This is not how it should be. Richard Madden, gingerbread-haired and always smouldering, is sitting in the basement of a working men’s club in south-east London, relishing the fact he has absolutely nothing to do. Not now, at least. Tomorrow, the Glaswegian actor is presenting a BAFTA award with his Rocketman co-stars Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell, but he’s so relaxed about it he doesn’t even know the category yet (Special Visual Effects), or the nominees (it goes to Black Panther). The most pressing thing he needs to do today, ahead of an upcoming trip back to the US, is go to his house and locate his razor.
This is not how it should be. Not for the man who played Robb Stark, Game of Thrones’ tragic demi-protagonist whose death at the Red Wedding in 2013 became the TV event of the decade/century/millennium. Once his father, Ned Stark (Sean Bean), lost his head early on in the show’s run, everyone thought Robb Stark would be the new leading man. Maybe it was his hair, tousled and luscious; maybe it was his princely jawline, or his unwavering moral compass. He looked good riding a horse, was that it? This is what a leading man consists of, everyone said. Then he was murdered.
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This is not how it should be. Not for the man who played David Budd, central figure in Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard, the six-part series that brought the country together in an age where we’ve never had more things to watch on TV. It was the biggest Sunday-night drama since Downton Abbey; when a British tabloid ran a spoiler on the front page, the country was up in arms. The show’s distribution in the US on Netflix boosted its profile even further – and Madden
won a Golden Globe. Someone, somewhere whispered Bond and suddenly everyone frothed at the mouth because, of course! To put it another way, it takes him so long to leave the working men’s club, with the pictures, and the adoration, and the swarm of well-wishing locals, that the Bodyguard star may soon need a bodyguard.
‘I had to learn to get over waiting for it to all go to shit.’
If life shouldn’t look like this, what should it look like? How about the hinges of Madden’s front door rendered loose and exhausted from the parts, offers and auditions all battering themselves in his general direction. Shouldn’t he be run off his feet? Instead, he’s got his feet up, looking like the most relaxed man in the world.
But if his run of work has seen him nail the pantheon of classic good guys – honour-bound Stark, duty-bound Budd, an internationally renowned DJ who was (gasp) respectful to women in the Netflix movie Ibiza, and an actual Disney prince in Cinderella – then 2019 will see Madden turn your preconceptions of him on their head. What could be more different than exploring the toxic relationship between a manager and his lover, one of the biggest musical icons in pop culture? ‘That,’ he says, locking his hands behind his head, looking very pleased with himself, ‘is when it starts to get more interesting.’
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It’s easy to see why we fell in love with Bodyguard. Jed Mercurio perfected a police procedural that mixes psychological trauma, conspiracies, office politics and a hefty body count. Whereas once we’d spend our Sunday nights watching David Attenborough narrate a school of herring navigating the fjords of Norway, now we’d wile away the last hours of our weekend aching with the exertion of being taut and strained.
It was the same for Madden, too. The ambience while filming was intense. ‘You’re in a constant state of anxiety for weeks on end, you’re absolutely drained, and you’re just trying to survive,’ he says.
‘I just tried to get to the end of every day without falling apart.’
There’s a pause. ‘People keep asking me, did I know it was going to be a hit? But I just tried to get to the end of every day without falling apart. Throughout the process, I was just trying to get to the next day. Then the next. You do lose a bit of your life to it.’
Maybe the show’s success would be a cooling salve to any feelings of being burnt out. ‘No,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘Every week it was on, I waited. It got bigger and bigger, more and more people were loving it. But I thought it would trip up. Then episode six [the finale] came out, and it didn’t. So then I thought, well, it’s going to America, it’ll trip up there. And it went really well in America!’ He lets out a sigh, looking exhausted from the pressure all over again. ‘I thought, “Well, it’s not going to win any awards,” and then, it did. I had to learn to get over waiting for it to all go to shit.’
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When Madden was announced as the winner of the Golden Globe for (take a deep breath) Best Performance by an Actor In A Television Series – Drama, he blew such a dense stream of air from his tightened mouth that his hair seemed to flutter in the breeze. He was stunned, sitting on a table with Idris Elba, Julianne Moore and Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. ‘It was good to have Idris there, to get a big hug from my pal,’ Madden admits. ‘Thank God my dad told me to write a speech. I didn’t see the point, but he said “Just. Write. Something.” So, on a crappy bit of paper in my pocket, I scribbled down a list of people to thank.’
Standing up there, he felt the time pass slowly; and his head was swimming while doing the requisite interviews and photoshoots afterwards – so much so that what he thought was 15 minutes of talking to the press was actually an hour and a half.
‘I’ve been lucky in my career playing, essentially, good men that bad things happen to.’
Rocketman comes out just as the interest in musical biopics is reaching fever pitch. Bohemian Rhapsody and Rami Malek’s acclaimed portrayal of Freddie Mercury have swept the awards circuit, scored big at the box office and won more Oscars than The Godfather. March saw Netflix release Mötley Crüe film The Dirt, while a David Bowie biopic is in production, starring Johnny Flynn.
Billed as an epic musical fantasy, Rocketman is an all-singing, all-dancing spin through Elton John’s life via his struggles with depression and alcoholism, and an exploration of his sexuality. Madden plays John Reid, Elton’s manager and lover, and the closest thing to a villain in the film.
