Eddie Marsan’s friendly face stares at me across the table. His large wide-awake eyes look perpetually hungry for information. At 49, he’s a major star of TV and film, and he spends six months each year in America, commuting from his home in west London, working on the Showtime crime series Ray Donovan (now in its sixth season), where he plays the main character’s brother, Terry, an ex-boxer with Parkinson’s. He has six major movie releases planned for this year; he’ll play Vihaan the wolf in Mowgli, Andy Serkis’s reimagining of The Jungle Book; former US deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in Backstreet, alongside Christian Bale as Dick Cheney; and an infamous drug dealer in the true crime drama White Boy Rick, with Matthew McConaughey. He’s currently promoting his latest role as the villainous chief of an orphanage for kids with superpowers in Deadpool 2.
The original Deadpool movie, an ironic deconstruction of the comic-book genre, worked on two levels. Its cynical humour appealed to one’s cerebral side while the crash-bang action sequences satisfied one’s childish desire to witness destruction and violence. It made a fortune at the box office, grossing $783 million worldwide on a budget of $58 million. ‘They know it works now, so the new one’s a lot bigger and better and more ambitious,’ says Marsan. He offers a psychological analysis of the action-hero idiom and its appeal to movie-goers. ‘All these films are based on young men having the myth of omnipotence. Superheroes are their way of holding on to it. But when you get to a certain age, a part of our minds knows this isn’t true. And we have to take the piss out of it a little bit, for our own sanity. That’s what Deadpool does.’
His latest film, Entebbe, chronicles the 1976 raid by Israeli commandos on a plane hijacked by terrorists at Entebbe, in Uganda. Marsan plays Shimon Peres, the former Israeli defence minister who was responsible for ordering the raid.
‘Are you worried that the movie might be perceived as a glorification of the Israeli defence force?’ I ask.
He says that the moral ambiguity of the script is its key attraction. ‘At the start of the film, everyone has an ideology. But the complex reality of Entebbe, what happens in the raid, makes everybody’s ideology crumble. They then have to be pragmatic and make incredibly hard decisions.’ He seems pleased that the director, José Padilha, is enduring a storm of controversy over the film. ‘José’s getting it from both sides, which he’s quite proud of.’
Having dealt with his latest movie releases, he invites me to ‘ask anything’. I hit the Brexit button.
‘I’m a big Remainer but half of my family voted Brexit. We’re split down the middle. The EU isn’t perfect but we have to be in it to influence it.’
‘Do you favour a second referendum?’
‘Tell me the question.’
‘It should be on the final deal. “Would you agree to the terms of the deal? Or would you prefer to stay in?”’
He wants to know if I’m a Remainer.
‘Oh good, good!’ he says, his hungry eyes widening a few millimetres. We exchange Brexit banter for a few minutes, at his instigation.
‘Politics fascinates me. And philosophy. I’m fascinated by them because my job is to understand people’s perspectives in order to play them.’
As a teenager he became a born-again Christian for a couple of months. Then he gravitated towards Buddhism. He’s not a paid-up adherent but he’s Buddho-curious. ‘I attended a few lectures. The idea of Buddhism, the idea of there being no self, is fascinating to me. There’s no “Eddie”, there’s no “Lloyd”. And often we hold onto our identity and take refuge in it but it’s impermanent. It causes a lot of suffering.’
Where did he get the performing bug? ‘Out of the blue,’ he says. He left school at 15 with no qualifications. After a printer’s apprenticeship, he began applying for drama courses. His mum gave him a loan to tide him over while he fielded rejections. Eventually he was offered a scholarship by Mountview Theatre School in north London. More rejection was to follow.
‘After drama school I was unemployed for seven years. I did everything but be an actor. My first paid job was in Chipping Norton pantomime, as a clown. Kids had to throw sweets at me. I was 27.’
He took odd jobs on stage and in TV. Like most actors of his generation, he worked on The Bill. ‘I was the go-to East End geezer. I was in The Bill more than anyone. And I always got caught.’
He seemed destined to play small-time criminals on TV. In the mid-1990s he was cast as ‘Stoat’, a bungling Cockney burglar, in the BBC sitcom Game On. The show’s star, Ben Chaplin, attracted the attention of casting directors who admired his cool, saturnine looks and helped him break into movies.
‘Did you think to yourself, “Hey, Ben’s off to Hollywood. I’m next”?’
‘No,’ he chuckles. ‘It was very slow and it always has been.’ Unlike many of his colleagues, he studied his craft obsessively. For years he spent three nights a week receiving instruction from the acting tutor Sam Kogan. ‘He taught me to be methodical and approach it like a workman. So I was lucky, I learned to act when no one was watching.’ His professionalism got him noticed at auditions. ‘They thought, “Oh where’s he come from? He knows what he’s doing.”’ Aged 30, he landed a role at the National Theatre, ‘and it kind of took off from there’.
Marsan is often described as a ‘character actor’, but he dislikes this term and prefers to call himself ‘the out-of-focus best friend’. His oddball looks have helped his career. ‘One of the advantages for me is that friends of mine, Ben Chaplin or Paul Bettany, good-looking boys, will invariably go up for the good-looking part, the lead. And they could convince the director and the director would go to the money people and say, “I want this guy.” But the money people would say, “No, sorry, we want Brad Pitt, we want Tom Cruise.” But if I went into the room, looking like I do, I could convince the director to give me the part. And the director would go to the money people and say, “I want Eddie”, and the money people would say, “Oh you can have him, we don’t need a big name for that part.” So I sneaked in because the pressure wasn’t on me to carry a movie.’
‘How do you enjoy your success? Do you have any toys, cars, yachts, a plane?’
‘I’ve got four kids,’ he says. They’re aged between seven and 13 and his priority is to see them through school. After that he wants to do ‘a big Arthur Miller’ play in the West End. But he’ll wait until his family are older and ‘it’s not cool to have Dad around any more’.
Which play? ‘All My Sons.’
Finally I ask if he has any advice for younger actors.
‘Study. Learn the craft. Always ask questions. I never got a job by going to a party. Or by schmoozing people.’ Then he seems to remember something. His wife, Janine Schneider, is a prosthetic make-up artist.
‘When I married her she was the successful one. That’s the only schmoozing I ever did.’