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Matthew Marsh

Published 10 September 2008

The bar of the Royal Court theatre is always a relaxing venue to conduct an interview. The basement space has a cool, hip feel to it without the intrusive unfriendliness of trendiness. There is a warmth about it that makes you feel comfortable, at home even.

Sitting here with Matthew Marsh, star of the Royal Court’s new production Now Or Later, feels like having a friendly chat over a glass of, in his case, cranberry juice, rather than work. We could be anywhere, just passing the day, were it not for our quite prescribed topics of conversation.

Marsh, as relaxed as it is possible to be with your eyes open, has enjoyed quite a comfortable rehearsal period for Now Or Later. Christopher Shinn’s new play, set on the eve of the American presidential election, features Marsh as the president-elect and Eddie Redmayne as his son, of whom controversial pictures are gathering momentum on the internet.

While the piece is built around Redmayne’s character, it crescendos towards a final scene showdown between father and son, the only scene in which Marsh appears. On the content of this scene alone, Marsh wanted to be part of the production, though it has led to an odd experience where he has not been required for much of the rehearsals. “It was nice, but slightly strange,” Marsh says, “because you’re not quite sure what’s going on, whether you’re missing out on stuff.”

He certainly didn’t miss out on any research into the world of elections and politics. Director Dominic Cooke arranged talks with Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager, a political communications manager and a psychiatrist to offer the cast an insight into the cut-throat world of American politics. Yet Marsh, of all the cast, was probably less in need of such a tutorial, having been fascinated by the American political sphere since the Kennedy assassination.

To focus on the politics alone, Marsh says, would be to do a disservice to Shinn’s new play. “Family is at the root of virtually all great drama,” he states, “so the family is at the centre of this piece.” Though politics is obviously key to Now Or Later, Marsh says, it is not always global politics, but smaller scale family politics as well. The relationship between father and son, the effect of one on the other, is heightened because of the public lives they live. Yet the choices they make are still of a familial nature.

"I was very disappointed not to get a phone call from Obama asking me to be his vice-presidential running mate, but I’ve got over it now"

“It’s so tightly written and cleverly constructed,” Marsh confirms. “It manages to be about politics and certain political issues of the moment at the same time as being a moving piece about a family who are under the spotlight.”

It is no coincidence that the Royal Court has programmed Now Or Later to coincide with the run up to the real American election. But making too much of a connection between the two would be a mistake. Though Shinn’s play explores one piece of the process, Marsh stresses that it is by no means a direct representation of what is currently happening on the far side of the Atlantic, though: “if John McCain dropped dead, or something mega happened, it would possibly have a bizarre knock-on effect on the play. But hey, this is only a play and that’s real life. I was very disappointed not to get a phone call from Obama asking me to be his vice-presidential running mate, but I’ve got over it now,” he laughs.

Marsh rarely gets too serious during our meeting. His deadpan humour runs through our chat and his morning round of golf has put him in good spirits. The whole process of working on this production seems to have been very easy for him. The topic was one in which he took an avid interest. The writing could not have been better. He loves working with Cooke. And he already knew his co-star, having previously appeared with Redmayne in the hit UK premiere of Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?

In fact, it was young co-star Redmayne who first told Marsh about Now Or Later when the pair met up at Jonathan Pryce’s summer party. Redmayne had already been cast and though Marsh initially forgot about the production, when his agent mentioned the play to him he jumped at the opportunity to audition. Though Marsh was cast as the possible future leader of the free world, the process was not quite as smooth as it could have been. “I know they offered it to a few other people,” he admits, “but that’s the way it goes in this business and I’ve never had a problem with that.”

There is no ego about Marsh. When he says he doesn’t have a problem with being second or third choice, he speaks the words so casually that it is very easy to believe. “I think I can probably count on one hand the number of parts I’ve been up for in the last 15 years that I really, really, really wanted to play in the way that a lot of actors really want things,” he continues, explaining his laidback approach to the industry. “Most of the time, if I go for jobs or get offered a job I’m very philosophical if I don’t get it, because it’s not the end of the world, and other things have always come along.”

He is not wrong there. In recent years Marsh has notched up a number of credits across the London stage. The Goat, Glengarry Glen Ross, A Prayer For My Daughter, The Lightning Play and Copenhagen are just a few of the productions in which he has appeared. If you look closely at his CV, however, a pattern emerges. For the most part, the last two decades have seen Marsh perform almost exclusively in UK or world premiere productions. The two notable exceptions were The Little Foxes and Glengarry Glen Ross, the latter tempting Marsh out of his ways with “the opportunity to do some Mamet”.

