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Happy-Go-Lucky - Eddie Marsan interview

Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky

Interview by Rob Carnevale

EDDIE Marsan talks about appearing in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, trying to sympathise with his character [a psychologically unhinged driving instructor] and what he did to unwind at the end of a hard day’s shoot.

He also talks about the differences between working in Hollywood and Britain, and working with actors such as Tom Cruise [on Mission: Impossible III and Will Smith [the upcoming Hancock], as well as directors of the stature of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann…

Q. Mike Leigh has described your character as “an extreme, idiosyncratic nutcase”. Discuss…
Eddie Marsan: Basically, I think he’s the opposite of Poppy’s character. Poppy embodies the spirit of the film and the title of the film, whereas Scott is the complete opposite. He’s completely paranoid, he’s insecure, he thinks that women could never love him, so every time he falls in love he considers it a form of torture. So, he turns to violence and revenge. He’s a stalker, he’s a conspiracy freak, he has a ginger beard and he’s a driving instructor and I think, in essence, that’s what he is really is.

Q. Do you sympathise with someone as extreme as him?
Eddie Marsan: I can understand him but I don’t sympathise with him or excuse him for his behaviour. But I do understand where he’s coming from. But he’s responsible for that too. He’s a classic victim. The thing about Poppy’s character is that she’s happy-go-lucky and what the film reveals to you is how much courage and perseverance it takes to maintain that kind of attitude. Scott doesn’t have that perseverance. He’s not stoic in any sense. Anything that goes wrong, he actually takes pleasure in blaming other people for his own condition. That’s the only pleasure he’s got in life. So, I do understand him and there’s part of that in all of us. There’s certainly part of that in me. But if you indulged in that, your life would be as unhappy as Scott’s is. So, actually, he’s unhappy because he makes his own life.

Q. How much energy goes into a performance like that? You’ve played some really quiet characters, like in Sixty-Six, is that harder to channel sometimes? Or is good to be able to get out and vent your frustrations in the way that Scott does?
Eddie Marsan: I don’t know. There’s as much work in what’s unsaid as there is in what is said. The expression of it all is only the tip of the iceberg. What goes on inside, whether it’s unexpressed or not, is what the work is. What Mike [Leigh] said to me when he employed me on this one is he finds an actor – like I played Reg for him in Vera Drake, who is kind of watching the world unexpressed, or like Sixty Six, who is suppressed – Mike said: “I want to now stretch you the other way and have someone who can’t stop expressing themselves in a destructive way.” So, it’s physically harder. Scott was much harder to play than Reg or Sixty Six because at the end of the day I was exhausted – vocally, physically, very tense. But psychologically it’s the same amount of work.

Q. After a scene like the one where you go absolutely ballistic, what do you do when you get home at night to unwind?
Eddie Marsan: I go home and I read the kids some bedtime stories. But it’s so funny because I was always telling what book to choose. I was like: “Choose a book, choose a book! Come on, that book!” My speech pattern was the same as Scott’s. His rhythms and the capacity to snap at any given moment stayed with me a for a while [laughs].

Q. Did you give him a background?
Eddie Marsan: Oh, you do all that. You spend three or four months before you encounter any other characters. Scott was born in Stevenage, I don’t know why, and I knew he grandparents, his great grandparents, I knew where he went to school, where he had his first kiss, where he had his first job. You know as much about his life as you would about your own before you interact with anyone else.

Q. Did you take away any of Poppy’s positivity even though your character is so negative?
Eddie Marsan: I think what the film did is to make me believe that my happiness is my responsibility. So whenever I’m feeling miserable I try to deal with it in a constructive way and try and get back to being happy as quickly as possible. Happiness is a state of mind. It isn’t a state of condition. Conditions are impermanent but a state of mind is probably the most permanent thing you can create. I never realised that about the film until I saw it for the third time in Berlin and then I suddenly realised. Before that, I was just thinking: “Am I any good? Am I going to get any work out of it? Oh my God, is it the end of my career?” [Laughs]

Q. What do you do to make yourself happy when you’re in the doldrums?
Eddie Marsan: My children bring me back to the present quite a lot. I love jazz. Meditation helps. I started to do some meditation based on acting because it gets you into a very focused state of mind and become very relaxed, which are qualities that you need in acting. But I find that there are forms of meditation that can help you to maintain a level of happiness regardless of the state of your life at that moment. I wish I was more disciplined at it… but whenever I do it I find my happiness levels rise. And that’s it really. I love watching movies but because my children are young, we don’t watch anything but The Tweenies. So, when we get the chance to go see a movie or a play I love it [laughs].

Q. You’ve worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest directors [Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann etc], so how does that type of process compare with Mike Leigh’s approach?
Eddie Marsan: Obviously with Mike there’s no script, so you have to build the character. You have to built it and then play the character to the point where he’s 100% believable. What you do with Hollywood movies is they give you the script and you go backwards – you work out what the character is from what he does. What a character does is telling you what he’s trying to achieve, why he’s trying to achieve it, etc. You try to get to the same point. There’s a lot more time on American movies. You have more takes, there’s a lot more waiting around. I don’t even know if that really makes it any more creative. Sometimes limited resources mean that you have to be more creative. So, there’s a different rhythm to them really. But the level of acting and the level of performance that they require of you is the same.

