Richard Madden interview: Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Game Of Thrones' Richard Madden chats to us about C4’s new sci-fi series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, starting this Sunday...

Richard Madden (Game Of Thrones, Cinderella, Bastille Day) is starring in one episode of Amazon and Channel 4’s sci-fi anthology series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.

He’ll play Agent Ross in The Hood Maker, an adaptation of Dick’s short story of the same name, which is set in a dark future where the government uses telepathic individuals (known as ‘Teeps’) to monitor the minds of the masses. Madden’s Ross is on the side of the government.

We joined Madden and a group of other journalists for a roundtable interview in London, long after his filming was finished, and this is what we found out about the incoming sci-fi spectacle…

How familiar were you with Philip K. Dick before you started this?

Ad – content continues below

I read a lot of sci-fi, that’s like my shit, so I love sci-fi. And I’d read quite a lot of his stuff before. But these short stories are remarkably hard to get hold of, actually. But I’ve kind of been ploughing through them, and I’m looking forward to seeing the other episodes. I love his work.

I love sci-fi, because it’s that, you know, totally different world and we can go as far and as big as we like, but it’s always touched with an element of ‘but this could happen’. And that’s why I kind of really get into it and love the books. It kind of lets me be really free with my thinking but it’s rooted in something reality – something that fantasy maybe doesn’t quite do as much as sci-fi does.

Do you have a favourite adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work?

Err, not a favourite of his. There’s one called The Gateway, by Frederik Pohl, which is like my favourite sci-fi book. If you’re into sci-fi, read that book. It’s great.

What kind of sci-fi are you most into? Are you into leaping across galaxies, or the more satirical?

I love leaping across galaxies. I love things coming into our world – things that we can relate to. I love mad things, like, I have watched every episode of Stargate, which is not too cool I don’t think? But yeah, I love that kind of thing. But the kind of stuff I like, like that book I mentioned, is stuff that affects our world. Things that you could see happening. Even things like The Road. Things that we can really kind of tie to, that I can imagine – they aren’t happening, but they’re touchable. Things that I can believe, I get into them.

Ad – content continues below

Why do think Philip K. Dick’s stories have lasted so long and been made into so many successful films? What is it about his work that has maintained?

I think it’s because it all sparks from humanity. It’s us dealing with sort of universal issues. It doesn’t matter what time they’re in. And this [story/TV episode] is another one, kind of dealing with trust and love and privacy and honesty. Those are kind of universal themes, that we can have at any point in our lives. We might never get to the bottom of these ones. And this just gives you another platform to look at that.

The Philip K. Dick sci-fi school was quite influence by the Cold War. Do you like when the sci-fi and the real world start to bleed together?

Yeah, and you get elements of that in this. There’s elements of – I don’t want to kind of put labels on it, or trigger words to things – but you kind of see a bit of the KGB. Little bits of that, that kind of creep in, that I like. And I guess that’s a good thing about sci-fi – it doesn’t actually have to relate to the Russians for us to get what that structure is and what that world is.

And how did you get involved with this? What was the approach you had?

Ad – content continues below

It was just kind of regular, how you a get a gig. The biggest thing was, I had worked with Julian [Jarrold, director of the episode] about eight or nine years ago, on one of my first TV things. Pre-Game Of Thrones, I’d done a piece with him called Worried About The Boy, about Boy George. Kind of the start of Boy George’s story. Julian directed that, and then I’ve worked with him since.

And actually, Holliday [Grainger] being the leading lady in this… and she’s the actress I’ve worked with most in my life, actually. I think this is our third or fourth gig together. So that kind of set us up to be able to jump in and hit the ground running quickly, which was really useful for something that’s quite short.

Could you talk a bit about who you play, and what this world is like?

So I play Agent Ross, who is a detective. One of the top detectives at the Free Union, which is kind of the government-run, state, MI5 type thing. We’re in this world which is quite strange. It’s explained in the book. It’s not really explained in the TV show, which I quite like – kind of ask the audience to step into this world and keep up. It’s a parallel universe, really, which is weird…

There’s been a meteor shower, thirty or forty years ago – none of this is actually in the thing, you don’t see it, it’s just what happened – and that meteor shower, basically, is like a solar flare. It kind of wiped out all electronics in the world, and kind of rendered them useless and not able to do that again. But also, the radiation from that affected human beings. So now, there are some human beings born with telepathic abilities. So there’s kind of a strange take on racism, in a way, because all other racism is ruled out in this world. It’s telepaths or non-telepaths. And there’s a really big difference in how they live and how they’re treated in this world.

