The first part of Birdsong screened last night, what were you doing?
Last night I was just sat in the corner of my local pub with a pint of ale, toasting the boys and hoping that it went down well!
There’s always a fear when you’re doing a book, especially something like Birdsong because it’s so seminal to so many people, one of the few novels that actually reaches into what it might have actually been like in the war, and the pressure was really on. You can’t replicate it on screen. I read it about a decade ago and I’m dyslexic and it was one of the few books that I just needed to finish.
Did you imagine yourself as that character when you read it?
As soon as I read it I wanted to be in it. At that time I was young enough to see myself as Stephen, having an amazing time with a woman! (Laughs).
But obviously all these things are about the limits of human experience, the extremes of love, sex and war. What’s really weird is that the First World War got buried by the Second World war, and one of the reasons people do less and less dramas about the First World War is because it’s been completely shrouded, but hopefully it will start to be more recognised. We wanted to present all sides of it, the camaraderie and the horror. We were 12 guys in Budapest…and there were nights out and there were tears on set some days because there were some scenes that caught us off guard, and other times there was great camaraderie, so it wasn’t that difficult to imagine what it was like.
What was interesting about Birdsong and Phillip Martin’s direction, is that he is such a warm person, that you felt like you could just go to the end of the earth for him because you just trust him. Eddy (Redmayne) is one of the most generous actors and everyone was really there for each other and with that comes a great value.
Do you think it’s important to do a lot of research for your roles?
I think it’s the job, if I’m honest with you. A sprinter doesn’t arrive to win the gold medal without preparing first. The performance is the end product of all the work. You’re a freelance, you’re an individual and you make your own decisions about what you need and what you don’t need to do, but for me, the preparation is the job.
Especially because all of your roles have been so different…
Yeah, and that’s the reason you do it. The filming part is kind of the best way to tell it on the day, but you’ve already got to have everything. I can’t just magic up emotions, or back-stories, I have to have them ingrained. I’m not sure how much respect I have for people that don’t prepare, I would find that a bit distracting.
Do you like doing those intense roles that you can get stuck into?
I seem to be intense about everything that I do! (laughs)- not in life, but in the job. I disappear for quite a long time into my own head and find it difficult to communicate with people. If I’ve decided to do something then I want to do it to the best of my abilities, and I don’t know what those abilities are… (laughs) so I have to keep exploring.
How long does a role stay with you then, does it depend on what it is?
Yeah, it does depend. This one, for instance playing Jack (Firebrace), was such a gift and there are some characters that you play and you think, ‘I don’t want to be like that person in real life!’ But Jack’s just got those qualities you just want to have. I quite liked being Jack, he’s a proper good person – when I say that I mean, he’s always there for everyone he’s quite pure in a way and simple. He’s not an intellectual person, he’s living and breathing and he is able to have emotional reactions to the things happening around him, rather than putting up an armour. That’s the difference between him and Stephen (Redmayne’s character in Birdsong).
You didn’t initially want to be an actor because you weren’t very confident- what changed?
(Laughs) What changed? I don’t know…(long pause)…just thinking about it…what changed exactly? I’m trying to answer truthfully rather than giving you a fob-off, which would be easy to do! (Laughs)
I think it was just rebellion. It was wanting to get away from what I though I was perceived or expected to do, and to actually do something that I wanted to, something that no one thought I could do. What changed was that rebellious streak came through, and at 17 I just decided, ‘I’m just going to do it…to spite you all!’ (Laughs) I just wanted to be my own person, find out who I was, even if I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time. But that’s all part of the whole adolescent time.
Your dad is a farmer, you never wanted to do the same?
I don’t think he ever wanted me to do the same thing as him. I think he was hoping I would do something really sensible and become a lawyer or something respectful, and acting was probably the least respectful thing I could have done!
Because it’s so difficult to get work?
Yes, and it’s also difficult to understand what it is that you’re doing from a parent’s point of view because there’s no structure. There’s no exam or practical assessment for what it takes, and no one knows what it is. It’s elusive and it’s impossible to mark, and that’s why people are so afraid of it.
To an extent you are an artist of your own making and people either like it or don’t like it, and parents want to protect you of course. It’s been weird playing a parent. I played a parent to a few people this year – Abraham Lincoln, being one of them! (for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter); and then I had a 17-year-old daughter, an 8-year-old son – there’s been a lot of parenting going on! (Laughs) and it’s all about protection, so I’m sure their reasons for trying to dissuade me was just about being protective.
And how do they feel now?
…Well they quite enjoy it now! (Laughs) It was my father’s 70th this year, and I took the brave move to invite him to BAFTA, for the screening of Birdsong. He came and I loved the fact that he could just come in and be himself, and not feel like he owed anybody anything.
Where would you like to see your career go? Do you have an ambition in mind?
