Before the age of 30, British actor Matthew Goode not only cracked Hollywood, but played a key supporting role in a Woody Allen film, Match Point. Following training and work on London stages, Goode appeared in the romantic comedies Chasing Liberty and Imagine Me & You, Agnieszka Holland's Copying Beethoven, and Scott Frank's The Lookout. This summer, he headlines Brideshead Revisited before storming multiplexes in Watchmen, opening March 2009. We discussed it all and more at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel.
Groucho: We will most assuredly get to Brideshead Revisited, but I want to start by going back to your acting roots.
Matthew Goode: Oh, okay. Wow, that’s going to be quite interesting.
G: Alright. I know you started as a child actor somewhat under your mother’s tutelage, I suppose. What do you recall of those years?
MG: I just recall it was kind of fun, really. I mean, a couple of my mother’s best friends were gay, so I sort of —it was just interesting being in San Francisco and sort of talking about it. And they were saying, “What do you feel about gay drama?” and so forth, but I’ve been around gay people all my life really. Which is not the point of your question, obviously. But, you know, I remember people smoking and just people laughing a huge amount, ’cause I was so young and the fact that I felt slightly forced into doing it, but I couldn’t really do anything else, ’cause mum had the keys to the car and I didn’t know how to drive. And I was kind of stuck there doing it.
G: But it sounds like it was sort of exotic to you—looking up to the [older actors].
MG: It was! It was exotic and great. And I suppose [it] was one of those things of trying to be an adult, really, from a young age. But that didn’t last terribly long, and then I suddenly got into sport, and I played a huge amount of sport for the next ten years and suffered from extreme shyness and going red, which is the worst of all autonomic responses. Well, not necessarily the worst, actually, but–. So yeah, and then got into it just before I left school and then thought, “What am I going to do for a degree?” And then went off to Birmingham University and studied Drama and Theatre Arts and then went to drama school and sort of, luckily enough, came out with an agent and—it’s all been very lucky, really. It’s not something that’s been seed-implanted when I was very young and it was like “I will do this.”
MG: You know, I think I went through the gamut. I wouldn’t have minded being a steam train driver when I was seven. And I’m still not sure if this is the best job that I could be doing, but it’s good for now.
G: Mm-hm. Quite coincidentally I started reading a book this week called Masters of the Stage, and then when I started researching you, I realized that the drama school you went to is one of the ones featured in this book. So—
MG: Oh, wow.
G: I want to ask you about the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts—
MG: Which no longer exists, unfortunately.
G: Is that right?
MG: Yes. It’s been disbanded, I think. It was owned by Raphael Jago, and he’d owned it for several years, and he retired and decided to sell up. So then the faculty became part of Central School of Speech and Drama now, which has its own history anyway.
MG: But it’s a real shame because that, you know. There’s so much history with Webber that it’s a shame that it’s now gone. Anyway, sorry—I interrupted.
G: No, no. Quite alright. It’s interesting. I know one of the hallmarks of that school was having the students work with pro directors.
G: Did you make any helpful professional contacts in that process?
MG: Well, it’s always one of those funny things. There’s that kind of facetious saying of people who can’t do teach, you know, and so there is that—we were very lucky in that we did have outside professionals coming in, not necessarily of the world’s greatest ilk as far as names in the professional theatre, because there aren’t that many who make it to the top. You know, it’s probably a smaller circle of people than actors. But someone that was there, who’s doing incredibly well, that directed me in one production was Rupert Goold, who recently was up for a Tony for his—I think it was his Macbeth. And is going on to great things. And whether or not he wants to cast me in anything in the future—because I am looking forward to getting back on stage—I think he’s getting involved with the RSC now, I suspect. So I would wait and see. But he was an incredibly nice man, and I would love to work with him in the future.
G: I know that school is also known for its singing program and that guitar is a passion of yours. I wonder if you sing and if you’d be averse to doing a musical role?
MG: Um, I mean—I don’t—I’m not the world’s greatest singer, but I suppose you could—that sometimes means that I wouldn’t be too bad in Sondheim. That sort of lends itself to actors who can carry a tune.
G: Character singing. Yeah.
MG: But, um, I don’t know. I quite like Company as an idea for a musical, but I don’t think it—it’s not something that I have at the forefront of my mind like “I must now do a musical.” I think I’d be quite—I’d be a little bit uncomfortable, really. But um, I don’t know. You never rule it out.
G: And when you were there, did they have the tradition going of the Shakespeare one-man show? Did you do one of those?
MG: Uh, no, no. They didn’t have that.
G: Okay. I guess it was a little before your time there. But I know that you played a modernized Ariel in trainers for The Tempest, right, on stage [at Colchester's Mercury Theatre]?
