This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Eddie Marsan isn’t just one of the best British actors working today – he’s also one of the busiest, appearing in all kinds of supporting roles in major movies, while also appearing on TV a lot, on both sides of the Atlantic. He was fantastic as the latter lead in BBC One’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell last year and he’s also a regular on Showtime’s Ray Donovan as Ray’s brother Terry, an ex-boxer suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
On the big screen though, it’s Marsan’s versatility that really makes him so watchable. He’s had attention grabbing turns in minor roles in blockbusters like Hancock, Mission: Impossible III and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, but he’s also at home amongst a big ensemble in more serious fare like Spielberg’s War Horse and Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York. He can play pure evil or pure selflessness, all while passing for a fairly regular bloke. If you’ve ever found the tag of ‘character actor’ reductive, he’s given it a good name in his Stateside work.
As Marsan himself put it to The Independent in 2010 – “When I think of character actors, I think of Spencer Tracy, I think of Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall. When I was a young lad watching films, my eyes were on them – watching On The Waterfront, my eyes are on Rod Steiger and Karl Malden, not on Brando. […] If I looked like the guy from Twilight and had my CV, I’d be fucking huge. But it’s a longer career. After a while, people begin to join the dots.”
So, let’s join some of those dots, and look back upon some of our favourite big screen roles of one of Britain’s very best working character actors.
Eddie Miller – Gangster No. 1
Although he has a self-professed aversion to Cockney gangster movies, Gangster No. 1 was a film that got Marsan noticed early in his film career. When Paul Bettany’s nameless gangster shows up at his flat like the big bad wolf, lowly thief Eddie Miller is the little piggy who quails in terror under his interrogation until he breaks.
Bettany is on star-making form in that scene and the film at large, but it’s Marsan’s utterly hysterical fear that really sells it, and its all on his trembling, tear-streaked, snot-covered face. The scene isn’t really that violent, but it’s an incredibly intense and closely shot exchange that relies upon this wrenching emotional performance. This wouldn’t be Marsan’s last gangster film, (he played a Gene Hunt-looking corrupt copper in London Boulevard) but it’s clear from this that he was going places.
Weapons Man – Heartless
Marsan makes a short but memorable appearance as one of the Devil’s lackeys in Philip Ridley’s Faustian horror film, terrorising little Jim Sturgess to uphold his end of a hellish bargain. Jamie (Sturgess) believes that the satanic Papa B (Joseph Mawle) has removed his disfiguring birthmarks in exchange for him committing minor acts of petty vandalism, but he is quickly disabused of his naivete when Weapons Man rocks up in his flat, in a scene that inverts that Gangster No. 1 scene and gives it a supernatural edge.
It should be hard to pull off this mix of funny and pure evil, but Marsan is so good, he makes it look easy. Ridley’s film leaves you with a lot to mull over and its depiction of demonic gangs and existential struggle on a council estate is visually striking, but still it’s Weapons Man and his fierce temper that you’re thinking about for ages afterwards.
Reg – Vera Drake
Mike Leigh’s drama about a mother who performs illegal terminations for women who either cannot afford or are otherwise ill equipped to have a child is harrowing all round, but the drama comes out of how much else she does for her family and her community. Vera (Imelda Staunton) is a selfless sort and she takes Marsan’s soft-spoken bachelor Reg under her wing, inviting him round for tea so that he doesn’t have to eat alone and ultimately sets him up with her daughter.
“When I did Vera Drake, Reg was thinking so many things but he said them in monosyllabic responses,” Marsan told the Financial Times in a 2015 interview, and that sums his character up nicely. Over the course of the film, Reg is always welcome in the Drake household and mostly speaks just to thank her for a “lovely spread”, and by the end of the film, he’s part of the family and, by extension, Leigh’s superb ensemble, which shatters when the truth finally comes out.
Clifford Blades – Filth
Anyone would look mild-mannered next to DS Bruce Robertson, James McAvoy’s foul, scheming anti-hero in Filth, but ‘Bladesey’ is particularly ill served by a friendship in which he is little more than an emotional punching bag. He’s a member of the Masons, with all the properness that comes with it, but that only means that Bruce takes greater glee in making obscene phone calls to his sex-starved wife Bunty (Shirley Henderson).
