A thrillingly intimate 30 minutes with Andrew Scott
He stole the show in Sherlock and is about to break into Bond – but it’s Sea Wall that has had the biggest impact on his work
Andrew Scott: ‘Ever since I’ve done Sea Wall it has influenced all of the work I’ve done. That relationship with the audience, that idea of it being live.’ Photograph: Kevin Cummins
Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock.
‘This may be him now,” says Howard Rombough, the hotel PR manager, as a sleek car rolls up to the door. It is not him. We are waiting by the entrance to One Aldwych, a tasteful hotel in London’s theatreland, and Andrew Scott’s arrival has become something of an event.
As we wait, we chat about the hotel’s private film club, which happens to be showing Scott’s film Pride this week, and Kim Noble’s outrageous show in the Soho Theatre, until we notice a man standing beside us, in jeans and sneakers and carrying a rucksack, who turns out to be Scott.
As we are led to a private lounge, which has been almost emptied for us, Scott rains down polite thank-yous with enough wry self-awareness to suggest that this treatment is all very silly.
In Birdland, a play by Simon Stephens that opened in London last year, Scott played a toxically indulged rock star, a guy who demands a fresh peach at midnight in a hotel in Moscow – and gets it – at the expense of his soul. Scott’s success came later in his career and he maintains a sceptical distance from its trappings, however determined we are to trap him.
Today, he is rehearsing an earlier play by Stephens, the exquisite Sea Wall, written in 2008 with the actor in mind, which makes its long-awaited Dublin debut this week, thanks to the Dublin Theatre Festival. It is a thrillingly intimate play, a 30-minute monologue delivered by a photographer about his wife, his child and his father-in-law, which somehow becomes a shattering piece about faith, truth and the power of the unknowable.
In Paines Plough’s stripped-down production, Scott gives an extraordinary performance, deceptively personable, making eye contact with the audience, here confiding, now alarming. Is it getting harder to maintain that intimacy? ““It’s the same job for me, in a way,” he says. “What we wanted to do the very first time we did it was to break any barriers down.”
‘An argument for the short play’Josie RourkeThe Broken Space Season
“It seemed to me, the very first time I read it, to be a really great play that was no less great because it was short,” says Scott. “It’s almost like an argument for the short play. In order to make it work, we needed to strip it away, because the whole theatre had been stripped away. There was no lighting. It was just me talking. The idea of pretending that the audience wasn’t there would be ridiculous.”
With nobody else on stage, Scott would make the spectators his co-stars, imagining relationships with individuals, to the point that after the show – “feeling relieved and high” – he would approach them in the bar, like old friends. “Now maybe that’s a little more difficult,” he admits. “I could get myself in trouble.”
The play seems to have had the most profound impact on his career, more so than even Sherlock, which shot him into the upper stratosphere of fame. And he is in no hurry to let it go. “Ever since I’ve done Sea Wall it has influenced all of the work I’ve done. That relationship with the audience, that idea of it being live.”
A great screen actorSea Wall
That same spirit made his phone message – a flailing cover-up delivered from a lecture theatre podium – such a scream in John Butler’s The Stag, and it has also brought us perhaps the most remarkable screen villain of the 21st century in his Bafta-winning performance as Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.
Maybe another performer would have thought to give Holmes an apologetic “I have to take this” shrug when his phone interrupts their first meeting with a blast of the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive, but it’s hard to think of anyone else marrying something so camp and sinister. A super-villain with an Irish accent, blowing things up and killing indiscriminately in the UK on a prime- time BBC show has become a source of pride for a nation. Twenty or 30 years ago, we’d have been up in arms.
“Oh my God,” he laughs. “I had never thought of that before. Well, the reason he is Irish is because I’m Irish. It’s a little bit like the idea we’re talking about: pretending to be someone else in order for it to be believable, a little like Sea Wall; you turn the lights down in order for it to be engaging. If you strip away all of the acting, what is dark within your own soul? I don’t think about the Irishness of Moriarty any more than I think about blowing somebody up on the way home. It’s to do with imagination and playing. I’ve always said this: I used to act as a child, and I loved it, so I’ve tried never to stray too far from that.”
That said, you could be forgiven for wondering if Scott took on Pride, which is about sexuality and politics, with a sense of contemporary political purpose. “The fact that Ireland could be the first country where the public itself votes for marriage equality is potentially very exciting,” he tells me. “It would benefit, not just lesbian and gay people, but all Irish people, because equality is justice. And a just society is a happier society. It’s as simple as that.”
Scott acted in drama groups and sometimes professionally during his school years in Gonzaga College. He began studying drama at Trinity College, at the same time as getting his first professional stage role in John Crowley’s production of Six Characters in Search of an Author for the Abbey in 1995.
“My first exam at Trinity was the same night as the opening of Six Characters,” he asys. He wrote an essay about his experience of the professional stage. “It didn’t go down well. I knew nothing about semiotics, but I had a sense of steel about me. I knew that I wanted to act after the four years and I was offered a couple more things.” Thomas Kilroy’s groundbreaking The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde followed, directed by Patrick Mason, and Conor McPherson’s A Dublin Carol.
“A film I had done in school [Eamonn Doyle’s Korea] was coming out, so I thought: I’ll take a year out.” He moved to London in 1999, when he acted opposite Michael Gambon in the TV drama Longitude, but was careful to ensure his rental agreement had a six-month break clause. “There’s a certain amount of fluidity that I think I am drawn to. I don’t like to be pinned down, in a way. I think at this stage I have to admit that.”
For similar reasons, he downplays the importance of researching roles, trusting the writing and experimenting: for film, he rarely does the same thing twice in successive takes. (“Because that’s live,” he says of Moriarty’s phone call. “A lot of the stuff that’s good is live.”)
Scott is selective, but hardly precious, when taking big gigs. When his talent for spontaneity enters the machinery of multimillion dollar movies, it must be harder to find room to play?
“F*** them,” he yelps, throwing out the appropriate salute. “I do feel that very strongly. That’s why I feel so passionately about subsidy, essentially, and the support of the arts. I have been supported in so many ways. Any success – by which I mean freedom of choice – I have is because it’s more valuable to me to do Sea Wall than it is to go off and do two weeks on some schlocky film that’s going to make me lots of money. And it’s not because I’m a great person. I have learned over the past nearly 20 years what is really of value. The stuff that is of value is non-cynical, the pursuit of play, the pursuit of the audience, telling the truth and creating something new and interesting. That pursuit is addictive.” Sea Wall is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until February 28th