Thursday 23 May 2019

'Method acting is overpraised nonsense' - Andrew Scott talks playing Fleabag's sexy priest and the Catholic church's attitude to sexuality

Dubliner Andrew Scott has being getting people hot under the collar playing a sexy priest in BBC cult comedy 'Fleabag'. He talks to Serena Davies about getting into character and the Catholic church's attitude to sexuality

Great Scott: the actor dropped out of drama at Trinity to join the Abbey
Great Scott: the actor dropped out of drama at Trinity to join the Abbey

Google "hot priest" right now and you get some pin-ups from the Vatican, but most frequently you get Dublin actor Andrew Scott. Playing a sweary, sexy man of the Catholic Church in Phoebe Waller-Bridge's adored BBC cult comedy Fleabag has meant that Scott's heart-throb status is under constant scrutiny, with social media discussing his kissing ability.

He's taking it all very well. "I feel good about it," he says, when we meet a few days after last week's finale. "I'm quite a romantic person in real life and it's something I've not had a lot of opportunities to express in work," adds the man hitherto most famous for playing the psychopathic Moriarty in the BBC's Sherlock.

The 42-year-old says that his and Waller-Bridge's driving idea for Fleabag series two was to create a storyline about "what falling in love really looks like between two flawed human beings". Having become friends after doing a play together 10 years ago, they hothoused the new series last summer in the very Quaker Meeting Hall in London's Covent Garden that they visit in the show - a space described as "erotic" by Waller-Bridge's eponymous heroine.

"We sat in that place in the exact same positions as we did in the show and for about two and a half hours we had this incredible conversation about what love is and the harm we've caused and the bruises we carry."

Scott signed up on the basis of the chat in the hall and Waller-Bridge went off and wrote a story about how Fleabag, a grief-stricken and hitherto promiscuous millennial, falls in love with a celibate Catholic priest with an alcohol problem.

Has the series been good for Catholicism?

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott in Fleabag
Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott in Fleabag

"I certainly think it's made it relevant," says Scott. "People are asking the question. There's been a thing where Googling 'Can you have sex with a priest' has increased. So that's extraordinary to me."

He's also pleased people are seeing the sexuality of a priest portrayed away from an "extreme" context. "That's what [Phoebe and I] were talking about a lot - [Fleabag's] not something that's about paedophilia or child abuse or anything like that, it's about what happens when a priest falls in love."

The actor was brought up a Catholic in Dublin by his father, who worked in an employment agency, and his art-teacher mother. Does he feel it is possible to be gay and a Catholic, although he is the former but no longer the latter? "Yes, I do, absolutely I do. I think it's possible to live a life less ordinary and still be a member of a community, which is one of the great things about Catholicism - that sense of helping your neighbour."

However, he mentions the damaging effect that "the Catholic Church's attitude to sexuality" had on him as a pupil at a Jesuit school.

"Not just homosexuality, but all kinds of sexuality - a stranglehold on not being able to claim what actually exists. We are all sexual people. If you gag a person, if you're not even allowed to speak about something, it is incredibly dangerous."

One breakthrough of Scott's success in Fleabag is that it has unleashed female adoration on a gay lead. Does he believe that it has implications for casting more generally?

That girls like him is "something I've been aware of for some time. At the stage door for years it's been predominantly female". But now the media has noticed.

"It makes me really excited because I think it has got wider implications, yes… I think it's very dangerous to go down that road where we feel we are only, as actors, entitled to represent our own sexuality or nationality or things that are only within our own experience."

Scott was just 17 when he was cast in his first film, Korea. He dropped out of the drama course at Trinity College to join the Abbey Theatre before gaining roles in Channel 4's Bafta-winning Longitude and HBO's Band of Brothers. However, it was as Moriarty that the world stood up and took notice. (In answer to the question of whether we can expect another series of Sherlock, his response is a steady, "No, I don't think so.") And while it was Benedict Cumberbatch that Sherlock pitched into the stratosphere, the argument has been building that the man playing his evil nemesis is just as deserving of our attention. His Olivier-nominated Hamlet was arguably the best since Ben Whishaw's in 2004, shockingly lucid and raw.

The initial premise of our meeting was actually to discuss Steel Country, a new film about a loner in small-town Pennsylvania that opened this week.

Scott plays Donny, a dustbin man that Scott describes as "not neurotypical", who struggles to understand that he is not, nor ever has been, in a relationship with the mother of his child - actually the product of a one-night stand. Donny doesn't think the recent drowning of a local child was an accident and sets out to discover what happened.

"He's completely not listened to and is entirely vulnerable," says Scott. Cassandra-like? "Yes, exactly. Because he's someone who is at the bottom of the ladder."

Scott says he did no research ahead of creating his characteristically vivid, entirely convincing portrayal of Donny, a character some would describe as on the autistic spectrum. In fact he has no truck with method acting.

"This kind of nonsense, this hard work and research is overpraised in actors. I don't think it's the audience's business how you choose to prepare for a job. It's interesting to a degree but sometimes it's just about presenting an image so you might be able to win some awards and stuff.

"There are things in Fleabag that were just created live on the day. Like when we had to react to the fox." (In episode three, Fleabag and the Priest have to react in shock at supposedly seeing a fox.) "The producers were like, shall we get a fox in, do you want us to count it down? But we did about six takes and every time we jumped at the same time. You don't require a real fox to be there, you don't need a CGI fox to be flown in."

Scott has contrasting projects in the pipeline. He's starring in Sam Mendes's war film 1917 and he'll take the lead role of self-obsessed actor Garry Essendine - "no jokes please" - in Noël Coward's Present Laughter at London's Old Vic theatre this summer.

The film 1917 is shrouded in mystery but promises to be a gritty blockbuster in the mould of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. It boasts a cast list of British hunks including Richard Madden and Colin Firth and doubtless represents a progression for Scott from his first war film, Saving Private Ryan, where he had a cameo as a corpse. He won't tell me anything about it. He tells me it is filming in Miami (it's not). It's filming at least in part on Salisbury Plain in England.

And he will concede that: "Last week I was filming and it was really muddy."

"It's very personal to Sam, his take on it is very unique for a war movie. I think it will be mind-blowing."

As regards the Coward play, Garry Essendine is often done as a camp caricature. Scott promises something much more nuanced. Indeed, he believes that the ability to articulate the contradictions of human nature is a big challenge to theatre right now.

"I think the creative imagination isn't politically correct. I think that's a really important thing to say… The culture of outrage is very alive at the moment and problematic. Two counter arguments aren't allowed to exist. People are policing the way people feel. In 100 years' time, they're going to go, there was a platform called Twitter? It's literally called Twitter. Where people voluntarily get unbelievably irate, where they've been told they're walking into a room called Twittery Twittery Twit Twit. Do you know what I mean?

"Placating that noise artistically is a challenge. You need to stop looking at that whirlwind of opinions because otherwise we will implode."

Truth is Scott, who is relaxed and ebullient throughout our conversation, doesn't seem too close to implosion. In fact he professes himself, "very happy".

"I'm in a really good place - thank God." He demurs on the subject of whether he is in a relationship. But it's his on-screen love affair with Fleabag that has us all talking.

Read more: Pat Stacey: Fleabag finale was a sublime sign-off

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top