"I’m not one of those actors who has to play leads"

“I’d much rather do that than be in a classic where you know that half the audience has seen another production of the same play within the last five years,” he explains, sipping his cranberry juice. “For me, just knowing that an audience doesn’t know how to react makes it far more exciting and interesting as a performer.”

Marsh’s needs as a performer are simple. He cares about the part and the play. “I’m not one of those actors who has to play leads,” he says. Again that laidback approach comes through. He laughs as he talks about his stage time in both Now Or Later and Glengarry Glen Ross, productions in which his performance time was not huge, but the scenes he was in were enough to convince him to commit to the project. “I carry a stopwatch around with me! I time every single moment I have on stage,” he deadpans once more.

The surprising side effect of playing cracking parts with lesser exposure is not the blow to the ego I would have expected, but a nagging sense of guilt: “I used to think ‘I’m on for 15 minutes and I’m earning good money, and you sort of think people slog their guts out working eight hours a day, so you feel guilty temporarily. But then you get over it, because the other side is as an actor you’re totally living with complete financial insecurity the whole time. It’s just a gamble you take. Sometimes you’re overpaid, sometimes you’re underpaid.”

Only twice during our interview does the nonchalant, relaxed approach to life seem to slip. The first comes with talk of future projects and the way in which he chooses them: “I’m 54, you know. I’ve been acting for coming up to 32 years. I want to keep acting until I drop. So for me, maybe there’s another 25 years. When I get offered a job now, I often think ‘that job’s five months, possibly six months, that’s one fiftieth of my possible remaining acting time. Do I want to spend one fiftieth of my remaining working time doing that thing?” Assessing the next 25 years of work sounds a little like panic to me, but Marsh quickly qualifies it, bringing it back into the realms of the relaxed: “It’s to do with wanting to enjoy the work that I’m doing, and also just going with the flow.”

I may be labouring a point, but Marsh seems pretty unfazed by anything. When approached to appear in the last series of spy drama Spooks, in which he played American operative Bob Hogan, he signed to appear in the entire series when only two scripts were written. He had no idea what would happen to his character as the plot progressed. This did not bother him; he would “turn up one day a week and play golf the rest of the time!”

Similarly, his time in A Prayer For My Daughter could have knocked the wind out of his sails. At the reconfigured Young Vic, with a capacity of 350 seated either side of the stage, Marsh was regularly playing to an audience of just 80. But the most he is drawn to is admitting that “a couple of times it was depressing, but we actually had an absolute ball doing the play”.

"I remember miming climbing up a mountain; that kind of put me off acting for several years"

Who knows quite where this wonderful laid back nature comes from? It seems to be an acceptance of ‘what will be will be’. Maybe it stems from his acting origins. To say he fell into the industry would be an exaggeration, but he didn’t pursue it from an early age. At school, he says, he only appeared in one production: “I played a Spanish soldier in Royal Hunt Of The Sun. A non-speaking part. I remember miming climbing up a mountain; that kind of put me off acting for several years.”

At university he “got into comedy”, performing with author Anthony Horowitz, playwright Michael Wall and director Libby Oldroyd. But back in 1976 the comedy scene was not as progressed as it is today, so following Edinburgh success and a season at the Little Theatre Club, Marsh’s comedy career came to an abrupt end before he spent four months exploring Mexico and America. On his return he applied for a number of jobs, just one of them acting. That was the job he was offered, and the career in which he has excelled.

As the interview drifts on and we chat about golf – about how he has time to play and I don’t – Marsh becomes the first interviewee to ever touch my Dictaphone. It is a piece of equipment he has already professed his admiration for, respecting the fact that it still uses tapes rather than recording digitally. When he knows he has to think about an answer, he thoughtfully turns it off to save using up cassette space with dead air. The most serious answer of the interview comes from one of the most flippant questions: If he really was the most powerful man in the world, what would he do? “I think what I would do would be to spend a lot of energy trying to revitalise, reform and make more effective in the political arena the United Nations, because I think we do need an international organisation that is capable of dealing with political or humanitarian crises.” His answer is fed by his experience in the National Theatre production of The Overwhelming, which dealt with the Rwandan genocide.

Very occasionally, it seems, the relaxation drops away from Marsh to expose a very concerned, aware heart, but normal service is swiftly resumed. Does he have any advice for people starting out in the profession? “None whatsoever.” It is a line he delivers as straight as you like, but with a great big smile lurking behind a relaxed exterior.



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