And that’s where we start, with something that’s presently or slightly in the future but has this really sixties/seventies feel to it, you know? You’ve got laptops and computer screens piled up in the background, and people sitting at desks with rolodex and pencil and paper. So it’s, kind of, we’re in the future but the past. It’s strange, but it’s a really kind of intriguing world.

Ad – content continues below

Does Holliday Grainger play the other detective? Does she work with you?

She plays a telepath. And so, we’re kind of thrust together at the beginning of the episode.

What do the telepaths look like?

They look like normal human beings, apart from they’ve got, kind of like a birthmark across their face and bits of their body. So you can tell by looking at them if they’re different. It’s a little bit Ziggy Stardust, some of it. But it works really well.

Would you go for telepathy, if you had the option?

Oh God no. I don’t want to read anyone else’s mind. How boring would that be? It would be so boring, you know, to be able to know everything. And, also, I’ve got enough of my own bullshit going on. I don’t need anyone else’s.

Ad – content continues below

How are you with technology, in real life? How would you react if all technology was rendered useless?

Oh God, I’d love it. Yeah. I’d absolutely love it. I love not having to engage with that, much to my agent’s and my family’s fury. I just kind of don’t look at it. And I quite enjoy how wound up people get when you don’t respond to things immediately, because I just never do. I take hours to respond to anything, if I respond at all. It’s kind of like bills: until you get the third one it doesn’t really matter.

With society the way it is at the moment, Philip K. Dick’s original short story of The Hood Maker could be read as intriguing and potentially controversial. Does the TV version have the same level of compulsory surveillance?

It’s very different, actually, because in the original – see, I don’t want to spoil things – but in the original short story there’s the idea of… the telepaths are much more accepted, actually, in the original short, where it’s that kind of idea of, ‘well, if you’ve got nothing to hide, then there’s no problem being read’. And the people going against it are actually in the minority.

Whereas, in our version, it’s switched. It’s the majority that seem to be very against telepaths, and being read, and are kind of holding their privacy close.

In the original story, they’re trying to find the person that made the hood. Is that the same?

Ad – content continues below

Absolutely, yeah. It’s the catalyst for everything. The difference is, when ours starts, the stakes are much higher than in the book. We’re at breaking point, and the government are just about to introduce a new bill – or have just introduced it – which is, we’re basically allowed to force-read people. We don’t have to get your permission before we do it. So that’s where we kind of start, at this really high tension point. And that’s why the hoods become so relevant very quickly, because we’re right at breaking point.

And how close does it stick to the story in terms of your character?

Well, I guess you could say it stays really close, because the short story’s only about ten pages long or something. So, you know, we’ve got it all! And then we sort of really expanded it. And that’s what was so great about Julian. And working with Holliday as well. You really had your own kind of space to play and create and make this character.

So I had a great inspiration from the book, but, you know, there’s a lot of other characters in that short story as well. So you’ve not really got a lot of original material to work from. We could really create something brand new that worked for this world, and that’s what we hopefully have done.

What’s Agent Ross’s stance on the whole force-reading people’s minds ideas? Obviously, he works for the government, but is he totally on board?

His relationship is… he’s dubious about the telepaths. He’s aware of their usefulness, and he likes that, but at the start of this episode we’re moving into uncharted territory and he is very unsure about it.

Ad – content continues below

Are we rooting for him, though?

I hope so.

Is he the good guy?

Yeah, I think he’s a good guy. But then, I would, because I played him.

Is this episode so sci-fi that it’s removed from any idea of the NSA? Does it have any echo of the current privacy concerns?

Yeah it does. There’s a line, actually, that’s been cut from the piece, that I really liked, which says… it’s about our relationship to information, and it’s how we want everyone else’s, but we don’t want to share our own. And I think that’s something that we have today. We have. We do. When you hear about people’s leaked emails, or salaries being leaked, or people’s photos being shared online – we all want to look at it, but we wouldn’t dare want anyone to look at ours.

Did you encounter [executive producer] Bryan Cranston at all?

