himself that he can see the attraction of Darcy. 'Yes, he's terribly attractive, because he's…' He trails off. 'But I can’t see myself as a sex symbol in that role. Not at all! I never – it's hard, isn't it, because I never… Like, the actor in me would always like to be more dashing, or slimmer, or have nicer hair. You know what I mean? I see pictures of Colin Firth and think, "That’s Darcy." I see my big face and my funny hair and I think, "Pudding head!"' He bursts out laughing. Does he see himself as good-looking? 'Um. No. Not classically good-looking.' Could he pull women when he was single? 'No! I wasn’t chatty-uppy.' Why not? He gives a faint, wry smile. 'Not confident enough.'

I must say that I thought yet another Pride and Prejudice was a rather yawn-worthy prospect – Colin Firth's turn as Darcy seems only yesterday. That television series (it was, in fact, ten years ago) set the critical standard. But, unexpectedly, the Working Title version is sublime, intimate, glorious. Keira Knightley is good as Lizzie, but Macfadyen as Darcy is a revelation. He makes the part his own. Far better than Firth.

Macfadyen's Darcy is wounded, boyish, broken. Stiff with inhibition, his face misshapen, his eyes eerie distant chips of light blue, he is magnificent. His sexuality is far more understated than Firth’s, but no less powerful. But this should come as no surprise to discerning viewers. Macfadyen isn't an A-list star – yet – but his intelligent, brooding performances on stage and on television – as Hal in the recent Henry IV at the National Theatre, as Tom (Quinn) in the spy series Spooks, as the Labour special advisor Paul Tibbenham in the BBC drama The Project, and as the traumatised war photographer Paul Prior in the recent New Zealand indie film In My Father's Den – have marked him out as an actor of true passion and substance.

In person, however, he is very different from his brooding alter ego. For one thing he is more chunky – he must have put on a stone since filming. But mostly more ordinary. He is not at all the broken man with bloodhound eyes who endures Keira Knightley's rejection in the driving rain. Incredibly nice, and honest, and mild, you could mistake him for a classic public schoolboy – if it wasn’t for the razor-sharp sensitivity and unusual thoughtfulness. He keeps tugging at his baggy linen shirt in a nervous gesture and at one point hugs a cushion to his chest.

'I had an idea that Darcy was like the adolescent at the party who's terrified,' he says. 'Who's, you know, quite popular, but who thinks very deeply and is terribly shy.' Is he like that himself? 'Probably there are bits of it in me. I was quite a shy child. I would get terribly nervous and throw up before my birthday party. And then I would be fine. I feel the same now. I get nervous, then it’s fine.' And the thinking deeply? He laughs.

'No, I think I think less and less deeply as life goes on!'

Although Pride and Prejudice has been adapted five times for television by the BBC, it has only been made into a film once, in 1940, with Laurence Olivier as Darcy. Working Title auditioned more than 100 twentysomething actors before casting Macfadyen. 'They saw a bunch,' he agrees. 'Then I met Joe [Wright, the director]. And read. Then I was told it was all off. With me. I think they wanted names. And I thought, "That's fine." Then it was on again. Because they had Keira. So I went and read with her. And screen-tested. And waited a long time!'

Was he thinking it was a good job to get? 'Yes. Because it's Working Title. It would be a big career step. You think, careerwise, "That would be quite clever." But you think, "It's Darcy, so the knives will be out." I remember someone saying to me, "I’m sure a lot of actors have passed on it because it’s been done so…"' His sentence, characteristically, trails off. 'Though I don’t know why they would.'

I ask how he got on with Keira Knightley. 'She was a delight,' he says. 'She came straight on to the set from one film, and was going straight off to the next. And she was fantastic. So self-possessed and connected.' But they didn’t have jolly nights in country pubs while on location. 'Because I wasn’t there very much. I felt a bit po-faced sometimes, because I'd turn up and do a scene and go back to London. And Keeley, my wife, was pregnant at the time, so I sort of dropped in. He's not in it that much, Darcy, actually. And they gave me a personal trainer. So he'd turn up at my house and I'd have to go running. So it was vodka slimline in bed watching f—ing Newsnight worrying about Keeley and whatever was in her tummy.'

