He has worked with Ridley Scott and starred opposite Keira Knightley, but Matthew Macfadyen doesn’t lead a life of celebrity, he tells Caroline Bishop.
Matthew Macfadyen’s idea of a good day is a glass of wine with his wife and a spot of Cbeebies with the kids. It is not the private life you might imagine for the original lead of Spooks, at least, not unless he is actually about to save them all from a bomb planted in his garden.
Nor does it suit Elyot – well, maybe the wine – the dashing anti-hero in Private Lives, whose love life is distinctly less settled. Noël Coward’s quintessentially English comedy of manners centres on divorced couple Elyot and Amanda, who, unbeknownst to each other, have chosen the same hotel in which to honeymoon with their new spouses. Much to the detriment of their new partners, sparks between the former lovers definitely fly.
“There’s a perception of it as quite fluffy and light, but actually I think a lot of it is quite touching and moving,” says Macfadyen when I catch him on the phone during rehearsals for the role of Elyot, which he is now playing at the Vaudeville theatre. “It’s sad what they do [to their new spouses], it’s awful. On one level they [Amanda and Elyot] are incredibly unsympathetic characters, but they are sort of attractive because they are funny and living in the moment as much as they can.”
The fast-paced, witty dialogue exchanged between himself and co-star Kim Cattrall, who plays Amanda, has had Macfadyen laughing in recognition at Coward’s depiction of the way couples interact during arguments. “He wrote so perceptively about men and women and the sexual desire and the inability to get on properly because of the fighting, and how couples in their rows… the conversations turn on a sixpence and suddenly explode, it’s what we do, you know.”
“Often on stage you see people rowing for pages and pages and actually I don’t think that really happens in real life. People either hit each other or walk out. And in this it’s so cleverly done because that’s exactly what happens, one minute they are in each other’s arms saying ‘we were mad to ever part’, and the next minute they are screaming at each other.”
He says he avoids confrontation himself, “but if I go, I go and then it doesn’t last long. Quite healthy,” he says amiably.
Though his own family life with actress wife Keeley Hawes and their children seems distinctly more stable than Elyot’s, there was a time when the storyline echoed more heavily in his own love life. Macfadyen, now 35, met Hawes when they worked together on the BBC’s spy series Spooks in 2002; she was recently married with a baby son. Hawes subsequently divorced her husband and married Macfadyen in 2004. Had he not drawn any parallels? “It hadn’t crossed my mind, which is odd. Perhaps it ought to have, but it hadn’t crossed my mind at all. I hadn’t related my own life to it,” says Macfadyen, unruffled.
“There’s a perception of it as quite fluffy and light, but actually I think a lot of it is quite touching and moving”
Mild-mannered and calm in conversation, Macfadyen doesn’t seem like he would be ruffled by anything. Perhaps it is the stability that comes with family life, or the enjoyment he is getting from playing Elyot, but the actor projects an easy contentedness over the phone.
It is a contrast to the roles he is best known for. Tom Quinn, the MI5 agent in Spooks, whom he played for just over two series, rarely cracked a smile in his struggle to balance his career with any kind of personal life, while Jane Austen’s brooding Mr Darcy, whom he played in Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation, is not a man who could be termed easy-going. His screen work also includes playing Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, Enid Blyton’s first husband for BBC4 and an abusive husband in last year’s Criminal Justice.
“A lot of the telly work I’ve done has been quite serious and buttoned up and I just thought this would be great,” says Macfadyen. “I do my best to try and do things which are different you know,” he says later. “Elyot doesn’t shut up.”
Comedy is not alien to him; quite the contrary. Macfadyen started his career in the theatre and before Spooks came along he appeared in another comedy of manners, The School For Scandal, as well as Shakespeare’s light comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also joined Cheek By Jowl to play one half of another sparring couple, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.
But joining Spooks for its dramatic first series in 2002 had an indelible effect on his public profile. “It was the most high profile telly I’ve done. And it’s one of those things…” he trails off ponderously, as he often does during our conversation. “I only did two series and it’s probably eight years ago now that I finished but still it’s ‘Spooks’s Matthew Macfadyen’, you know. The power of TV.”
“I think we all wanted to go and join the National or do a tour with the RSC or Cheek By Jowl”
He left the series at the height of its popularity – “I really loved it but I don’t know, 16 hours of the same character was enough” – and he hasn’t watched it since, “which is a terrible admission. I don’t watch telly really. I’ve got three kids and we don’t flop in front of the telly, we catch up and have a bottle of wine instead.” I presume he means he drinks the wine, not the kids, who are nine, five and three. Doesn’t he even watch the things he is in? “No not really,” he laughs. “I’ve seen a lot of Play Disney and CBeebies. That’s the telly I watch.”
It is clear that family is extremely important to him and his life is ordinary in the best sense of the word. Indeed he is enjoying the routine that theatre allows him. “It’s so nice doing this because I am feeling like I’m going to work every day and coming home like a normal person,” he says.
However, he had to leave Hawes and the kids for 22 weeks to film the forthcoming television serialisation of Ken Follett’s 12th century-set epic Pillars Of The Earth in Hungary and Austria. “It’s a big medieval pot-boiler really, with blood and guts and politics and religion and a love story,” says Macfadyen, who plays Prior Philip in a cast that also includes Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland, Rufus Sewell, Sarah Parish and Robert Bathurst. “I missed the babies but it was lovely and not so far away that I couldn’t get back, so it was good fun and a nice bunch of people as well.”
“I’ve seen a lot of Play Disney and CBeebies. That’s the telly I watch”
Pillars Of The Earth is co-produced by Ridley Scott’s production company and Macfadyen’s association with the Hollywood director also extends to his role as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Scott’s new film Robin Hood, which, after many rumoured changes, is to focus on Hood’s life before he became a forest-dwelling outlaw, says Macfadyen. As such, the Sheriff has significantly less screen time than Alan Rickman’s 1991 precursor. “It was a cough and a spit really, I did about five days on it. He’s not the main baddie, he’s just sort of… he’s an idiot really. I had good fun doing it and Ridley seemed to like what I was doing so…”
“I’ve done a few big movies but this was so huge, it was like an army going to war; hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people and cars and vehicles and horses.”
About as unlike theatre as you could get, then. Though Robin Hood adds to a film CV that also includes Pride & Prejudice, Incendiary and Frost/Nixon, the RADA graduate says theatre was the reason he wanted to be an actor. “I didn’t imagine I would do much filming, I didn’t really think about it. It’s sort of changed a lot in last the 14, 15 years since I left. The rep thing has totally gone, pretty much, and people have a different idea of what celebrity is. Instead of doing a long theatre job they want to do telly and get a bit of money and get a bit of a profile, and that wasn’t really the thing when I left somehow. I think we all wanted to go and join the National or do a tour with the RSC or Cheek By Jowl.”
Given his background, it is no wonder that every few years Macfadyen starts “feeling a twinge” to go back to theatre. There might be a new telly job in the pipeline, he tells me, after his time at the Vaudeville theatre comes to an end. However high profile a job it is, I am sure Macfadyen leads far too unassuming a life for his feet to leave the ground. But even he isn’t completely immune to the perks of screen work. “I’m sure after 10 weeks of going to the theatre every night I will be looking forward to being picked up and given a cup of tea somewhere.” If only every actor were so easily pleased.