“Eddie Marsan smiling”. Those were the words I typed into the Google Image search bar minutes before picking up the phone to him. It was a cowardly, but necessary act.
Since watching Marsan’s performance as an abusive husband in Paddy Considine’s brutal debut Tyrannosaur, the idea of speaking to him on the phone, with none of the comforting social cues that come from meeting someone face-to-face, had sat like a weight in my stomach.
Before the interview, mental images from Tyrannosaur kept flashing up uninvited, images of Eddie Marsan doing sadistic, violent and degrading things. So it was with a reassuring picture of the actor grinning cheerily, puckishly in front of me that I answered his call. And I’m glad it was, because on top of being a captivating actor capable of evoking real pathos and danger on screen, Eddie Marsan doesn’t half have a terrific smile…
Perhaps we can start with the dwarf spin-off you pitched at the Snow White And The Huntsman premiere? Were you thinking a kind of all-British version of The Expendables?
Yeah [laughs] something like that’d be good. I think we could be like the Ant Hill mob from Wacky Races.
Do you prepare in the same way for a fantasy role like Duir [Marsan’s part in Snow White And The Huntsman], as you do for much more intense, real-world characters like Tyrannosaur’s James or Happy Go Lucky’s Scott?
As much as possible, yeah. You read the script, you go through it, you try and work out what they’re trying to achieve and then you try to achieve it. You have physical attributes that you have to incorporate and though they live in different worlds… it’s all about using your imagination really. You just use your imagination and try as much as possible to create the character. It’s the same principle.
Some things rely more on… with Jack The Giant Killer you’re in front of a green screen for six months and for Tyrannosaur you’re in a suburban house abusing Olivia Colman, but they’re both the same thing really, it’s all acting. I don’t know how else to describe it really.
Unlike your dwarf character though, there’s no boot camp for a character like James… That must have taken some different prep?
There is a psychological boot camp, you have to go away and read things. Olivia was very kind to give me a load of case histories to read about abused women. All the names were taken out and changed but it was all this history about women who’d been abused and what their husbands had done and why their husbands had done it, so I had to read up on that which was very helpful. So there is a kind of preparation, but you just prepare in order to make it as real as possible and not to overact. The way you don’t overact is to just think the thoughts and you have to prepare in order to think the thoughts.
After playing Scott and James, you must get sent more violent psycho scripts than Gary Oldman these days…
I don’t know how much Gary gets. I get quite a few, and I turn a few down. I don’t like it if they’re just psychopaths. I think James and Scott were both very, very sad men and that came out in the film, you know? You could see that there was something about them that was pathetic and that I find interesting. The idea of playing these two dimensional evil characters I think I find pretty boring really, I wouldn’t know how to do it.
Is that like your cockneys on coke rule, something else on the ‘no’ list?
Yeah, that’s to do with kind of fighting against prejudice really, that’s to do with people, as soon as they know where I come from, they think that’s what I want to do or that’s what I know about and I find it all quite ridiculous.
Also, all those people who make those kind of films, I don’t think they’re real cockneys anyway, they’re cardboard cockneys and I’m not, I’m the real thing, and because I’m the real thing I see through it.
Back to Snow White And The Huntsman for a moment. The film and its sequel have attracted a lot of press for reasons we don’t need to go into chiefly because they’re none of our business. As someone who makes a distinction between actors and movie stars, how does it feel when a project gets eclipsed by the fame and rumour side of the business?
I don’t take any notice of it really. What you’ve got to remember is that when you’re working on a film set, it’s like the calm in the eye of the storm. It’s very, very calm, and everything on the peripheries of film sets – rumour and speculation and all that, that’s where the storm is.
The actual doing of a film and the making of a film is a very, very calm, ordered process that demands a lot of hard work and a lot of concentration, so actually that’s where my work is. My work isn’t on the peripheries and all that stuff, to a certain extent, that’s your work, that’s not my work. That affects you more than it affects me, because I just turn up for work and do my job and go home. Does that make sense?
The funny thing is, I was watching a documentary on The Beatles the other day and it was like that with them, you could see all these people screaming for The Beatles and then there they were, just four guys sitting in a hotel room playing a guitar.
Just getting the work done?
Yeah, getting the work done, and you think that’s what you do, you just get the work done and everything else is all on the peripheries and the eye of the storm is very calm.
So you’ll be back for the sequel regardless of who’s directing or whether Kristen’s in the lead role?
Yeah, whoever’s doing it, if it’s a good script I’ll do it.