The actress Keeley Hawes is his wife of three years. She was pregnant with their daughter Maggie during the shoot. In fact, Macfadyen's only previous experience of serious press attention was when she left her husband for him after they fell in love on the set of Spooks. Hawes had been with the freelance cartoonist Spencer McCallum five years, but they were only married eight weeks at the time; she and McCallum had a 20-month son called Myles. Paparazzi staked out the house. 'I realised the mistake I'd made and where I should be, and where I wanted to be, so I did something about it,' is how Hawes explained it in a recent interview. 'It was a bit weird,' Macfadyen admits now, of the press frenzy. 'You never think it's going to happen to you.'

Was their falling in love romantic? 'It was. But difficult.' What attracted him? 'I don't know. I just thought, "Oh, God! Here we go!" Just that feeling! She's lovely and funny and all the rest. But I just thought, "Phwoar! Fancy you!"' Did he fall in love easily? 'Yes. I like being in love, if you know what I mean. More than not.' But he didn't expect it to happen in those circumstances? 'No. No!' I tell him Keeley had said recently that he wasn’t very romantic, and he gives a great bark of laughter. 'Did she? Because my vanity is I'm terribly romantic!' He grins. 'But being married is lovely. Keeley's been in Jersey recently doing a Thomas Hardy. So I’ve been going back and forth with the little ones.'

Their daughter Maggie is two. 'She's bliss,' her father says with delight. Macfadyen and Hawes and the children live near Twickenham and he would love to have more, he admits. He says he is much happier 'cooking and faffing round' at home than going out. When I ask him to describe his perfect day he paints a domestic picture: 'Wake up, have a bowl of porridge, play with the kids. I would surprise Keeley and take her somewhere, very quickly.' If you hadn't seen him perform, it would be hard to believe there was much going on in there at all from his tentative manner and sweet-natured smile.

But the mildness hides a steely ambition. Macfadyen was awarded a drama scholarship at his boarding-school, Oakham School in Rutland, and went straight from there to Rada aged 17. His mother Meinir (her name is Welsh) is herself an actress turned drama teacher. He remembers her directing him in a holiday production when he was at school. But he says firmly she wasn't an inspiration. 'I don’t think what she did would have made any difference. She wasn’t pushing me in the wings, and she never taught me.' Did she give him notes now on his performances? 'No!' He finds the idea absurd. 'No, they're lovely, my folks, very sweet.'

Proud heir: Macfadyen with Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice

Macfadyen spent his twenties doing the classics. He joined the acclaimed theatre company Cheek by Jowl in 1995, the year he left Rada, and made his debut as Antonio in The Duchess of Malfi. The following year he starred with the Royal Shakespeare Company as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford. He then did a lot of touring, bits of television, and had supporting roles in films including Maybe Baby (2000) and Enigma (2001). 'I'd work solidly throughout the year and be in debt at the end. Always,' he says. 'But it was great.' He pauses. 'I've worried more and more as the years have gone on. The more you're seen to be doing well, the more stress there is. You feel you ought to consider things more, and be more fussy – there’s further to fall. All these little worries.'

But they surely aren't justified. In 1999 Macfadyen was nominated for a National Theatre Ian Charleson Award for best classical actor under 30. In July he won the best actor award for In My Father's Den at the New Zealand Screen Awards.

I ask what is next and he says maybe a little indie film in Ireland, but he doesn't know. I ask if it's true the Bond producers have approached him. 'Yes, they might have,' he admits. 'I don’t know about Bond. It's a weird one, isn't it? It's a bit camp. A bit kind of… It would change your life.' What he really seems to want is to play the great classical parts. Though Hollywood is also an option. 'It would be blissful to do a play and then a film. Because after 140 shows you’re longing to be picked up and given a cup of tea! We get terribly excited about the idea of lots of money but quite reassuringly think…' He trails off, again. 'Because if you really wanted to be rich, you could stay doing a series. You could put yourself up for Hello!'

As I leave he says, 'Do you really think this movie will be big?' I do, I say. I think it will make you really famous. 'It's bizarre!' he says. And as if he can't stop himself, he gives a great boyish grin of wonder and delight.