Interview with Andrew Scott

“I totally see that working on the fringe is hard, and it’s hard being poor, but there’s a great potency to the early work we all do and it shouldn’t be undervalued in the rush to success and fame.”

“And the 2012 BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor goes to Andrew Scott.” First he sank his head into his hands in disbelief, before taking to the stage with a grin that was both disarming and devilish.

Andrew Scott has a Puckish quality: youthful and slight. We meet for coffee on the South Bank: he is slightly disheveled, constantly shifting in his seat. Frequently the lilting Dublin brogue of his speech fades to silence. But he is not vague, or indistinct – rather it is as if he is reaching for the right thing to say: anxious to please, keen to be a good subject.

“OK,” I begin. “Right,” he says, and puts down his sandwich. “Don’t stop eating!” I laugh, but the sandwich is pushed aside and he is focussed. “Ready to rock,” he smiles.

When Scott won the BAFTA he thanked his Mum & Dad during his acceptance speech.  “I always remember watching films on television,” he explains. “Really young like six or seven, and thinking I’d like to do that. And I think I expressed to my mum that I’d love to do drama or something, and she said she knew this person had gone to these drama classes. So I just went along. It was Saturday drama classes. You did improvisation, a bit of Shakespeare, a bit of poetry, and I went once a week and had a laugh. They have these things in Ireland; they’re like drama competitions in these empty hallways and these fifteen year olds do excerpts from Shakespeare,” Scott laughs at the memory. “You know? I did Richard III, age 15! You get to do all these great excerpts like ‘now is the winter of our discontent’ and you win a prize or you don’t win a prize.”

Youth theatre, Saturday drama classes, it’s a familiar route for many actors. “I had an idea that theatre was just playful, you know? And not academic and not the kind of subject for me. I went to Trinity in Dublin to do a degree in drama…but… it didn’t last. I lasted six months,” he roars, “Exactly 6 months! I got an opportunity to audition for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and I took it.  I remember one day thinking ‘I’ll take a year out and then I’ll go back’ but it just kind of took off. I got another job in the Abbey and then I got a film and I thought ‘this is what I would do after four years of doing a degree.’ It wasn’t like I was training in acting, it was essays in semiotics and very academic.  I think acting, for me, is always about the joy of it, and I always try to have that now, that sense that it shouldn’t get any more complex than it was when you were 13.”

Flash back three years to a warm September night at the Old Vic.  I had been given a ticket to a Noël Coward play, Design for Living, starring Lisa Dillon, Tom Burke and Scott.  It was a mercurial performance by Scott: quicksilver, thrilling, and zoetic. For me, what underpinned it was the sense that Scott was having an absolute ball. I tell him he struck me as someone absolutely loving it and he chews his lower lip and giggles like a schoolboy caught raiding the tuck shop. “Yeah I do, I do, I do,” he rubs his hands with glee. “I do love acting. I never want to stop loving it. I feel very lucky to do a job that I really, really do love.”

Scott, already an Olivier award winner for A Girl in A Car With A Man and the winner of an Irish Film & Television Award for Dead Bodies, epitomizes something of Warhol’s fifteen minutes – in a little less than fifteen minutes of screen time in Sherlock, Scott was suddenly a household name. The stunning success of Sherlock was pure zeitgeist television. “What was extraordinary,” he explains, “was that it was such an instant success. It was a hit after episode one, people just had an immediate affection for it really, really quickly.” After his BAFTA win for playing Moriarty, he must have been offered similar roles? “Once you’re in a show that’s successful, you can suddenly be asked to do the same thing all of the time,” he agrees. “But if you don’t want to you just have to not say yes, you know? It’s pretty simple.”

Things must have changed overnight? “I don’t know,” he murmurs. “It’s very hard to know in that situation.” 

At first I suppose Scott is being humble; in the time we have spent together he has been stopped by members of the public, photographed, and pointed at.  But it occurs to me that Scott is struggling – not to cope with fame – “It’s not too much of a problem. If you don’t want to be seen you don’t have to be!” he laughs, but struggling to retain his sense of himself, as an actor, now that he is a celebrity. “I’m sick of the word celebrity. It’s so overused now isn’t it? You just hear it everywhere! Celebrity this, celebrity that – celebrity toilet flushing! What even is it any more?”

I press him to talk more about how his life changed post-Sherlock and he brings it back to the work.  He is an actor first, and only second, or third, or, I suspect, much, much further down the line – a celebrity. 

