It says a lot for actor Eddie Marsan that by the time we finish our conversation in his agent's Beverly Hills office, I have a somewhat higher opinion of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky than the one I had going in. Marsan, a palpably nice man with one of those round, ruddy English Everyman faces you instantly recognize even if you can't quite remember his name, is transcendently enraged as Scott, a driving instructor engulfed by anger-management issues he takes out on the compulsively sunny schoolteacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins). In turn, she counters his every bitter complaint against the world with a joke and a smile until his final outburst reduces even her to stunned silence.
"I think of Scott as more of a victim than Poppy, whose happy-go-lucky nature is underlined by a lot of courage and sensitivity," Marsan says. "The only hobby he has in life is blaming people. He hates women because he feels that they can never want him, so he never tries to change."
This being a Mike Leigh film, Scott was constructed over months of experiential research and magpie plundering of personality traits from acquaintances of the actor and director. Leigh rarely talks about his famous technique these days, and I've never been able to make up my mind about whether his method is touched with genius or a complete want of imagination. Like most actors who have worked with him, Marsan is awestruck by the mechanics of how a Mike Leigh character comes to life. "You sit in with Mike and he suggests things and you suggest things," he says with that reflexive English habit of slipping out of the first person wherever possible. "We worked out that Scott came from Stevenage [a faceless dormitory town just north of London], so you went to Stevenage and found a home. Mike wanted him to have a patchy work history, so he had to lose a job every three months. I went to 30 different workplaces and sniffed around, and once I settled on being a driving instructor I had to go and be one."
In the early stages of his laborious preparation, Leigh works in isolation with each actor, winnowing away the unnecessary and adding detail until, after three months of what Marsan calls a "journey of discovery," the cast finally comes together. "I had no idea there was a character called Poppy at the beginning," Marsan says. "I thought I was creating this really dark character, like in Taxi Driver. Then Mike said to me, 'I want you to go and give driving lessons to this lady called Poppy.' I knocked on the door and he was shooting, and Sally and I got into the car. And I suddenly realized this was a comedy."
Leigh edits down the improvised interactions between the actors into a script that they never see. "When it's shot you know exactly what you're going to say," Marsan explains. "It's like a well-rehearsed play. But the way you get to that point of knowing every beat, every nuance, every syllable — you're just doing it, doing it, and readjusting. So it's not that you read the script and then try to create it. It's in your mind all the time."
It wasn't until Marsan saw the completed movie with an audience in Berlin that he understood what Leigh was up to. "The characters don't change," he says. "The audience changes. Their initial reception of Poppy changes by the end of the film. They see that happiness is hard work, that it relies more on your perspective than on events." Still, even with the debriefing Leigh routinely gives his actors, Scott's pathology was hard to shake off. "I was paid to be pissed off for six months," he says, grimacing at how he would find himself snapping at his wife or reading bedtime stories to his three young children in Scott's impatient manner. "My wife says to me, 'Now they know what it's like to live with you.'"
If Marsan is the grumpy type, he hides it extremely well under an easy affability coupled with a slightly bemused gratitude that, in acting, he found not just a career but a vocation. "Most people become actors due to a certain amount of low self-esteem," says Marsan, who grew up in the formerly Jewish working-class London borough of Bethnal Green, the son of a lorry driver and a teacher's assistant. At school he was a disaffected underachiever, but he loved movies and his father admired great character actors like Rod Steiger and Gene Hackman. "I used to watch them and think, 'I like the way he does that,'" Marsan says.
Marsan's parents were supportive of his interest in acting, but there were no facilities for budding thespians in Bethnal Green, until a bookie he worked for while apprenticing as a printer encouraged him to apply to drama school, then paid his first year's tuition. "I'm not saying I was good," he says with the usual British aversion to tooting one's own horn, "but drama school ignited a curiosity and a discipline in me that nothing else had ever done before. It changed my life."
Like most British actors, Marsan paid his dues in theater, a highlight of which was touring Europe in Richard III, a production set in London's gangland, which he hopes to direct as a film when his children are older. "When I told my dad I was working at the National, he thought it was a horse race," he says.
Given that the 40-year-old Marsan looks and sounds as though he'd just stepped out of a Dickens novel, it's strange that television roles largely eluded him until recently, when he completed Little Dorrit and The 39 Steps for the BBC, and God on Trial, an HBO Holocaust drama in which he plays a Jewish concentration camp inmate forced by the Nazis to choose which son to sacrifice. Though he's not Jewish, his broad East End twang landed him another Jewish role as a loving but repressed father opposite Helena Bonham Carter in the sweet film Sixty-Six, and last year he played John Houseman (not an English gent but a Romanian Jew; who knew?) in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles. "I got a script recently for a gangster movie, and my agent wasn't quite sure which role I was up for," he says, laughing. "I asked if there were any Jews, and he said 'Yes.' I said, 'Oh, it'll be the Jew.' And it was."
Marsan's English role models are Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, and Jim Broadbent, his American heroes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti — all gifted character actors with elastic ranges. When he calls himself a jobbing actor, it's less out of false humility than a shrewd sense of the staying power of the supporting player. "The guarantee of regular employment is versatility," he says emphatically. "If you don't let people have a fixed idea of you, you've got more chance of working."
Marsan does abject beautifully — he was a near-mute love interest in Leigh's Vera Drake and a timid murderer in Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman. His capacity for quiet thuggery put him on the Hollywood radar after he appeared in Paul McGuigan's Gangster No. 1., which led to supporting roles in Mission: Impossible III, Gangs of New York, Miami Vice, 21 Grams, and, last year, as Will Smith's evil nemesis in Hancock. Next, he'll be seen as the incompetent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, opposite Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson. Given the shrinking British film industry, though, he admits that he may have to consider moving to Los Angeles, not a terrible fate considering he enjoyed living here with his family the summer he did Hancock. But, he adds, "I love living in England. I love my kids going to a state school. I take refuge in the normality."
When Eddie Marsan tells you he likes not being recognized on the street, you can tell he actually means it.