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The Other Mr D’Arcy (2001)
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What a difference a name makes – as James D’Arcy, star of the new Nicholas Nickleby, found out when Hollywood confused him with his wet-shirted namesake. Michael Hellicar meets an actor born to wear breeches.
In his long, ruffled chemise, riding breeches and black boots, James D’Arcy looks every inch the dashing Victorian hero. The aquiline features, dark, saturnine eyebrows and hair styled in the champion’s quiff all add to the effect. This is how it should be, as D’Arcy is playing Nicholas Nickleby in ITV’s 3 million production of the Charles Dickens classic this weekend and next.
But D’Arcy, who in the past few months has risen from obscurity to become one of our hottest young actors, looks like this even out of character. And even his name has a 19th-century ring to it. He wouldn’t seem out of place galloping into view on a white charger, looking for a distressed maiden to rescue. Instead, during a break from filming Nickleby, he folds his 6ft 3in frame into a very out of period plastic garden chair, clutches an equally futuristic polystyrene cup of tea and idly wonders whether to have a thoroughly modern McDonald’s for his lunch. “The important thing is to have fun and not to get seduced by the fabulously unreal life of an actor,” he muses. “If all this goes pear-shaped tomorrow, I’ll go back to being a builder’s labourer.”
Actors always say this, although most of them would be horrified if they had to get a proper job. D’Arcy, though, is so laid back about it all that when he graduated from the LAMDA he lost his prized diploma on a Number 22 bus on his triumphant way home to Fulham, south-west London. He can afford to be sanguine about his own status because the plaudits he won in January for the BBC’s Rebel Heart are still ringing in his ears. He played a student caught up in Ireland’s Troubles between 1916 and 1922. The script was heavily criticized for its pro-IRA stance, but everyone agreed that D’Arcy’s stylish and passionate acting saved the day. “I got to kiss girls, fire guns and let off bombs,” he says wryly. “It was all fun, but guess which bit I liked best.” Then there was his first stage play, a stint in Edward II at Sheffield’s Crucible last month, where the sight of 26-year-old D’Arcy’s lanky legs in tights never failed to bring a gasp from the women in the audience. His insouciance, however, is a carefully nurtured pose. A fellow cast member on Nicholas Nickleby – which also stars Charles Dance and Pam Ferris – says: “We were all fascinated by James, because he works at making people think it’s all a lark. In fact, he studies incredibly hard for his part, but he’d die rather than let anyone see sweat on his brow.’
D’Arcy shrugs this off, pointing out there is more to life than being an actor – for instance, playing tennis, partying, doing up his new home in Fulham and, er, that’s it. He has no girlfriend at the moment, although he says he is a veteran of several long relationships.
He first became interested in acting at his public school, Christ’s Hospital in West Sussex. “Christ’s was perfect for me because it gives preference to children from low-income families and a lot don’t have to pay fees at all. My father died when I was very young – it’s still too upsetting to talk about – and my mother is a nurse in the NHS, so she had a struggle to bring up me and my younger sister and there was no spare cash. I had a terrific time, lots of interesting things to do, loads of friends, as much sport as I wanted – oh, and girls because it is co-educational.
“But I think I became interested in drama as a bit of an escape route from other subjects. I had no thoughts about what I wanted to do next. The careers teacher had a computer program which suggested that I was ideally suited to become an Army officer. But it turned out that everyone was told that. I would have been completely wrong for the Army.”
When D’Arcy said he fancied trying his hand at acting, he was told, “That’s not a career. You’ll never make a living.’ The careers teacher said he’d given the same warning to another stage-struck pupil a few years earlier. He was a lad called Jason Flemying, who went on to star in the films Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.
One of D’Arcy’s teachers had a friend who was looking for someone to help out in the drama department of a school in Perth, Western Australia. He jumped at it. “I was 17, looking for a good time and I wasn’t so much interested in the drama as the sun and surfing.” When he arrived at Christchurch Grammar in the smart suburb of Claremont, he found the great Australian dream to be more of a damp squib.
“It was June, and nobody had warned me that’s winter time Down Under. All I had in my suitcase were shorts and T-shirts. I shivered in the constant rain – but worse than that, I was desperately lonely. If I could have flown straight back, I would have done. Because it was winter, there was no social life. Nobody went out, nobody did anything.
“I was terribly homesick and I rang my mum every day just to hear her voice. My pals back home kept writing letters telling me about the great summer parties they were having, and I felt I’d made a terrible mistake. Australians kept assuring me that everything changed in October when the sun would come out and stay out for the next eight glorious months. The, one morning I climbed out of bed, opened the curtains and saw the sun was shining, the pavements were steaming and life was suddenly transformed. It was like waking up from a bad dream. After a year, I decided to try drama school when I got home. My mother was very dubious about it because acting is such precarious profession, but when she saw how excited I was, she was pretty cool. A great-aunt had died and left me some money, so I was able to afford the fees at drama school”.
D’Arcy’s by now well developed fondness for partying was heavily indulged. “I had three glorious years of drinking, having fun, oh and incidentally, learning about acting. To be honest, my favourite memories are of the great pubs around LAMDA in London’s Earl’s Court and outrageous posing and posturing we used to do in them”.
From drama school he landed a part in an episode of the BBC’s Dalziel And Pascoe, playing a student murderer. “Trouble was, I spent my entire fee in the first week and got into debt, so I worked for six month as a labourer on a building site. It’s very hard to motivate yourself and even to get up in the morning if you have nothing to do. The building job gave me a focus and I was grateful for it. I’d spend all day mixing cement and carrying stuff around and in the evening I’d get a few beers down and have a laugh. The worst thing about being an actor is the high rate of unemployment. But I’ve been incredibly lucky”.
He was cast in one of the Ruth Rendell Mysteries, then in other TV series, including the BBC’s acclaimed period drama Tom Jones, A Dance To The Music Of Time and The Ice House. His films include Wilde, with Stephen Fry, and The Trench, about life on the front line during World War I, which also starred Paul Nicholls. His longest period out of work – in an acting career that has hardly reached five years – is 12 months, after he finished the Tom Jones series.
“Either I was so good in it that casting directors thought that was all I could do, or I was so bad that they thought I was useless”, he says. “I felt rejected, but I tried not to take it personally. Some of the drama teachers drummed into me that it would sometimes be like this. I was hard, but I’m a big boy and I have to learn to roll with the punches”.
It was during this lean period that he was sent a Hollywood film script with an offer of a part in a movie playing opposite Morgan Freeman. “I thought: ‘Wow! How has Hollywood heard of me?’ I started reading the script and it soon became clear that it was written for a 35-year-old man with a fantastic body. I failed to qualify on both counts. I sent them a picture of me and waited for a reaction but I heard no more. Then it downed on me. Pride And Prejudice had just come out in America and the casting director had said: ‘We need that Mr Darcy guy’. I’d got a script that must have been intended for Colin Firth! I was disappointed because I really needed the work”. He roars with laughter and slaps his thigh – in the manner you would expect from a handsome Victorian good guy. “I suppose I didn’t feel rejected because it was a glorious case of mistaken identity. But I often wonder what they would have said if I’d accepted the part and then just turned up, hoping that they wouldn’t realise they’d got the wrong man”.