From Ripper Street to Pride And Prejudice, Matthew Macfadyen has played a string of repressed upper-class gents. Now he’s doing it again in Howards End. But as Teddy Jamieson discovers, there is a jollier side to the actor who, when not playing a d***head
THERE comes a time when a man realises that he’s probably played enough repressed, tweed-clad Englishmen of a certain age. There comes a time when said man needs to get himself a part in an HBO contemporary comedy drama.
Matthew Macfadyen is that man, and that’s why this morning he’s in New York, where he’s shooting Succession, a new comedy drama created by Jesse (Peepshow) Armstrong. It’s the end of October, not long after the actor’s 43rd birthday. (His wife, Keeley Hawes, and children came over from London for a visit and brought him a cupcake to celebrate.) And, by the sounds of it, Macfadyen is having a ball. Doing Succession is “a real tonic”.
“I thought to myself I oughtn’t to do any more kind of repressed Englishmen in tweed of a certain age and then this came up. It’s a comedy drama about a media family a bit like the Murdochs. There’s a patriarch played by Brian Cox and his two sons and daughters are jockeying for position. It’s good fun.”
And Macfadyen’s part? “I’m playing a d***head. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s American and it’s modern-day and it’s a million miles away …” So, no tweed involved then. But about your character, Matthew? Macfadyen re-reconsiders. “He’s a bit of an … arse.”
Being a bit of an arse is a million miles away from what we expect of the English actor. You know, the tweedy thing he did so well in gritty Victorian murder drama Ripper Street, the Darcy thing he did opposite Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s big-screen version of Pride And Prejudice back in 2005, the moody brooding thing he did in BBC spy drama Spooks.
Does he ever feel typecast? “Sometimes. But I do my very best to mix it up. You want to play as many different parts as you can otherwise you fall into bad habits. But inevitably if you play a tortured policeman walking around in tweed suits [as he does in Ripper Street] you get offered a bunch of tortured policemen and you think: ‘Maybe I should give that a rest’.”
Actually, the tweed-wearing hasn’t
gone too far away. In fact it will be on display this evening. Because before we get to see Succession, Macfadyen is popping up in a new TV adaptation of Howards End. EM Forster’s Edwardian novel about class and hypocrisy has been turned into a four-part BBC drama by Kenneth Lonergan, the Oscar-winning scriptwriter of Manchester By The Sea.
You may have seen the Merchant Ivory version of Howards End, starring Anthony Hopkins as industrialist Henry Wilcox and Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel, the liberal intellectual who falls for him, and Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret’s sister Helen. Macfadyen is taking the Wilcox role. Hayley Atwell is playing Margaret.
Macfadyen recalls the HopkinsThompson version fondly. “I’d seen the film when I was just about to go to drama school and loved it. It was around that time when there was a wonderful patch of movies with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Remains Of The Day was just after that, I think.”
But that didn’t put him off signing up for the new version. “The script was a beautiful thing to read; unsentimentally adapted. So it was a no-brainer.”
There were no qualms about stepping into Hopkins’s shoes? “No, apart from with any part you think: ‘I mustn’t f*** this up.’ But it’s thrilling to be stepping in the footsteps of somebody like him.”
Presumably, the BBC drama is a very different take on the story. Probably, he says. “I haven’t actually seen it. It’s four hours as opposed to an hour and a half so inevitably we can explore it in greater detail and with more breadth and it’s probably a little less chocolate-boxy … But I shouldn’t say it because I haven’t seen it and I really love the Merchant Ivory film so I wasn’t going in thinking: ‘I want to get away from that.’
“The honest answer is I can’t wait to see it. I will look through my fingers at my pubic beard in horror,” he laughs.
Macfadyen thinks his character, Henry Wilcox – a strait-laced London businessman – is fascinating. “He’s a man of his time – a Victorian capitalist empire-builder type. He’s very certain about his place in the world and Britain’s place in the world and men and women and the way society should work.
“But during the course of his relationship with Margaret he sort of falls in love with her. He’s nuanced. He’s not just a type. He does bad things, but he’s also capable of great generosity and humility.”
It’s a story about class, right? “Yeah, it’s class, it’s men and women, it’s about town and country. It’s got an awful lot in there. It’s about sex, money, capitalism, but it’s done in such an elegant way that it never feels like you’re being beaten over the head by it. Forster lobs these little bombs in the backdrop of the story.”
