Class act

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

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - TV INTERVIEW - Howards End be­gins on BBC One tonight at 9pm

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

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