On the set of the TV drama Spooks, Matthew Macfadyen fell in love with his co-star Keeley Hawes; she had been married for only five months and had a young son. The two are now married with a daughter of their own, but Macfadyen has been bruised and angered by the constant media attention. Luckily I knew nothing about all this when I met him. I later discovered he is supposed to be fantastically prickly and difficult to interview. We had met to talk about his new film, In My Father's Den, to discuss emotionally scarred war photographers - his role. "I'm sorry I don't watch much television," I said to him, weakly. His baby blues scanned me coolly for the slightest hint of dissimulation. "No, good for you. Nor do I," he suddenly volunteered enthusiastically, slapping the table with his hand. "I can't bear it either."
Without intending it, my ignorance proved the best way to meet Macfadyen, and in consequence we had a very cordial interview as we sat beside the Thames on London's South Bank, where he is performing in Nicholas Hytner's production of Henry IV (which runs till August).
He is loath to talk about his private life and finds the whole notion of actors talking about their art insufferably pretentious. As he speaks, his sentences trail off as you see the self-editing process kick in. He looks tired. Is his six-month-old daughter Maggie keeping him awake? "She's very good and sleeps all the night through - I get up with her..." And then he thinks better of it, and stops.
Macfadyen turned 30 last year, and since he graduated from Rada in 1995 has been unemployed for only three months in total. As well as his TV role in Spooks, where he plays the sensitive spy Tom Quinn, he played Private Alan James in the BBC drama Warriors, a New Labour loyalist in The Project and caddish Sir Felix Carbury inThe Way We Live Now. But it seems his attitude to the medium that brought him fame is ambiguous, to say the least. He agrees he's a stage actor who occasionally does films and, heaven forbid, TV. "It doesn't matter how it does," he observed of the TV drama sausage-machine, a trifle sourly, to a New Zealand journalist while promoting In My Father's Den. "It comes out on nine o'clock on a Tuesday six months later and you're already on to the next one."
He came off Spooks to make In My Father's Den in the summer of 2003, just when press coverage of his relationship with Hawes was beginning to die down. The experience seemed to re-energise him. The shoot in New Zealand was sufficiently remote for him to kick off the photographers ("though I did miss my girly") outside his Twickenham home.
"Never knowingly underbleaked" is how Macfadyen describes In My Father's Den, in which he plays a famous war photographer returning to his New Zealand home town after several decades away. Missing his father's funeral, he decides to stay on and in his own way reconnect to his past and deal with some dark family secrets. "I liked the idea of a character who tries to feel something," Macfadyen tells me. "He was desperately trying to cut himself off, which is why he left. I was fascinated by him being a war photographer - the lens as a kind of barrier with the subject. I was fascinated by war photography anyway and I researched a lot about it."
His character is depicted as deeply disturbed - he's shown taking crack ("all those war photographers were doing an awful lot of booze and drugs") and indulging in kinky sex ("though that may be removed from the final cut"). It's a world away from his next role as Mr Darcy in a new version of Pride and Prejudice out this autumn.
"He's rather heartbreaking, Darcy," he reveals. "They say Darcy is haughty and arrogant, but that comes from vulnerability, from thinking very deeply about things and not being able to be relaxed. In those days Mr and Mrs Bennet were totally naff, and nowadays they think, oh what a snob, but in those days he wasn't being a snob. He was being honourable."
Macfadyen's love of the stage and the acting life belies a profoundly masculine sensibility; he seeks men of action, soldiers and people on the edge. ("Hanging out with squaddies on Warriors was great!") Though he's been talked of as a future Bond, he simply doesn't have the requisite camp gene that role requires.
"I read this book My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony Loyd - a marvellous book," he confides. "He went to Bosnia when the first conflict started - he says that if you're a young man of combat age frustrated with the meaninglessness of life in the 20th century there's something in you that wants to go and see life at its most extreme."
The meaninglessness of life? Astonishing no one has thought to cast this talented actor, this Shakespeare veteran, as Hamlet. It's a role he was clearly born to play. I expect he would be terrifying. And at least it wouldn't be telly.
'In My Father's Den' opens today
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