This month saw the return to our screens of British television giant Stephen Poliakoff, with Dancing on the Edge, about a black jazz band making their way into upper-crust society during the 1930s. Poliakoff chose to lead his typically impressive cast for this five-part drama with one Matthew Goode. A long-limbed Englishman, he brings an easy jocularity to the role of the young, ambitious, music journalist, Stanley Mitchell, all twinkling eyes, hands-in-pockets insouciance, and an irresistible smile, turned up at the edges so it's almost, nearly, a smirk.
Poliakoff – a playwright and filmmaker, but most famous for TV dramas such as The Lost Prince and Shooting the Past – had pegged Goode for the role before they met. But good luck convincing Goode that he'd be anyone's first choice, for anything.
"He wrote this brilliant character which he said he had only me in mind for – I don't know whether he's lying," says the 34-year-old, with jolly self-deprecation. A fan of Poliakoff's output, he considered working with him a "rite of passage" for an English actor. "I'd seen the photograph of the sort of slightly mad professor and I just thought it'd be fantastic to go and see him… I found out the next day he wanted me to do it. I was like, that's quick! It was from the ridiculous to the sublime."
That 'ridiculous' refers to the casting for the other project I've met him to talk about, Stoker. It's a film by Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, best known for Oldboy (part of his ultra-violent Vengeance trilogy), with a screenplay by Prison Break actor, Wentworth Miller – which takes Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt as its jumping-off point – starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska (if you're wondering, yes, it is as richly brilliant and bonkers as you'd expect a stew made from all those ingredients to be).
"I'd gone through hell getting Stoker, which was not offered [to me] – Colin Firth fell out of the part and I spent a long time chasing the role, so I'd lost about a stone in weight on that one," he explains wryly. When I ask why Firth pulled out, Goode quips, "He won an Oscar, I think," before backtracking on his "facetious" remark; he wouldn't want to offend Colin, who's a chum (they filmed A Single Man together). Firth apparently said: "I would really like to be doing [Stoker], but if it had to be anyone I'm really glad it's you."
In some ways, he's a likely inheritor to Colin's crown: tall, dark and handsome, and terribly English, with an accent that's just the right mix of sonorous plum and clipped RP repression to have American audiences swooning into their popcorn. He is also one of those actors, like Firth – and they are often British – who can convey an awful lot while seeming to not do very much. In Stoker, his understated performance surely vindicates that lengthy casting process.
Goode plays the mysterious Uncle Charlie, who comes to visit his surly niece, India (Wasikowska), after her father dies on her 18th birthday. He matches Wasikowska for intense, staring-eyes-like-pools, where you're not quite sure what murky depths they descend to. Louche and charismatic, hands in pockets again, smirking again, but this time it's rather sinister. Sex and violence are inextricably intertwined in Park's tense, creepy modern Gothic horror, and Goode's smooth-surface manners mask a dangerous streak. It's this combo that proves a rather icky, sexual draw for both mother (a brittle, chilly Kidman) and daughter (a focused, freaky Wasikowska).
Charm never hurt any actor's career, but it must be a word applied more often to Goode than most. He has it in abundance, in both these recent projects – albeit to very different ends. It's no wonder, really, that Poliakoff thought he was obvious casting; in Dancing on the Edge, Goode is effectively the human equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Another character says of Stanley, "He's incorrigible, he's such a rogue," but his cheeky charm and rakish brio carry whole plotlines. And in Stoker, Uncle Charlie's suave, smooth magnetism almost lets him get away with, as the phrase would have it, murder.
In real life, too, Goode is winning. He begins by apologising – charmingly, of course – for his appalling jet-lag; he's just back from the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. He folds those incredibly long, jean-clad legs (he's a skinny 6ft 2in, looks taller) under an armchair, but remains animated. OK, maybe a little wired; he gets through three cups of coffee in less than an hour and, as I leave, two fags on the trot, the second chainily lit from the first. During the interview, he slaps his thigh in enthusiasm, and laughs at himself when he notices a flurry of particularly expressive hand waving. There's a sharp, quick sense of humour, but Goode is also swoopingly positive about, well, most things (Sundance was "really lovely, really beautiful"; he's "really, really happy" with Dancing on the Edge; it's "so nice" that I've watched Stoker in advance; the coffee is "am-a-zing").
He's also exceptionally, and I think completely genuinely, generous with his praise of colleagues – and not just pulsatingly famous stars, but young actors and behind-the-camera folk, too. Kidman may be "lovely", Wasikowska "super-fun" and Park, despite his violent films, "incredibly spiritual and gentle and kind", but Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung is also flagged as a "remarkably young master of using a camera". In Dancing on the Edge, co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor is "very intelligent and such a brilliant actor", but Goode, in full luvvie flow, also lauds young actor Tom Hughes – "who I just adore and who's also just fabulous in it" – and director of photography, Ashley Rowe: "it's beautifully lit, and he lit it beautifully quickly".
Words bubble up easily, our conversation overlapping or setting off down unexpected paths. He's teasing and playful and frequently slips into mocking characters and caricatures. You sense Goode would be a terrific dinner-party guest, sure to put yourf shyest friends at ease and match your most gregarious with boozy tales of Hollywood.
Not, however, that he is over-confident when it comes to his work. "Where I am in my career – which is not in a bad place – but if I'm getting to read [a script] and you've already got Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska there, something's up. I don't expect to be first on the list in any which way." He's surprisingly, if blusteringly, insecure about his own abilities, implying he's always desperately scrabbling for work and money. It's true, he hasn't had that breakthrough role to catapult him to papped uber-stardom (unlike pals Benedict or Jude, who admittedly don't really need surnames any more). But he's hardly an underachiever or an overlooked unknown.
