Andrew Scott on the rugby-school comedy ‘Handsome Devil’
The actor plays an inspirational teacher in the film about a gay loner and a jock
For a man who is dying in a bloody pile of poisoned corpses every night, Andrew Scott is awfully chipper. Much has been written about the Dublin actor’s turn as Hamlet at London’s Almeida Theatre, almost all of it gushing. And richly deserved, to boot.
“From the beginning he is emphatic, tipping easily from fury into tears, a windmill of small gestures, pointing to his eyes when he talks of weeping,” writes Susannah Clapp in The Observer.
The Independent’s Paul Taylor concurs: “I’ve never heard a Hamlet that takes us from the tissue-rustling of quiet despair to the tantrum-throwing of sardonic scorn and self-mockery.”
Scott, an Olivier Award-winning veteran of the National Theatre, The Old Vic and Broadway, is mostly pleased to have read the word “conversational” attached to Robert Icke’s modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s longest play.
Not everyone gets to play Hamlet. Certainly not every
40-year-old Irish guy
“I’m not someone who completely avoids reviews,” he clarifies.
“But I don’t read them obsessively either. I’m happy that ‘conversational’ keeps coming up in the ones I have read. Shakespeare is for everyone. It doesn’t have to be academic or boring. It should be watched, not read.
"That’s why ticket prices are so important. And in an age when people spend four or five hours on a box-set, then why not on Hamlet? I’m really buzzed that this play that was written 400 years ago allows for people to talk about compassion and mental health issues.”
Today, some hours ahead of this evening’s three-and-a-half hour performance, the 40 year old is just a little hoarse.
It has been an exhausting run, he says: “But so worth it. More than any other play I’ve ever done. Not everyone gets to play Hamlet. Certainly not every 40-year-old Irish guy. You have to take care of yourself between shows. Eat well. Exercise sometimes.”
And don’t be stingy with the chocolate.
“Yes. That. I’m a terrible man for chocolate. Part of the fun of being in a company is that you develop all these little nightly rituals with other actors. You don’t really get that in the movies. And then I have my chocolate regime. But that’s just for me.”
I guess this is what happens when your two-month run coincides with Creme Egg season.
“Trust me. You do not need to remind me that it’s Creme Egg time,” he cries, with the kind of fervour that has allowed him to repeatedly upstage Benedict Cumberbatch.
I don’t have a nationalist bone in my body. It’s reductive and boring and insidious in its effects
Scott has, as he puts it, “been tugging away at theatre for so long” that he was first approached to play Hamlet some 15 years ago.
Indeed, his career began in earnest, aged just eight, with a much-googled advert for Flahavan’s porridge. Aged 17, he landed a starring role in Cathal Black’s Korea.
Small roles in Saving Private Ryan and Nora, and an award-winning turn as Edmund in Karel Reisz’s 1998 production of Long Day’s Journey into Night at The Gate followed.
Not bad for a kid who got into acting as a way to boost his confidence. “Even now I can’t say that I don’t get nervous,” he says. “But I feel much more comfortable as an actor now. I feel free.”
He laughs: “Except when Mark Rylance is in the audience.”
Between high-profile projects – Spectre, Alice through the Looking Glass, Denial, some little BBC TV show called Sherlock – Scott likes to squeeze in homecoming gigs whenever possible. Always a pleasure, insists the sometime star of Jimmy’s Hall and The Stag.
“I’m really excited about how things are going in the Irish film industry,” he enthuses.
“I’m confident in Irish film. There are amazing Irish actors and crews. Long may it continue. I don’t have a nationalist bone in my body. It’s reductive and boring and insidious in its effects. As we’re seeing all over the world, nationalism now threatens to bring back divisions we’ve worked so hard to get rid of. But I still take enormous pride in Irish film, in Irish arts.”
Scott, who has been openly gay since his teens, is also willing to make a flag-flying exception for the 34th Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland.
“When I think back on being 16, it was still illegal to be gay in Ireland,” he recalls. “It’s extraordinary. That year it did change. But the idea that two years ago I would go to Dublin Castle with my mum and all my friends to celebrate a public vote for gay marriage. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
“I feel very proud to be Irish on that score. Particularly given the journey we’ve come on in that short space of time. We’re a shining example for the rest of the world at a time when one is needed.”
That journey goes to the heart of Handsome Devil, a new award-winning comedy from director John Butler.
Set in a rugby-mad school during the 1980s, the film concerns the sometimes fraught friendship between a gay, sports-hating loner and a star jock.
Under the tutelage of an inspirational English teacher – played with plenty of vim and vigour by Scott – these guarded youngsters slowly learn to be true to themselves.
With a nod to Dead Poet’s Society, a riled Scott bellows at his charges: You spend your whole life being somebody else,” he roars. “Who’s going to be you?”
Teachers should be passionate. But they should have other things in their lives
“My mother is a teacher. My dad worked at Fás. My sister is a sports coach. So there’s something in the blood. And that makes me very interested in how teachers are portrayed on film. You have to strike a balance. They have to be interested in the students but not too interested.
"For that reason, early on, I talked to John (Butler) about making the character a bit less present and overbearing than he was in the original script. And John was totally responsive to that. Teachers should be passionate. But they should have other things in their lives.”
John Butler drew on his own youthful experiences to create Handsome Devil. There are certain autobiographical overlaps for Scott, too.
As a teenager he attended Gonzaga College, an institution that seems to manufacture national rugby stars.
“Luckily, the school I went to was also very big into the arts,” recalls the actor. “But, as in the film, at school, there was always this rubbish that if you were interested in one thing, you weren’t allowed to be interested in two things or three things. That’s so damaging. And you see it everywhere. I played rugby a little bit. And I liked it. But I was more interested in arts and drama. It’s just that nonsense of categorising people gets in the way.
“What I love about the film is the friendship and the insistence that you can be friends with whoever you want. Other interests and other sexualities are not a threat.”
It’s interesting to hear him talk about categorising. Scott, in common with Luke Evans and Zachary Quinto, is one of an alarmingly short list of actors who are, to use what ought to be an archaic term, “out”.
To say that a gay role has to be played by a gay person is a step backwards, not forwards
“No human being wants to be defined by one thing,” he says.
“I can only speak to my own experience. I’m an actor pursuing interesting work. Sexuality doesn’t and shouldn’t come into it. Sexuality is not a flaw in a person’s make up, nor is it a virtue. You can replicate sex on film with anybody.
“I firmly believe this notion that we should only cast gay people in gay parts or straight people in straight parts is really dangerous. It separates us. To say that a gay role has to be played by a gay person is a step backwards, not forwards. It creates a barrier that will become difficult to break down.”
The Bard and the Almeida beckons. Scott continues to be pleasantly surprised to find fans assembled nightly at the stage door, some of whom have flown in, armed with selfie-sticks, from distant lands.
“I’m always happy to meet and talk with people,” he says.
“They have an energy that you can draw from. It’s one of the things that I dislike about social media. Everything is either fawning or insulting. But, in person, you have to have a proper, two-way conversation.”
He laughs: “Unless people are rude. Then there won’t be any conversation.”
- Handsome Devil is on general release from April 21st