Man of the Cloth: Q&A with The Pillars of the Earth's Matthew Macfadyen
Now, Matthew's making waves as a medieval man of the cloth who's not afraid to make morally questionable decisions for the greater good in Starz's The Pillars of the Earth, an eight-part television event based on Ken Follett's beloved book.
Matthew takes a moment to discuss the evolution of Prior Philip, his children's reaction to the epic set and the worst haircut he's ever had.
Matthew Macfadyen: I just thought it was a really good read. I hadn't read the book; I wasn't familiar with it. I got the script, and I just thought it was great. And it was a new thing for me to play a 12th-century monk, so I just thought it would be good fun. It just sort of seemed to tickle the right boxes. But I heard about some of the other cast that was coming together, and they were people I really admired.
JW: How do you prepare to play a 12th-century monk?
MM: I had a tonsure, a very silly hair cut.
JW: And how did you like that?
MM: Not very much. And that was about it. I read the book, and the screenplay by John Pielmeier is so beautifully written. It's sort of all there for you really.
JW: The book spans so many years. What's it like playing a character over such a long period of time?
MM: It was quite nice actually, especially for a job that's so long. Just the job was 22 weeks, so it actually gave us a chance to really chart the whole journey of it. And the idea that it can take 30, 40, 50 years to build this cathedral and it's very exciting. There is a sort of satisfaction in being part of a show which is such a big sweep. You see people getting older and things happening and all the while in the backdrop is this beautiful building going up. I think, in reality, the building of cathedrals has taken longer, maybe 100, 150 years.
JW: What was it like playing with such a large and accomplished cast?
MM: It's just a pleasure when you work with actors of that caliber and that experience. All lovely, really lovely. I've worked with Donald [Sutherland] before. I didn't have much to do with him, but it was nice to see him again. Everyone was brilliant, and you make friends. I've kept in touch with lots of them, and I won't forget it. It was a really lovely job.
MM: Well, he's a real person, you know. It gives it depth and interest when it's written like that. He's certainly not without his vanity or his pride. He says, "My chief weakness is pride." He knows he's good at his job, so he does cut corners and he does make compromises. Sometimes he does the wrong thing for the right reasons. He's interesting; it's not all black-and-white. He's certainly not holier-than-thou or pious. It's just a very interesting character, warts and all.
JW:You do so much stage work, as well as film. Do you have a favorite medium or a favorite role you've done so far?
MM: I don't have a favorite medium. I just did a play recently [Private Lives] that I loved, but I was sort of relieved when it finished. I really loved it, but you sort of adore it for the time and after awhile you think, "Okay, on to the next." That condition of being an actor I quite like—you never really know what you're going to do. As much as I long for a sort of security and consistency sometimes, I do enjoy sort of being busted around. I really don't know what's happening sometimes next week, let alone this year. I love TV and I love making films and I love doing plays. I feel very lucky to be able to do all three.
JW: It must be interesting also to go on location. You ended up in Hungary for Pillars.
MM: Yeah, Hungary and Vienna. It was fantastic. It's such a fantastic country and really wonderful people. It's beginning to get and has already has a good kind of infrastructure for making movies there; it's just brilliant. A great crew, a really good crew. We started in middle summer and ended up very cold. So we went boiling hot to freezing cold. We were there for five months with a little interlude in Vienna.
When you're on a shoot that long, you're so aware of how amazingly talented and tough the crew are because they are on every single day and they don't have anywhere to go and lie down—the cast gets very pampered. Our camera crew, which was fantastic, and I just think Sergio who directed it is a very special guy.
MM: It was very familiar. My wife [British actress Keeley Hawes] came out, and my babies came out. The nanny brought the babies out to Austria for a bit. And I went back a lot. It's very close to London, so I came back as often as I could. It was great.
JW: Did the kids get to see the cathedral that had been built on set?
MM: They didn't get to see the cathedral. They went to a castle, so they got to see fortresses and donkeys and stuff. They came to this castle in Vienna, but they were a bit nonplussed. It was like, "Whatever, can we go back and watch Toy Story in the hotel?"'
JW: Pillars of the Earth is the favorite book of many people around the world. What book is always on your bookshelf?
MM: I love books. I'm sitting in my study now, which is covered in books. I can't throw books away. My wife is always telling me to get rid of some. One book I really adore is William Boyd's Any Human Heart, which I just filmed. I read it during Pillars, so there is a kind of tie-in. It's just the most glorious book, and I read it during the shoot on Pillars, and it's the best.
Then, earlier this year when I was rehearsing the play, my agent rang and said, "Channel 4 is making the adaptation of it, and they'd love you to play Logan," who's one of the three main characters in it. Sam Claflin, who's also in Pillars plays the young Logan, and Hayley [Atwell's] in it, bizarrely. And Skye, little Skye Bennet, who plays Martha. So it was just bizarre. We finished that about a month ago. So that book I would recommend. Anything by William Boyd is just wonderful.
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The complete Pillars of the Earth reading guide