‘He’s a darker, more manipulative character. I’ve been very lucky in my career playing, essentially, good men bad things happen to,’ he says. ‘There’s definitely been a pattern. John Reid goes into something that is actually a bit of a villain, not a nice man at all. I loved that, it’s what made me do it.’
As John’s career takes off, Reid insists their relationship remain private – not only for their own safety but because, as his manager, he directly profits from his escalating success.
‘Taron and I were keen on portraying the relationship as it was. We meet and fall properly in love, and that’s the root of it. They were together for five years before Reid started managing him, so we see them fall in love and then the darker elements that begin to creep in. John becomes more and more successful and more outlandish, more absurd. And Reid becomes more manipulative and opportunistic as a result.’
‘I was completely broke. I used my savings to pay my last month’s rent and that was it.’
Director Dexter Fletcher met Madden for lunch when he was casting the film, and played him a clip of Egerton singing Rocket Man (the Welsh actor does all his own singing). Madden was convinced on the spot. ‘I heard the song brand new when I heard Taron singing it. He’s outstanding.’
But playing someone so dark is hard, especially when you’ve built your career on largely virtuous men. ‘Usually I’ll try and justify why someone has gone bad,’ he says. ‘This one is a bit harder to do. I tried to work it into the performance from the beginning, slight things you’ll notice, so that you get the sense that, yes, he is in love with Elton, but he sees the potential of what he can make. What’s good for him out of all of this? That’s built into his psyche from the beginning.’
It was important for Madden that, after being the leading man, he take a step to the side and help support another actor. After bearing so much of the responsibility for Bodyguard, which was only possible because of the support of his co-stars, there was something karmic to it. ‘I enjoyed just trying to look after my mate, and our leading actor. The happier they are, the better they are, the better the film is going to be. Taron’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, and I knew what that was like from Bodyguard. I knew what he needed from me.’
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Though Game of Thrones made him a household name when it premiered in 2011, Madden had already done some work in film and TV. But he was better known for his theatre work, touring with Shakespeare’s Globe as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. While it may now be common for actors to straddle stage and screen, he found peeling off from his theatre career came with difficulties. He isn’t sure why, but he knew in his heart it was the right thing to do: leave behind a good thing, wade into the unknown.
In fact, before today’s planned inactivity, he went through what we might call ‘involuntary inactivity’. He lived in Forest Hill during his worst spell, when he went 10 months without work. ‘I just said, “I’m going to stop doing theatre in order to do camera work.” At the time, in terms of casting, you were either one or the other,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t as flexible as it is now. I was offered jobs – good jobs – and I turned them down.’
‘I was offered jobs – good jobs – and I turned them down.’
He gave himself £3.70 a day for food. Some days he’d buy a cheap cut of chicken, or Morrisons’ own-brand pasta sauce. Other days he’d buy a paper and a pint, because you could get a paper and a pint for £3.70 in Forest Hill back then. ‘I’m not bullshitting you – I was completely broke. I used my savings to pay my last month’s rent and that was it. I thought, “After this, I don’t have any money. I’ll have to move back to my parents”.’
No work was coming, so he couldn’t send in tapes. He’d travel on foot, walking long stretches of south-east London, reasoning that, if he had nothing to do, exercise did no harm. I’m surprised he stuck to his guns. Ten months is a long time doing nothing.
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‘It’s just because I’m rubbish in things if I don’t care about them,’ he admits. ‘My agents have told me before, I won’t be good in the thing if I don’t care.’
If he made any kind of compromise, and it backfired on him, he felt he’d have to live with that. ‘Nothing wrong with the money job,’ he says. ‘We all have to eat, and I’m sure at some point I’ll take a job for the money. Maybe I’ll use that to fund a smaller project for myself six months down the line.’ He rubs his chin. ‘I’ll put on some Lycra, I’ll be a superhero. People want entertainment and escapism and I’m not against that.’
‘I’ll put on some Lycra, I’ll be a superhero. People want entertainment and escapism and I’m not against that.’
The dry spell ended with him being cast in Thrones – and his agents gave him an advance to keep him afloat until his first pay cheque came in. Talking about those days when he had to worry a bit more, and skip the odd meal, he sounds wistful. Now he’s been catapulted into Hollywood’s upper echelons, about to move over to Los Angeles full-time for work, doing nothing – even for a day or so – has become a luxury.
There’s talk of a second season of Bodyguard – how could there not be? – but Madden is light on detail. ‘There are big chats happening with Jed at the moment, so I suppose we’ll see what he comes up with. Who knows? Maybe I won’t be in it.’
‘I thought maybe we could start season two with him on holiday,’ Madden adds. ‘Some place warm. Maybe Hawaii. Even him being in therapy would be a good start. I think there’s a danger in repeating yourself. I loved 24, but we don’t want to churn out new problems for David to face. People were into it. So if we do another one, we really need to justify that and give people something great.’
Next on his to-do list: get his LA flat in order and start looking at scripts. Maybe the next thing he does will blow your mind. Maybe nobody will ever see it. But today, Richard Madden, sitting in the basement of a working men’s club in south-east London, is relishing the fact he has absolutely nothing to do. Once he’s remembered to pick up his razor, that is.
Rocketman is in cinemas from 24 May