EastEnders devotees will have blinked twice watching the first episode of Hatfields and McCoys. For there, amid the grizzled, gun-toting cowboys, was Matthew Rose (aka Joe Absolom).
A decade ago he was on trial in Walford accused of murder. Now here he was back in a courtroom, albeit in West Virginia – once again quivering, mumbling into his chin and reviled. Two scenes later, another ex-EastEnder popped up: Beppe Di Marco (aka Michael Greco) was propping up the bar, half-cooked and chewing on a knuckle-sandwich. No change there then. Meanwhile, even the most hardened Albert Square aficionados would have been hard-pushed to spot Dennis Rickman’s partner-in-crime in 2003, Tony Jamison (aka Ben Cartwright) behind all those beards.
“My mum was dead chuffed because she’s actually heard of Kevin Costner,” says Joe Absolom, who has kindly agreed to explain all. (We put a call into Costner but he was harder to get hold of.) “There are not many people I’ve worked with that my mum’s heard of.”
“It was surreal,” he chuckles. “You’re standing in the shadow of these amazing mountains, surrounded by cowboys, and in the middle of it all you have Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton standing around telling stories about their ranches and life as an Oscar-winning actor.”
So what’s it all about? Do Hollywood’s heavies secretly long for a slice of soap-action? Did some slick-suited LA executive stumble across EastEnders and realise foul-mouthed Cockneys have a lot in common with Kentucky cowboys – that Walford is a modern-day Western?
Sadly, the real reason is more prosaic. Hatfield & McCoys was shot in Romania, meaning it was more practical – and no doubt cheaper – to employ British actors for the smaller roles. Although Absolom still had a taste of Hollywood glamour: “In English TV, they give you £12 a day for expenses. In America, they give you $60 dollars a day so we lived like kings for a bit.”
The 33 year-old describes it as a schoolboy-dream come true, and not just because he was acting alongside A-listers. “As soon as you get a gun, you feel pretty cool. No matter how old you are. We used real, century-old rifles that were really loud. It gave you a real buzz.” Although pulling the trigger in such company was also a teeny bit nerve-wracking – “I was standing between Kevin Costner and Tom Berenger with a loaded gun. You don’t want to get that wrong!”
The role of Selkirk McCoy could hardly be more different from the last time we saw Absolom – as amiable restauranteur Al Large in Doc Martin, the soft-hearted Cornish drama starring Martin Clunes. “It’s a shame there are no guns in Doc Martin,” he jokes. “Perhaps I’ll take along a rifle when we start shooting again. See what Clunes-y has to say about that. And I might have to talk to him about the size of my trailer…”
Besides whetting his appetite for weaponry, has Absolom learned any tricks from his US co-stars? Did Costner have any worldly-wise advice? “No, but I did get a little compliment from KC, as I like to call him. He called me Selkirk.”
“We were doing this scene together and he said: ‘Selkirk, come here.’ I wasn’t going to reply: ‘Kevin, my name is Joe. I’m an actor’. And so I just went up – I’d been keeping my distance because I was scared of him – and he said: ‘Selkirk, I like what you were doing there. Do that again.’ ‘Ok, Kevin! I’ll try that!’ I did feel a little pride.”
Alas, he didn’t try to convert Costner to EastEnders. “I don’t watch it myself because there’s so much bloody trouble and strife. I’ve a daughter of six and as a parent you’re forced to address issues you would prefer not to. To be honest, I find it kind of shocking.”
For Absolom at least, Walford is more unnerving than a valley of trigger-happy cowboys. And he should know.