He has the biggest stage role of his career on his hands and two high profile television jobs around the corner, but Andrew Scott is taking it all in his stride, finds Caroline Bishop.
It’s not often that an actor can describe the role he is playing as “bigger than Hamlet”. But that is the scale of the daunting job taken on by Andrew Scott, whose return to the National Theatre sees him play fourth century Roman Emperor Julian in the first English production of Ibsen’s epic masterpiece, Emperor And Galilean, playing as part of the Travelex £12 season.
“Jonathan [Kent, the director] said he’s never come across a bigger part, which made me want to vomit,” says Scott with a grin. “I think it’s because I don’t get much of a rest, I’m on stage quite a bit. But that’s the gig.”
In fact Scott has had so many lines to learn that until the morning we meet – six weeks into rehearsals – his head has been unable to hold anything else. “Actually this morning I listened to music for the first time in probably two months, because I sort of know the lines now, but before I just spent all my free time trying to learn the lines. There was no ability to be able to retain the noise of music.”
So big is his part that he has been rehearsing from nine in the morning to eight at night; not only does he have to keep physically fit and get enough sleep, but he’s effectively had to put his life on hold until rehearsals are over. It sounds more like the routine of a pre-competition athlete than an actor.
“This is an absolutely absurd thing to do for a living”
But then it’s not every day you get to lead a cast of 50 in an epic production at the National Theatre that plans to make use of every ounce of the Olivier’s stage and every piece of stage jiggery-pokery available to it. This is the treatment needed to stage Ibsen’s once-nine hour piece with 75 speaking parts, which has been ‘condensed’ – if that’s the right word – into a sub-four hour production by dramaturg Ben Power. “I don’t really think it could go on in any other theatre,” says Scott.
It’s the role of a lifetime for the 34-year-old Irishman, and one which perhaps heralds a change of gear. Scott has been a part of the London stage for some years, first making Theatreland take notice with his 2005 Olivier Award for A Girl In A Car With A Man at the Royal Court. He made his National Theatre debut in 2005 with Brian Friel’s Aristocrats, headed to Broadway for the US premiere of David Hare play The Vertical Hour in 2006 and, last year, won plaudits for his performances in Cock at the Royal Court and Design For Living at the Old Vic. Now, his biggest stage role to date comes in a year when Scott’s screen profile is set to be boosted by his appearance in two eagerly awaited dramas: as Moriarty in Sherlock and in new 1950s-set British drama The Hour. “It’s a hectic time,” he says simply. “I’ve been busy.”
Scott doesn’t seem the type to become overwhelmed by his current workload. When I meet him backstage at the National Theatre he is jovial and upbeat, a smile almost always accompanying his words, spoken in his soft Dublin lilt. He has been around long enough to stay grounded, while his light-hearted nature means he isn’t likely to take himself too seriously. “The great thing about doing these big epic plays,” he says, “is that you have a really, really good time. You end up getting quite giggly; well I do. I think the imaginative bubble has burst and you think ‘this is an absolutely absurd thing to do for a living’.”
Well he’s right, it is. With its riskily epic proportions and Olympic-standard line-learning, Emperor And Galilean seems somewhat absurd in its ambition. Beginning in AD351, the play portrays 12 years in the life of Emperor Julian, a philosopher and religious reformer whose initial desire for freedom of faith became an increasingly anti-Christian mission to return the Roman Empire to paganism. The path he took was reportedly an inspiration for the Third Reich. “I heard that it’s Hitler’s favourite play,” says Scott. “I can totally understand why he would [like it]. That’s what’s been fascinating to me because I’ve been playing somebody who wants to do good but ends up doing a lot of terrible, terrible, tyrannical things. And so it’s made me think about all those people who do terrible things. You don’t set out in a way to go ‘I’m going to be the embodiment of evil’.”
Though set in the fourth century, Scott says the production steers clear of being “too sandal-y” – “I think if we’re wearing togas and mini skirts it gets a bit Carry On Pompeii” – to emphasise the undoubted modern resonances that come with a play about religious conflict. “It’s very important to me that it’s for now. It’s quite a dangerous play; what people will do for their faith and how that destroys communities. How it destroys friendships and also what power does.”