It’s a story that remains relevant. One of Macfadyen’s Howards End co-stars, Tracy Ullman, recently said: “The class system perpetuates ... And it’s still tough for girls – curious, liberal girls like Margaret.”
The question, then, is have we moved on from Forster’s world? “I don’t know if we have,” says Macfadyen. “Women can vote and work and there is more parity. Society has changed a lot but you still have the very, very wealthy ... I don’t know how much human behaviour changes over the years.
“Conventions change. But especially
Iin the light of all the recent revelations about men and women and men in power and all that gubbins and who we have in the White House …” S everyone in the acting profession talking about the Weinstein story? “People are talking about it. It’s just depressing. It’s not an isolated thing, is it? Now everyone’s aware of the scale of it. It’s been going on for a long time. But I think … Christ, I hope it’s a watershed moment in that shining the light into things like that takes away the stigma and fear of standing up and saying: ‘This is happening.’ That’s the awful thing, isn’t it? One is afraid of speaking up for fear of making a fuss or damaging your career.”
Matthew Macfadyen’s father’s parents were from Glasgow, and followed the steel trail to Corby in the 1950s. When Macfadyen’s father got a job in the oil business, the family decamped to Aberdeen. “I just remember lots of granite, a strict teacher at Robert Gordon’s and little bottles of milk before Mrs Thatcher got rid of them.”
He went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art aged 17 then started working with the Cheek By Jowl Theatre Company. That was more than 20 years ago. “I think the young me would be delighted and thrilled that I am still doing it. I genuinely think just keeping going is quite something, because it’s a funny old business. I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t want to be a director. I wouldn’t know how to.”
It was television that made his name. Spooks back in 2002 was his breakthrough role. It’s also where he met and fell in love with his wife, co-star Keeley Hawes. Unfortunately she was married with a child at the time.
The tabloids had a field day as you might expect but 15 years later he’s still with Hawes and they have two children of their own, Maggie and Ralph. “I walk around the house saying, ‘Toilet and teeth, toilet and teeth, guys.’ I stand there and think: ‘I used to be cool but now I’ve just turned into a weirdo walking around with a sock and a wipe in my hand.’
He’s 43 now. Very grown up, I say. “Aah … I don’t know. My default position is I don’t really feel like a grown-up, even with the kids. Sometimes I feel I’m just winging it. I’m not sure anyone feels like a grown-up. Captains of industry? Maybe that’s why they’re all psychopaths.”
Still, presumably fatherhood has changed him? “Uh, yeah. I feel less worried about myself, I think. It’s just a love affair with your kids really. And a realisation that you’re never going to stop worrying about them until you drop dead. My mum used to talk about that and I would go: ‘Oh shut up. What are you talking about?’ And I sort of get it now.
“The horror of anything happening to them or them not being happy. We’ve burdened ourselves with this. But then we get all the laughs and the joy and the fury of them.”
It’s a constant juggle living in a house with two actors, he says. Working on Howards End was perfect, because it was filmed in Twickenham just down the road from where they live. “At the moment she’s working and I’m here in New York and we’re struggling with child care but this is the challenge of making it work.”
Anyway, he says, you get to wallow in the reflected glory of your partner’s good work. “When Keeley had that fab thing with Line Of Duty you think: ‘This is great.’ You sort of think: ‘Aren’t I clever for being married to her.’”
With TV drama going from strength to strength, this must be a good time to be an actor. “There seems to be an awful lot going on,” Macfadyen agrees. “I love doing telly. I think the snobbery about doing telly has gone, which is good. Film is wonderful but if you’re working on a film it feels much more like a shot in the dark. With TV you sort of build up a head of steam. I’ve done films where the cast is great, the script is brilliant and it turns out … Not fabulous. And you don’t know why.”
Name names, Matthew. “I did a film with a wonderful director called Sharon Maguire and Michelle Williamson and Ewan McGregor [Incendiary, to save you Googling it] and the film didn’t really hang together. I mustn’t say that because I don’t want to be disloyal but with the best will in the world sometimes the alchemy of making a film doesn’t work. You see it all the time. Those Netflix movies are the equivalent of straight-tovideo now.
“With this TV show there are three writers on set all the time. There’s a lovely creative atmosphere and you’re more in control of the narrative.” But then they just tell me where to stand. ‘Stand there, say your lines, here’s your car, go away.’”
Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox and Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel in the remake of Howards End