Q. Do you prefer one process to the other?
Eddie Marsan: Well, making a Mike Leigh film is like coming home for me. I’ve learned so much from basically working with Simon Channing-Williams, Mike Leigh and Dick Pope, the producer, the director and the DOP. With those three together, I’ve learned more about filmmaking and being a film actor with them than I have on any other film. On the other films, the big American films, one of the great disciplines is to keep your powder dry and to not be thrown off. To go and do a scene with Will Smith [in the forthcoming Hancock] and forget that it’s Will Smith. Just do the scene. And because I’ve been an actor for nearly 20 years, I can do that now. If I’d have done it 10 years ago I probably would have been a nervous wreck. Now I can do it and that makes them enjoyable. But Mike Leigh is like coming home.

Q. Were you ever in awe of some of these names that we know so well?
Eddie Marsan: Not really. I never really get in awe of film actors because I kind of know how they do it. The only people I get in awe of are sportsmen. Footballers and things like that, but never film actors. To be honest with you, when you’re working with them if by the end of the week you can’t ask them to make you a cup of tea or they make you a cup of tea, either they are playing on their status or you aren’t overcoming their status.

Q. Is it a bit like being a fellow magician and knowing how the trick is done?
Eddie Marsan: Yeah, it kind of is. When you’re filming with somebody all that level of status disappears once the camera starts rolling because they need you as much as you need them. I’ve never experienced any of them playing tricks with me. I’ve never seen any of them trying to upstage me. It doesn’t work like that. So, my experience of people like Will Smith or Tom Cruise [on Mission: Impossible III] is that they’re actors: very, very successful actors, but they’re actors. And they’re the same as me.

Q. Do you have any pinch yourself moments, though, when you look back at your own achievements as an actor and think “wow”?
Eddie Marsan: Yeah, you do. Not when you’re doing it. To be honest, I pinch myself that I have a family and I’m paying the mortgage as an actor. That’s what I always set out to do and I’m doing that. I pinch myself with that. But once you’ve gone into the eye of the storm, and it’s always calm in there, the storm itself is on the periphery. When you’re on the peripheries of it, it seems amazing and you’re completely disorientated by it. But once you get in there, there’s nothing to it. There’s no big secret. And so it’s very hard to retreat back into that ignorance or that pre-conceived idea. Once you’ve been in there and you’ve experienced it and you realise they’re just the same as you, and you realise how hard they work and how diligent they are…

Michael Mann works incredibly hard – as hard as Mike Leigh. Once you know what the secret is, that pinch yourself moment comes in anticipation. Sometimes I pinch myself… I come from a very working class London background and I’m living a middle class artistic life. I have to read books… I’ve just finished a film on Orson Welles and I had to read all about the public phoning of an American theatre in the 1930s. And I have to sometimes read books on existentialism and Buddhism for research and that’s amazing, because that’s still unknown. But once you know it, it’s not the same. I read that once a man fulfils his dreams he transcends himself and I think that’s very true. Once you’ve achieved what you wanted to achieve you realise that actually it was all very illusory. It wasn’t true, the achievement of it and the perseverance of it is the important thing, not the achievement itself really.

Q. You’re playing John Houseman in Me And Orson Welles, how is it to play someone that has previously existed?
Eddie Marsan: To be honest, it’s amazing. I look like him. When they put the balding wig on and they had pictures of him in the 1930s, I thought Richard Linklater was casting me because he thought I was a good actor, but then I thought it was just because I looked like him. I really do, amazingly so. But it was fascinating. The only footage of Houseman is when he was in his 70s and he won an award at the paper chase… so it was vocally watching a man in his 70s and 80s and you have to take that back to when he was in his 30s. It was fascinating to do. And he had a great autobiography, which was great research to read. So, I worked really hard on that so I could kind of get an idea of what was going on in his mind.

One of the interesting things about Houseman was that although he was the quintessential Englishman of the American theatre, he was actually a half Irish Romanian Jew who never had any country, so he was a man who was inventing himself all the time and always feeling slightly isolated. I always tend to play characters who feel that. I never play characters who get invited to the party [laughs].

Q. Is it true that you’re going ito the Old Vic soon?
Eddie Marsan: I don’t know. They’ve asked me to go and do a season there and it all depends on domestic things. My wife’s just having a baby. So it depends on whether it’s suitable for me. It’s not agreed yet.

Q. Do you still get a big buzz out of the stage though?
Eddie Marsan: I haven’t done it for a while. I went to the Old Vic last night to see Speed-The-Plow and so yes I do. I think the writing is just fantastic, particularly last night. Funnily enough, there’s a scene in Happy-Go-Lucky where we do the cockpit drill and Cliff explains where everything is in the car and we rehearsed that for ages. Mike put the camera on the side of the car and if you watch that scene it’s one take. There’s no editing in that scene. The camera stays there for four or five minutes. And that was like being on the stage.

When I went to see Speed-The-Plow and listened to the dialogue I suddenly realised the great fun of beginning a sentence or train of thought that will go on for 10 minutes and delivering all those beats. It must be like playing a clarinet or something. So, that excites me. But I haven’t done it because there’s a certain rhythm to filmmaking… when you go and do a film you know you’re going to be doing it in three or four months time. With theatre quite often they ask you to do it next week or next month and quite often you’re not available because you’re too busy – you’re on one treadmill and it’s very hard to adapt to the other.

Read our review of Happy-Go-Lucky

Read our interview with Sally Hawkins