Interview with Angus MacFadyen
I recently had the opportunity to have a frank discussion with Edinburgh born TV/Movie Actor/Writer/Producer Angus MacFadyen about his life and career. He first came to my attention for his role as Mental Patient/Escape Artist Fraser in Taking Over The Asylum, which he co-starred in with future Dr. Who actor David Tennant, a series which, this year, celebrates its 25th anniversary. Mr MacFadyen was in the city of his of birth during this year's Edinburgh Film Festival to promote his new movie Robert the Bruce, helmed by Richard Grey, which sees him return to the role he first portrayed in the 1995 Mel Gibson directed, historical epic Braveheart.
Where did your desire to act come from?
When I was a kid I imagined myself as a spaceman or as a cowboy - I guess it's the sort of thing of not wanting to grow up - So I wanted to find a job that meant you didn't do a 9 to 5 and you get to play, so I followed that desire.
Then I grew into a young fellow and, trying to be sensible, I went to law school in France for a year to study the Napoleonic Code which was very dry and not to my liking, so I went off to Edinburgh University. I was studying international relations and one day a voice in my head went "You should do something else you should change your course."
I sometimes listen to these things, so six weeks in I changed to French & English literature/language. During this time I did 35 plays at The Bedlam Theatre at five different Fringes, after which I went to drama school and I then started my career.
I never really questioned why I had changed or why I had listened to that thought until 2003 came around and we were dragged, by the Labour government, into an illegal invasion and I suddenly had this illumination "Oh my god!”
I'd probably had gone into politics, into the Labour Party, because I do swing left - and the SNP weren't on the scene - so I would have been in that government in some capacity and I would have had to make a choice either to keep my job or keep my soul.
If you look at the people who did quit, who stuck to their principles, a few of them are admirable people and the others lost their souls. If you look at where the Labour Party is now, you see the consequences of that but that would have been my fate, in a way, so I missed a speeding bullet, so to speak.
You began your career in British TV working on Soldier, Soldier and the now 25 year old Scottish Drama "Taking Over The Asylum" what lessons did you learn from this experience.
I learned a couple of things. I really enjoyed doing Taking Over The Asylum. We were in a mental institution just outside of Glasgow, which has now been closed down. We were there for three months and it was a working institution. We, basically, were in our costumes, we had no trailers to go to and we were on the floor walking around with the other patients.
I discovered that these people had back stories - some of them where fascinating - they had just cracked one day. They were successful but the pressures of life dragged them into these places.
A lot of the people you see in these places, it's actually an escape in a way. Madness is an escape and often it's a performance that some people put on, which you get caught up in.
The character of Hamlet begins by putting on a performance of madness but he's so good at it that he actually becomes that thing. So I think I discovered I really enjoyed doing off the wall kind of stuff, as opposed to Soldier Soldier which I found an abysmal propaganda machine for the British empire. I'm not ashamed to say I really disliked the experience and turned down the following series. By turning it down I actually got to do the Taking Over The Asylum job because I wouldn't have been available to do it otherwise.
A quick side note - I was shooting Soldier Soldier. I had to do the research and had to hang out with the soldiers. We were in Hong Kong, I was with one of them and they said "Tell them the funny story about what we got up to yesterday" - because they were guarding the border between China & Hong Kong - they said "We got one of those China guys trying to escape” - they are trying to escape to a better life - they said “We caught him, tied him to the back of the car and we dragged him for two miles” (imitating laugh) and we were all sitting there, all the actors in silence, like "Oh fuck this is what we are here to represent, this kind of behaviour” it was shocking.
Can you talk about working with Mel Gibson in Braveheart?
It was interesting because, as a director, he was a very generous person. Even when he cast me in the role and he would show up on the set, he would try and tell you how to do it. Because he's an actor he would act it out. So he would come and lean on this chair and do a heroic pose or something - I would go "It's my castle isn't it?”
He'd say "Yeah"
"and this is my table?"
He'd say "Yeah"
”I'd been waiting for two weeks?”
"Three Weeks" he said
"So I can get up on to my table and walk up & down on it, if I want, I am the king"
He went "right, OK, put the camera down here & shoot him like that"
Mel was very open to let you do things which most people wouldn't let you do because maybe it’s kinda too weird. The most common denominator is "Don't do that it's too weird.” It's like fear. People don't want you to do weird risky things, where as he liked that.
