Andrew Scott talks Fleabag’s ‘hot priest’ and his Cumberbatch reunion in 1917

"I think the dog collar just does it for people": Andrew Scott talks to Adrian Lobb about his star turn in Fleabag, sex and religion, LGBTQ+ homelessness and his plan to go to America in search of new roles

If we marvelled at Andrew Scott for his magnificent malevolence as Moriarty in Sherlock and admired him for the accessibility of his Hamlet at the Almeida, then, dear god, didn’t we all just love him in Fleabag?

Any fears he may have harboured about being typecast as nemesis to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock went out of the window. The whole nation seemingly joined Phoebe Waller-Bridge in kneeling before the 42-year-old Dubliner. And the only argument was over whether to refer to his character as the ‘Hot Priest’ or the ‘Sexy Priest’.

“I’m glad the character was just called the Priest,” says Scott, grinning widely, when we meet at the Royal Festival Hall in London. “Had it been called the Hot Priest I would definitely have been intimidated.

“But I think the dog collar just does it for people in some way. It is forbidden. So I try to separate myself from that because it is not me, it is the character that people are going nuts for.”

andrew-scott-fleabag
Andrew Scott as the (Hot) Priest in Fleabag (image: Amazon Studios)

Fleabag, like Sherlock before it, is now going global with Scott’s ‘Sexy Priest’ making legions of new followers hot under the collar.

“It has gone down an absolute storm in the US. It is wonderful,” says Scott. “I knew it was going to be special. The writing is special. But I don’t think I could have predicted how extraordinarily it has gone down.

“I am so thrilled because I do think it is a really brilliant piece of work and sometimes those kinds of things don’t get the audiences. I love it because it is about people who are messed up like we all are.

“But also I am proud that we wanted to create a love story and we wanted to play love and how that manifests itself. ‘Romantic comedy’ is something I have wanted to do for a long time, because I think that is quite an underrated genre, you know? So to do it with something as sophisticated and challenging as Fleabag is really cool.”

Funny, Fleabag has so much to say about grief, family, sex, relationships, modern life and loss that it is a million miles from many of our ideas of romantic comedy.

“You think of something a bit more saccharine. But it is,” Scott insists. “It is deeply romantic and it is funny.”

I tell him the scene where Scott’s character notices Waller-Bridge as Fleabag look to the camera for the first time is my favourite of the year to date.

“I loved that idea, because it speaks to me about love as well as breaking TV conventions. It speaks to me about his ability to be able to see her,” he says. “He is the only person able to really see her and that is the way love manifests itself. Some people see something about you that someone else just can’t see. So to depict romantic love in that way is really wonderful.”

The actor has been enjoying discussions around power and its possible abuse in relation to Fleabag and the (Hot) Priest.

“I think we have to pay tribute to the writer and the character in saying that Fleabag has agency in that situation,” he says. “Also, she is an atheist. She doesn’t really believe in his position. So he doesn’t really have power in that sense.

“He is definitely flawed and he is definitely conflicted and he is definitely in love and he definitely does not behave perfectly. But nor does she. I think to speak in absolutes about 100 per cent victim or 100 per cent abuser, or 100 per cent vulnerable and 100 per cent powerful is the death of nuance. I would be wary of speaking in extremis about the characters – because we contain multitudes.”

You can’t de-sexualise people. Everybody has a relationship with sex

The show foregrounded discussions about sexuality and religion. Scott, for one, thinks this was long overdue.

“Coming from Catholic Ireland as I do, one thing I have always said is that you can’t de-sexualise people. Everybody has a relationship with sex. Whether as a participant or not, everyone has an attitude towards it.

“One of the most insidious things about the Catholic church in the past hundred years has been the submerging of anybody’s ability to talk about sex, let alone participate in it. I think that is why there have been so many cases of sexual abuse. Because what you do with your sexuality has to go somewhere.

“If the Catholic church was able to be less rigid about priests and nuns being able to marry, young people might feel they can have a sexual life and be a spiritual, kind member of the church as well.”

Because Ireland is so progressive these days…

“Absolutely. The emancipation of Ireland has been one of the great joys of my life, genuinely. Because when I left, I didn’t feel like I could live there. Mercifully I wasn’t a victim of abuse, but I certainly felt I wasn’t accepted and that wasn’t just a flight of fancy or paranoia. The law wasn’t there. And if you don’t have laws to back you up, of course you feel vulnerable.”

We talk about the devastating impact that your sexuality, in effect, being illegal can have. For Scott was already 17 by the time homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland.

“When those laws are reversed, it completely changes not just your attitude towards your sexuality, but your attitude towards your religion, your family, your country and your identity. It can’t be underestimated how powerful that is.”

Scott is engaging company. Thoughtful, quick to laugh, and leaning right in as he discusses issues close to his heart.

“When you think of [LGBT+ homelessness charity] the Albert Kennedy Trust, particularly talking to you guys, the idea of young people being on the streets because of [being gay] now is devastating to me,” he says. “People throwing their children out.

“In the past, there has been so much fear-mongering. To a certain extent, parents being fearful of their children being gay was understandable given what they had

to read in the press and saw on television. So when you change what is on television and what is in the press, that changes people’s lives, genuinely. There is absolutely no reason for people to be turned out on the streets.

“If we are not talking in hysteria about sexuality, then people can feel, OK that is a viable option for my son. Thinking of Fleabag, that a gay person was able to play a part like that? That is why these things matter.”

Just as Fleabag is taking America by storm, Scott is also taking centre stage in Netflix’s smash hit anthology series Black Mirror. In ‘Smithereens’, Scott plays a London taxi driver who takes drastic action to attract the attention of a global social media giant. Another conflicted man battling inner rage – and another emotionally devastating piece of work.

“I haven’t seen it yet, but emotionally devastating will do nicely,” he says. “I’m glad to hear that. It is unusual for a Black Mirror in that it could happen in this world. It isn’t a big Black Mirror landscape, it talks about our relationship with technology.”

Scott has no official presence on the big social media platforms. Is he plugged into that world?

“I think we all are. I don’t have a proper public Instagram or anything like that chiefly because – it sounds vaguely paradoxical – I like people,” he says.

“I suppose the more well-known I have become, the more you engage with the public and I really like that. But if I had the public Instagram as well, that might take over your day. And there is an awful lot of abuse and opinion as well as all the nice stuff. Talking to people is much more fun.”

His Black Mirror has a lot to say about our powerlessness against the might of social media and tech organisations – both as individuals and as a society in general.

“We don’t realise how much we are being manipulated or how powerless we are, or even how addicted we are,” Scott says. “And for some people it is a huge addiction. So I welcome the idea that it might open up a conversation about how technological addiction can even exist. Because until there is a name for that, we can’t solve the problem. People say, ‘Oh my God, I’m addicted to my phone’ in a flippant way. But it can be serious. This is bringing that addiction to a catastrophic conclusion that can really, genuinely devastate a life.”

After our interview, Scott is heading straight to rehearse Noël Coward comedy Present Laughter at the Old Vic.

“After I played Hamlet I definitely wanted to do something different. What do you do after Hamlet?” he says. But returning to the stage as his fame grows brings different pressures. There is more razzmatazz for one thing, as fans of his TV work gather at the stage door.

“There is a bit more razzmatazz,” he says. “But I don’t mind there being more razzmatazz about theatre. It needs it to some degree. And young people going to the theatre is something I feel very passionately about.

“We wanted Hamlet to be as accessible as a show on Netflix. It is about a young man with mental health issues and it is a thriller. You have got to make it exciting. Then, when the option of going to the theatre comes up again, they think, ‘Yeah, that is for me.’ As long as we keep the ticket prices down, there will be space for everyone.”

Scott is clearly enamoured with the acting world. “The idea to be able to play as an adult and not be embarrassed about that is a unique thing to be able to do,” he says.

Of his collaborators over the years, he adores Olivia Colman and her “incredible sense of playfulness”, enjoys Christopher Eccleston’s “unique energy” and claims Bill Nighy as a major influence. Is Nighy as we would imagine? “If what you are imagining is a very generous, fun, naughty, fantastic, intelligent and really kind, unique person, then yes he is!”

Next up will be more big reunions – this time with Cumberbatch and director Sam Mendes in the latter’s war film 1917.

“I love Sam. He has been there at nice moments in my career. He gave me this great job on Broadway with Bill Nighy and Julianne Moore, and then we did Spectre,” says Scott.

“I saw Benedict recently at the Baftas and I’m very proud of him. It is a really nice feeling to be able to work on things together beyond Sherlock. And hopefully there will be more.

“Like with Phoebe [Waller-Bridge]. I met her 10 years ago when we did a play together at the Soho Theatre called Roaring Trade. It is great to be able to enjoy that kind of success with people you have known for years and reunite at different stages of your career.”

I am interested in America. That is where a lot of the good work is

As a Bond veteran, Scott is excited by the decision to bring in Waller- Bridge as a writer on the next film. “I am thrilled,” he says. “I hope they give her a lot of free rein to update it. I think it is really clever of them.”

If Sherlock took Scott to a mass audience, his Hamlet won huge plaudits, Fleabag took him further into our hearts and Black Mirror will widen his global impact, where does Scott go from here?

“I am interested in America, to be honest,” he says. “Maybe not to move there but I would like to travel with work. And America is where a lot of the good work is.”

This actor will only travel if the roles are right – but don’t be surprised to see him fronting major movies in the very near future.

“I have been lucky in that I haven’t had a lot of really awful jobs that I hated,” he says. “But the ones I haven’t enjoyed so much have been the ones that are money-making. Of course it is nice to be able to buy a flat and all that stuff, but that is not what makes me feel alive. We are not here long. So I want to be able to just play around as much as possible.”

Black Mirror: Smithereens is available on Netflix

Andrew Scott with Big Issue mag
Andrew Scott - Big Issue
Andrew Scott: I think The Big Issue is the most brilliant idea.

Why I buy The Big Issue: “I think it is the most brilliant idea. The money goes to people. It is written on here – it is a hand up, not a handout. It is really true. You get something. There is good stuff to read in it. It is not a boring magazine and it helps a lot of people. It’s a perfect social construct.” Andrew Scott, 2019