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The Other Mr. D'Arcy
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He was playing a cocaine addict in a gritty prison flick. Now he’s dressing up for Madonna. There seems to be nothing James D’Arcy can’t do.
James D’Arcy is as twitchingly nervous as befits a man who’s about to become horrendously famous, as he will this autumn when Madonna has her way with him. He crosses, uncrosses, recrosses his legs; flicks his face to the window so his green eyes catch the light; asks the photographer, again, if he can check the pictures. His thin lips pucker, the sharp cheekbones twitch, he runs a hand through his Sloaney curls and asks, tentatively, if he’ll make our cover. His body is sheathed in an eye-wateringly tight suit that, according to the stylist, “you couldn’t wear if you had even an inch of body fat”. James’s wiry 6ft 3in frame doesn’t. Still, he looks like he’s sweating under the studio lights.
Any minute, fame’s coming for James like a bullet in the head. Partly because Amy Winehouse’s boyfriend, Reg Traviss, has just had him star in the Brit-flick Screwed — a film based on the former prison officer Ronnie Thompson’s bestselling book of the same name. But mainly because Madonna has cast him as Edward VIII in her second movie as a director, W.E — her L18m take on the Wallis Simpson saga that led to the 1936 abdication crisis. And, because Madonna is Madonna, it already has reviewers champing at the bit, gossips speculating over rows on set and historians despairing of inaccuracies in the plot. Everybody is whispering about James D’Arcy, so soon he can stop schlepping to auditions thinking,“I’m never the first choice”, and start battening down the hatches against the paparazzi. This is his first big magazine interview.
James is already cult-figure famous. He doesn’t often get recognised in the street, “but it has happened”, which he finds “a bit odd, really”. In 2001, he played the title role in ITV’s Nicholas Nickleby, the lead in the BBC’s Irish independence drama Rebel Heart, and snogged Joseph Fiennes onstage as Edward II at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. In 2003, he looked dashing at Russell Crowe’s side as 1st Lt Tom Pullings in Master and Commander. He starred with Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland in An American Haunting in 2005, and opposite Billie Piper in ITV’s Mansfield Park in 2007.
His ability to look consistently smouldering in britches has made him something of a cross between Colin Firth and a thinking woman’s Robert Pattinson.
If you google him — which he never does, because “down that road madness lies” — you’ll find his lanky figure driving women wild online. There’s a smattering of D’Arcy fan sites, where admirers post photographs of him shirtless, make slide shows of his picture to music (so you can swoon over James in period dress to Andy Williams’s Can’t Take My Eyes off You), compile James-centred lexicons (DDoD = Daily Dose of D’Arcy), and compare erotic D’Arcy-related dreams — “I dreamt that it was the late 1800s and James kidnapped me and made me research stuff from encyclopedias.”
Photoshoot over, he reappears in a casual grey T-shirt and baggy jeans tucked into boots. He has shed his posturing with the suit, and collapses on the sofa, endlessly chatty. Up close, he’s distractingly good-looking. I say he’s a heart-throb and he gets all flustered. “I don’t think of myself in those terms,” he laughs, blushing. He tries not to read the things people write, but just does “what has to be done, and then have a nice meal and not worry too much about it”. But women do find you sexy, I purr. He shrieks: “How am I supposed to answer that? I don’t know. I suppose if it’s true then it’s delightful, lovely. That is something that has never truly encroached on my life.”
Being onscreen, he insists, certainly doesn’t get him more girls. He’s single, without children, and “that’s accident, that’s not deliberate”. He used to date the actress Lucy Punch, his blonde co-star in the 2002 romcom Come Together, but “that's a while ago”. “I’m not with anybody now,” he smiles, and leans forward flirtily. “Where’s this going?”
I meet him just after watching Screwed, a gritty, drug-addled drama set in the violent world of a modern-day prison. “Did you think it was good?” he asks anxiously. Well, I can say that D’Arcy was brilliant in it as Sam — a thuggish, working-class ex-soldier, a total departure from his usual rakish roles.
Until now his on-screen incarnations have been upper-class roles in costume dramas. It’s an image that’s culminated almost predictably in his playing a king in W.E, where the producer, Colin Vaines, lapped up his “regal quality” and made him a shoo-in as the next Colin Firth, “famous for being the king before me”. Early in his career he and Firth were even briefly confused, when James received a script for a Hollywood blockbuster that he now admits he was hopelessly unsuited to and inexperienced for. “I remember my agent being completely baffled as to why I would be sent this script. I phoned him and said, ‘This is good. It’s great! Why me?’ and he said, ‘I know!’ ” James duly sent off a head shot, but heard nothing back.
