An actor who just happens to be Scottish

Last Update: 11 November 2000

An actor who just happens to be Scottish

Source: Scottish Herald

25 September 2000

WILLIAM RUSSELL meets Angus MacFadyen

THERE are Scottish actors, and actors who happen to be Scots. Bobby, Peter, and Ewan are Scottish actors, and so is Sean, especially Sean. Like Esther Williams, a star when wet, Sean is a star when Scots. But Angus Macfadyen is just an actor who happens also to be a Scot, which is odd, given that he made his name in Braveheart, Mel Gibson's take on William Wallace, beloved by both the SNP and right-wing militias in the United States.

Son of a doctor who worked for the World Health Organisation, Macfadyen is not your run-of-the-mill thick actor. After a peripatetic childhood as his father travelled the world - Africa, the Philippines, Singapore - he read French and English at Edinburgh University and then went to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He does not, he says, "feel like a Scottish actor as such". What he does feel like is a nomad. That is the actor's life, unless one happens to be in something long-running on television and reports to the set with the same people for five years.

As an actor, you never know what is coming next, he says. One day you may think it is all over, the next you are in Russia or China with a whole new family for a couple of months. It is an adventure, and what he enjoys is the unpredictability. He reckons it is his childhood that made him want to become an actor, because although he did read English and French at university the four years were spent "mostly getting drunk and doing theatre". He did 35 plays during that time.

How much of a nomad is he? He has a flat in LA where he spends maybe three or four months of the year, and keeps his DVD collection of around 100 films and a TV set he uses to watch them on. They are, he says, mostly films from the seventies - the golden era of film-making, he believes - films such as Sunday Bloody Sunday or Apocalypse Now.

He is in London to talk about his latest film to be released here, Titus, directed by Julie Taymor, the puppeteer and designer who made her name as a director with the Broadway version of Disney's The Lion King. It is, Shakespeare not being exactly film box-office, Titus Andronicus by another name. The all-star cast is headed by Anthony Hopkins as Titus and Jessica Lang as the luckless Tamara, Queen of the Goths, who gets given her two sons baked in a pie for dinner. Filming was, by all accounts, not a happy experience. It was while making Titus that Hopkins staged one of his giving-it-all-up scenes. The word was that Taymor is a control freak. True? Macfadyen, who plays Lucius, the eldest of Titus's sons, is discretion itself.

"It was an interesting film to work on as three months of shooting turned into five," he says. "It was very interesting just to watch people like Hopkins work - and go mad. That was when he said he was giving acting up." Why? "When three months become five, it is like telling a long-distance runner that there is another five miles ahead of him. I don't think he always likes doing what he does."

He enjoys acting himself, unlike some actors, notably Hopkins, but admits there are always days when you wake up and wonder what the hell it is all about. But he never ceases to be grateful for the incredible opportunities actors get - like being in Rome for five months, eating pasta and drinking red wine and getting paid for it. "Sometimes you forget that."

On the other hand, there were times such as when they were filming at the Roman amphitheatre in Pula, standing in for the Coliseum, when it was cold, wet, and they were covered in mud - "a very glamorous lifestyle".

As for Taymor, he says she had a very powerful vision. "I think she is quite a genie out of the bottle, and sometimes that goes with certain sociopathic tendencies, and if people don't embrace their genius they get very upset by this inability of an artist to deal with their reality," he adds. "I know some people did get upset with her, but you have to accept that kind of thing. People were not aware of what they were making. To some it was just another job. They did not have the heart or foresight to see what they were involved in. I think it is a film which, 20 years down the line, people will still be watching."

He did not, as some of the cast did, come totally fresh to Shakespeare, having played Prospero and Edgar while at drama school. He has read the plays and the sonnets, and is familiar with the language. He says Taymor had cast a lot of Celts in the film - Hopkins, Alan Cumming, and Matthew Rhys among them - so it was not a film just about talking heads, divorced from the emotional context of the story. As a result she had "a whole bunch of very seriously disturbed Celts" to cope with, and did "a damn good job dealing with them all".

His career has seen him play the likes of Orson Welles, in The Cradle Will Rock, and Richard Burton and Peter Lawford in two made-for-television films. What was it like playing real people? Fun, he says. As opposed to using one's imagination, one got given money to buy all their films and all the books about them, and to immerse oneself in the person for a few months. That seems to have been fine with Welles and Burton, less so with Lawford.

One of the reasons he enjoyed making Tim Robbins's Cradle, a film about the Welles's famous production of the banned musical, was that they had three weeks' rehearsal, and when they came to shoot the scenes in the theatre where the musical was being staged they spent all of the 12-hour day rehearsing to shoot 30 one-minute takes. "We were all there," he says. "There was no going off to your dressing-room. It was exciting, and also like dying and going to actors' heaven because I was with so many actors I admired and enjoyed working with."

Burton was "a gift of a role", but the script had been written by an American who did not understand how Burton spoke, so he got the chance to re-write most of his own dialogue. "I put the poetry into it wherever I could, wherever it was acceptable," he says. "But you are talking about something for an American TV network. It was fun for five weeks. When you look back with hindsight you always want to do things differently, but there is no point in torturing yourself. You move on and take those lessons and try to do something interesting."

But getting under Lawford's skin was not pleasant. "He was not his own man," he says. "He was famous for being famous, hanging out with legends far bigger and more talented than he was, who ate him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner."

Lawford's end was terrible, he adds. His kidneys ceased to function and on his deathbed he basically "spat his guts out". Why was it a bad experience? Because as an actor one took something home, paid a price for playing such characters, and getting beaten up by Ray Liotta was not his idea of a good day at work. "Lawford was someone constantly apologising for his existence," he adds. "It makes you feel uncomfortable under your skin."

Since Titus he has made a couple of independent films, in one of which he plays a villain all covered in tattoos with short hair, and completed a cameo in Jason and the Argonauts as Zeus. "On that it was a question of learning the lines and not disappearing into the clouds while wearing a beard and a wig," he says. "It was three days' work mostly done in front of a blue screen." Difficult? "That is where you start to have to use your imagination. It is the opposite of playing Lawford. What research can you do to play Zeus? You have to play it tongue-in-cheek because it is quite absurd." As for being a villain, what he had liked about the film Second Skin was that the role was, for once, well written.

So where next? Berlin, to make a futuristic thriller with Christian Bale and Emily Watson called Librium, a drug people take to make them have no emotions whatever. "I am playing the equivalent of the President of the United States, except there are no nation states. I am the corporate president of the whole thing, but I am not going to play it like another villain. That is too boring. People who do the things he does do them because they believe they are right. People such as Stalin, Mao, Hitler . . . Blair."


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