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Doing time with D’Arcy
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FOR someone who Madonna chose to play the King of England, James D'Arcy is remarkably modest about his talents. Just four days after he finished filming his scenes as Edward VIII in Madonna's directorial debut W.E, the 35-year-old began work on prison thriller Screwed, playing an officer.
"It's probably fair to say that I'm not the obvious choice for a role like that," says willowy, tousle-haired D'Arcy, who's known for playing classic costume roles such as Nicholas Nickleby and Mansfield Park's Tom Bertram.
"I actually thought it was pretty courageous of the producers to meet me because I've done nothing until now to suggest I'd be the right man for the job. With every kind of role there are the usual suspects and I wasn't one of them."
Screwed follows Sam, a former soldier who becomes a prison officer after a traumatic tour of duty in Iraq.
He bonds quickly with his fellow "screws", but the violence and desperation he experiences daily, combined with haunting memories from Iraq, pull him into a world of drink and drugs, while alienating him from his family.
But when an officer is shot outside the prison walls and there's a riot inside, Sam realises corruption is rife among the officers and becomes embroiled in a game of cat and mouse.
The film was written and produced by former prison officer Ronnie Thompson, and based loosely on his experiences.
While Thompson was an invaluable source of inspiration for D'Arcy, the actor was relieved he didn't actually have to play him.
"He made the decision to change the character's name and call him Sam, which let me off the hook because I didn't feel like I had to do an imitation," says D'Arcy.
"He was a goldmine of information and he'd give us the thumbs up, or not, if we were doing it right. There was a scene where one of the characters has hanged himself and I cut him down. Ronnie was greatly moved because it had absolutely taken him back to situations he'd encountered in real life, so I knew we hadn't completely missed the mark."
As Sam gets more embroiled in the world of drugs, he becomes violent towards his wife and loses his grip on reality.
"The prison is in his head as much as a physical place. He's participating in his own destruction and he knows he's not being the man he hoped to be. He's certainly not being the father and husband he could be."
The actor drew on the experiences of an ex-services friend to try and understand Sam.
"A very close friend of mine was in the Navy for eight years and when he left, he found it all very disorientating.
"In truth, he found that much of what takes place on civvy street is so banal that he didn't really know how to cope with it. So I tried to borrow a bit of that for Sam and then, I guess it's like any new job, you eventually work out how to play the system."
Bafta-winning director and actor Noel Clarke co-stars as prisoner kingpin Truman, who tries to draw Sam into his drug-dealing ring.
Clarke's best known for the London gang films Kidulthood and Adulthood, but D'Arcy says he has a soft side.
"I don't know if he'll thank me for saying this but, although he plays aggressively unpleasant characters, in real life he's a rather sweet and quiet man.
"Something happens to his eyes when filming. Suddenly all the generosity of spirit that I experience with him as a person just disappears. It's great because you don't have to act anything, you just follow his lead."
After a hard day's filming on the male-dominated set in a "claustrophobic" abandoned former prison in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, D'Arcy found the easiest way to unwind was to chat to the young female crew members.
"It was a very male-heavy cast and there were a lot of very lovely girls on the shoot in the crew which just helped, because you'd finish filming and then you'd have a bit of a flirt. Everyone did and then you just felt better about life all round," he says.
"The only release is to laugh afterwards. It's not like you don't take the work seriously, but there is a kind of gallows humour that comes about and takes the edge off it.
"Oddly, it's when you make comedies that everyone is going insane after the day's shoot because it's so hard. Comedy is one of those things that wakes me up at 3am going, 'Oh God, why didn't I just do that?' That seems to haunt me more than shooting very intense dramas."
D'Arcy's no stranger to male-dominated sets. He's currently also appearing on the big screen in Age Of Heroes, alongside Sean Bean and Danny Dyer, and starred in the 2003 Napoleonic War film Master And Commander with Russell Crowe.
When Madonna decides it's time to unleash W.E on the world, we'll see D'Arcy in a very different light as Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry his divorcee lover Wallis Simpson in 1936.
This year's Oscar-winning film The King's Speech told the other side of that story, from the point of view of Edward's brother Albert, who was thrust onto the throne as King George VI - and D'Arcy hopes it has whet people's appetite for the Wallis Simpson story.
As for Madonna, he has nothing but praise.
"Obviously her fame comes through a slightly different art form, but she was more prepared than any director I have ever worked with, possibly with the exception of (Master And Commander's) Peter Weir.
"She'd read everything, and of course she'd written the script, she was involved in every area. I love it when directors are clear and know what they want.
"She was charming and fun and she challenged me - I don't mean in a bad sense. She challenged me to learn to play the bagpipes in six weeks, which is next to impossible, I was told, but I did manage to do it.
"She somehow makes the impossible possible and it gives you amazing self-esteem when you do these things."
While there was never much downtime on set for him to get to know his director, the actor says he did get into Madonna's good books for learning a complicated dance sequence that never made it into the film.
"There's nothing quite as good as getting a pat on the head for dancing from Madonna - that's a pretty good feeling!" he says, chuckling.