“Much later,” James giggles, “I realised Pride and Prejudice had just come out at the time I had received the script, and that Colin Firth had played Mr Darcy.” He switches to an impression of a cigar-chomping American casting director, whom he imagines demanding, “Get me that Darcy guy!” But you can’t imagine Firth taking on Sam in Screwed — a hard-nut, shaven-headed drug addict; the fact that D’Arcy did suggests something more intriguing about him than his smooth Home Counties accent lets on.
“I’m not the obvious candidate for that kind of role [Sam],” he agrees. “I just thought, ‘How refreshing.’ It’s quite good to go towards things that you’re afraid of, and I was a bit afraid of it. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I thought this would be genuinely frightening, and it was. There is a school of acting that says, ‘Find what you can do really well and stick to it,’ but that doesn’t really float my boat.”
When they shot the rough-and-ready Screwed in a Victorian prison in Scarborough, D’Arcy was fresh off the glamorous set of W.E (all bespoke handmade suits, Cartier jewels, locations in London and the French Riviera). “I really loved the fact that I was allowed to explore these two extremely different characters in such quick succession,” he says. Until Screwed, “it had not been easy to find roles with real variants in Britain. At some point I’d gone over to America, because if it didn’t involve a pair of britches and a wig I wasn’t in serious consideration for the part. I went to America and immediately was cast in a very contemporary action thing playing an American, and I thought, ‘The jobs are rewarded meritoriously here.’ In Britain, we judge very quickly when we hear people’s
voices.” So which is closer to D’Arcy himself — Sam or Edward? He grins enigmatically. “I’m sure, in terms of attitude, it all has to be me.” A lot of digging later, I discover just how true this is.
D’Arcy’s own background crisscrosses the class spectrum spectacularly. Usually, he’s described as Fulham-based, with all its Sloaney Pony connotations, but actually Simon (as he was pre-Equity) was born in Buckinghamshire. His father died when he was six, then his mother, Caroline, moved him and his sister, Charlotte, to London, raising them as “a single mum on an NHS salary”. He went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art on a grant. “I could never have gone if it hadn’t been paid for by someone else.” He made ends meet by taking on unglamorous jobs; he worked on a building site, then in a boozer. At one point he served at the bar of the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith, which he loved.“I never got to see any of the shows, but all the actors would come in after for a drink and I always used to think that was quite exotic.”
But although James didn’t have money behind him, he had an accomplished start. From 11 to 18, he attended the West Sussex boarding school Christ’s Hospital, where the pupils sport Tudor uniforms of yellow socks and britches and march through London for the annual Lord Mayor’s Show (the kind of thing that must affect a boy). Set up to subsidise bright, poorer pupils, it allows them access to a public-school education most families couldn’t afford — today 60% of pupils pay less than 10% of the fees. The school’s ethos is exemplified by the old boy Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s director of strategy — the man revamping the Tories from within, pulling dusty rugs out from under Old Etonians.
“It’s very much social engineering,” says the headmaster, John Franklin. “The idea is to take deprived children and give them education and opportunities. One general characteristic of our pupils is they do have an ability to quickly fit into any part of society. When they come here they quickly learn to adopt a CH persona, with a mid-Estuary accent. Then they go home during the holidays to different parts of the country, sometimes not very nice parts of London, and have to fit in there; they are chameleons. They learn very quickly not to say too much about Christ’s Hospital when they go back to their families, because it may make others jealous..”
It’s hard not to wonder if the void left by his father’s death motivated James’s desire to leave his own impression on the world. James’s father died in his forties; James is now 35. “I have a couple of memories but not strong ones,” he admits. “There’s not a huge number of photographs of him but my mum found a batch quite recently. I’d probably only seen 25 pictures of him [till then] and most of them were on his wedding day.” Did he look like you? “No. I probably look more like my mum.”
His father’s early death has certainly given James a carpe diem approach to life. He doesn’t worry about the future “because if I do I’ll miss the moment. I’ll spend my whole life dreaming somewhere else and not being here”. He thinks “worry is interest paid on a debt you may never owe”. Recently, he has “woken up to the idea that this is it. If you’re going to do it, then you’ll have to do it right now”.
He was drawn to acting relatively late. He’d taken A-levels in French, German and maths, and almost studied languages at university but “didn’t want to hold a pen and write — it didn’t make my heart do cartwheels”. During a gap year in Perth, Australia, working in the drama department of a school, it dawned on him: “I really like this, maybe I could be an actor.”
Did you never worry about job security?
He grins. “If you wanna be rich you go into the financial markets, don’t you? I just thought, if I’ve only got one life I’d like to do what I want to do with it. At least I’ll go down in flames rather than always wondering: what if?” He has also begun writing screenplays — one a Richard Curtis-style romcom, another the story of an estranged father and son.