But acting with him as an actor on set was a whole different thing, because he doesn't really like himself as an actor, he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. I don't know what it is. He has contempt for it, like he accesses his feminine side, or his more vulnerable side as it where, and he likes to bury it behind a macho bravado type thing. So it's sort of shame to him to be an actor, he becomes a different person when he's on set acting and that person, which you have to deal with, is very unpredictable, kind of not the nicest of guys. He tries to mess with you in scenes - mess you up - so you had to learn to deal with him. That's my “how is it working with Mel Gibson?” story, I should have told that story 30 years ago.
In the mid 90s there was a glut of Scottish stories that attracted audiences. What was the experience like working in this movement?
I was glad that they were doing them, unfortunately it seems to have gone quiet again, but the wave didn't last long, certainly not for me. But at the time it was wonderful to be back in Scotland to be doing something Scottish, you certainly want to get back to your roots.
During the 90s you played Richard Burton, Peter Lawford and Orson Welles on screen, what's your process of researching a real life person?
I read all the books, watch all the movies, study the body language and that's it. It's quite fun to be able to play real people because you have something you feel like you’re preparing, so you feel like, when you show up to work, you've actually done preparation - which is quite a good thing - in the sense of putting your mind at ease, you feel like you've done some homework. Whereas when you are playing someone who doesn't actually exist in reality, it can be more anxiety inducing because there's nothing really there to study. So that's why people tend to, if you are playing a taxi driver or a waiter, that's why actors will get a job as that and do it for a while.
What qualities do you look for in a script and is there a genre of film you're attracted to more?
I do like historical. I'm not a big fan of modern stuff. I don't like wearing suits and I don't like wearing uniforms of any sort, which is why I went into acting in the first place, so I wouldn't have to wear a suit but I do love the historical stuff and I love big fiery speeches. I love to get into that whole world and do the research for it.
As far as the script, it's got to grab you from page one and you can't put it down until the end. Your heart starts beating faster and you start hoping that you actually get to do it. It's a real thing.
Has there been a part you've portrayed on screen that's close to the real Angus?
(He pauses) You know I think, in a way, any character you play, you try to bring them to yourself, you try to get as close to yourself as possible - which means you don't actually stand outside of them and judge them, just as one doesn't really, sort of, judge yourself. One must also be unconscious of oneself in a certain way.
We all breathe the same air and we drink the same water and probably, essentially, everybody is the same. It's just, where we differ, are our circumstances - where you were born, how you were raised, what was your mother like? What was your father like? What was your schooling like? Were you beaten as a child? Were you given love? or were you denied it? So that's where all those paths divide. Were you born into a rich family? or a poor one? did you become a criminal because of it? or have you become a politician? - Which is essentially the same thing, they’re just legally allowed to do this shit (he laughs).
Are you at the point in your career where you don't have to audition for parts anymore?
And are there any roles you wanted but missed out on?
Yeah there's so many, it's almost painful - that's almost too painful to talk about because there are so many. You sorta have your own path and your own destiny. I was this close to playing the Joaquin Phoenix role of the emperor in Gladiator, it was down to him and me, according to Ridley Scott. So that was a painful one to miss because that was quite the movie and I feel it might have been a little more realistic, me standing up doing sword fights with Russell Crowe, as opposed to Joaquin Phoenix who was just a kid at the time. So that would have been a very different approach to my mad emperor, his was more oily, more Nero-esque. Mine would have been fiery, mad and unpredictable in a very physical sense. I would have made him more dangerous in a way. Joaquin was more slithery, like a snake, but I do love him as an actor - he’s a remarkable actor.
Your new film Robert the Bruce was a passion project of yours for almost 12 years. Did you ever think of giving up? What challenges did you face and do you have any advice for those with passion projects?
Never give up, keep going, there's nothing more to it. Well, basically, you gotta realise, you do as much as you can and you prepare but, eventually, at some point, it's out of your hands and if God, or whatever god you believe in, or whatever force out there is going to bless it and give birth to it, you have to learn a certain patience to be ready for that moment, when it unfolds. So many people who become actors or wanted to become actors - there’s the ones who give up and walk away from it to get a real job, or get married and surrender the desire… the dream and the ones who stick with it, even when it's a nightmare - that's really the only difference.
Are there any underrated performance of yours whether it be TV or film that people should track down?