I did encounter Bryan Cranston, yeah, which was very very very exciting because I’m a big Breaking Bad fan, and also Malcolm In The Middle. But yeah, it was really great to meet him actually. He was a bit of a hero, because he flew in from the States, landed, did a bunch of costume and hair and makeup fittings. All those things. He came in just before he was about to start shooting his episode. And then, at eleven o’clock at night, he drove two hours across London and came straight onto set onto our night shoot to say hello to us. So I was like, he didn’t need to do that. He doesn’t have to do any of that. So, it was really great to have him there, just to know he’s got your back. He was intrigued and really happy to be there, so, yeah, it was very very cool to meet him.

When I think of [director] Julian Jarrold [Brideshead Revisited, Becoming Jane], I don’t really think of sci-fi. Was he comfortable with directing this?

Yeah, yeah, I think he was. He’s made a world that was just, kind of… I watched it last night, for the first time, and I was twenty minutes in before I kind of realised what a different world we were in. He kind of just takes us straight into it, and you just go with it, and there’s not a bunch of exposition and stuff like that. It’s like, keep up, and it’s actually very easy to keep up with. And Julian’s really made this world kind of really relatable, but different.

It feels like a foreign country. A city in a foreign country that we just don’t know anything about. If we didn’t have the internet now, and you were to go smack into the middle of Hong Kong, you would be like ‘What the fuck is this place about?’ And I think this world’s kind of got echoes of that. And the people have echoes of that as well. It’s a different place.

And how action-packed is your episode? Did you get to do any stunts?

Yeah, there was some stunts actually. There was a bit of stunts. It’s got quite a lot of action in it. It’s really packed. It’s got really quite a strange structure to the episode. It kind of constantly escalates and bounces and jumps from different bits, but it’s constantly moving and building. And it starts off with a bang, which kind of lets you know what level we get to on it. I got to do all my own – not that you get to see half of it in this, because obviously they cut things down – but I did all my own driving in it. In this old Ford Corolla. This great big beast of a car. And I kind of got to rally that about. It was fun.

How long was the shoot for this, and how fast-paced was it compared to other stuff?

It was about three and a half weeks, maybe, of shooting, we had on this. Which, in film terms, is really fast-paced, and in television terms, that’s about a week and a half longer than you would maybe get on an episode of another TV show. You know, some TV shows are like two weeks per ep kind of thing. So, I think we had, because me and Holliday and Julian had a working relationship already, it meant we could really dive in really quickly. And because it was so well written, and I know that Julian had been working on the script, as well, that makes it very easy to just dive into this world. So, actually, it felt like a good amount of time to get everything we needed, which I can rarely say – so thanks very much Amazon.

Was it in a studio, or was it on location?

We did quite a bit on location. One of the best locations was the headquarters of the Free Union, this kind of government police force. We used a disused concrete company’s headquarters, which they’d left. It was this mad big building out in Berkshire, that was all made of concrete. Every single thing in the whole building was made of concrete. Except for the windows, though, because they obviously needed to be glass. Erm, but everything else was concrete. It was really weird. The desks coming out of the ground were concrete. The canteen was. All of it was just fucking concrete. But that was a really good location to go to. Really strange.

And then, studios out in West London, where we’d kind of build the Teep ghetto and other bits of the world out there. It was kind of rapidly changed. They had an amazing team on it, you know, the same people that did the five episodes that were shot in the UK. It was a really quick turnover on things, and it was an amazing machine, and they managed to get it done.

And that concrete place was your headquarters?

Yeah, we kind of filmed interrogation stuff there, and our offices there, which was really cool. And we also used some really good locations down in really odd places down by the river in East London. Kind of really east. Like, old abandoned warehouse buildings and things, that are really, you know, gross. Bats and smashed things. And you think, there’s been loads of great rave-ups here. And I got to do a bit of [mimes aiming a gun and looking around corners] that stuff, which was really good fun.

Is it quite scary, then, as well?

The tension is high in it, yeah. The tension’s high, and actually, you know, some of things you don’t get with it – until you see the edit – of this world. Kind of, the real danger to it. Because [on set] you’re kind of standing and having a chat, blah blah blah, and then, ‘shooting!’ But when you watch it back, and you go ‘Fuck, this actually feels really really violent. This is a place that’s really just about to explode.’ And so yeah, it’s quite scary in that element I suppose. But it’s more just tense and your heart is pumping throughout it.

