Eddie Marsan eyes his Eggs Benedict warily, as if they might somehow misbehave. “I have that jetlag thing where I go, ‘I’m not hungry.’ Then, I’m starving, then I’m not hungry,” he explains. Which is fair enough as he’s pretty much stepped straight off his weekly red-eye flight from LA to discuss his starring role in BBC1’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
An adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s bestselling 2004 novel about magic and magicians, it’s set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Dubbed “Hogwarts for grown-ups”, the seven-part series is an extravagant recreation of a world where misbehaving breakfasts are the least you could expect.
“I’ve never been a big fantasy fan,” says Marsan, who plays Mr Norrell, a fusty magician. “It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s just never come my way.” But he puts down his fork for a bravura riff on viewers’ appetite for the supernatural, as evidenced by the success of Harry Potter, Twilight and Game of Thrones.
“I think it’s a manifestation of what’s going on in our lives. We live in an increasingly secular world; as a society we’re losing our sense of the religious, that whole idea of there being a soul, but the question of who we really are, within ourselves, is very elusive. We can’t always know what’s coming. Some days we wake up in a good mood, sometimes we’re in a bad mood. We fall in love, we fall out of love. And where is our will in this, what control do we have?”
“I think it’s this longing for control within ourselves that attracts us to the whole idea of magic. As children we all hold on to the myth of omnipotence. Comics are successful because kids identify with superheroes. They’ll read a book or watch a TV programme and say, ‘I’m that guy.’ And that guy is always the one in control.”
For an actor who’s built a copper-bottomed career playing “the other guy”, it’s an interesting thesis. Marsan has worked with directors from Spielberg (War Horse) and Scorcese (Gangs of New York) to Mike Leigh (Vera Drak, Happy-Go-Lucky). He plays Liev Schreiber’s brother in US ratings smash Ray Donovan, was Olivia Colman’s husband in Tyrannosaur, but he rarely gets to play the hero.
“I knew very early on that I wasn’t Brad Pitt,” he says. “I knew what kind of actor I was going to be, and I looked for inspiration to people like Alec Guinness, Cyril Cusack, Timothy Spall and Jim Broadbent. I looked at them and thought, ‘They play human beings as they really are.’ ”
Norrell, the reluctant wizard who restores magic to England, is, on paper, an unrewarding character distinguished, as it were, by dryness. He is vastly improved by Marsan’s infinitesimally nuanced performance. “I like to think of Norrell as Salieri to Jonathan Strange’s Mozart,” he explains. “Norrell has all the analytical discipline, but Strange’s magic has a kind of spontaneous genius, so when they combine their efforts, it’s like the two sides of the brain coming together. It helped to listen to a lot of baroque music when I was making the series.
“I didn’t do well at school and I don’t have lots of academic reference points. So in order for me to create a character, I have to do it viscerally, from the inside. I found this one baroque song called Solitude and would listen to that and try and think the thoughts of Norrell.”
While the drama’s computer-generated spells are truly spectacular on screen, they were distinctly less thrilling to shoot: “I got wet a lot,” Marsan recalls. “Norrell does magic with water. So every time I did a magic trick, it felt a bit like a Morecambe and Wise sketch where someone throws a bucket of water over you.” The actor shakes himself like a big, friendly dog. Warm and expansive, with crinkly eyes that rather cancel the effect of a trim, hipster beard, he couldn’t be less like the closed and haunted characters he so often portrays.
He admits to a certain “I’ll show the bastards” chippiness when he was younger, but at 46 he’s confident, deeply thoughtful and keen on self-determination, describing his personal philosophy of life as somewhere between Buddhism and existentialism.