Asking the right questions

Eddie Marsan and Marisa Abela in Back to Black.
Eddie Marsan and Marisa Abela in Back to Black.
Eddie Marsan needed to know a little more about Amy Winehouse’s dad in order to play him, he tells Kate Kellaway.

Eddie Marsan, 55, is an actor it is impossible not to like — although he has taken care in his versatile career (he has been in more than 70 films and counting) not always to be typecast as the twinkling, approachable East Ender you meet in person. He is one of the UK’s top character actors, with roles including the irresistibly bonkers driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky and a seven-year stint as Terry in Ray Donovan. Next up he stars as John Adams, opposite Michael Douglas, in the new Apple TV+ series Franklin, about Benjamin Franklin’s mission in France to secure American independence, and Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s dad, in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s new film Back to Black.

Q What sort of a man is Mitch? He came out pretty badly from the documentary Amy (2015).

A He is a father and that’s how I played him. A friend of mine worked with Amy in the music industry and knew him. I said to him: what do you think about Mitch? He said: I liked the man. He saw him as a loving father who had a daughter who was an addict and who was at the same time the most famous woman in the world. He was just a cab driver trying to do his best, trying to deal with it. I’d never have done this film if it sanitised — or demonised — Mitch. It’s not even the way I approach life. Life is more complex than that.

Q You’ve said that talent involves being able to ask the right questions. What did you want to know about Mitch when you met him?

A I wanted to know what steps the family took to deal with an impossible situation. The truth is they had nine interventions — and that isn’t documented. Nine times they tried to get her sectioned or put into rehab, and I was fascinated by that. They were just a normal north London family, so how did they deal with Amy’s fame? How do you navigate that — who wouldn’t be a little bit seduced?

Q As a father yourself, how difficult do you find it to strike a balance between being protective and encouraging independence?

A I have four teenage children and every time they go out the door, I worry: are they going to be all right? You feel pride, love, fear, frustration ... Parents who improvise are probably the best. Whenever you get anybody who tells you they have all the answers, it’s just not true.

Q Sometimes the most consoling thing is when people admit there isn’t a solution ...

A That’s right. Sometimes there isn’t. That’s why the narrative about Mitch being the cause of Amy’s demise has taken hold. When someone as young as Amy dies, the trauma is so bad we want to find someone to blame. But the world is chaotic and addiction is as much genetic as it is about nurture. My interpretation of Mitch is that he loves her, is proud of her and is heartbroken.

Q What was your father like and do you resemble him?

A I don’t resemble him at all — and that’s all I am going to say about it.

Q What were you like when you were a teenager?

Marisa Abela plays Amy Winehouse in Back to Black.
Marisa Abela plays Amy Winehouse in Back to Black.
A I wasn’t in a very good place. I left school at 15. I worked as an apprentice printer and in a menswear store, for a bookmaker called Mr Bennett. I used to dance and was asked, with my mate Emmanuel, to be an extra in a film. Emmanuel is like my older brother. I saw Jamie Foreman do a scene and thought: that’s what I want to be. Mr Bennett said if I got into drama school, he’d pay for me. And Emmanuel became a model. He was better looking than me: 6ft 4in and gorgeous — a mixture between Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

Q You’re often cast in Jewish roles, though you’re not Jewish. Should anyone be allowed to act anyone?

A A Jewish actor should be able to play non-Jewish roles and a non-Jewish actor should be able to play Jewish roles. A gay actor should be able to play straight roles and a straight actor should be able to play gay roles ... You need to categorise people to measure and address inequality. But the problem is if you then confine people in categories, you take away acting opportunity.

Q You bring to your role as John Adams in Franklin a wonderfully undeceived quality. What was it like playing opposite Michael Douglas?

A John Adams is a Bostonian lawyer — I enjoyed his articulacy. He embodies the puritanical part of the American psyche, Franklin embodies the libertarian — they’re an odd couple. Once I am in character, I try to stay in character, but each time I did a scene with Michael I’d go to myself: ‘‘F . . . me, it’s Michael Douglas’’ — I couldn’t help it.

Q What did you learn working with Mike Leigh?

A When you work with Mike, you know you can only be authentic — you don’t show off.

Q To what extent has your distinctive face been your fortune?

A My face represents the other. If you had a video game, you wouldn’t choose my face as your avatar!

Q What part would you like that is least likely to come your way?

A When I was growing up in the East End, there was a wonderful acceptance of different sexualities and some very tough gay men. To play someone like that would fascinate me — to play masculinity with a gay edge.

Q You’ve often said daily meditation is important to you. Why?

A You realise thoughts are just thoughts, not reality. One of the great things about Buddhism — and I’m not a Buddhist — is the idea that there is no self. I hate the idea of anyone defining me. The truth is we’re not fixed, we’re all just pure potential. — The Observer