Blades would be sympathetic if only because Robertson is so nasty, kicking him around both emotionally and physically, but he’s just so bloody nice too. In a film as brash as this one, there’s still room for a scene in which Bladesey rubs his nipples and dances around a gay bar during a drug-fuelled trip to Amsterdam, but as you’d expect, Marsan nails the pathos too.
Peter Page – The World’s End
The finale to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy takes a left turn from the previous instalments Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, and is still under-appreciated for its strong performances. Like Bladesey, poor Peter is a bit naïve and easily gets swept up in the riptide of Pegg’s Gary King and his nostalgic crawl of self-destruction – for him, a return to the town where they grew up evokes memories of being bullied.
Like the rest of the cast though, Marsan gives a masterclass in drunk acting as they whip through a pint per pub and although his sub-plot carries some emotional baggage, he rises to the occasion in the funnier moments too, getting ever more giggly as the carnage escalates before finally cracking and battering a robot with a branch. It’s an outlier on this particular list, but we like it.
Vic – The Disappearance Of Alice Creed
The Disappearance Of Alice Creed is a mercurial three-handed thriller which starred Marsan and Martin Compston as partners in crime and Gemma Arterton as their hostage. Set mostly in a secure soundproofed room, writer-director J. Blakeson takes great pleasure in twisting the plot around every time something is revealed to the audience that one of the other characters doesn’t know.
Of the three leads, Marsan arguably gets the most to chew on, playing a volatile character who repeatedly subverts expectations, revealing vastly different dimensions to his personality when either one of the other two aren’t looking. It’s a performance that rides alongside Blakeson’s endlessly shifting thriller and it makes for arresting viewing.
James – Tyrannosaur
In Paddy Considine’s unforgettable directorial debut, Peter Mullan’s self-destructive grouch Joseph might just be saved by Hannah, a compassionate Christian woman, played by Olivia Colman. They’re more platonic soulmates, especially as Hannah is married, but once her husband James is introduced, we meet Marsan at his darkest.
He does something vile to Hannah in his very first scene and only gets more skin crawling from there, in a truly despicable turn that transcends the Hollywood villainy or traditional ancient evil of other parts we’ve mentioned on this list and puts a hateful face to the reality of domestic abuse. Another actor might have been typecast after being so repugnant, but you only have to compare this to any of those meeker characters we’ve mentioned to prove his versatility.
Scott – Happy-Go-Lucky
All together now- “En Rah Ha!” Marsan has said that he went into his second collaboration with Mike Leigh expecting to be “the next Travis Bickle”. It was only when he got to the set that he realised the cheese-and-chalk chemistry between his antisocial driving instructor and Sally Hawkins’ endlessly cheerful student, Poppy, would make for some fantastic comedy. The result is one of his most celebrated roles to date.
However, you can see why he prepared for a darker film. Scott is deeply troubled, assuming that all of his problems must be the rest of the world’s fault and harbouring racist and misogynistic views that make him impossible to reason with, even though Poppy repeatedly tries. His final spittle-flecked rant is more sad than pitiable, because of the humanity that Marsan invests in a character who could so easily have been less.
Mr. May – Still Life
If, after all of this, you have any doubt that Eddie Marsan is a – yep, we’re going to say it – national treasure, you need to watch Still Life. Almost all of the films we’ve listed have found him in supporting roles, but it’s for that reason that we’ve saved Uberto Pasolini’s quietly devastating drama about loneliness and admin in the face of death, in which Marsan is front and centre, for last.
He plays Mr. May, a lonely and thoughtful man in a line of work where nobody seems to be on first name terms, going about the unusual business of making funeral arrangements for late local residents who died alone. His own time is running out as the council prepares to fold his duties into another position, and you can’t help but root for him as he puts his deceased clients before himself.
Marsan deservedly won the Best British Actor award at the Edinburgh Film Festival in the year this one premièred, and it’s well worth a watch on Netflix if you haven’t seen it yet. The tone is sombre, as you’d expect from a film so concerned with mortality, but it’s a truly life affirming watch, in which a masterful study of humanity is built upon Marsan’s sturdiness as a character actor.
As mentioned, Eddie Marsan has been in a whole bunch of films, so tell us what your favourites are, or if there are any we’ve missed, in the comments. En Rah Ha!
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.