Nobody's mug: How did Eddie Marsan become Hollywood's go-to man for great British character acting?

Eddie Marsan would probably agree that his face is his fortune. He is one of those film actors you can't always put a name to, but you'll instantly recognise that cartoon countenance: wide with low ears, flattened nose and crestfallen mouth, liable to look meek or mean depending on how the wind is blowing. It is the sort of face that nature has provided with its own stocking mask.

But, given Marsan's impressive work rate and ascendant Hollywood profile, you're increasingly likely to know the British actor as one of those whose presence can make a good film great. Next month, for example, he appears briefly in Heartless, Philip Ridley's rough-and-ready fantasy about demonic forces haunting the East End. The film is all over the metaphysical place – then Marsan walks in as a punctilious but short-fused emissary of Satan, and the film goes boom: for a moment, it's pure Pinter. "It was me going in and basically doing a portrayal of my father," says the actor, born in Bethnal Green.

Marsan has been a Hollywood regular since 2002, when he played henchman to Jim Broadbent in Scorsese's Gangs of New York. These days he's a safe bet for a snarling heavy, as in the Will Smith vehicle Hancock. But it is the British screen that Marsan has truly made his own, thanks to a physiognomy that fits any epoch – whether in last year's 1970s-set Channel 4 trilogy Red Riding, as the driven rent-collector Pancks in 2008's BBC adaptation of Little Dorritt, or as an irascible but staunch Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie's revisionist Sherlock Holmes. Most memorably, Marsan has been a Mike Leigh player: the meek but stout-hearted Reg in Vera Drake, then the rabid driving instructor Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky, spouting conspiracy theory through clenched teeth.

We don't often see Marsan centre-screen, but this month he features alongside Gemma Arterton in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, a taut kidnapping thriller by British newcomer J Blakeson. A devious miniature, it has three characters in a run-down flat (a bit of Pinter there, too). The film comes on like a thuggish teaser, strictly for the lads – two heavies, one It-girl strapped to a bed – but turns out rather better: cannily contrived, packed with U-turns, one of which completely threw Marsan when he read the script.

"When it got to the twist between the two male characters, I had to turn back to see whether I'd missed anything. In retrospect, it informs the first half of the film, and as an actor, that's very comfortable to know. You don't have to show anything, you just have to think the thoughts and know that the second half will let the audience in on the secret, so you can relax."

Soft-spoken and thoughtful – somewhat closer to Vera Drake's Reg than his harsher roles – Marsan is analytical about acting and clear about his function. "My business is not to show anybody anything; my job is just to do it." The son of a lorry driver and a teacher's assistant, he trained as an apprentice printer before enlisting at drama school. It was the Russian-born teacher Sam Kogan, he says, who taught him about "the ethics of acting, what makes good acting and bad acting. Like, nothing should be shown, but everything should be seen. He said to me that an actor should be like a mechanic – if your car breaks down in the rain, a mechanic can turn up any time, anywhere, open his box and do it."

Marsan spent some 10 years hauling his toolbox on the fringe, and did the usual meat-and-veg television – Casualty, The Bill, Kavanagh QC. But once the film roles started, he stepped off the TV treadmill. "I put it down to my face. A lot of my friends who were theatre actors were good-looking boys; when they went into film – the parts they were up for, the money people decided who got that part: 'We've got Brad Pitt, we don't need you.' If someone looks like me, [the financiers] couldn't give a monkey's. If the director wanted me, I got the part."

Marsan could have ridden British cinema's geezer bandwagon and done more films such as the under-rated mob thriller Gangster No 1 (2000). But, he says, "I consciously decided not to be a 'London' actor. Those gangster movies made a lot of East End actors think they were movie stars. And I was very aware that they were going to go out of fashion."

It was the right move: Marsan's US roles have hardly been typecasting. After Gangs of New York, he was a pugnacious priest in Alejandro González Iñarritu's 21 Grams, then went 17th-century in Terrence Malick's The New World. And, in 2008, he was the Mercury Theatre's long-suffering producer John Houseman in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles.

