Eddie Marsan on 'The Disappearance of Alice Creed'

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Working his way up the ranks in bit parts and supporting slots, Eddie Marsan is now one of Britain’s finest actors. Dave Calhoun talks to him about 'The Disappearance of Alice Creed'

The first time I lay eyes on Eddie Marsan he is lying in the basement of a house on the Isle of Man within spitting distance of actress Gemma Arterton. To say any more would ruin one of the many surprises of ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’, the film which Marsan is working on, a low-budget British thriller which stars him, Arterton and Martin Compston and has as many twists as it has Pinteresque moments of silent dread. But let’s just say that he isn’t about to shoot a love scene. Moody folk – villains, policemen, driving instructors – are more his sort of thing. You’re not likely to see Marsan on his back, bare-chested, letting out a post-coital sigh and lighting up a cigarette anytime soon.

If you don’t know the name, you’ll know the face. Just last year you could have seen Marsan as the big man’s sidekick in ‘Me & Orson Welles’ or as a tired journalist in the ‘Red Riding’ trilogy. He describes himself as a ‘pop-up’ actor, meaning he pops up in things, but that’s not the whole story. Two years ago, he carried ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ alongside Sally Hawkins and he brings a similar volatility to ‘Alice Creed’. Things often feel like they’re about to kick off when Marsan is on screen: in ‘Alice Creed’ he plays an ex-con who locks an heiress in a derelict flat. The tension between him and Compston, his young associate, is palpable.

We meet properly more than a year later in Chiswick, near where the 42 year old lives with his wife and three kids, with a fourth on the way. ‘I don’t come from round here,’ he says with a smile, having just dropped the kids at school. Over coffee he recalls how as a teenager in 1980s Bethnal Green he worked as a bookmaker’s assistant at weekends. His boss at the bookies clocked that he wasn’t happy and asked what he wanted from life. ‘I told him I wanted to be an actor and he said that if I got into drama school, he’d cover my fees. He ended up paying for the first year.’ I suggest most East End businessmen would tell him to buck up his ideas. ‘Yeah, but he wasn’t like that. He was like a father. This bloke changed my life when I was on the road to nowhere. He was my best man when he was 80. He died just last year. He was a lovely man.’

After drama school, Marsan spent most of his twenties in theatre. ‘If you look back at Time Out in the 1990s, I was doing theatre above every pub in town,’ he laughs. ‘I had an unusual face. In my early twenties, my face worked against me. I had to look like a gorgeous young man or an East End thug, and I was neither. But by the time I got to my mid-thirties, my face was to my advantage. It’s a malleable face.’ He left theatre when TV roles and parts in the likes of ‘Gangster No 1’ started to come his way. ‘I’ve never had a massive launch in my career,’ he says. ‘It’s been a slow burn.’

Vera Drake’ was a turning point. Mike Leigh shot much of the 2003 film in a Victorian tenement flat in Stepney Green just doors from where Marsan grew up. The actor played Reg, the quiet suitor of the Drakes’ daughter. ‘From our base, you could see where I was born,’ he smiles. ‘Mike loves all that. The world of “Vera Drake” was the world of my parents.’ He credits Leigh with giving his career a new lift. ‘“Vera Drake” changed my career more than anything else. I think “21 Grams” got me work in America but “Vera Drake” got me work here.’ He went back to work with Leigh in 2007 playing Scott, the angry driving teacher and foil to Hawkins’s bubbly Poppy, in ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’. ‘I think Mike sees in me an outsider,’ he reckons. ‘I’m always on my own in his films.’

What’s it like working with other directors after Leigh? ‘I suffer from a lack of confidence after a Leigh film,’ he says. ‘With him, you don’t say anything on camera until you’ve been preparing for six months. Then you do another film and they give you a rewrite that morning and you feel fake. But I love it. I’d do another one at the drop of a hat. He’s the best director I’ve worked with.’

And Marsan is always working. He says he left the set of ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ on Holloway Road on a Thursday, said goodbye to his wife and on Monday morning was wielding a gun opposite Will Smith on the set of ‘Hancock’. When I ask what he’s been working on since ‘Alice Creed’, the list includes a Dominic Savage drama for television and three films, including ‘Moby Dick’ with Ethan Hawke and William Hurt. This month he starts shooting Paddy Considine’s directorial debut, ‘Tyrannosaur’. Every year he thinks of going to the US and ‘doing the whole LA thing’. ‘But I’ve responsibilities as a father and there’s always a job here,’ he says with no regrets. ‘Every year or so, I pop out there to do a job. I can’t take my kids out of school and go over and play the film star. I can’t neglect my family and I can’t neglect my work. One makes the other valid. I’m working. I’m happy. I enjoy it.’

Author: Dave Calhoun



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