Two weeks later in May and Andrew Scott might not have been safe venturing out in New York in public. The second season of Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's irreverent dive into grief, alcohol and fornication, had debuted on the BBC in March – and turned Scott into the pulse-quickening, knee-weakening sensation who became known among fans as the Hot Priest.
But earlier this month, before the final round of Fleabag had landed on US shores, Scott – despite villainous turns as Moriarty opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock and opposite Daniel Craig in Spectre – walked through the city virtually unrecognised. Give it time.
In season two of Fleabag, now available on Amazon’s Prime Video service, Scott plays a G-and-T-swilling, expletive-spewing, utterly divine man of the cloth about to perform the second wedding of Fleabag’s father. And Fleabag, true to form, can’t help but be drawn to someone so wildly inappropriate.
It's a role Waller-Bridge has said could have only been played by Scott, whom she met in a theatrical production a decade earlier. "Andrew has the charisma of 10 people rolled into one," she told the Guardian in February.
She first broached it in what Scott recalled as a magical sit-down with Waller-Bridge in a Quaker meeting house in London, where they mused on the portrayal of religious people on television and what kind of love they wanted to create. “I think we’re both very romantic and have a light attitude toward sex and ownership,” he said. “It was very nice to play someone who’s closer to myself.”
Scott, who grew up gay and Catholic in Dublin, has first-hand knowledge of sexuality and the church – an experience he found damaging.
After leaving Ireland in his early 20s, he took root in London, gathering laurels that include an Olivier nomination for best actor in Robert Icke's acclaimed 2017 production of Hamlet. Americans fancied him too: he earned a Drama League nomination for his 2006 Broadway debut, in The Vertical Hour, directed by Sam Mendes, who is reuniting Scott and Cumberbatch in his coming first World War drama, 1917.
Just hours before his flight home to begin rehearsals for Noël Coward’s Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Scott, who is 42, ducked into an Upper West Side restaurant to discuss keeping the faith and losing his religion. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
People are saying you're the best thing to happen to Catholicism lately.
[Laughing] It's such a strange thing. I certainly think Fleabag has got people talking about sexuality and religion and how those two things can marry each other and coexist. The statistics that have come out since the show began, they're mind-blowing about what people are looking up on the internet. I saw something the other day that religious pornography has increased by 125 per cent while the show is on. I mean, maybe something else is going on, but I definitely think the show just does it for people.
Are you still Catholic?
No, it's not something that I am any more. I emancipated myself from that very rigid, controlled attitude toward sex. It's been an absolute great joy, and it's made me quite proud to be able to talk about sex in a way that is without self-consciousness or awkwardness.
What about celibacy and the priesthood?
I feel like it's extremely dangerous territory to desexualise any human being. Frankly, I don't know if it's possible, because even if you are celibate it doesn't mean that you're not sexual. I really welcome a priest being able to marry, because I don't think those things are mutually exclusive, the love of God and the love of having a sexual, romantic partner. I think, in fact, it would help things enormously.
You've spoken about the damage done to you by the church as a child. What do you mean?
Being gay certainly wasn't allowed. So if you want to be a good, kind member of the community, you can't also be a sexual member of the community. You're either a renegade or you're a very good neighbour. You can't be both those things – and I want to be both those things. [Laughs]
And yet you've recently chosen to buy a home in Dublin, where same-sex marriage was legalised in 2015.
The emancipation of Ireland to me is so incredibly joyful. You see that people are able to hold their partner's hand without feeling that they're going to be given a dirty look. When I go back to Dublin and see that, it just fills my heart, because that is new. And I think it shatters that idea that religious people don't understand sexuality, because of course they do.
Much has been made of your chemistry with Phoebe – though some viewers were surprised that a straight woman and a gay man could combust like that.
I just find it just sort of shocking... I'm hesitant to say insulting, but, I mean, it's not what chemistry is about. The reason that chemistry is such a fun word to say is because that is about more than sex and it's about more than brains. It's about fun and connection. And at the stage door when I do a play, the fans that come and see me are mostly female. For years I've always thought, Well, this isn't based on my sexuality. So who is creating this myth?
Is "kneel" your new pickup line? A million hearts have swooned over that make-out session in the confessional – and that possible sign from above.
That scene is extraordinary, isn't it? Phoebe's really not afraid of the grand gesture. She's not afraid of long scenes, she's not afraid of pictures falling off walls or of foxes following you to...
...the bus stop and that final farewell, which left me shredded.
I do feel that he's deeply in love with her – that's what I feel. [Pause] That's a spoiler.
In 2017, your Hamlet earned raves for making the language more accessible.
I was obsessed with the idea that 350 books have been written about Shakespeare – how you say it, who said it before, what's not right, what is right. There's academia surrounding Shakespeare like no other writer has ever been burdened with. And the reason it's a burden is because it means that it's for a certain type of rarefied person and nobody else. I started [performing Shakespeare] when I was about 13, and I didn't really understand him. So when it came to Hamlet, I wanted them to be able to understand absolutely everything that I said, still adhering to the rhythm of it but just not being really Shakespearey with it. Rob Icke, our director, says this brilliant thing, which is it shouldn't be like eating your greens. It was very important to me and to Rob that we got a young audience. And they came and they understood it and they loved it. Hamlet is a thriller about a young man with mental-health issues. That's something that people want to watch on Netflix.
You've warned against only LGBT actors playing LGBT roles. Why?
We absolutely adore when our parents are reading us a story when we're three years old and they put on the voice of the wolf. Transformation is very important for actors. It's something that the audience and the actor want. And I think the question should be about who gets to transform into what. For a long time, gay people haven't been allowed to transform into straight people. But making straight people not be allowed to transform into gay people doesn't seem to me to be the answer. I really do believe that we contain multitudes, and more than just our sexuality. We can have great empathy with people who don't come from the same social background, the same sexuality, even the same race. I often ask gay people, If someone was to play you in a film of your life, would you want just gay actors? And the answer is always very varied.
No, I wouldn't just want... because I have other attributes.
Who would you want, then?
[Laughs] Uh, I'd have to go with Streep. – New York Times