‘I have a horror of playing the same part over and over again’

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‘I have a horror of playing the same part over and over again’

Message  Luce le Lun 6 Nov 2017 - 16:35

Duncan White  (The Telegraph, 4 novembre 2017) voir ici

(Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox in Howards End)

Matthew Macfadyen swore he’d never play another stiff Englishman. So what on earth is he doing in Howards End, asks Duncan White

Having just binge-watched all four episodes of the stylish new adaptation of Howards End, I’m wondering what on earth Matthew Macfadyen has done with Henry Wilcox. So thoroughly does the actor inhabit the part of E M Forster’s stuffy Edwardian gent that, when I meet him in a café on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I expect him to be, well, starchy.

Yet here he is, having shed several stone and a great deal of pompous entitlement, leaving not a trace of Wilcox. “It must be the beard,” he says, stroking his now hairless chin. “It was quite a production and early on we had to augment it because I was going back and forth with another job in which I was supposed to be clean-shaven. It was a bit scrappy at first. Very pubic!”

This is exactly the sort of vulgar tone of which Mr Wilcox would not approve. It’s testament to Macfadyen’s skill on screen that, in person, his boyish enthusiasm and ready laughter are so unexpected. The 43 year-old from Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, made his name playing characters who fit somewhere along the grumpy spectrum.

Whether as the glum MI5 agent Tom Quinn in the BBC’s hugely popular spy series Spooks, as the moodily arrogant Mr Darcy opposite Keira Knightley’s winsome Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or, more recently, as Edmund Reid, the tightly-wound Victorian detective in Ripper Street, Macfadyen has made a virtue of the fact that his resting face suggests something between menace and melancholy.

(Sympathy for the devil: Macfadyen with Hayley Atwell in Howards End)

Wary of getting typecast, before Howards End came along he had issued a self-imposed ban on playing, in his words, “buttoned-up Englishmen slathered in tweed. That’s the horror, for me, getting stale, playing the same part over again.”

However, from the moment he read the Howards End script – adapted from Forster’s 1910 novel by the American writer and director Kenneth Lonergan whose screenplay for the gritty Manchester by the Sea won an Oscar last year – he knew he couldn’t turn it down. “It was such a thing to read! I later found out that Lonergan is not actually that great a fan of the book, which is probably a good starting point if you are going to adapt something. It was very unsentimental, very clear-eyed, and as I was reading it I just got more excited. It is a cracking story that still resonates today.”

In an important sense, Forster’s novel is about a divided British society on the cusp of radical change. Wilcox is a committed capitalist, pragmatic and ruthless, who makes his money from rubber plantations in Africa. Margaret Schlegel, played brilliantly by Hayley Atwell, is a Bloomsbury bohemian, who is politically progressive and culturally sophisticated.

As the difference in their world views causes acrimony between their families, Margaret advocates tolerance and empathy as the path toward reconciliation, or, as Forster famously puts it, “Only connect…” – a rather salutary reminder in these nastily partisan times. “What struck me when reading the book is just how elegantly Forster touches on all these different things: class issues, sexual politics, the politics of Britain and the empire,” says Macfadyen. “None of it is heavy-handed, there’s no tub-thumping. The world is complicated and his treatment of it is nuanced. The morality of the book is not clear.”

(A classy Darcy: Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice (2005))

Wilcox, for his part, has absolute confidence that his way of confronting the world – rational, capitalist, imperialist – is the right one and the rate at which he accumulates wealth appears to vindicate him. Yet behind his Victorian façade there is a suppressed sensitivity, which Margaret is determined to coax out. “In some scenes he is a monster, but then in others he is this really sweet, intelligent man,” says Macfadyen. “The idea of displaying emotion is one that is so buried in him. He embodies a particular kind of English masculinity. But when the emotion does come out, it truly breaks him.”

Towards the end of the story – and I will keep details vague for those who do not know the book – Wilcox reacts callously to the prospect of social scandal; it was those scenes that Macfadyen found particularly challenging to play. “For Henry, this was the equivalent of tabloid hell; his reputation was everything. It would have damaged his business, he would not have been able to go out to his restaurants and clubs. His children would have been dragged into it. In his world, it was a massive deal.”