Previously, you’ve been in a lot of period dramas, and a little show that nobody’s heard of called Game Of Thrones. Were you looking to move into something more modern and contemporary?

Yeah, I’ve been looking forward to kind of being in more contemporary things. I’ve done lots of period stuff. I love doing period things, and I love doing period things on stage as well. But this was a really good opportunity. As I said, it’s kind of like, not period, and then you get there, like ‘Oh fuck, it is period. I’m wearing period costumes again. How did I end up in another period thing?’ But yeah, at least it’s a bit more… it’s a bit closer to the present than other things I’ve done. But I think I just go for the stories, and I just try not to do characters that are too similar to the last ones I played. You know, ideally, I’d like to not be in armour and leggings and stuff for a while. I’d happily be in a suit, or just some jeans and a T-shirt.

Do you tend to watch much telly?

Yeah, I watch a lot of telly.

What kind of things do you like?

Everything. I kind of plough through it all. What am I on just now? Ozark, that series. What else have I been watching? I kind of dip in, try and get a bit of everything. Obviously things like your Black Mirrors are great, especially in relation to this, because again each episode’s completely different and there’s really kind of great talent in these things. And obviously I watch Thrones and all the big ones that everyone else is into.

Have you got any televisual guilty pleasures? Come Dine With Me or stuff like that?

No, thank God I don’t, because there’s just too much actual good material out there now. With Amazon making such great programing and Netflix – there’s so many good things that I tend not to have to do any guilty pleasures. And, actually, in front of my TV and beside my TV are, piled up, sci-fi books and other books. So rather than turn on something shit, I’ll pick up a book. It’s the only way. I kind of have to like force myself into [reading].

Have you got any TV heroes, when it comes to actors?

Erm, the latest one is Elisabeth Moss in Handmaid’s Tale. I just thought she, and the whole cast, were absolutely brilliant in that. And that just gets me really exited, to act in, I want something like that. You see some brilliant, patient, thought-through, delicate, heartbreaking performances. Yeah, I loved that. I really did.

And are you enjoying Thrones more, as a viewer?

I enjoy it much more now to watch, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen.

You don’t get any inside info, then?

Yeah, I do get inside info, but I have to shout at people to not tell me ‘Ah, I just saw so and so when we were filming in such and such!’ You go, ‘How could you be in the same place as that person? Oh God, don’t tell me!’ Err, so I have to do like a blanket ban. Don’t tell me where you’ve been filming or who you’ve seen lately, because it gives away too much information. Yeah, but I love it now because I can just watch it as a viewer and I don’t know what’s gonna happen next and I’m also not watching and critiquing my own performance. I can just enjoy it.

Do you hang out? Is the Thrones cast like a gang?

I felt that we’re still very close friends, yes. I see Kit often, and I’m actually seeing Michelle Fairley tonight, who played my mother. I’m actually seeing her tonight for the first time in a while. So yeah, we do keep in touch, quite a lot of us, quite often. I saw Alfie and Kit and Rose, all at Glastonbury, so yeah, we bump into each other a lot actually. You try and make an effort, but yeah, everyone’s all over the place so much of the time. So it’s hard to, but we try.

And what are you up to next?

Next I’m doing a comedy with Netflix called Ibiza, where I play a DJ. Yes! I get to be in jeans and T-shirt! Which is great. I’ve not done much comedy before, so it’s something different, something modern, with a lot of the Saturday Night Live team, and Will Ferrell’s producing it. It’s quite an interesting little comedy I’m doing next. And then there’s something else in autumn, but they’ve not announced it yet so I can’t really talk about it.

Did you get to see any of the other episodes of Electric Dreams, when they were works in progress?

No, I got to see bits, like, you’d be standing and someone would walk past you in very tight Lycra. ‘Ah, he must also be doing the sci-fi thing.’ Bits of that, but not too much of it sadly. But then, again, it’s like Thrones, I’m quite happy to not see it because then I get to see it as a finished product.

Were you quite pleased to avoid the tight Lycra yourself?

Thrilled about it. Absolutely thrilled. I’ve done Lycra before, and I’m not doing it again. Not for a while, please.

Richard Madden, thank you very much!

Episode 1 of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams airs on September 17th at 9pm on Channel 4.