Interview: Actor Aidan McArdle | Features reviews, news & interviews
Interview: Actor Aidan McArdle
Dublin-born actor achieves high visibility in Garrow's Law and Beautiful People
“All an actor can do is say no or yes to something,” says Aidan McArdle, as we sit in a Soho café surrounded by whooshing espresso machines and bustling waitresses. He says no to a cream cake. “Every time you do a job it’s a bit of a leap of faith. I said yes to Puck at the Royal Shakespeare Company years ago, and for all I knew I could have been playing Puck naked in an S&M club. You just don’t know, you could be hanging from some sort of leather swing! But you don’t have any control over that. If you say yes to the part, you just have to do it and shut up.”
So far, McArdle has been spared anything quite so outlandish, but who knows what kind of trouble his thespian versatility could land him in in future. Trained at RADA and seasoned in the crucible of the RSC, where he enjoyed his finest hour as a precociously young Richard III, McArdle is currently playing the cynical prosecutor Silvester in BBC One’s 18th-century legal drama Garrow’s Law, and on 13 November he returns as Andy Doonan in the second series of BBC Two’s camp and colourful comedy Beautiful People. Not quite a household name yet, but a McArdle breakout could well be on the cards.
In Garrow’s Law, the Dublin-born actor has expunged all traces of his native accent in his portrayal of the bewigged and acid-tongued Silvester. Dispatching London’s poor and bewildered to the gallows without a moment’s remorse, often on trumped-up charges,he is determined to give no quarter to the crusading defence counsel William Garrow.
“Nothing better than playing a bastard!” chortles McArdle. “It’s the biggest amount of fun you can have. The stories are based on authentic court proceedings from the Old Bailey, and Silvester was Garrow’s nemesis in some of the trials. It’s great fun actually.”
He’s been reading a book called The Georgian Gentleman to soak up some historical background. “People think the Georgians were very strait-laced, but they lived life to the full and it was dirty and nasty. They’d have rows of gallows and 10 people would be executed at the same time. The author describes how some amorous couples would pull up and screw while they were watching people being hanged. They were times when life was cheap, there was a lot of sex and a lot of gambling” (McArdle as Silvester in Garrow's Law, pictured right).
Despite credits which include playing Dudley Moore in the 2004 film Not Only But Always opposite Rhys Ifans’ Peter Cook, portraying the playwright Sheridan in The Duchess and being a film producer fascinated by morris dancing in the "mockumentary" Morris: A Life with Bells On, McArdle has never managed to shake off his traditional actor’s insecurities. His RADA training was designed to equip him for all physical or vocal eventualities, but nonetheless he suffered pangs of anxiety about Silvester’s clipped English tones.
"You get a little bit scared but you can’t say anything, you never admit it," he frowns. "But at the Garrow’s Law wrap party I was going ‘if you need any free ADR [additional dialogue recording],if there’s anything that’s off I’ll come in and rectify it. Don’t go through my agent, just ask me and I’ll come in and sort it out’. Luckily they didn’t need to. But while you're outwardly going 'I'm so confident about everything, I'm brilliant!' inside there's a voice saying 'you might be rubbish in this, do you know that?' I think most actors are like that."
McArdle will turn 40 next year, but he hasn't (yet) become blase about the opportunities that have come his way.
"I've been very lucky. To be able to play Richard III at the RSC, for a boy from Dublin it was something that seemed impossible. I think if I'd been an Irish actor in England in the 1960s or Seventies there's no way I would have been able to have had the chances I've had. You have superb actors like Cyril Cusack, but every time you see them in a film they're doing these reely reely Oirish fellas, y'know - there's sort of a sense that you can be good, but only in your place. That's why it was great to see Brendan Gleeson being excellent as Winston Churchill."