Macfadyen knows what unpleasant public exposure feels like. When he first got together with his wife Keeley Hawes, on the set of Spooks in 2002, she was married to the cartoonist Spencer McCallum, the father of her young son. The tabloids closed in. “There was this prurient interest in her divorce,” says Macfadyen. “There were journalists camped outside our house. At one point I was followed to my gym. The irony was that there was no story – if there had been, God knows what it would have been like.”

Hawes and Macfadyen married in 2004 and went on to have two children. “I want to be a good husband and a good dad and that can be challenging in this line of work,” he says. “Keeley and I try our best to work it so that if she gets a great offer she can take it and the same for me. So earlier this year Keeley was off doing [ITV drama] The Durrells and I was Daddy-at-home. That’s what made this role perfect – not only was it a great part but all the interiors were shot in Twickenham and I could walk to work.”

(Matthew Macfadyen with his wife Keeley Hawes CREDIT: EDDIE MULHOLLAND FOR THE TELEGRAPH)

Any new adaptation of Howards End must contend with the formidable reputation of the 1992 Merchant Ivory film, which earned Emma Thompson an Oscar, playing Margaret Schlegel opposite Anthony Hopkins’ Henry Wilcox. “I remember going down with my mum to Leicester Square to watch it when it first came out,” says Macfadyen. “I was just about to start drama school and the film made a big impression on me.”

Hopkins played the role with a hard edge: his Wilcox is austere and harsh. Macfadyen makes the character more engaging, balancing his bullying and chauvinism with a kind of bluff raillery. “It’s important that you have some sympathy for him,” he says. “His confidence is what makes him attractive, certainly to Margaret.”

While Macfadyen has a lot of respect for the Merchant Ivory adaptation, he says that on the set of the new series there was a deliberate decision to escape its shadow. “When we got together, Hettie MacDonald, the director, said that we were not going to remake the film. We wanted to bring a freshness to it. I think it also helped having a different format. You can tell the story very differently over four hour-long episodes than you can in one two-hour film.”

Hopkins was in his 50s when he played Wilcox and, at first, Macfadyen worried that he wasn’t old enough for the role. “I remember going into a meeting with the woman responsible for hair and make-up and asking her about what she was going to do to age me up. I suggested we use this stuff that you smear into the corners of your eyes to make them look all wrinkled. She said, ‘no, you’re OK’. So then I asked about whether I needed more grey in my hair and she had a look and said, ‘Nope, I think there’s enough grey here.’ That was a bit of a wake-up call.”

(Matthew Macfadyen as Henry Wilcox in Howards End)

He performs his mortification with relish. He has an impish sense of fun which, he admits, can get away from him on set. “I get terrible giggles. It happened a lot when I was doing scenes with Hayley. Most actors are able to get it together pretty quickly, but sometimes I just can’t recover. The more serious the scene, the more serious the actors get, the worse it is for me. And then if my role requires me to be buttoned-up I’ve got no chance.”

His next role is neither buttoned-up nor English. He is in New York filming the first season of Succession, which is a series about a Rupert Murdoch-like media mogul and his grasping children, created by Jesse Armstrong, of Peep Show fame. “I play a vaguely sweet American who’s also a bit of a dickhead. It’s a million miles away from Henry Wilcox. It’s a lovely tonic."

More fraught is his next appearance on the big screen, as the powerful American financier J P Morgan in The Current War, about the battle between rival inventors of electric systems, Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon).

Long talked about as a potential Oscar contender, the release of the film, produced by The Weinstein Company, has been postponed following the scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein. “I met him briefly on set a few times,” says Macfadyen. “Like so many actors I had heard stories about the kind of guy he was. But the sheer scale of it is horrifying.”

As far as Macfadyen is concerned, the film will come out when it comes out. His immediate priority is to get to downtown Manhattan to shoot a scene for Succession. “I think all I have to do is walk into a doorway,” he says. “After that I’m at my leisure. It’s a hard life!” Meanwhile, he is counting the days until Thanksgiving, when he will get a sustained break with his family. “I miss them a lot,” he says, “and I have been a bit bereft to be honest.”

Stuff and nonsense. What would Mr Wilcox make of it? Where’s the stiff upper lip, man?

Howards End begins on Nov 12 at 9pm on BBC One
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