For some lucky actors, there are moments when their career suddenly shifts into a higher gear. The right part comes along, the world notices, and boom! their whole life is different. This happened to Richard Madden with ‘Bodyguard’, in August last year. He played the tight-mouthed, tight-muscled David Budd, personal minder to Keeley Hawes’ home secretary, Julia Montague, in Jed Mercurio ‘s six-part thriller, and the world went bananas.
‘Bodyguard’ was great TV — gripping, unpredictable, sexy, with a madly OTT finale — but nobody could have predicted the furore it would cause. It was a national event in the UK, achieving the BBC’s largest drama audience for a decade. Social media was aflame every Sunday, with much of the heat centred on Madden, his good looks and his stoic “Ma’ams”. There were threads devoted to his eyebrows, as well as other parts of his anatomy. By the final episode, he had been upgraded from “ex- Game Of Thrones guy” (he played Robb Stark for the first three series) to potential James Bond.
Yet all this hype and bluster happened while Madden was busy doing something else. That something was ‘Rocketman’, the Elton John biopic. Madden plays John Reid, Elton’s first manager and one-time lover, and the script required him to sing and dance, neither of which are part of his natural skill set. So while ‘Bodyguard’ was on, he was getting up to jazz-hands standard, while wearing a pair of 70s Cuban heels. “I loved those heels, in the end,” he says when we meet. “A double-breasted suit and a big Cuban heel. I felt pretty sharp. They gave me a bit of a wiggle.”
Madden knew that ‘Bodyguard’ was doing well only because his mum kept sending him pictures of newspapers and magazines. “Like, ‘You’re on the cover of this one, and this one, and this one,’” he says cheerfully (his natural accent is ‘Bodyguard’ Scottish, not ‘GoT’ English). “It was nice, but it was also, ‘Please stop sending me this because it freaks me the [expletive] out.’”
Six months on, his schedule is choreographed down to the minute. “That sudden loss of time,” he says. “Everything runs away with you. I’ve been really busy, yet there’s still more demand. You run with it, but it’s like, OK, we’re doing press for ‘Bodyguard’ in America, and now we’re doing press for awards stuff, and then there’s the actual awards, and then more and more. And everything rolls into each other, so then you haven’t been in your house for two months.”
That must be weird. “I don’t mind, really,” he says. “I don’t like my house that much. It doesn’t suit me. It’s a little three-bedroom family house that I bought because I thought that was what I should do. Basically, it’s my parents’ house. I should have got a really sexy one-bed loft in Clerkenwell.”
He was trying to be sensible, but stardom was beckoning.
Madden has had a taste of this all-consuming busyness before: with ‘Game Of Thrones’, in his early 20s, and even before then, when he was cast, aged 12, in a BBC One series called ‘Barmy Aunt Boomerang’. So, he says, he knows enough for the shift in status not to go to his head — and he can cope with the attention. When he was in ‘Game Of Thrones’, he had a woman come up and just scream in his face. What did you do? “I waited for her to stop, and then asked her if she wanted a chat.”
He smiles, a little ruefully: what can you do?
It’s a really terrible route to go down if we start restricting people’s casting based on their personal lives. We have to focus more on diversity and having everyone represented, but I’m also a firm believer in the best actor for the part.
Anyway, ‘Rocketman’. I’ve only been allowed to see a taster, but it looks splashy and fun, with full-on musical numbers; at one point Elton and the audience levitate in the middle of ‘Crocodile Rock’. Taron Egerton plays Elton, and Jamie Bell is Bernie Taupin, Elton’s friend and lyricist. Madden hasn’t seen the film either, which makes things tricky, but we press on.
‘Rocketman’ has had some criticism around whether straight actors should play gay parts, so I ask Madden about this. “It’s a really terrible route to go down if we start restricting people’s casting based on their personal lives,” he says. “We have to focus more on diversity and having everyone represented, but I’m also a firm believer in the best actor for the part.”
Madden has had high-profile actor girlfriends in the past — Jenna Coleman, Suki Waterhouse, Ellie Bamber — so I assume he’s straight, but some weeks after our interview, he’s linked with US actor Brandon Flynn, which would certainly flummox the critics. He steadfastly refuses to talk about his private life, speculation or not.
Madden has met Elton — “A very interesting and interested man, just lovely”; he was at his house the other day. He loved working with Egerton and director Dexter Fletcher (who also directed the final leg of Queen biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ after Bryan Singer was fired) because they were both “so prepared. And that’s how I like to be, as prepared as possible, so we get on set and we can just play. Even with dancing, the point is to prep to oblivion so that I don’t think about it and can get on with telling the story.”
Madden clearly had fun on ‘Rocketman’ and wants it to do well. But after a while we return to ‘Bodyguard’.
He loved making the series, he says, but it was tough. It battered him, physically and mentally, because he was in so many scenes (standing saying nothing, tensely defusing bombs, rolling around in bed with Hawes and in a car pretending to be shot at, which was technically tricky). He’s self-deprecating about his work in the show — “Lots of eye acting. Days of it. Or just four pages of ‘Ma’am’s” — but when I press him, he says he’s proud of an early scene in which Montague asks Budd about his personal life; his marriage is under strain and he is separated from his young family. He likes it because he could have played it so that the audience could see Budd’s turmoil, but he didn’t. He played it mean and straight. Not likeable.
“Likeable is the actor’s flaw,” he says. “It’s something I’ve tried to shake off over the years. Most actors want to be liked and we want to make our work beautiful, not clunky and stilted. But that isn’t always the best way.”
It didn’t work, though, did it? The not-likeable bit. Having so many people fall in love with him must be strange, especially when he was excited to be playing an anti-hero.
“I spent my 20s playing Romeo,” he says. “Twice, literally, and then versions of it. So I was glad to move into my 30s [he’s 32] and be in a place where I might be the villain. I’m used to playing a guy with a few bad characteristics. With that, you think, ‘What has made you this way?’ and you justify them. But what was interesting with Bodyguard was realising that... sometimes people are bad. Or they’re good, but they change. This character was fun because he’s manipulative and snide in his tactics, and a bastard. You’re being dark, and you’re not justifying it. I enjoyed playing that.”
Madden won a National Television award and a Golden Globe for his performance. When he received the latter, he went up on stage, received the award, went backstage, all thrilled, “And then they said, ‘Just walk up these stairs.’ I walk up and I’m in a room with about 200 journalists.”
He answered questions for hours.
Madden is a modern actor: he knows what’s required of him, all the promo, the glad-handing, the turning up. He once called Cara Delevingne unprofessional for not taking such things seriously, (she was sarcastic on morning TV, while promoting ‘Paper Towns’), pointing out that he did six weeks of interviews after playing Prince Charming in ‘Cinderella’, and was asked “the same eight questions”. As far as he’s concerned, if you can’t do that with grace, you shouldn’t bother.
Working, working, working. Is that all he’s about? “Not at all!” he protests. He went to the after-Globes parties with friends, including Gemma Chan, who was there for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. “We were both like, ‘What the [expletive]?’ She sees her movies nominated, I won an award. One year ago, we were sitting in my house thinking we were never going to work again and now we’re at these mad award ceremonies.”
Madden has a big friendship group of actors and is often photographed at Glastonbury festival — “my favourite place” — having a laugh, in the thick of ‘Game Of Thrones’ chums such as Kit Harington, Rose Leslie and Alfie Allen.
“I don’t have career ambition,” he says firmly. “I have life ambition.”