I'm inherently optimistic. I know that something will come along that is right
McArdle can only recall encountering regional stereotyping twice, both times from the same director. "You'd go into the audition and he'd laugh at you because he'd think you were inherently funny, being Irish. He was of a certain age, he'd have been a young director in the Sixties. He said 'you're Irish, I suppose you come from a big family and your father is an alcoholic'. I remember thinking 'I really want this job but oh fuck it, I can't'. I said 'no, I come from a really nice home and my father isn't an alcoholic'.Then 10 years later he was doing some sort of Biblical thing and I'd just finished playing Richard III, and he was going 'so, are we going to have an Irish Jesus?' I was thinking 'this sounds familiar. It's the same bloke!' I'm only saying this because I reckon those sorts of experiences were the norm for Irish actors or regional actors early on. But personally, I've had a brilliant shake of the stick."
McArdle gets to keep his Dublin accent when he plays the delightfully bemused Andy Doonan in Beautiful People, a role from the opposite corner of the thespian universe from the bewigged Silvester. Based on the memoirs of Simon Doonan, whose dreams of ineffable glamour caused him to flee from suburban Reading to become creative director of Barneys department store in New York, Beautiful People is a fluffy meringue of fantasy, satire and surreal social observation. Trying to turn it into a TV show might have been considered lunacy, but in the hands of screenwriter Jonathan Harvey and veteran comedy producer Jon Plowman (AbFab, The Office etc), somehow it works (as Andy Doonan in Beautiful People, pictured below).
"It's a very nice atmosphere when we make Beautiful People, it's very sort of light," says McArdle. "Sometimes when you're doing comedy there can be a lot of [growls] 'you got the words wrong and then the whole thing doesn't work'. Sometimes it's the writer getting a little bit too precious or whatever. But you don't get Jonathan's words wrong anyway, because they're perfect.
"I always got on like a house on fire with Olivia Colman [who plays his wife Debbie], we started to crack up with each other right from the start. I actually think it's better this season, because the show knows much more what it is than it did last year. There's a lot more magic realism happening, lots of leaps into the imagination. It's something they do a lot in Scrubs, and I think that's when Beautiful People is at its strongest."
Also coming up imminently is his appearance in Richard Linklater's new movie, Me and Orson Welles, which stars Zac Efron and Claire Danes.
"I have a small part in it," he says. "I think it'll be brilliant, but I haven't seen it yet. Richard Linklater assembled an actors' company to recreate Welles' Mercury Theatre, and there was even talk that we might recreate their production of Julius Caesar and do it on Broadway, so they got a lot of people from the RSC. It was very instructive watching him work, because he's one of the top directors and yet there was no ego about him at all. He'd sort of go 'oh dear, this room should have been cleared', then the next thing somebody's screaming 'RICK WANTS THE ROOM CLEARED NOW!' and everybody jumps to it and clears the room. I think you need a lot of inner confidence to be like that."
But an actor's life is rarely settled or secure, and with his new work hitting the screens, McArdle is back on the job-seeking beat. He's just back from an exploratory visit to Hollywood, where British actors like Hugh Laurie, Joseph Fiennes and Robert Carlyle have been making hay in major TV series, and is contemplating a return trip in the new year when casting for the new season of pilot programmes gets under way.
"There is something extraordinary about Los Angeles," he says, "and I think you've got to do it once. But this has been a feast-or-famine year. I've had a lot of instances when my agent has said he would eat his hat if I didn't get a particular job, then I wouldn't get it and it would just disappear. There's far less material being made, and I think people who have decent profiles but aren't massive stars are having to say yes to stuff they wouldn't have done before, and it all has a knock-on effect."
The McArdle household is irreversibly drama-dependent, since he's married to Heartbeat and Holby City actress Aislin McGuckin - they first met during the RSC's Richard III, when McGuckin's Lady Anne was murdered by McArdle's Richard - but he claims they don't suffer from poisonous professional rivalry.
"I want us both to do as well as possible," he says diplomatically. "If she's working and she's fulfilled, then everything's better at home, you know what I mean? We don't have that thing of 'you're doing better than me! Why wasn't I seen for that role?' That's another thing you learn as an actor, you can't start looking over your shoulder at other people's careers. It would drive you mad.
"But," he adds, "I'm inherently optimistic. I know that something will come along that is right."
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