Interview: Eddie Marsan on His New Movie, Terrence Malick and Television

Still Life Interview Photo

Clark Douglas: We're joined by actor Eddie Marsan. You've seen him in a host of blockbusters and independent films: the Sherlock Holmes movies, The World's End, Happy-Go-Lucky, War Horse and many more. He's joining us today to talk about his film Still Life, which opens later this month. Eddie, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Eddie Marsan: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

CD: In Still Life, you play the central character John May, and he has a rather unusual profession. Can you tell us a bit about who he is and what he does?

EM: Well, in London, there are twelve boroughs, and each borough has a funeral officer. If someone dies, and there's no one to claim them, nobody who knows them and nobody to bury them, it's the funeral officer's job to give them a respectful burial appropriate to their religious beliefs, and to try to find family and trace them. So, John May is one of these funeral officers. These funeral officers actually meet every Christmas in a cemetery in London and have a Christmas drink. John May is kind of like a detective for the dead, really – he traces family members and tries to make sure they have the best possible send-off.

CD: He's also a man who seems to have so friends, no social life of any sort, really... how much of a role do you feel that plays in this deep affection that he seems to have for these forgotten souls that he tends to?

EM: I think that's right, he's a man who lives alone, who's isolated and so he has an inherent respect for people regardless of whether they're held in esteem, whether they have a very wide social circle or whether they're isolated. He sees the humanity in these people even though the metropolis has forgotten them. He knows what it feels like to be forgotten by the metropolis, so in a sense he has empathy for them because his can see that his life is headed in the same direction.

CD: Your performance in this movie is often more reactive than active, as John is a man who only speaks when it seems absolutely necessary. So much of this character is captured through your facial expressions and your body language, and I'm curious about how challenging it is to play a role like that in contrast to a character who's more expressive in a conventional way?

EM: I don't find it much more challenging. It's the same principle, really. As an actor, I always think my job is to think the thoughts of the character, and trust that the audience will think them with you. I've never patronized audiences. I've always believed in the intelligence of audiences. I just think the thoughts and let the audience think them with me, and then trust that they understand the context of the story and kind of go on the emotional, psychological roller coaster ride with me. If a character does express his thoughts, then I express the thoughts for the character because that's appropriate, but if a character doesn't express them vocally, they always manifest themselves another way. Actually, I don't worry about really; I think the audience has the intelligence to think the thoughts with the character. It never occurs to me, to be honest with you. If people are going to go see a film like Still Life, they're very intelligent, anyway, so they'll get it.

CD: This is obviously a very small movie in contrast to some of the things you've done. What is the atmosphere like on a set like this in contrast to something like Sherlock Holmes or Mission: Impossible III?

EM: Well, there's a lot less people controlling the traffic, so when you're doing a scene you have to make sure you're not getting run over. It's a smaller unit, and there are more time constraints... but in a sense, for me, sometimes that's more creative, because sometimes more restrictions in facilities and time restraints means you have to be on your feet more, go with your first instincts, make creative decisions and hope that it works. I quite enjoy that process. I enjoy making films whether they're small or big, really, I enjoy the whole process.

CD: This film was written, produced and directed by a single person, Uberto Pasolini. What was your working relationship with him like?

EM: It was very good, because it's a very personal film to him, so he was very clear about what he wanted. The character of John May, although he doesn't say much on the page, the character was very clearly written by Uberto. All I did was serve his idea, really. It was such a personal film to him. He wrote the film just after he was divorced, and his wife – his ex-wife, actually – composed the music for the film. He went from living a life where he had a house full of children to coming home and there being nobody there. I'm away from my children a lot, away from my wife and kids because of my job, so I understand that feeling. It was very easy for him to convey that to me, because it was so personal to him, so it was very easy for me to get it, really, and perform it.

CD: There are so many great, quiet little moments in the film, and through these seemingly mundane little moments, we begin to get a glimpse of who John is and what he values in life. I'm wondering if you have a favorite scene or moment from the film?

EM: I quite enjoy the scene where he visits the grave that he's prepared for himself. I think that's quite beautiful, when he lays down and looks up. I enjoy that. That's probably my favorite scene, really, because I think that says a lot about him.

CD: Without revealing where this movie goes... one of the touches I loved is that there's a shot later in the movie that very specifically echoes a shot from that scene, and ties it together in a lovely way.

EM: Yeah. Yeah, the whole film's like that. It's a very beautiful film, it's like a beautiful piece of music, you know? It's a very unique film to London, and I'm very proud of it.

CD: I have to admit – and again, I certainly don't want to spoil the movie for anyone – but I found myself emotionally overwhelmed by the film's closing series of scenes. Without warning, I suddenly had tears streaming down my face there at the end. I'm curious, what were your feelings like when you read the script for the first time, and then when you saw the finished film for the first time?

