Andrew Scott: A pin-up who is hard to pin down

Scott's career has been as unpredictable as his portrayal of Moriarty in the BBC's new Sherlock Holmes. It's good to keep reinventing yourself, he tells Alice Jones

An arch-villain who blows raspberries, has "Stayin' Alive" as his ringtone and introduces himself to his enemy with the wheedling words: "Is that a British Army Browning L9A1 in your pocket – or are you just pleased to see me?" It's not quite what you'd expect from Moriarty, the man that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described as "the Napoleon of Crime, the greatest schemer of all time, the organiser of every devilry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations". But then little about the BBC's zesty reimagining of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century is predictable. And, Jim Moriarty, as played by Andrew Scott, is one of the least predictable and most thrilling elements of all.

His "consulting criminal" is the definition of mercurial. Slippery and highly toxic, one minute he's a slick gangster in a Westwood suit and aviators, the next, a fidgety bag of neuroses, the next, a bellowing fiend. That's what makes him so terrifying, says Scott, in real life an affable 35-year-old from Dublin. "People that you're really frightened of, it's usually because you don't know anything about them. You think, 'God I've no idea what he may do'." Slight, with dark hair and puppyish eyes, he doesn't really look like an arch-villain. "You don't need to have humps and fake noses and wigs and funny teeth," says Scott. "What is really scary about Moriarty is that he can be right in front of you, hiding in plain sight. There's an audacity about that."

The actor didn't spend much time reading the original stories or watching previous interpretations. "I'm not a big guy for research. You've got to take a risk. With Moriarty, there was a bit of pressure because he's such a famous character but there's no point in me trying to copy somebody else. I hate that idea. Life's too short. Some people might hate it and I'm sure some people do. But you've got to put your signature on something otherwise what's the point?"

Indeed. Scott's menacing performance has already won him a legion of fans. In the summer, when he was appearing in the three-and-a-half hour Ibsen epic Emperor and Galilean at the National Theatre, they would mob him at the stage door. One teenage fan from China saw the play seven times. "That's a lot of hours," murmurs Scott. At a recent preview screening of the new Sherlock, the atmosphere was "nigh-on hysterical", he says. As Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch has his band of female followers – the Cumberbitches. Is there a Moriarty mob? "Yes. Mainly young girls, aged between 17 and 25, with a bit of dark edge." He giggles, a little nervously.

It's remarkable when you consider that so far, Moriarty has only appeared on screen for around 15 minutes in total. This Sunday, after a hefty build-up, including one series cliffhanger, an extended swimming-pool stand-off, one hound-related hallucination and quite a lot of menacing text messages, he will finally have his big stand-off. The last episode of the series, The Reichenbach Fall, will see him attempt to pull off the heist of the millennium, and perhaps destroy Holmes once and for all. The 1893 story on which it is based, The Final Problem, ends with both apparently falling to their deaths in the Alps – or perhaps not. Will there be a third series? "I'm not sure yet. I'm sure they're talking about that at the moment."

Whether Moriarty lives to plot another day, Scott is keen not to become typecast. He's currently filming The Fuse, a gritty new BBC four-parter, playing a melancholic detective opposite Christopher Eccleston's corrupt councillor, and an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's The Scapegoat, with Eileen Atkins, in which he plays a "terribly, terribly posh person with a side parting".

"I'm desperate to do something funny next," he says. "I want to keep everything balanced. That's why it's important not to have too much fanfare. If one story becomes too hot then you can't forget it. As an actor you want to remain fluid."

Fluid is a good word for Scott. He has worked steadily ever since he dropped out of his drama degree at Trinity College, Dublin to join the Abbey Theatre 15 years ago, but he's still, somehow, tricky to place. On TV, he's recently popped up playing Paul McCartney in Lennon Naked, and a mannered 1950s actor in The Hour as well as in American blockbusters like John Adams and Band of Brothers. On stage, he'll happily tackle Ibsen but is most proud of the work he's done with new writing – including in the premieres of Simon Stephens' Sea Wall, Mike Bartlett's Cock and David Hare's The Vertical Hour on Broadway.

If you wanted to find a common thread, you could say that Moriarty is the latest in a long line of hard-to-pin-down characters. This playful fluidity saw him star in two theatrical ménage-à-trois in a row recently – Cock and Design for Living. A film of Chekhov's The Duel, produced by ex-Merchant Ivory president, Donald Rosenfeld, out later this year, makes it a hat-trick of love triangles. "I do sometimes play characters that are a bit ambiguous. You've got to be brave about that sort of stuff. I like the sense of people not feeling too secure, not immediately knowing what they have in front of them."

Intense and highly strung on stage, off it he's witty and laid-back. "I don't think I'm intense in life. This must be where it comes out. I don't really like anything to be too serious. Then you lose the humanity of it." Upon leaving his Jesuit boys' school, he rejected his degree after six months for being over-serious – too many lectures about the semiotics of noise, and not enough theatre. "Everybody was writing down 'noise' and I was thinking, 'Is this costing a grand-a-half a term?'" When one of his essays came back with the sniffy observation, "Your idea of a paragraph is sadly deficient," he snapped. "I thought, 'Screw paragraphs! What's that got to do with anything?'"

Today, still, he has little time for thespian talk. He rarely reads his reviews, thinks the power of critics is "preposterous" and does not believe in working for the sake of art alone. "I don't like it when people ask actors to work for free – on the fringe – as if it's some kind of virtue. That annoys me – actors should be paid well." There is only one thing that makes him angry – noisy audiences. Someone brought a baby to one of his recent plays. "And of course, as is the wont of a baby, it cried all the way through. I thought it was incredibly rude. And rudeness to me is always linked to cruelty."

He was born in Dublin, where his family still live. His older sister is a sports coach and his younger sister is just starting out as an actress. When he was growing up, his father worked for an employment agency and his mother was an art teacher. Scott had been about to go to art college when he won his first role in the Irish film Korea, aged 17. He still paints – "figurative stuff, people mainly. I was good" – and would still like to train. He has lived in London for the past decade with his partner, who is "sort of" in the business. "And that's all you're getting." He clams up. "It sounds maybe a little old fashioned, but the parts I want to play and I do play, you don't want to inject too much of your own personality. What you sacrifice then is a slight mystery."

Red carpets, interviews and social networking are all alien to him. When a friend told him that he was trending on Twitter following his debut as Moriarty, he made a rare foray online. "So terrifying," he says burying his head in his hands. "I would never go on it again. Oh God, it just made me want to go to sleep for three weeks. People said lovely things but then people also said the most vicious, horrible things. It's an outlet for the angry. It's like going into a room and being punched, then kissed, then hugged, then kicked, then complimented and then slated."

When The Reichenbach Fall airs, there is likely to be a flurry of new tweets, but this time he is ready for the attention. "There's no doubt that it has increased, but it's weird, you can be as recognisable as you like." Like Moriarty? "Exactly! Just like Moriarty. You can make yourself invisible if you really want to."

'Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall' is on Sunday at 9pm on BBC1

Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution