Eddie Marsan describes himself as a character actor forced into the most interesting roles in film and on television by virtue of a face that doesn’t scream ‘leading man’.
Standout performances in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake and Happy-Go-Lucky saw him scale the heights of the film industry and he is perhaps the most prolific actor in the business – playing everyone from Heinrich Himmler to Bob Dylan via a succession of characters struggling to articulate their emotions and control their rage in a career that now spans almost 30 years. These days Marsan works almost exclusively in America or on US productions in Europe.
“I get more challenging roles in the US,” he says. “I think the British have a fixed idea of me. To a certain extent, it may be classist. And I am just not that interested in playing Cockneys on coke. I don’t think it is a true representation of my culture. It is a caricature – and if I play caricatures I become a bad actor.”
He has also become a fascinating political commentator,
There is no sign of that happening. Marsan remains in demand. He has also become a fascinating political commentator, a loud voice relishing discussion and argument with commentators from the left and right. “I’m not interested in using social media for the self-promotion side of my job, but I love to talk to people with different opinions,” he says.
Recently, Marsan was in New York finishing season seven of hit US drama Ray Donovan. “I never thought I would enjoy the multiple-season art form. But it is similar to doing Mike Leigh,” he says. “You become so immersed in the character.”
Now, he’s stunt-driving around London with fellow East Ender Idris Elba in Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs & Shaw. “Idris comes from Hackney and I was brought up in Bethnal Green so we probably went to the same clubs,” says Marsan, who turned 50 last year. “And we both had to go to the US to be seen properly and reinvent ourselves. But this is always home. I usually work in the US so it is a very long commute.”
While at home, Marsan is celebrating the release of Vice. He plays Donald Rumsfeld’s hawkish deputy Paul Wolfowitz in a film whose Oscar buzz surrounds Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in the story of the backseat drivers of George W Bush’s car-crash presidency.
“I was in awe of Christian. It was great to watch him play. He goes very deep into character. Part of our job is to understand how people think, even if we don’t agree. It is important to understand their worldview,” says Marsan. “I don’t have to be the hero. I never am. It is about the message the film is asking us to explore. So even when I played Himmler, I play it for real because that makes it more terrifying, more uncomfortable.
“For Wolfowitz I had a long read. I read all the time because I am thick,” he says. I protest. A classic working-class, self-educated deflection. “No, but I always think ignorance is the human condition. So accept it, then read!”
All conversational roads with Marsan lead to politics. He tries on various new ideas during our hour-long conversation and talks at length about his preference for complexity and nuance. This, he says, comes from his roots.
“My mother died last year, so I’m going through a retrospective time in my life,” he says. “A lot of guys I grew up with have avoided the orthodoxy of the council estate, the simple answers: blame this person, blame that person.
“White working-class racism collapsed very quickly for me. Most of my friends were black. That was the first orthodoxy I challenged. I think what poverty does, existentially, is make you accept the foibles of other people. Because the walls are very thin. You can’t be judgemental when you are in poverty, because you all need each other.”
These days, Marsan has been focusing on Brexit and political populism – espousing a sort of pragmatic centrism. It has led to regular clashes with supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. So where do Marsan’s politics reside? “I am centre-left, really. More a Brownite than a Blairite,” he says. “But I also marched against the Iraq war. That is the kind of nuance we are losing now. The schools and hospitals that were rebuilt? That was social democracy working. So we marched against the Iraq war but remembered Thatcher and how much it got better under Labour.”
On Brexit, he is a loud voice in favour of a People’s Vote. “To remain in the EU is very, very dear to me. I find Brexit so depressing. It is a retreat from the world. The Tories created it, but the far-left are trying to capitalise on it,” he says.
“I think Corbyn sees the EU as a capitalist club and wants to leave. But you have to be in clubs like this to change them.”
“I find the debate fascinating. Corbyn got all these young people involved in politics, which is a great thing,” he continues. “But what makes me so upset is that 90 per cent of these young people want to remain in Europe. There is so much of a desire for change – so don’t trick them.”