One of the cool things about seeing movies early is that sometimes you walk in not knowing much about it. That was the case with Pride & Prejudice. All I knew was that it starred Keira Knightey and that it was based on the Jane Austen novel. So when the film’s Mr. Darcy was introduced, I got psyched – it was Tom Quinn from MI-5!
Or Spooks, as it was known in the UK. I like to imagine the title was changed for the US version because of perceived racial insensitivity, but most likely it was because A&E thought people would assume it was a show about ghosts, and not a very realistic show about spies.
Matthew MacFadyen is the star of MI-5/Spooks, and he’s awesome. And he’s awesome as Mr. Darcy as well. He really walks the line with this character, coming awfully close to being unlikable at times. In fact, that was my first question for him.
Q: One of the things that is difficult about Darcy is that if he’s played wrong, he’s just a dick. He never gets likable. How did you approach that to make sure your Darcy wasn’t just a dick?
MacFadyen: I just hoped that Joe [Wright, the director] had his eye on it. But reading the script it’s quite clear the moments when he’s vulnerable. The scene in the rain – until then he’s just unlikable, and that’s quite correct. Because he’s a dick. [laughs] He doesn’t say anything nice about anybody, he doesn’t look at anybody – he makes a little bit of an effort in the scene at the piano when he explains why he can’t talk to people. But it’s the scene in the rain, that car crash scene where everything goes so badly when he tells her he loves her, that’s [when you like him]. That’s a big thing for him to say. Now to us it seems very snobbish to say, ‘I’ve been big enough to get over the fact that your parents are naff, and I love you.’ Then it would be such a huge and generous thing to say, despite my rank and the inferiority of your birth.
Q: At least he doesn’t have a line as offensive as Olivier’s ‘a certain amusement to be derived from watching the lower classes at play.’
MacFadyen: I haven’t seen that film. I would be curious to see that now.
Can you talk a little bit about taking on the iconic role of Mr. Darcy?
While Lizzie is the protagonist, he’s the most famous character in
Pride & Prejudice.
It was daunting in that I was aware there was the Darcy “thing,” and
that people are quite proprietaril about Pride & Prejudice as a
whole. ‘Why are they making another version?’ ‘How dare they?’ ‘You
better not fuck it up!’ They’re really fierce, the Jane-ites. Which is
good, because it’s a classic, and it’s much loved.
But I hadn’t
seen the BBC version, so I didn’t really worry about it. Because you
can’t as an actor, otherwise you could never play Hamlet or you could
never play Richard III. Actually it was quite flattering to be in such
good company. A lot of people asked me how I would be trying to make it
different from Colin Firth, which is strange because even if I had seen
him, I wouldn’t try, because you couldn’t. You do what you can do.
Q: Most, if not all of this film was shot on location. How does location shooting affect you as an actor getting into character?
MacFadyen: It means you’re there. It’s lovely. It’s less of a leap of the imagination than if you’re in a studio.
Q: Are there hardships to location shooting as opposed to shooting on stages?
MacFadyen: No, it’s nice. I would much rather do location. There weren’t great distances involved or anything.
Also, Darcy’s not in it that much, so I’d sort of go for a bit and come back. My wife was pregnant at the time, and I’d be delivered to these various stately piles around the UK and do a scene or two – solemnly – and then go home again! It was a nice summer!
Q: How important has Spooks – or MI-5 here – been for you?
MacFadyen: Important in that it was the most commercial – I’m not in it anymore – the most mainstream thing I’ve done on the TV, so it raises your profile a bit.
Q: Wait – I’m a very big MI-5 fan and I’ve only seen up until the end of series 2… you don’t die, do you?!
MacFadyen: I don’t!
Q: OK. I got very nervous for a minute there. As long as Tom Quinn doesn’t die.
MacFadyen: He runs off.
Q: What was it like working with Keira?
MacFadyen: Delightful. Lovely. I wish there was some dirt on Keira. It’s infuriating that there isn’t. I felt very old, and I’m just 30. And she was going straight off to do another film, she was exhausted.
Q: When you have a leading lady, how do you know if you’ll get along or not?