“I heard that it’s Hitler’s favourite play”
As a Catholic-raised Dubliner who has “a lot of scepticism about organised religion”, the themes of the play have inevitably provoked thoughts about his own country’s troubled history. “I really do believe in forgiveness and all that kind of stuff. I think that’s why everybody in Ireland – and I think a lot of people in England as well – were very moved by the recent State visit to Ireland from the Queen. I thought that was really extraordinary and very important. I suppose because I love London and I also love Dublin, I was sort of amazed by how affected I was by it and how important I thought it was that there was this sense of forgiveness, on both sides.”
It is somewhat unusual to find Scott in an 1896 Ibsen drama; the actor’s main body of work has come in new pieces, such as one-man play Sea Wall, written especially for him by playwright Simon Stephens – “when I think of it, the complete opposite to this” – and Mike Bartlett’s Cock at the Royal Court, of which the Evening Standard wrote: “It’s Andrew Scott who impresses most… He combines sweary viciousness with a kind of hapless vulnerability.”
However Power’s new adaptation – which readers fearing the lengthy running time will be relieved to hear “really motors along” – coupled with the fact Ibsen’s play has never before been performed in English, leads Scott to say “I sort of feel that I’m embarking on a new play even though it’s an old play. I love working on new plays. I’ve worked a lot at the [Royal] Court and I love that feeling of being in a new play. And the fact that nobody has seen this play in London is really exciting.”
If it fulfils its ambitions, Emperor And Galilean may ingrain Scott’s name firmly on the theatrical map just as his forthcoming role in Sherlock raises his profile on television. In fact, his herculean schedule shows no sign of abating; he begins filming for the second series of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s award-winning drama the day after his press night at the National.
Scott appeared as Sherlock’s pernicious nemesis Moriarty in the final of three initial episodes last year and will enjoy a more substantial appearance this series. So, I plunge in, do you get to kill Sherlock at Reichenbach Falls? “I can’t [tell you]!” he laughs, resisting my subtle probing. “Somebody will come out and shoot me in the face!”
“I think if we’re wearing togas and mini skirts it gets a bit Carry On Pompeii”
Fair enough. But approximately seven million Sherlock fans are eagerly waiting to find out. Scott isn’t used to being in a programme with such popular appeal. “I haven’t really experienced that. People have liked plays and stuff that I’ve been in but I suppose it’s a completely different thing where you realise that people have genuine affection for a [TV] show.”
While Sherlock will undoubtedly put him in the media spotlight, Scott doesn’t equate being in a hit television show – or one gathering substantial pre-broadcast hype, like The Hour – as any bigger measure of success than his less prominent but equally accomplished stage credits to date. In fact being on screen was never really his aim; he went into acting to be in the theatre, a desire that came to him aged nine or 10.
After dropping out of an academic theatre studies degree he began his stage career at the Abbey theatre in Dublin, and it was there that he got the grounding that has enabled him to build a steady career based on the type of work he enjoys. “I think you have to go ‘what’s of value to me?’” he says of measuring success, “and what was of value to me so far has been learning how to act. I was very lucky to work with really brilliant people early on, really good writers and really good directors, and that’s addictive. Then your ear for good scripts improves. It means that you don’t have that profile but I wouldn’t swap that for a million years because I feel it’s afforded me a lot of time. So when your profile does increase a little bit you actually have a sense of your own self and what you’re good at, and actually you can be braver. At the time I didn’t worry too much about what way Moriarty would be perceived and it being a famous character, whereas maybe if I was 23 I would be like ‘oh my God this is such a pressure’.”
It is why he doesn’t see this current glut of work as any kind of watershed in his career. “I’ve kind of been quite lucky in a sense in that I’ve never felt like I was failing, if you know what I mean.”
Nevertheless, he doesn’t deny that being in a hit telly show, or winning an Olivier Award, as he did in 2005, does open up opportunities. “So much of this industry is about having a calling card. I think what most actors want is an opportunity. Most actors don’t mind not getting a job but they do mind not getting an audition. I think things like being in a TV programme that people watch, or winning awards or getting good reviews, that encourages the people who employ actors to go, ‘right, well I’ll give him a shot’.”
Scott, it is clear, has several calling cards up his sleeve right now, which hopefully means we may see a lot more of the actor in the future, both on screen and on stage. That is, if Emperor And Galilean doesn’t drain the life out of him. He grins. “I’ll definitely have a holiday after this.”