James McArdle has a lot to get off his chest. The award-winning, Olivier-nominated Scottish actor is about to open the National Theatre’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s Peter Gynt, and has lots to share about the play, social media, modern life, the madness of the acting world, being an outsider… pretty much everything, really. ‘I feel like I’m on Skittles or something. I’m just vomiting at you,’ he apologises at one point, mid-flow.
McArdle is a breath of fresh air in an acting world that often values ego over talent, and fame over hard work. His own skill on stage and camera is undeniable; he’s been employed consistently ever since he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in 2010, something highly unusual for an actor. His turn as Louis Ironson in the 2017 revival of Angels In America earned him that Olivier nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as well as a place in the ensuing Broadway production, for which he won a Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance. On TV, he starred in 2017’s Emmy Award-winning The Man in an Orange Shirt, and film-wise he was in Mary Queen of Scots as the Earl of Moray, and will be returning to screens alongside Saoirse Ronan again in Ammonite this autumn.
But for all that, he’s far from the stereotypical luvvie. ‘I love acting so much but I don’t always enjoy the industry or the nonsense you have to do for it,’ he explains as he wolfs down a pot of pasta on a break from rehearsals backstage at the National Theatre. ‘As actors you tend to be treated like figurines, and your ego and narcissism have to be protected. I can’t stand that. I want to be treated as part of the creative team, as brutally and honestly as anyone else. If something’s not working, I want to know.’
He credits his Glaswegian, working class beginnings for his down-to-earth approach to a career that might have turned the head of anyone else. ‘My best mates are still the boys I went to school with, and that’s really important to me,’ he explains. ‘This game’s a kind of madness that you need to make sure you can escape from, back to reality. I’ve seen actors go mad with it. But I can see why it happens. I’d be susceptible to it if I wasn’t so lucky or privileged to have another life. If I have more than two days off, I’m up home.’
‘It’s a very strange job. Turns out I’m weird as fuck though, so it works for me’
He recently broke his run of nine years of non-stop work, and took five months off to move back to Glasgow, decompress from the madness and look about him. ‘I had to have a wee minute to ask whether it’s what I wanted,’ he explains. In the end, it was his Glaswegian friends who persuaded him that his London life didn’t have to be a completely negative thing, because the work he wants to do is here, along with the people he wants to work with. And then Peter Gynt came along.
The role of Peer Gynt (changed to Peter for this production) has been something he’s dreamt of since his days in youth theatre. It’s an existentialist story, largely based on Nordic folk tales, about a man’s search for a sense of self that takes him away from his home and on journeys across the world. Despite the largely allegorical nature of the play, McArdle’s got no time for people who argue that Ibsen in long or unattainable, or pretentious. ‘He’s actually bang modern with all his themes,’ he argues.
McArdle pulls no punches about the link between the play’s exploration of self-obsession and identity, and our modern social media habits, Instagram in particular. ‘The play deals with being completely obsessed with our own journey and our own identity, either personally or politically, and then getting lost. So much of our day now is taken up with fantasy. Absolute nonsense. Wormholes of complete vanity. Where we are politically is a result of disengagement from reality and Peter lives his life like that, until the end when he realises what he’s been missing.’
Like his character, McArdle also felt like an outsider growing up in Glasgow, where his love of theatre was at odds with his working class roots. But he also felt like an outsider at RADA, where he was one working class student among dynasties of middle and upper class actors. ‘If it wasn’t for the platform RADA gave me, I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities in the industry,’ he says. ‘Where I’m from, I needed something like RADA to put me in a big shiny package and say ‘come and get some of this working class tang we’ve got on sale.’ He pauses, and mimics a posh English accent: ‘oh isn’t he so edgy’.
But being an outsider hasn’t done his career any harm at all – those nine years of consistent employment is testament to that. Despite that, being well-known doesn’t interest in him in the slightest. ‘Getting me famous is my agent’s job. I’m happy to talk about it with them but I’m just interested in doing what I’m doing,’ he says. ‘The benefit of a higher profile is that it gives you more choice over what you do, that’s the only thing that’s appealing to me.’ Theatre, though, will always be where his heart lies. ‘I want to be doing this when I’m an old man, and I believe the way to do that is to learn to be good. The way to learn to be good is do plays.’ He jokes that his agent probably hides good theatre scripts from him, to get him to do more films.
The life of an actor might be nonsensical at times but, for now, McArdle is enjoying himself – even if the limelight doesn’t sit quite right with him yet. ‘It’s an odd life. It’s full of privilege that other people don’t have, but it’s an odd life,’ McArdle says as our interview pulls to a close. ‘Two weeks ago I finished filming Ammonite at midnight, stark naked in the middle of a field with Saoirse. And I started rehearsing this [Peter Gynt] at 10am the next morning. It’s a very strange job. Turns out I’m weird as fuck though, so it works for me.’
From 27 June to 8 October at the National Theatre, nationaltheatre.org.uk, from 1-10 August at Edinburgh International Festival, eif.co.uk