Set in New York, Linklater's film, like Alice Creed, was shot no further away than the Isle of Man: "I can be home in an hour – it's like doing a film in Pinewood." Marsan and his wife, a make-up artist, live in Chiswick with their three children, aged five, four and 20 months – and another on the way. That's why he hasn't followed the migration of British actors to US TV. "I was approached to do something for seven years and it was a quality project. I did seriously think about it, but I didn't want to be away for six months of the year. I've never done the LA thing where you go and have loads of meetings; I can't say to my wife, 'I'm going to wait by a pool for six months.'"

It was working with Mike Leigh that changed film-makers' expectations of him. "Directors suddenly want your opinion because they know that with Mike, you're part of the whole creative process." Marsan will be forever remembered for Happy-Go-Lucky's Scott: as soon as the film appeared, you suspected he'd be plagued by people shouting "En-Ra-Ha!" wherever he went. "They do. All the time." The phrase came from a recording of Aleister Crowley: Marsan dropped it into a four-hour improvisation while preparing Scott, and it stuck.

A while ago, Marsan auditioned with the Coen brothers, for the part of a toothless hillbilly; he decided to turn up wearing false teeth that blacked out his incisors. He'd been warned about the Coens: "American actors told me, 'Eddie, these guys never speak to you.' I walked in, sat down, took my coat off – and one of them said, 'OK, we just want to talk about En-Ra-Ha.' I had to say, 'Excuse me guys, can I just take these teeth out?'"

It is well known how rigorously actors have to prepare for a Leigh film. For Vera Drake, Marsan researched his character's wartime regiment and hung around Somers Town for four months, staring for hours at the flat where Reg theoretically lived. But these techniques are in any case close to Marsan's normal working methods.

"I walk around on set with music from the period. We don't realise how much our movement and posture is early 21st century. It's not until you listen to music of the period... When I was playing Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes, I spent a lot of time listening to patriotic Victorian songs, as he was a man who believed in the hierarchy. He was a 19th-century man, and Holmes was a 20th-century man."

As far as British cinema goes, Marsan enthuses about Leigh, Loach and Shane Meadows, but is angrily vocal about some of our social-realist habits. "There's a load of films being made where a film-maker's going to a council estate, and 90 per cent of the people there are functional – getting their kids ready for school, paying their taxes, working. And 10 per cent are dysfunctional – and they go, that's what we're going to make a film about. I think the chattering classes want to rescue people, and that's their drama: 'This film's about me discovering your story.'

"My dad was a lorry driver, my sister got a first in university – where's that film? If you make a film about a dysfunctional council estate, you go and find a real girl – but if you make a film about my sister getting a first, you put Kate Winslet in – things like that piss me off." I'm guessing he has Fish Tank in mind? "I watched it," he says tersely. "Sometimes I think, we're not having fucking gin riots!"

People don't always like the term "character actor" – it can seem belittling or even archaic. But Marsan is proud of the title. "When I think of character actors, I think of Spencer Tracy, I think of Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall. When I was a young lad watching films, my eyes were on them – watching On the Waterfront, my eyes are on Rod Steiger and Karl Malden, not on Brando."

Being a character actor, though, "has its curses and its blessings. If I looked like the guy from Twilight and had my CV, I'd be fucking huge. But it's a longer career. After a while, people begin to join the dots."

'The Disappearance of Alice Creed' (18) is on general release. 'Heartless' (18) is out on 21 May. 'Me and Orson Welles' is out now on DVD

Ready, Eddie? Go...

Happy-Go-Lucky

As a conspiracy-obsessed driving instructor, Marsan spent his scenes locked in psychological in-car combat with Sally Hawkins' pathologically cheerful Poppy in Mike Leigh's 2008 film

Sherlock Holmes

It could have been a thankless part: Inspector Lestrade, plodder of the Yard. But a bewhiskered Marsan brought comic panache to Guy Ritchie's 2009 olde London Town swashbuckler

21 Grams

Marsan bulks up as muscular cleric Rev John, preacher and spiritual adviser to a tormented Benicio del Toro in Alejandro González Iñarritu's mosaic drama from 2003

The Restraint of Beasts

An interrupted project from director Pawel Pawlikowski; Marsan lined up with Rhys Ifans for this 2006 adaptation of Magnus Mills' oddball existential novel about work and fences

Me and Orson Welles

As real-life theatre producer John Houseman (right). "The quintessential Englishman in New York," says Marsan of this 2008 role. "But in fact he was a Romanian Jew who reinvented himself – so that was how I played him" JR

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