(Long pause) Of course, but you don’t necessarily know what that ambition is until it arrives, and last year I can honestly say that I achieved some of my ambitions – I did Birdsong, which I wanted to do. I did this film called Shell, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time; and went to America and did a couple of films, and those are all little markers. You’ve got a huge wall that you’ve got to climb, and I’m climbing it! I’m not at the top of it- nowhere near, but I’m not at the bottom of it either! I just want to keep climbing I guess, and compete with the people that I admire and respect. Also meeting new people, like Scott Graham, who directed Shell- that was as brilliant an experience as it is working with someone who is hugely respected already.
The most important thing is that scripts come in that you want to do, and fall in love with. I was speaking to Phillip Martin (Birdsong director) the other day and he said, ‘I’m unemployed on Monday!’ and I said, ‘Me too!’ (Laughs) and we both said that whatever we decide to do we put our all in to it, so it’s important to make the right choices.
You don’t want to choose something that you’re not passionate about.
No, exactly. If you’re going to give something your all, then you don’t want to choose something that you’re not going to want to give it. People often say, "Do you choose your scripts?" – Well, no! But one always has a choice, and the most powerful asset an actor has, is to say no, and to make those choices clear about what you do want to do.
Can that be quite difficult when you need the money?
Of course there’s a needs must, and you’ve got to decide what kind of lifestyle you want to live. I don’t have a house, relationships are impossible– well I find them very hard. I don’t have massive expenses, so to keep the lifestyle I have is easier. If you decide to cash-in on everything you do, then your choices become less because you’ve got to sustain it. I’m sure some people will go in to Eastenders and make a vast amount of money very quickly, but when that finishes they’ve got to sustain it.
What role has been your favourite so far?
I don’t think there’s a favourite. Jack (Firebrace) (Birdsong), was definitely the most joyous of all my roles, he’s probably much closer to me as a person, or at least the person I would like to be (laughs). I mean, I have got my animal side, and I do have my violence, my temper, my rawness, so it’s great to explore myself in these different roles.
Weird enough, Tim in Clapham Junction was a very personal experience, as was Freefall, as was Birdsong and now Shell. But then I’ve also got to say that beating up 14 guys in a bar in Spain, surrounded by 200 revellers going crazy to techno in this Bruce Willis film (The Cold Light of Day) – they’ve all got there individual points.
What was it like playing Peter Sutcliffe in Red Riding?
Well, it was actually a very edifying and good experience, in no short part because James Marsh (director) was so detailed in his study and I was very detailed in mine. Looking into the mind of someone who is psychopathic, I actually ended up finding Peter accessible. I think all of us are very close to stepping over the line a lot of the time, it doesn’t take a lot to become the monster. I suppose it was no different to playing anyone else, just looking for the human element- and he is human, that’s what’s terrifying.
Do you find any of these roles intimidating?
Yeah, all of them. (Laughs)
You portrayed Jesus in The Passion
Yes, the thing is with playing literary characters is that you have a rough guide and you’ve got to make it your own. But everybody has their own perception from what they’ve read, like the Bible, or Birdsong, or Women in Love, everybody will have their own ideas of the person and you have that responsibility, and there are times when you don’t think you can pull it off.
There was a brilliant TED lecture and there was this great story about this teacher who went up to a little girl and asked her what she was drawing, and the girl said, ‘I’m drawing a picture of God’ and the teacher said, ‘But nobody knows what God looks like!’ and the little girl says, ‘Well they will in a minute!’ (Laughs) I think that’s the naivety that we took into that project.
Do you think about the audience when you’re acting?
I try to think about multi-faceted things, about the journey. If you’ve got a great director like Phillip (Martin) then you are able to come in with strong feelings about how you think it will work, you’ve got to have ideas and opinions and you’ve got to look after your character.
What is your upcoming film Shell, about?
The easiest way to describe Shell is kind of like a fairytale, 13 years after it’s gone wrong. It’s about young man who travels to Scotland, falls in love with a woman, marries her against her family’s will, has a child, and they build what is essentially a castle in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually a shed.
The wife leaves and we meet the father and daughter of that fairytale. We meet them as a couple that are bordering on having a relationship of an incestuous kind, because they become so dependent on one another- one of them knows it’s wrong and one of them doesn’t.
Are you excited about it?
In many ways yes, but there’s always apprehension when you try to do something new. It’s down to Scott (Graham, the director) now, he’s an incredible man with a great eye for detail. No matter what happens I had an incredible time filming it and an amazing time researching it. I lived together with Chloe Pirrie who plays my daughter for a little while before we started filming. I got to learn all about the people who live there and their lifestyle.
What advice would you give to someone that would like to go the same way as you?
Go with your gut. If you really, really want it anything’s possible, not that it’s going to be easy– for some people it is, but you’ve just got to follow your instinct. I’m still climbing the wall.
Who is your IDOL?
I went to train at the Bristol Old Vic specifically because Daniel Day-Lewis has trained there. The idols have grown over time and there are different people for different reasons. The idol could be someone who is able to have a family while holding a career in the profession, just as much as somebody who is extraordinary at their job.
Watch the second part of Birdsong on BBC One Sunday (29th January)
The Cold Light of Day is released 6 April
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is scheduled for release 2nd August
And we will keep you posted about Shell!
Interviewed by Emma Hurwitz
Photography by Josh Shinner