Eddie Marsan: ‘Entebbe’ is a challenge to popularism

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The British actor talks to The Jackal about how acting opened his mind, the importance of nuance and why there are no heroes or villains in his latest movie

Eddie Marsan likes questions, and problems, and trying to find solutions to problems. Spend just a few minutes in his company, and you’ll be struck by his frank, inquisitive nature and his willingness to be open – even with a grubby fingered, furiously scribbling journalist. His opening shot is curious: ‘when I was young, I tried to figure out the answers to everything, and I never knew what the answers were’, and it gets more curious as our conversation unfolds.

‘My parents divorced when I was 12, and I was lost. When I was aged 14 or 15, I think I might have had a kind of nervous breakdown, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I think I was desperate to settle the existential anxiety that had taken root in me.’

‘I don’t have the answer to everything, but I can tell you the solution isn’t dogma’

Marsan is answering the simple question, “what got you into acting?” It’s the kind of thing I’ll open any interview like this with – a conversation starter – but Marsan’s answer strikes a chord. ‘Acting was my route to explore the ways that other people saw the world, and to look for the truth in things,’ he continues. ‘Now I’m older I realise there are no objective truths, but that doesn’t stop me from searching.’

One senses this in Marsan’s performances. The 49 year old actor boasts a career that spans 20 years, and which is peppered with portrayals of sensitive, emotionally complex men who find it difficult to express themselves. Take his remarkable turn as Scott, a volatile driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, or the multi-layered pathos of John May, a civil servant who arranges funerals for people who have died alone in Uberto Pasolini’s Still Life. Now, speaking to him as he is today, it’s as though each of Marsan’s roles has unlocked a little more of his sense of self.

‘If I don’t understand something I panic, and because I had no academic knowledge as a young actor [Marsan left school without any qualifications, and didn’t go to university] I was always the most ignorant individual in the rehearsal room. It took me two years to learn not to play the working class tough guy, but to just bite the bullet and ask the meaning of things I didn’t understand. Really, my career is built on the shoulders of those people who sat down and took time to explain concepts I’d not come across to me. I owe them a lot.’

Perhaps it’s this experience that shaped Marsan into such an earnest figure. He’s found his own way through life by being open and honest, and it’s clear he values nuance and individual curiosity. ‘I was never interested in playing the same parts,’ he says. ‘I have a natural tendency to reject orthodoxy. When people retreat back into themselves and stick with a narrow viewpoint, to me, that’s almost a form of cowardice.’

Now, Marsan’s playing a character who’s distinctly fearless; former Israeli Defence Minister Shimon Peres, in José Padilha’s nail-biting thriller Entebbe, a dramatisation of the counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by Irsaeli Commandos at Entebbe Airport in Uganda, in 1976. The film’s received no small amount of plaudits (as has Marsan’s performance), and Marsan thinks its Padilha’s complex treatment of a simple ‘hero versus villain’ narrative that sets Entebbe apart.

‘From the outset, José said he wanted the film to be an answer to popularism. He wanted it to be a film about people who are forced to make decisions,’ Marsan explains. ‘Every character starts the film with a personal ideology and has to face a reality that’s much more complex than their ideological framework allows for. It doesn’t set out to claim the Israelis are heroes and the terrorists are villains. It shows that if you become dogmatic, you create complex problems.’

Moreover, as Marsan sees it, Entebbe’s commentary on extremism cuts today’s political landscape close to the bone. ‘Our society is becoming more binary,’ he continues. ‘People are staying fixed in their ideas of themselves: “I am British, I am white, I am Tory, I am Labour”, and the smaller the world gets, the more the pace of change increases and our sense of self is challenged. I think politicians capitalise on this – they’re riding today’s wave of popularism because they see it as a route into power. They encourage this kind of binary discourse, and it’s worrying.

‘We have to stop demonising each other, and the people who are not like us’

‘In playing Peres, I had to debate Israeli foreign policy; how to deal with terrorists, whether to negotiate, how to negotiate, and how to make peace. The film explores all these things, and it hooked me because there’s no easy answer to this story. All the actors I worked with were Israeli, and it was fascinating to be among them, because their views on the conflict are fantastically diverse.’

Entebbe, and the experience of making it, has clearly had an impact on Marsan. ‘It reminded me that as individuals we have to be open to exploring everything. We have to stop demonising each other, and the people who are not like us. We have to stop looking at people and thinking “well they’re not like me so they must be bad.”’

Of course, this perspective poses the question: how do we return to a political landscape that’s more open to the exchange of ideas? ‘I’m still trying to work out the answer’, Marsan says, somewhat downcast. ‘But I can tell you that the answer to our problems isn’t dogmatism.

‘I could have been a real East End stubborn hard-nut and walked into every rehearsal room and sworn my head off – but I didn’t. I plucked up the courage to ask for help and find my way through different problems. Our society needs to do the same today.’

For a man who claims he used to be ‘ignorant’, Marsan certainly talks a lot of sense.

Entebbe is in cinemas now