People In Film | Matthew Macfadyen

Matthew Macfadyen: Just Right

For Matthew Macfadyen, ANNA KARENINA marks a welcome reunion with director Joe Wright and star Keira Knightley. In 2005, Macfadyen (as the dashing Mr. Darcy) played opposite Knightley in Wright’s adaption of another literary classic, PRIDE & PREJUDICE. But as Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky, Macfadyen couldn’t be farther from his earlier part. As Anna’s flirtatious older brother, Macfadyen is more ribald than romantic. “Oblonsky is incorrigible,” explains Macfadyen, “he’s disarmingly direct and brings humor and warmth to the story.” To take on the role, Wright asked the actor to grow a moustache, a facial prop on which Macfadyen brilliantly hangs his very physical character. “Oblonsky is one of those people who lights up a dinner party when they come in,” expresses Macfadyen. “He has a wandering eye. He likes the pleasures of the flesh, drinking and eating… I hugely enjoyed playing this part – except for the moustache I had to grow.” In an epic tale of love in all its myriad forms, Macfadyen brings an unexpected depth to a character that could either be dismissed as comical or shallow – not that he doesn’t also incorporate both of those characteristics into his performance. “Matthew is a hoot in this role,” exclaims Kelly Macdonald (who plays his wife Dolly in the film). He plays “Oblonsky in just the right way: charismatic, frustrating, lovable – and selfishly addicted to passion.” The character demonstrates not only Macfadyen’s remarkable range (going from swooning Darcy to the salacious Oblonsky), but also his talent for bringing out the full humanity of the characters he plays. 

Matthew Macfadyen: Always an Actor

Born in England to a father who worked internationally in the oil industry and a mother who was both an actress and a drama teacher, Macfayden quickly gained a larger sense of the world being raised and educated across the globe, in Indonesia as well as Great Britain. He set his sights on the stage at an early age, studying drama at the Oakham School in Rutland, Leicestershire from 1985 to 1992, before gaining admittance to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), from which he graduated in 1995. Says Macfadyen, "I did lots of plays when I was at school and being on stage was when I felt happiest. I found it incredibly exciting and so I auditioned for all the school plays. I was certain that this was what I wanted to do and never really considered anything else.” Unlike many struggling young actors who spend years trying to get a foot on stage, Macfayden started working right away – first with the celebrated Cheek By Jowl theater company. In his first few years out of school, he made a name himself in productions of The Duchess of Malfi and Much Ado About Nothing (for which Time Out singled him out for his “superb Benedick.”). As he was establishing himself on the stage, Macfadyen in 1998 also began a career in television, appearing as Hareton in the BBC television production of Wuthering Heights, a role that would foreshadow his many future literary projects.

Matthew Macfadyen: A Star on the Small Screen

In the late ’90 and early ‘00s, Macfadyen started working in television and film, creating a series of characters that were as striking as they were strikingly different. In 1999, he appeared as an emotionally scarred soldier in the BBC show Warriors (later called Peacekeepers in the US), a series dealing with soldiers returning from the conflict in Yugoslavia that flickfilospher called one of the “most emotionally real movies about the lives of soldiers I've ever seen, thanks to strikingly moving performances.” A few years later he switched gears when he played the disreputable Felix Carbury in the BBC adaptation of The Way We Live Now, about whom Macfadyen said, "What's so great is that my character Felix is … a totally irresponsible spendthrift, a drunkard, a womaniser, gambler and all round cad. He can't really think further than this afternoon.” Being an up-and-coming actor, Macfadyen had the freedom to redefine himself with each new project. But that freedom was slightly curtailed in 2002 when he took the part of Tom Quinn, the head counter-intelligence agent, in Spooks, the BBC spy series that, particularly in the post-9/11 climate, rocketed to popularity. Seemingly overnight, Macfadyen was a bone-fide pop icon. As he remembers, "They put huge billboards up to promote the series and the strange thing was, there was one right outside my flat! I would walk out of my front door and think to myself, 'Oh, there I am!' which was the weirdest thing.” The series – which also became a hit in the US under the name MI-5 – garnered Macfadyen further attention. In a glowing review, Variety noted that “he's the serious British equivalent of John Cusack -- wry, smart and attractive but not too good looking.” Strangely it was that quality of being “not too good looking” that helped him gain the next role that would change his life.

Matthew Macfadyen: A Romantic Idol

While Spooks established Macfadyen, it also defined him. “Ever since Spooks,” Macfadyen told The Daily Telegraph, “this perception of me as solemn, lantern-jawed and unsmiling has lingered, but that buttoned-up Englishness is only one facet of what I can do.” Indeed in 2005, only a year after leaving his hit TV series, Macfadyen was transformed into a different sort of idol when he took on the role of Mr. Darcy opposite Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE. While he wasn’t necessarily everyone’s first choice for the iconic part of Darcy, he was heavily pushed by the film’s director and producer. Wright told the New York Times, “I wanted someone who is a proper manly man, and not just a pretty boy.” While Macfadyen admitted to the Times, "I don't feel like a romantic lead; I guess I feel more like a character actor," his brooding, dark, even gawky interpretation of Austen’s famous figure convinced more than a few doubters. USA Today’s Claudia Puig remarked, “Macfadyen manages to make us swoon with his more boyish, vulnerable version of Darcy. … Macfadyen seems endearingly awkward. And Knightley and Macfadyen have chemistry.”

Matthew Macfadyen: All Together Now

After establishing himself as a top spy and one of literature’s great romantic leads, Macfadyen choose roles that seemed to defy definition. After playing a fire-and-brimstone preacher in Brian Kirk’s violent 2006 drama Middletown, a struggling pedophile in Rowan Joffe’s Secret Life, Macfadyen lightened things up in Frank Oz’ screwball 2007 comedy Death at a Funeral. In many of his roles, Macfadyen managed to both work as a lead and as part of an ensemble. Death at a Funeral director Frank Oz explained to LA.com why Macfadyen was essential to his story: “We needed someone who would be honest and subtle, and that would set the acting tone for everybody else.” In the 2008 BBC miniseries adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Macfadyen, as Arthur Clennam, the man whose cool perspective guides the narrative, again shone in a big ensemble cast. For the New York Times, he was “persuasive and touching” in a story “as rich at the margins as at the center with strange, and strangely believable, characters.”

Matthew Macfadyen: Long-Running Actor

In 2010, Matthew Macfadyen won his first BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor in the BBC miniseries Criminal Justice. For The Daily Telegraph, Macfadyen “excelled as the grimly controlling lawyer who gets bumped off by his long-suffering wife.” But the part, which unfolded over several episodes, highlights the careful nuance that he brings to his parts, especially those in long series. As The Daily Telegraph adds, “Few actors can deploy impassivity and understatement to such effect.” Indeed many of his finest performances unfold in epic tales told as miniseries. In addition to Little Dorrit and Criminal Justice, Macfadyen appeared as the Prior Philip in the Starz sprawling miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, based on Ken Follet’s book about the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England. And in 2010 he showed up as one third of the trio of actors – the others beings Sam Claflin and Jim Broadbent -- cast to play Logan Mountstuart in the miniseries Any Human Heart. Based on the novel by William Boyd, the life-long story follows Mountstuart, from youth to old age, in his pursuit to become a writer through some of the most turbulent and unforgettable events of the 20th century. Macfadyen played the character in middle-age as he struggles in New York with a midlife crisis and martial infidelity. For the actor, Mountstuart exemplified the full richness of any human experience, a richness he brings out in so many of his roles: “He’s selfish, petty and vain, but he deals with everything like all of us, so he’s very rounded and human.”

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