We want to respect Bob Hoskins’ privacy following the news of his retirement, but as someone who must have grown up watching him on screen, can you tell us what it was like to work with him on what has sadly turned out to be his last film?
It was a great honour, and I used to tell him that every day.
He was one of the reasons I became an actor, because he was a working class man who was playing the lead in films and the story was told through him. It made people like me think that it was possible to become an actor because you saw someone like us in those roles, so I used to tell him every day and he used to tell me to shut up [laughs] ‘Shut up and get on with it’.
I know what he meant. He knew deep down, I think he knew how much affection we had for him, but he just wanted us to get on with the film. He’s not a very… he’s not a vain man. So I used to tell him that and he used to say [does a brilliant Bob Hoskins impression] ‘Shut up and get on with it’, and that’s it really, he had the grace to do that.
Thinking about your inspirations as an actor, you’ve mentioned before that you want to play Othello’s Iago on stage, probably one of literature’s greatest villains…
Yes. That would be lovely.
How about film roles you’ve yet to tackle?
I don’t know. Unlike plays where there are set scripts that you do again and again, film roles are very different. I had great fun doing Ludwig Guttmann for [BBC Two drama] The Best Of Men, that was great fun. I enjoy anything that stretches me, really.
I’ve never played a gay character on screen, so that would be interesting. I’ve never played a gay character and that would fascinate me because I’m not gay, so that would interest me.
[Spoiler warning for J. Blakeson’s 2009 debut film, The Disappearance of Alice Creed]
What about in Alice Creed?
Oh! I have played a gay character in Alice Creed. He was gay, but he was a bit of a bear apparently, that’s what you call him.
Would a Bond villain be anywhere near the top of your list?
I’d love to play a Bond villain. Yeah, I’d love to play a Bond villain. Everyone always says this to me, they always say ‘You’ve got to be a Bond villain’, ‘We’re going to make you a Bond villain’… But they’ve never ever approached me, I’ve never had a whiff of it. I think I’d love to play a Bond villain, I’d have great fun.
So the campaign starts here?
[Laughs] Well that’s up to you, I’m not starting it! It’s nothing to do with me!
You must have plans to work with Mike Leigh again?
I’d love to yeah, eventually, if we can fit it in together and if he wants me, but he’s worked with so many other actors who know his process and he’s got so many ideas. If you fit into his idea of what he wants to do then he’ll work with you, and if you don’t, he doesn’t.
I’ve just done [Olympics short] A Running Jump with him. He’s about to start a new project this year but I don’t think I’m going to be doing that, I haven’t heard anything yet. I love working with him. He’s a friend of mine anyway so whatever he’s doing he knows that I wish him well and we’ll work together again one day, I don’t know when.
TV-wise – if you’ll indulge me a moment because this is a particular interest of our site – you’ve voiced characters in The Sarah Jane Adventures and Merlin…
Oh yeah, I did yeah. Both of which, I wasn’t supposed to be credited for. They said to me, ‘Do you want to do it?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’ll do it, but don’t give me a credit, I’ll do it and I’ll tell my kids I did it’, and then suddenly, there it was. I played a monster didn’t I in Merlin?
[A bit embarrassed to know] You were a Manticore.
Yeah! You know I’ve never seen it. Someone saw it and they said ‘It was you!’ and I said, ‘No, it was just my voice, but they said ‘No, the monster looked just like you’ [laughing].
And on Sarah Jane I was a computer. There’s a funny thing about that computer thing in The Sarah Jane Adventures, I was up at a film premiere and there were all these people asking me to sign photographs of me in certain films, and there was some guy who shoved something in front of me and said ‘Can you sign this?’, and it was just a computer, and I said ‘What’s that?’ and he said ‘It’s you!’, I said, ‘It’s a computer’ and he said ‘No, that’s you, you’re the voice of that computer’.
Did you sign it in binary?
Yeah [Awkward laughter, definitely more out of pity than amusement]
We’d have thought that a Doctor Who role might be the next logical step for you?
Oh I don’t know. Again, you guys can be my agents, because I never go looking for work, because every time I’ve gone looking for work I’ve always lost jobs, so if you guys want to pitch me, you can pitch me.
We’ll get right on it. Looking back at the films you have worked on, they’ve spanned an extraordinary range, working on small British indies to huge Hollywood pictures like Mission Impossible III or Hancock. Do you feel a responsibility to support smaller UK film?
It’s not a responsibility. The only responsibility is to myself, it’s just the quality of the scripts. If my criteria was just to do big Hollywood blockbusters, then I would be in some bad big Hollywood blockbusters and I think I’ve been lucky that I haven’t been in some bad ones, I’ve been in some good ones, and so my priority is to do the best possible job that I can do.