I did a thing called Snide and Prejudice about a schizophrenic who thinks he's Hitler and while it's not a perfect movie, it's a really daring experimental movie, I just loved the concept of it. It’s, at times, funny and, at times, horrifying. It's the story of Hitler rising from his childhood to power and it's told through the eyes of these people in a mental institution who are either inmates or are the psychiatrists in the place.
What do you like to watch in your spare time?
I'm a channel surfer. I get bored very quickly of most stuff. Whatever catches my eye, old movies, anything before the 70s, sometimes for nostalgic purposes and 80s films from time to time.
If you hadn't become an actor what could you have seen yourself doing?
I think I would have gone mad. I think I would have been put in a mental institution because I wouldn’t have been creatively satisfied and if would have driven me slowly insane. I would have been working, doing some humiliating job or signing on at the job centre - and it does drive insane, you see it all over the place - I would have been one of those casualties.
I had to flee this place because I was signing on and it was the most humiliating thing I ever experienced. I still remember with dread going to the Grassmarket job centre, there were no opportunities, so I had to leave and it's only now I'm coming back. The Scots are very cruel on Scots who leave the country because you get "oh you left and you left us here, now you are coming back here, you're not a Scot anymore.”
Don't talk like that! being Scottish is something you hold in your heart, it's not because you are here. It's not like you find God in a stone building, God is a spiritual thing, it's freedom. Freedom is like the tide, it goes in and it comes out. The fish swim in the sea and there's no line in the sand. Freedom is something in your heart, that's the thing, the dream. Never let it die or we're done.
Are there any aspects of the industry you don't enjoy and why?
I don't enjoy the bullshit, I don't enjoy the arse kissing, I don't enjoy going to premieres which I'm not supposed to be there because I'm not in the movie and I don't enjoy the fame chasing of it. I like to be at home. I'm a quiet guy most of the time, who sorta hides out. When I have something I believe in, like Robert the Bruce, I'm out there 100%.
What is your opinion on the current state of the Scottish/British Film industry? and would you make more movies over here?
I'd love to make more film's here. It's a bit of a mess, behind the times, they have some catching up to do -the example of Belfast with Game of Thrones - we ought to get our act together.
I enjoy your work with these directors can you talk about your experience working with…
Rob Cohen on The Rat Pack
Rob was a madman. It was fun just playing those guys. Shooting in those old houses and playing that style of thing. I'm a big fan of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis and that whole rat pack thing. It was a fun shoot because you are recreating that era and having fun.
Ronny Yu on Warriors of Virtue
A mad emperor. I based the character on him because he had polio when he was a kid so he had this limp and he had this mad glimmer in his eye. He’s almost like a Napoleonic figure who could go into great tempers. He was always smiling, like, maniacally, and then he'd go into a fury on a dime! I went "That's the guy! That's how I'll play the character."
Julie Taymor on Titus?
A mad woman. All these people would be in mental institutions if they weren't doing what they were doing. Absolute madness. We used to dance around together in clubs and do our funny dancing, which is, sort of, just, basically, exploring freedom and movement. You just sort of dare to make a complete idiot of yourself. That's what my profession is, you dare to fail, you dare to make a clown of yourself, you dare to fall over and pick yourself up - it doesn't really matter - embarrassment is for the real clowns.
Phillippe Mora on Joseph's Gift?
Ah that's the guy who I did Snide and Prejudice with. Another madman. He came to me one week before we shot that with this role. I had a week to prepare and it was a four hour movie, a 180 pages, I couldn't learn those lines so he just went “Yeah no problem mate we'll just put cue cards everywhere.” He's Australian. “We can put up cue cards and you can read the lines mate".”
Then he'd come up to me - we shot it in 10 days, a four hour movie - and he would come up - here's scenes I would have had hardly any time to change - he asked me "Would you mind singing the next scene?”
I go "singing it?”
He said “Yeah mate”
I went "ok" and I came down, the cue cards are ready, the lines were "We'll use everything, technology is culture, we'll show the masses drama and illusion, they need illusions not just movies in the theatre." This was the rehearsal - we'd shoot them because they didn't have time, we had two takes and had to move on. So they shout action and I began to sing it, I was doing a bit of the cabaret thing. You make it up as you go along, you are just playing around. Most people are terrified of improvisation, they'd rather have the lines.
What upcoming projects should audiences look out for?
Robert the Bruce - that's the one I'm trying to sell, to get people in the cinema, right now because it's a communal experience - I want people to see it in theatres.
Robert the Bruce in UK cinemas now!