He was Charles Ryder in the 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited (where, although comparisons with Jeremy Irons must have been irksome, he did manage to sound most awfully like him). There was a fresh-outta-drama-school dream role in a Woody Allen picture, albeit the flawed Match Point, alongside the flawless Scarlett Johansson. He was in Zack Snyder's comic-book adaptation Watchmen, playing the cleverest man in world, while another outing, Leap Year, paired him as cheeky-chappie Oirish love interest to Amy Adams – though the less said about that rom-com, soggier than an Irish bog and considerably less appealing, the better. There have also been top British TV dramas, from Abi Morgan's handsome adaptation of Birdsong to ITV's recent The Poison Tree.
But we're meeting in January, and there's a tax bill to be paid, and he's in a panic, perhaps only half in jest, about having no work lined up: "It's frightening. I've had a horrible couple of years as far as… well I won't go into that, because I'm not allowed to…" he trails off, smiling, like a child trying not to be naughty. He adds, a touch acidly, "but know that I've worked a lot of scale [actor's minimum wage]".
As well as this anxiety over future employability, he also insists he is always nervous when shooting. "I'm always pretty tense about everything when it comes to work," he says, after I ask him about the Cockney accent he (just about) pulls off in Dancing on the Edge. Questioned whether he gets nervous, too, when meeting particularly famous co-stars, he vehemently assents, adding, "I'm nervous all the time! I'm nervous meeting Steve Wright later on [for a radio interview] – he was my favourite DJ at whatever age. I get nervous about people you wouldn't think you'd get nervous about meeting, ie, Steve Wright…"
But when it comes to acting, Goode's been conquering his nerves since he was a child; he grew up in Devon, where his mum directed the local amateur dramatics group. "So I didn't really have a choice: 'You will be singing rodent'. Great," he deadpans. But he loved it really, and went on to study drama at Birmingham University followed by drama school in London. His mum, I suggest, must be proud. "Yes, she is. She is." He pauses, then says with a self-mocking doubt, "I hope she is".
Goode and his long-term partner, Sophie Dymoke, have a four-year-old daughter, Matilda; the family travelled to Nashville when Stoker was being filmed, which sounds jolly: "The producer's kids and Nicole's kids and our child Matilda went to [clothes shop] Pumpkin Patch and had picnics," he recounts, while Goode, Dymoke and Wasikowska "used to hit the strip in Nashville and go out two-stepping".
Would he also encourage Matilda to act, like his mum did with him? "I see traits – but then again, she's four, and you see traits in all four-year-olds. I hope that if she did, she'd do it my way," he adds. There's little risk, it seems, of Goode turning into a pushy parent. "The difference between going as an 18-year-old to drama school and going as a 21-year-old is vast," he begins. "That's only from my experience, but I really came out of my shell and I learnt a lot about life at university. It was a big deal, and I met a lot of my great friends there. I think if I'd made it as a child star, I could have turned into a total prick."
On the subject of friends, I can't help but notice Goode seems to have a lot of actor mates – aside from dancing with Mia and picnicking with Nicole and chatting with Colin, he mentions "bumping into" Jude Law and Felicity Jones, and cites Laurence Fox as a "close friend". He mentioned how his mum made wonderful friendships through the am-dram group, and I attempt to follow this up with an innocent observation that he also seems to make friends with other actors…
"I know, and that sounds like I'm a name-dropping wanker!" He curls up in a mock cringe at the thought of what I might write: "'God. He name drops. All. The. Time'."
Goode frequently anticipates what might be written, sending up his own 'ac-torrr' clichés before anyone else can. But he might have good reason; an interview in 2010 got him in hot water, after quoting him being rather too candid in his criticisms of both Brideshead and Leap Year. "I never really understood what happened, and it took me two years to recover from. Some agenda on [the interviewer's] part, I think," he says, in one of his rare, wholly serious, responses.
Did it make you wary of interviews? "It did. But I still like to go in with good will, and not be defensive, so that we can have a good time. Because it's such a weird process – it's like knowing you're going to sleep with someone and they're going to write about it, effectively," he says, which is itself a pretty candid way of putting it (I do try not to blush).
His other half, thankfully, isn't in the industry. "She used to work in fashion, and just to help us out [financially] recently she went back to working for MiH jeans," he says. Goode appreciates it's not always an easy life for her. While filming Dancing on the Edge, he had a two-and-a-half-hour commute from Kent to London, and did six-day weeks for two months: "Not that I'm complaining, trust me, but it did nearly kill me… and she wanted to kill me. It's just very lonely".
Having a child adds a weight of responsibility, too. "It's always in the back of your mind. Jobs have been lost because I have been like, 'How the hell am I going to be in Australia for six months?' It's an easier life if you're single!" he chuckles. Not that he'd swap family life for a second, I'm sure; his face lights up whenever they're mentioned.
And Goode doesn't feel overburdened with the weight of fame. When asked if he gets stopped by fans, he points to a woollen beanie he's worn throughout the interview as if it's camouflage and says, "No, I go on the Tube all the time".
Does he get much bother from the press? "Listen, I live in the middle of deepest, darkest Kent. No one in my village even knows who I am – I don't even know who I am – it's not like I'm on that level." I attempt to refute this but he ploughs on with a grin. "It's true, I'm not! Otherwise I'd work more." Perhaps he's right, but I somehow doubt we've seen the last of this charming man on our screens just yet.
'Stoker' is in cinemas from 1 March; 'Dancing on the Edge' continues on BBC2 on Sundays, and is out on DVD on 11 MarchReuse content