The twitching returns when I ask about drugs. I couldn’t discuss Screwed without mentioning them — it would be like discussing Trainspotting without bringing up heroin. Screwed is a prison drama about a clink awash with class As, and James’s character descends into cocaine addiction. There’s hardly a shot in Screwed where Sam isn’t chain-smoking. “I don’t smoke,” he says. What about drinking? The green eyes flash a smile. “I have experience in that area.” Cocaine? He starts picking at tufts of hair. “That’s not a question is it?” The thin lips twitch. “Come on!” His foot starts to tap. A pause, then a plea: “Can we move on to something else?”
Well, what does he make of how Sam’s cocaine addiction is handled in the film? He searches the empty room hopelessly. “I don’t want to be the poster boy either way. I like being able to play people from all different walks of life and I’m not interested in being anyone’s judge. I have views, but I’m not a politician, I’m an actor.”
He’s picked his way through minefields like this before. When he starred in the BBC’s Rebel Heart, the former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble branded the series one-sided, and The Spectator accused the screenwriter, the Northern Irish novelist Ronan Bennett, of bias. He learnt then “to be misquoted was really not something that I wanted to happen”.
He’s facing a similar inquisition over W.E, which is already mired in controversy. Alastair Bruce, one of the Queen’s heralds and an extra equerry to the Earl and Countess of Wessex, is said to have ditched an advisory role because the script was over-fictionalised. Buckingham Palace declined permission for W.E to film there — although the movie impresario Harvey Weinstein recently acquired the US distribution rights, which augurs well. “I’m just paid to deliver the lines,” says James. “Not put my hand up and say, actually… we did the best that we could.” To help him research his role, Madonna gave him “I can’t tell you how many books — I mean, it was like that,” he says waving a hand above his knees, “and they all had Post-it notes pretty much on every page.”
Madonna “observed that if you mention Edward and Wallis, it’s like throwing a Molotov cocktail into the conversation”. He adds that Madge herself “is a little like Edward and Wallis, in that everybody has a view [on her]”. Before D’Arcy landed the role, Ewan McGregor was reportedly lined up to play Edward VIII but dropped out. “I can’t believe I was the first choice for the film,” he concedes. “I don’t know about Ewan but I know that Vera Farmiga was going to [play Wallis], then got pregnant. So lucky Andrea [Riseborough, who plays Wallis], lucky me, to be in a position where I get to compete for roles that actors who are quite namey are also in consideration for.” Madonna, meanwhile, said she’d chosen inexperienced actors because “I like them hungry”.
They met over an “odd” transatlantic Skype audition. “She was talking and at some point the Skype froze. If I’d been Skyping with a friend you go into a whole kind of, ‘Oh, you’ve frozen, hold on I’ll call you back.’ I didn’t feel confident saying that, so I just quietly carried on talking for 10 minutes, thinking, ‘I hope the picture comes back.’ It was odd talking to the most famous pop star of the last
25 years on my computer.”
When he met her in the flesh, he admits to being starstruck. “But she is genuinely engaged in conversation with you, so you can’t be thinking that the whole time. She’s totally human in perhaps a way I wasn’t expecting. Much more unassuming than you imagine. Very chatty, she just talked about normal things.” Overall: “She’s great! I like her a lot. She’s funny, sexy, cool… and we stay in touch.” Sexy? “Yeah. Well, I mean, she’s not Madonna by mistake.”
Rumour has it the Material Girl was demanding on set — one actress, Margo Stilley, exited from playing Lady Thelma Furness, citing artistic differences with the star. “She’s just very clear about what she wants,” insists James. “I don’t perceive that in a bad way. I love it when directors are very clear in terms of their vision. She has the greatest work ethic of anybody I’ve ever met.” She was “more knowledgeable about that subject than the rest of the cast and crew put together”, he adds, and “very sure of how she wanted it to be. It was incredibly exciting, because her passion was so great for that subject it was infectious”.
He’s at his most beguiling talking about acting. “I just always loved the movies,” he grins shyly. “One of the early films I remember seeing was The Empire Strikes Back, and I remember feeling like the top of my head had blown off.” Is acting a way for him not to grow up? He laughs. “If growing up means not having any fun — yeah!” He once said the reason he wanted to be an actor was that he didn’t want to play himself for the rest of his life. He smiles. “That sounds like a quote from my twenties.” He thinks for a moment. “Probably there was a time when I didn’t think I had anything to offer. I don’t know that I feel so terrified of me any more.” Now he just has to lose his fear of successs.