“I think the thing that it gives you is an opportunity to audition,” he says. “I often say that what actors want is an audition. If you don’t get it at an audition you can sort of cope but what actors can’t cope with is not getting a chance to audition. That is, I think, the greatest opportunity that being in a show like that gives. It opens the door and then it’s up to you which doors you choose to go into. I feel grateful not to have had too high a profile too early because I was able to go relatively unscrutinised.” Suddenly he clicks his fingers, “People go‘Right, he’s an Irish juve., he’s a villain, he’s a romantic hero’ and actually only you can decide through exploration who you want to be. I think it’s really important for young actors to discover that and hold onto it before everybody tells you who you are. I’m like ‘No, I’m not, because I’ve done this before, maybe only six people saw it but I know that that’s in me.’ It allows you to to have a value of who you are, not based on how hot you are, or how popular you are, how famous you are.”

For a second, Scott drifts off, looking out the window before snapping back. “The biggest thing you can own as an actor is a sense of your identity. You can only get that through trying as many different things as possible. So I think that’s why, even though I totally see that working on the fringe is hard, and it’s hard being poor, but there’s a great potency to the early work we all do and it shouldn’t be undervalued in the rush to success and fame. Your work is as valid when three people are watching than it is when three million people are watching.”

Scott pauses a lot while he speaks, thinking carefully.  He also laughs a lot. It is as if he is both cognizant of the fact that his thoughts now carry some sort of weight, and amused by the absurdity of that. “I think the value of success is that you realise…it is kind of empty. You still have the same torments and all that that sort of stuff.” He doesn’t often give magazine interviews “It’s not for any lofty reason. It’s just I don’t think that actually gives you any value as an actor. For me, the thrill of being an actor is to try and play as many different types of people as possible. So it’s not being secretive, it’s just being private, and it’s being measured about what the value of those things is. I don’t think you’re ever going to really get to know a person in those. I think sometimes people’s homework is rewarded a lot. You know – ‘I did a huge amount of work – seven months starving myself and I hung out with astronauts’ but there is a part of me that just doesn’t want to know any of that stuff because it’s not the audience’s concern. I don’t think the audience want to know.  The first question is often ‘what first attracted you to the part?’ ‘Well, six people turned it down’” And the self-deprecating giggle is back. “That’s why I was happy to talk to your magazine, because there’s a point to it and I really admire what it does. It’s sort of like a community magazine, isn’t it?”

Scott was already highly respected by other actors, an actors’ actor, and the acting community is important to him. “I absolutely love other actors,” he nods. “I mean the really good ones – I kind of rely on them. One of the great privileges is to get to work with different people, you know? I feel a great affinity with young actors. What I feel is that you should never lose the sense that we are all doing the same thing.  Somebody works in a soap, and it’s considered not as valuable as somebody who works at the RSC, and vice-versa?  I think if you want to work in a soap and you feel that’s instinctively what you want to do, then brilliant!  Let’s try not to judge each other too much!”

If it seems Scott is all work and no play, that’s not true, although he’s not the type photographed falling out of bars. “I wouldn’t say I’m really serious, and don’t like to do any of those fun things, I just…it’s just…a little bit of balance, you know? I go to the gym, although there’s part of me that resists! I sit on a Swiss Ball and stare into space. I do a bit of that and then I go to the movies. I like eating out, I like a nice restaurant, hanging out with friends.” He draws, too.  “I’ve always drawn people, people’s body language, what people are wearing. I suppose there’s an element of observation. I think I’m probably quite an observant person. What I’d really like to do is spend some time, just go away and draw and paint but I haven’t found the time. My parents say ‘just do it, shut up and do it!’” At one point he was set to do an art course, but it never happened. “I can’t even finish that sandwich,” he laughs.

On stage, on screen, here on the South Bank, Scott is a bundle of energy- I wonder if rehearsing with him is hard work? “I do make a lot of bad mistakes. And you know what? I think it’s more important in rehearsal to be a good person than it is to be nice person. You’ve got to sort of be…you’ve got to sort of be…challenging a little bit, with the work in rehearsal, I mean. I think it’s really important for actors to do what instinctively is right for you. And for me it’s just been to, just know it really well and know the words really, really well. I quite like rehearsing – depending on the play – sometimes I hate it!” He giggles again: the naughty schoolboy.

And that is what is most striking about Scott, he is both schoolboy and sage, constantly shifting and surprising. “What’s been actually quite nice about having a little bit of success is to realise you never really make it, you know? People often say to graduates and people starting out ‘Oh it’s a terrible job’  and ‘if there’s anything else you can do, do it’ which I can understand. But it’s also a brilliant job, you meet fantastic, empathetic people. That’s what we do. We try to imagine what it’s like to be someone else and for that reason you can meet really fantastically, kind, funny, funny people. That’s really the thing that keeps me going – laughing.”

(This interview first appeared in the print edition of Fourthwall & the Drama Student. Photo by David Levine)