I’m not one of these actors who can make a bad script good. Some actors, a script can be terrible and they can bring something to it and make it really special. I can’t.
Who would you say can do that?
Ben Kingsley does it incredibly. Ben Kingsley can get hold of a script and just make it fantastic. I don’t know how he does it, but I can’t, I’ve never been able to do that. I can just fulfil the script for what it is, I can’t make it any better so therefore I have to be very choosy.
I do the big ones sometimes for financial reasons and also because they’re very, very good scripts and because they’re a genre that I’ve never done before, that’s why I did Jack The Giant Killer. I’d never worked with Bryan Singer before, I’d never been in a fairy tale before, and then straight after that came Snow White and Rupert Sanders sold me his vision and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it’, and this year has been a year of completely different parts and being all over the place with different kinds of characters.
My idea is just to do something different each time, the next thing I do has to be completely different to the thing I’ve done before, that’s what I try and do, because you know, I’m an actor not a film star.
Even your bigger films, like Sherlock, Jack The Giant Killer and Snow White have been filmed in the UK, is that part of the attraction?
Oh yeah, if I can come home every night it’s the best thing. I love coming home.
We understand that Sherlock 3’s moving production to Hollywood though?
Oh is it? When was that? I haven’t heard that. I was hardly in the second one so God knows. I don’t know what they’re doing with it, I haven’t heard anything. I don’t know, I honestly don’t, I’m the last to know about these things.
You must have been one of the only great contemporary British actors not to pop up in the Harry Potter franchise. How did you avoid that?
I didn’t. I didn’t. I think if anyone could play a gargoyle it’s me, I can’t believe I wasn’t in it! It just wasn’t right for me I suppose, but that’s alright, it’s just the way it goes.
You went up for a role then?
No I don’t think I ever got called in, no I never went up for a role, never got called in, never did anything.
How does it feel when you’ve wrapped on a job and then there’s a long delay before audiences get to see it, as has happened on Jack The Giant Killer [the release of which has been pushed back for 9 months to March 2013]?
It’s just beyond my control. Once I leave a film and go away, I move on to the next one. It’s very interesting because sometimes you see an editor who’s editing a film that you shot a year ago and he comes up to you like you’re his close personal friend and you haven’t got a clue who he is, but he sees you every day because he sees you working on the film. So I’ve just done my job, I just leave it and allow them to do whatever they think is best. I mean, I never take any notice of test screenings, I never go into an edit room when I’ve finished making a film, I don’t think actors should be involved in that process. We should just give an honest performance on set and walk away and let other people deal with that.
That delay, a lot of it is to do with the development of all the technology. They had a certain kind of technology, and something else comes out that can make it better. But it’s in very good hands you know, Bryan Singer is a world-class director, so if it’s been put back, it’s obviously been put back because they think that means they can fulfil it technically the way that they want to.
We hear you’re taking a similar step as [Tyrannosaur director] Paddy Considine and moving into directing. Can you tell us about your Richard III project?
Yeah, I have an idea of directing. I think a lot of the actors from my generation do. I have an idea of directing and it’s with a production company at the moment who are arranging the money and all that and so that will probably go ahead when they raise the money. I’ve done the job in writing the script and selling it to them and they love the idea, and now they’re going to raise the money from various funding bodies and come back to me and say ‘This is when we’ll do it’.
I think it’s a natural development for somebody like me because you learn by osmosis. Mike Leigh said to me that most directors, if they’re lucky, spend four months of every two years on a film set, and actors spend fifty two weeks of the year on a film set, so I’ve seen how all different kinds of people do it, from Terence Malick to Martin Scorsese to Michael Mann to Mike Leigh, and I’ve seen how bad people do it and how good people do it, and you’ve got to be an idiot if you don’t learn by osmosis, so I think I’m kind of ready to do it. Whether I’ll be any good I don’t know but I think I’m ready to do it.
[The PR rep hurries me to my last question] Umm, if you’ll forgive me, we’re sort of asking everyone this at the moment…
Do you, er, have a favourite Jason Statham film?
Oh God. I don’t know [long, somewhat exasperated pause, then finally] I thought Lock Stock was a good film. I thought Lock Stock was a good film because I think it was a one-off before it was imitated a hundred times. I thought it was a very good film.
Eddie Marsan, thank you very much.
Snow White And The Huntsman comes out on Blu-Ray and DVD on Monday the 1st of October and is available to order here.
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