Ed Stoppard is a thoughtful sort of man. It’s 9:15 on a Sunday morning and I’m grilling him about the experience of playing the brilliant 20th-century mathematician and computer scientist, Alan Turing.
Some people might feel it’s a little early in the day for such demanding topics but Ed is totally focused and his answers are carefully considered, as if he is determined to give the most precise response, the one that offers the greatest clarity.
Perhaps it is this touch of intensity that made Ed natural casting for Turing in Channel 4’s docudrama Britain’s Greatest Codebreaker. Turing laid the intellectual foundation for modern computer science right back in the 1930s and was seen as key to the success of the codebreaking team at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. His work saved lives and changed the world, yet he was persecuted for being a homosexual and killed himself in 1954.
How did Ed approach the formidable task of playing a man of such stature and complexity?
“You have an instinctive response to a character, how you’re going to inhabit them, what that’s going to look like and what it’s going to feel like, their energies and their physicality. There are a couple of very good biographies of Turing that Clare (Beavan), the director, and Paul (Sen), one of the execs, put my way and the biographical elements of those, rather than the elements relating to his work, were particularly useful for me to get a handle on the kind of person Alan was.”
Perhaps it is because he is the son of two highly talented individuals himself - the playwright Tom Stoppard and doctor and broadcaster Miriam Stoppard - that Ed seems undaunted by Turing’s dazzling achievements, allowing him to feel his way intuitively towards an understanding of Turing the man and the past that shaped him.
“His childhood was not unusual really but still very traumatic. His parents were in India, as his father was in the Indian civil service. Alan was essentially fostered to a family on the south coast of England, along with his brother John, when he was a baby, and saw his parents every two years.”
Exploring Turing’s somewhat difficult early life gave Ed what he describes as the “background radiation” that he hopes will inform his portrayal of Turing as a mature man.
As Ed grew to know more about the notoriously remote and socially difficult Turing, did he feel any more profound points of connection?
“You do hopefully find things that you empathise with, even if they’re not very nice things.
“He wasn’t a placid character, I don’t think. He found interacting with people quite difficult. He didn’t understand, the way that the rest of us do, how the transaction between two people normally plays out, so he could be quite rude. He could be blunt, he could be aloof, he could be very dismissive. I think it is accepted that he would have been somewhere on the autistic scale.”
Curiously, considering Ed is doing a pretty gracious job of answering my questions - which, in typical interview style, can return to the same theme repeatedly - it’s Turing’s impatience that he identifies with.
“I can sort of get Alan’s frustrations with people. I have found that on occasion I can be sort of rude, really, I suppose. If I’m trying to explain something to someone and they’re not getting it. Or, actually, worse than that, I can get patronising and talk to them as if they’re seven and when I find myself doing that, I think: 'God, you really must not do that!'”
He laughs - partly, it feels, as if he's embarrassed by this aspect of his personality and partly, perhaps, amused by the fact he’s just gone public with it. But the laughter proceeds to another moment of reflection.
“I suppose it’s an odd thing to say but I hate social situations most of the time. I’m much happier sitting at home with my wife and my children. There are few people in the world who I’m happy to be in a social situation with, but even with those dozen or so people, after a couple of hours, I’m thinking ‘OK, I’d like to go home now.’”
Although certainly not unheard of for an actor to be quite retiring in their off-screen life, it’s an interesting insight into a man who was recently seen cutting a bit of a dash as libidinous Italian detective Vincenzo Fabri in the stylish BBC crime drama Zen.
Classically dark-eyed and chisel-featured, Ed looked pretty comfortable in the role of ladies' man, so how easy was it for him to express Alan’s homosexuality? We are on politically sensitive territory and the answers come with additional emphasis.
“Whether he’s straight or homosexual, he is a man with passions and loves and sexual desires and that’s just a truth. You can connect with the loves and the losses and the joys through one’s heterosexual experience and that allows you to play those same emotions but just within the body and the context of a homosexual character.
“Christopher Morcom, the boy Turing was at school with (his great friend and mentor who was to die tragically of tuberculosis aged 17), was probably the one great love of his life. Well, I know what that feels like and it doesn’t make a difference that the one great love of my life is a woman and not a man.
“There’s no film footage of Alan, there’s not even any audio of Alan, so to then impose a preconceived idea of what a homosexual man looks like just felt a bit coarse, so I didn’t.”
Alan Turing’s openness about his sexuality was very unusual for a man of his generation and appears strangely reckless considering it was, at the time, a criminal offence and certainly regarded by society in general with disgust.
Ed sees Turing’s honesty partly as a consequence of the generally accepting environment of first King’s College, Cambridge and later Bletchley Park.
“The college he attended was a very liberal-minded college. They weren’t going to take issue with it (homosexuality), as long as you didn’t do anything scandalous. They were much more interested in his research, so that taught him that he could just be himself and he didn’t have to censor himself. That’s a word - censor – that’s in my thinking about him. At Bletchley, well, there was a war on, so…"
Like a shrug, Ed’s unfinished sentence indicates how unimportant Alan’s sexual orientation must have seemed to those tasked with breaking Germany's naval Enigma Code.
Ed’s scenes in the drama documentary centre on the aftermath of Turing’s trial and conviction for gross indecency, when he seeks help from and becomes friends with the liberal and, ultimately, benign German Jewish psychiatrist Dr Franz Greenbaum (played by Henry Goodman).
It is through the interplay of the two characters that Ed is able to deftly suggest Turing’s intellectual brilliance: “If you have a cursory understanding of Turing’s actual research then that’s about as much as you can hope for, really. I think you just have to accept that, and on an acting level you have to accept that.
"There’s a scene in the garden where I’m explaining this theory, morphogenesis (an aspect of mathematical biology Turing was working on between 1952 and 1954), to Greenbaum and I think, if you can feel, as an actor, that you know more about what you are talking about than the other actor, that’s the best you can hope for and that’s a very good place to be.”
So, it sounds as if Ed has done a thorough job of getting to grips with Turing the man and Turing the mind. But what about Turing’s extraordinary athleticism? He was a marathon runner of world-class standard.
Ed laughs, and there’s maybe a bit of light relief for both of us after what has been a pretty involved discussion about a really exceptional man.
“What I said to Clare the director is, ‘Listen, the one thing you really need to understand is that I do not run. I will do my best but I suspect you’ll get about 25 seconds of useful, useable film and then you will have to let me lie down for a few minutes.’ Which is pretty much what happened.”
Photograph: ©Mark Sethi
Britain's Greatest Codebreaker is tonight at 9pm on Channel 4