EM: I thought it was a great payoff. To me, quite often, scripts are quite mathematical. If they're constructed properly, there's a set-up and a payoff at the end. If it's done well, you don't see it coming, and it's very fulfilling for an audience member to experience the payoff. I thought it was a very clever script, very well-constructed and it earned that payoff at the end.

CD: Early in the movie, John is informed that he's being let go from his job, because his employer feels his work is inefficient, regardless of the fact that John takes great care to do his job exceptionally well. Do you feel efficiency is overvalued in today's world?

EM: Yeah. Well, I don't know whether efficiency is... efficiency is all about value, really. Sometimes efficiency is value for money, and John May isn't value for money, but he's value for something else... for human dignity, and the dignity of human life. So, the whole film, in one sense, is about how people can get lost in the metropolis. You can live in a massive city like London, New York, L.A. or any great urban city, you can die and no one knows you've died and you die alone, no one contacts people for you and no one's there to bury you. So, efficiency... it's the machine that runs bureaucracy and the cold industrial complex John May is fighting against the whole film. He's trying to give people human dignity, while his city, in a sense, doesn't recognize it. Because it's too busy.

CD: This is a very interior sort of man. How much do you relate to this sort of character on a personal level – does he resemble you and your personality in any way, or are you wildly different from John May?

EM: I'm more eccentric, I suppose. I'm more outgoing. My wife always says that I can work a room. (Laughs.) I don't know why. I wasn't a very good-looking kid. I had to gain some way of pulling girls, so I had to be quite witty or try to get some charm, or else I would never have found any romance when I was younger. I certainly wasn't getting them any other way. I don't think John May does that at all, he's not very aware of how he comes across to people and he's not very bothered about that. I'm an actor, so I'm very used to being watched by people. John May's a lot more genuine than I am, I think.

CD: This is unrelated, but I wanted to ask you: a few years ago, you had the opportunity to work with the great and mysterious Terrence Malick on The New World, and everyone seems to have a different take on what working with him is like. I was wondering if you could tell us about your memories of that experience?

EM: It was lovely! He's a very spontaneous filmmaker, when he gets to work with the actors, he's very spontaneous, he'll react to whatever's going on. He's creating things there and then right on the day. But that's after lots and lots of preparation. He is an artist, in that sense. You have to go with it, with him, and do whatever he wants you to do, and it may change. He's very gentle, very soft-spoken... he's a very sweet man. It was kind of like a university lecture, I thought, working with him. I mean, it's very refreshing, really. I enjoyed it. We had lots of dinners together with the rest of the cast when we were working, and he spoke about many different things. He's a renaissance man, and for somebody like me who has a natural curiosity, he's very enjoyable to be with. We didn't only talk about films, we talked about lots and lots of things. I had just finished working with Mike Leigh, and then I wanted to work with him, and they're completely opposite. With Mike Leigh, you rehearse for six months and you know exactly what you're going to do. With Terrence, you turn up, he asks you to do something based on work that he's done for six months that you haven't been part of, and you just go with it. I enjoyed it very much.

CD: You have an upcoming project that a lot of literary fans are excited about – a television adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in which you'll be playing Mr. Norrell. What can you tell us about that?

EM: Oh! They sent it to me, and it was enormous! I think it's seven one-hour episodes, and it's one of the biggest projects that the BBC and BBC America have ever done, and it's a fantastic story. It's written by Susanna Clarke – who continues to write – and it's fantasy and magic. It's set during the early 19th century during the Napoleonic wars. The characters are so rich and nuanced, and the ensemble cast – although I play Mr. Norrell and Bertie Carvel plays Jonathan Strange – all the characters in it are fantastically written and performed by everybody. It made me realize how much confidence TV has now. TV has more confidence than film, now, you know? I did Little Dorrit about five years ago, it was shown on PBS in America and was a big success. But Little Dorrit was much smaller in contrast to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. You suddenly realize the scope and size of television now, because so many people are watching in so many different ways. It's a really, really good story.

CD: Do you prefer working in television now? I know you've done a lot of work in recent times on the Showtime series Ray Donovan, as well.

EM: Well, for me... what's happened with film is that there used to be lots of films made between five and fifteen million dollars that were the kind of bread and butter films, the arthouse films that I would do. Now, those films aren't being made as much. Films are either two hundred and fifty million and they're blockbusters, or under one or two million dollars like Still Life. So those films that were my bread and butter – and not only for me, but the writers and directors – now those people, all of us, have moved into cable drama. That's where we're making those films, and we're making them within the constraints of twelve one-hour episodes per season. So Ray Donovan, in a sense, is what I would have been doing on film five or six years ago, but now I'm doing it on cable drama. So it's no different for me, it's the same people, the same quality, the same writers... I really enjoy it, actually.

CD: Eddie, Still Life is a beautiful little film, and we certainly appreciate you taking the time to join us today and tell us about your experiences working on it.

EM: Well, I'm really pleased that people are showing an interest in it, because I'm really proud of the film. And I appreciate you – your questions and your curiosity. I hope everyone enjoys the film.