Eddie Marsan has joined the call early. I can see his number flashing in our digital meeting room while he waits patiently. When I and his publicist come on, he thanks us both for taking the time. His voice – that of an east Londoner raised on a council estate – transports you to his roles, conjuring pictures of his often villainous characters. Read or watch any interview with the actor, though, and you soon notice a rift lying between the man that he is and the roles that he plays – he’s actually one of the industry’s good guys.
Marsan, 54, owns a space within the acting world where many might fear to tread, one of worrying psyches and personalities that may not sit well with other actors. But for him the characters he portrays, with all their flaws, their traumas and their bloody knuckles, seem to offer themselves as opportunities for introspection and understanding “evil”. I question what it takes to get into their headspace – how, for example, he explored the myth of omnipotence within John Darwin in ITV’s miniseries The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, how he approached the more unsettling role of James in Paddy Considine’s 2011 film, Tyrannosaur, in which he plays an abusive husband opposite Olivia Colman. The latter is a performance that’s very difficult to watch and one that must surely be more difficult to act. So how does he slip into a skin like that?
“Well, there are no evil people,” he starts, his words crackling down the line. “There’s just unhappy people in search of happiness. That’s all there is. Actors can’t act in pejorative terms. They can only act in descriptive terms. So I can’t play someone evil – they can do evil things and others can judge them as evil, but when you’re playing them, they don’t think they’re evil. And you have to understand that justification and play it for real.”
It’s a game of philosophy and ethics that renders Marsan’s characters so believable. If you entertain the idea that there’s no such thing as an evil person, and perhaps bad people aren’t born bad, then what becomes interesting about the men who Marsan plays are their stories beyond what we see on screen. It becomes less about the two-dimensional villain and more about the nuances of man, masculinity and power.
Marsan has a knack for playing profoundly troubled men. Or rather he has the ability to present the actions of men who have their authority and their power questioned. That’s likely why he was cast as Bernie in Amazon Prime’s new series The Power – a show based on Naomi Alderman’s 2016 novel of the same name. It imagines the world we live in now but one where young girls have the power to electrocute people, which can be passed on to older women as well. The plot may sound slightly corny, but this isn’t a superhero show, it’s about tilting the balance of power. And naturally Marsan’s character is one who feels the world slipping from beneath his feet.
“I think Bernie’s a terrified man,” he says. “He’s a traumatised man who needs to hold onto power around him in order to survive, if that’s what he believes. He believes that life is a fight, a fight for survival, and he has to have its immense power or he won’t survive.
“Bernie really loves [his daughter] Roxy, and Roxy really loves Bernie, but their relationship has to change because it’s based on a dysfunctional power dynamic. Within every family there is a kind of dysfunctional, or perhaps even immoral, part at play, but people still love each other, you know? And I never want to play a two- dimensional villain. I always want to play a human being. My job isn’t to be liked or to be hated, it’s to be believed.”
And believed he is. Take, for instance, the “Does Eddie Marsan have Parkinson’s disease?” question posed by an entertainment site in January 2022. The piece wasn’t centred on an elaboration of any rumours about the actor’s physical health; instead, it was putting fans’ questions to bed after Marsan’s outstanding portrayal of a boxing coach with Parkinson’s in the hit US series Ray Donovan. Across seven seasons and a film, he plays Terry, brother of the main protagonist (Liev Schreiber), as the disease gradually ravages his body. The show won a Critics’ Choice Television Award when it first aired in 2013, while various cast performances have been rewarded with a Golden Globe and an Emmy in the years since.
Marsan tells me that his performance in the series is the one of his career that he is most proud of. The speculation it raised among its fans is testament to how convincing the actor is. It also begs the question of whether his villainous characters are uncomfortably wicked because of the way they are written or because of the level of realism that Marsan delivers. The answer?
“There may be a part of me that is misogynistic. There may be a part of me that is jealous. There may be a part of me that is controlling,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve learnt in my life to temper those thoughts in myself because they’re not conducive to a good life. But for some people they rule their lives. So you have to find that within yourself and accentuate it. For example, if you’re playing a gay character, you have to look at that part of yourself that has homosexual thoughts and then you accentuate that.
“People do evil deeds, destructive deeds and dysfunctional deeds. You have to work out what is the function of the character you’re playing dramatically and then hide the function. So if you played a villain as a villain, it would be like a caricature because people don’t think they’re villains. People think they’re human beings. People think that they’re justified in what they’re doing – even the worst possible people, they have a justification. And what you have to do is work out their thinking.”
When he’s not finding it within himself, he’s finding it in memories of his environment. Marsan tells me about his time growing up on an estate in Hackney and how he spoke to his grandmother about what life was like in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. “They used to say that if your husband didn’t hit you, he didn’t love you,” he says, which is a mentality he has imbued his characters with. But it was also a childhood that shaped Marsan’s perspective of the acting world and allowed him to see it for what it really was. He missed out on spots in drama schools because of his background, and he noted that the best parts were being dished out to the conventionally handsome, rich kids. In the end it was where Marsan came from that gave him his break and cornered him at the same time.
“If you look at my career as a young actor, my early parts were all mugger, bank robber, drug dealer. It’s just ridiculous. It’s how they saw me, it’s how they saw people from my background. My roles are much more varied now, but I had to go to the US to do that. [The British actor] Mark Strong gave me a bit of advice. He said to me, ‘Eddie, in order to change people’s ideas of you,
you have to kind of lead the marketplace. You’ll never change their idea of you if you just stay here.’ So I went to America and I did Ray Donovan. While I was over there, the Americans always had a very open mind about me. Now the UK has more of an open mind about me. But initially I was pigeonholed.”
It has been Marsan’s experience of the industry that has shown him its faults. He understands how a certain few, very privileged people – the creative directors, the casting agents, the writers – can be the ones who decide who’s presented to the world and how they are presented. “They’re always casting you from their perspective,” he says. “They’re always writing from their perspective. They’re always commissioning things from their perspective. And it may be that some of these people are very talented and well meaning and they’re very progressive, but it’s always from a limited perspective.”
His view on the acting world has morphed into an understanding that little will change unless access changes, unless the way the industry views actors from underprivileged and minority backgrounds changes. As our call draws to a close, he leaves me with a sentiment that tackles growing questions about self-censorship in the arts and how to fix it.
“One of the things I’m not comfortable with is the idea now that you have to have lived experience to play a character. If you are from a privileged background in this country, you can be mediocre and you can have a career as an actor. Often if you come from an underprivileged background, a minority, you have to be exceptional to have even the slimmest chance of having a career. If you tell young people that they can only play the people and the parts from the culture that they come from, then they’ll never be exceptional.
“Acting isn’t a photograph, it’s a painting. You’ve got to enable people to become artists. Don’t define them. Enable people to transcend themselves. Don’t restrict them. I think it’s a great injustice for the practice.”