Matthew Macfadyen didn’t leap at the chance to play Henry Wilcox, patriarch of EM Forster’s Howards End, in the BBC’s latest literary adaptation. After years of service in a frock coat – the 43-year-old has appeared in screen versions of Little Dorrit, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, as well as Victorian crime drama Ripper Street, so that “I have done every iteration of tortured, buttoned-up gentleman,” he says – it seemed possible he had no more painful silences left in him.
He also wondered if he was too young. Wilcox, a character famously played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film, tends to be interpreted as rather severe. Macfadyen said yes on the basis he might play him differently. As it turned out, he was wrong about the age thing: on the first day of shooting, the makeup artist glanced critically at his face, and in answer to Macfadyen’s query about how he might be made to look older – the actor laughs to recount it – said, “I think we’re OK.”
We are in a hotel bar in New York, where he is based while filming Succession, an HBO comedy drama written by Jesse Armstrong about a media dynasty in which he plays an “idiot” son-in-law to Brian Cox’s patriarch. After the stringencies of Edwardian England, he says he’s finding Succession “delicious”. The previous week, Keeley Hawes, Macfadyen’s wife of 13 years, and their children, Maggie, 12 and Ralph, 11, were in the city with him for half term. (His stepson, Myles, who is 17 and in his last year of A-levels, opted to stay home.)
This is how it goes in his family, he says. Whenever possible, he and Hawes alternate travelling for work so that one of them is always at home. Over the summer, it was Hawes’s turn and Macfadyen and the family travelled to see her on location while she filmed The Durrells in Corfu. Now he is in New York until March while she films a new Jed Mercurio drama in London. “It’s lovely,” he says.
This is, over the course of the interview, probably Macfadyen’s most often-used phrase. He is frequently described as boyish – his face has about it the guileless aspect of a kid in a cartoon. In fact, it has as much to do with his manner, which today is cheerful and good-natured, with the occasional plunge into self-doubt, and gives him the youthful air of someone for whom nothing has yet been entirely decided.
This is a theme of Howards End, of course, the process via which one comes to make up one’s mind, and it’s something Macfadyen thinks about often. For example: would he be happier if he was more successful? He is famous in Britain, less so in America, and although he has worked solidly for 20 years, he has never considered himself to be out of the woods. “It’s a funny business, acting,” he says. “The same thing that frightens me is what I find quite comforting, which is that I don’t know what I’m doing in March [when he finishes Succession]. So then it’s just a void forever. I mean: I know something will come up.” He grins. “But it’s weirdly quite nice. It’s quite exciting. You never really get complacent. Knowing you’re not in control can be quite comforting. You think, well, I can’t worry, otherwise I’d go mad.”
Surely – and I’m visualising Macfadyen and Keira Knightley in the hugely successful 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice here – you could survive for many years without work? “Er, no,” he says and laughs incredulously. “I’d like to be in that position but no. No. It could all come crashing down.”
So you’re still pedalling along? “Yeah. Like everyone. Unless you do a movie franchise, which is like winning the lottery…” He tails off before asserting that, on balance, it’s probably better to be comfortable without being too wildly successful. “There’s a certain amount of money you should earn to be happy, but more than that and you’re disincentivised.
Mind you, something very big has happened to Keeley Hawes’s career in the past few years. Has her success affected the household? “Just in a nice way. It does happen with actors sometimes, things just click and people go, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’ And privately you think, I did that at drama school, but it didn’t hit a wave. Presumably that’s what happened with Keeley, especially with Line of Duty, which was very, very good.” He thinks for a moment. “The psycho fringe…” he says, thoughtfully, referring to her hairstyle in that role.
A large part of Macfadyen’s appeal is his likability. There is something rather blameless about him. When the subject of Harvey Weinstein comes up, I mention Hayley Atwell, who plays Margaret Schlegel in Howards End and with whom he also starred in Any Human Heart, and who has featured in some of the Weinstein coverage. (Many years ago, on the set of the film of Brideshead Revisited, Weinstein reportedly referred to Atwell as a “fat pig” and was upbraided by Emma Thompson.)
“It’s all a bit depressing,” he says. “Everyone knew what he was like, but it’s depressing because no one knew how far it went. I was here when I was 22, on tour with [theatre company] Cheek by Jowl, and you heard stories then about [Weinstein’s production company] Miramax. It’s got to be a good thing [all these revelations coming out] because the fear of speaking out has gone – the disinfectant of sunlight.”
He mentions a piece he recently read by Martin Amis, “and he was playing with the notion that a lot of the excoriation towards Weinstein – it’s not that it’s out of proportion, but it’s interesting that there wasn’t the same levelled at Bill Cosby or Roman Polanski, and maybe it’s a way of venting because Trump’s in the White House. And it’s similar: you go back to the audio [of Trump] – ‘I moved on her like a bitch’ – it’s truly revolting. Revolting.”
Is Macfadyen aware that his wife’s experiences of the film and TV industry are different to his? He thinks for a while. “I suppose so. Certainly in the parts, because there are just fewer parts for women. And also there’s a weird thing with women where initially you’re the ingenue, and then there’s a wasteland, and then you’re Hedda Gabler. Guys don’t have that; they float through. There’s something to be said for just keeping going. That’s what Keeley’s done, I think; she’s just kept going and going, and then another vein of rich parts opens up. It’s harder in that way.”
He thinks a bit more. “Men are by and large paid more than women. I know this from Keeley, that the sort of excuse they’ll use is, ‘Well, he’s done a few American things.’ And you think, well, no. It’s not to do with that. It’s cobblers.”
Back in Howards End, Macfadyen is tremendous in the role of Henry Wilcox, somehow making his relationship with Margaret Schlegel seem one not of expediency but real romance. “There’s a wonderful scene where they’re arguing about capitalism, and it’s great, because I see both their points of view. It’s so nuanced,” he says. The anti-Twitter, I suggest. “Precisely.”
The fact is, says Macfadyen, that like Margaret Schlegel, “I don’t know what I feel and that’s the truth. Most of us don’t know what we feel, in life. Selfishly, I think that’s really good news for actors and bad news for people.”
I think what he means by this is that actors get to articulate feelings the rest of us don’t have the time or capacity to untangle. A magazine recently sent Macfadyen a Q&A to fill in and, he says, “I was paralysed with indecision. Because I’m probably being precious, but I don’t know when I was happiest. It’s a big deal!” He laughs. “Or who I most despise. I’m not sure I despise anybody. There are certain people I don’t like. But I got my knickers in a twist and put it aside.” Perhaps he will return to it when he gets back to his modest Airbnb flat this evening, where HBO is putting him up while he films Succession. It’s not the Ritz; then again, he is in New York on a fine autumn day and the job is good. “It’s lovely,” he says.