MacFadyen: I’d screen-tested and rehearsed with her, and I’d auditioned with her. We got on and it was fine.
Q: Any goals to do some acting in the States?
MacFadyen: If the script is good, yes. But not to do a Hollywood film just to do a Hollywood film.
Q: You’ve done some classical stage acting – you just finished both Henrys. How was that experience?
MacFadyen: It was great. I hadn’t done a play in four years, so it was a relief to get back.
Q: And Michael Gambon was your Falstaff.
MacFadyen: He was a hoot. He was great. I worked with him once before on the TV, and he was lovely.
Q: Normally a costume drama in the United States wouldn’t get this much notice, but because she’s in it it becomes important. Do you feel a greater pressure as well, that people will be seeing you for the first time perhaps?
MacFadyen: No, I don’t really. It’s a big one for Keira, and I feel very sort of hats off to her, for making Lizzie her own. Those parts anyway, the knives are out because Lizzie and Darcy are so… But I don’t feel a terrible pressure. As an actor it’s out of your hands. You’re on to the next thing.
Q: Brenda Blethyn, who plays Mrs. Bennett, had another life before she became an actress – she worked for the railroad. Keira has been an actress since she was three.
MacFadyen: She had an agent at birth! This is your mum, this is your dad, this is your agent!
Q: Do you see a difference in them in the way they approach things as a result?
MacFadyen: Not drastically different. It’s quite irreverent. Maybe it’s a British thing as well.
You heard the Judi Dench thing… There’s an irreverence, and once you start taking the work too seriously you’re labeled a wanker and people let you know. And it goes around rather quickly and it’s not useful either, as you’re not really working.
Sir Michael Gambon, who I’ve just done this play with, has water pistol backstage. This is a Knight of the Realm. He’s got water bombs, and the dressing rooms in the National Theater are in a quad – this is the Royal National Theater – and everyone is throwing water bombs. It’s great. He’s nearly 70 years old and he has this amazing career.
What I’m trying to say is that Brenda is in that same spirit, it’s anarchic. It’s healthy I think.
Q: Who’s a wanker?
MacFadyen: Who’s a wanker? I don’t know any wankers!
Q: You mentioned the Jane-ites before, and this has opened in the UK – so what has their reaction to you been?
MacFadyen: Apparently they saw a screening before and they gave it a thumbs up. Working Title may proceed. They can continue to market the film!
Q: Apparently there’s an internet campaign to get the North American ending in the British version. Do you have a preference?
MacFadyen: I think I prefer the version without the kiss. Only because I find it quite difficult to watch myself anyway… But I don’t know, I find it saccharin.
Q: You don’t like to watch yourself, but didn’t you have to go to the premiere?
MacFadyen: I did, but I took my wife to dinner. I left. I left and got drunk.
Q: Do you read the reviews?
MacFadyen: I do, with rising fury or rising delight. They all kind of cancel each other out.
Q: Do you read the reviews when you’re in a play?
MacFadyen: No, that’s much more of a different thing. I tend not to, but it’s very hard not to. You meet actors and it’s like cigarettes, they say they’ve given them up and don’t read them anymore. You say, ‘How did you do it? How did you do it?’ and they say, ‘I just stopped. It’s fine. I don’t think about it really.’ Then they sneak off to the newsagents.
Q: Could you imagine having a career only on the screen?
MacFadyen: I would hate not to do a play every couple of years. I think it’s not me. I did four or five years in telly, and by the end of it was drained. I was a bit sick of myself. I didn’t feel like an actor anymore. That sounds silly, but when you’re doing a play you’re using different muscles, and it blew all the cobwebs away.
Q: When you see what Keira has accomplished by 19, do you ever say ‘What was I doing at that age?’
MacFadyen: I was here. I was at BAM, doing a play.
Q: The Brooklyn Academy of Music? Do you see a difference between American and English audiences?
MacFadyen: Yes. Much more generous, much more savvy than the West End. I don’t know about Broadway, as I never played Broadway, but certainly at BAM. The difference is amazing. It was totally exhilarating. West End audiences seem very kind of [leans back, folds arms] ‘Come on, entertain me.’ The National feels much more lively and more exciting.