MG: I did! Yeah! I mean obviously it was modernized only in the fact that I had trainers, again because it was sort of going for an other-worldly—and they dyed my hair blue and gave me some sort of chiffon-y outfit which was interesting, particularly when you’re living in a garrison town. So a lot of army men walking around, and me with my blue hair, just trying to get into fights all the time going, “Do you know your hair is shit?” and I’d be like, “Yes, I do.” Which kind of stops them in their tracks: “Oh, all right, then.”
G: As long as you don’t add, “Do you to make something of it?”
MG: Yeah. Exactly. It was a really fun experience, though, that was.
G: Above and beyond the director’s concept, how did you see and approach that role?
MG: Christ. I mean, it was something—I’ve always found Shakespeare quite daunting, really. I mean as much as I love reading it and uh—I mean, I don’t really remember much else apart from being…we had a lot of ladders coming down from the flies. So it was, you know, it was in and out. It was exhausting. I mean, I got really fit during it because I had to drink four or five liters of water every performance ’cause I just did not stop moving. And it was quite nice, ’cause some people came out and thought, “Oh, we thought you trained in ballet,” and I was like, “That’s the nicest thing that anybody’s ever said to me as far as stage movement, so thanks very much.” But, you know, it was—I can’t remember much about it, it was such a long time ago. And I’ve had so many drinks since then.
G: Well, back to something much more current, let’s talk about Brideshead Revisited.
G: Of course, the script must be primary to you, but you also have this three-hundred page dossier for you, in the novel.
G: What leapt off the page to you as core elements of the character—or how was the book useful to you?
MG: Well, I found it very difficult to get into Charles, to find his likeability, which is something—I had spoke to the director at the beginning when he was like “I’d like you to play the part.” I was like “I find it very hard to like him.” And I suppose it wasn’t until I started peeling back the layers of his psychology, which is interesting because Evelyn Waugh had said, “I don’t write psychology. I write because I love words,” and blah blah blah—which is just really annoying. (Smiles.) But one of the things that’s shared by all the characters and one of the reasons that he has such an affinity with Sebastian is that they have had loveless childhoods. And it kind of—it’s very understandable if you think about it in a post-Victorian era, that his mother had died when he was very young, and mothers were meant to give the love and the compassion and the sensitivities to their children. And the father is the guidance and the disciplinarian. So he’d been to some type of boarding school and had been living in a loveless environment with very few friends, and so, when you understand that, and as he himself says, that when he goes to Oxford, he’s looking for—“I was in search of love in those days.” You know, he’s very open, and suddenly finds Sebastian who is, himself, lonely although he has many people around him because he’s this rare peacock at the kind of top of the food chain of the aristocracy—and even smaller food chain, really, considering it was the Catholic aristocracy as well. So he sees something in Charles in the fact that he is open and charming in his sort of naivety and blah blah blah. So I don’t know. There’s so many levels to Charles throughout that it’s just—I mean, I would have been an idiot not to have wanted to have taken the role on.
G: What about your other preparations for the role? You had period consultants. You read up on atheism. What else played in to your—before you show up to do the work?
MG: Well, you know, you just—you read the novel and you make your notes. And you have many discussions with friends, as much. I’ve got a very, very literate bunch of friends who are extraordinarily intelligent and PhDs, and so you spend—. I immersed myself in it and, you know, thoughts always come to you: you’ll be taking a shower and—certainly not a method by any means; I don’t even know what that is. But you do your homework and you turn up. And I had an amazing bunch of other actors, you know, I mean Emma Thompson, and Michael Gambon, Ben Whishaw, Haley Atwell, just to mention a few of them. So you’re in the best hands ever because everyone’s done their work and, particularly as Charles is quite reactionary, rather than being front-foot, it’s like you just have to open your fucking ears and watch. So there wasn’t a huge amount for me to worry about, really, apart from just the levels and the nuances.
G: I want to ask specifically about that—that he is reactive and somewhat soft-spoken, especially in the early going.
G: As you say, acting is reacting and if you listen and respond naturally, I suppose it maybe isn’t that hard. But did you find it challenging in any way to convey a role like that, that maybe is somewhat different from what you’ve done before—just being reactive?
MG: I think I really did, particularly in comparison with the original adaptation. And obviously television series lend themselves very well to doing books because you get to do them a chapter, two or three chapters at a time and people tune in, and it’s the sort of suspense of reading a novel in its own sort of self. But we didn’t have the voice-overs, this sort of voice of the future explaining what Charles is going through and keeping the story sort of tighter—there’s a lot more ambiguity in the film. And far less is explained, which is a real challenge. And those—kind of thinking—what we found hard was the levels of what we want to show and what we shouldn’t show. And as I am so back-foot, and my character is so back-foot and reactionary, and obviously we’re seeing all these characters through my eyes, there was a fear of “Am I pushing?” Am I trying to—and that was the great thing about Julian [Jarrold]: he was very much like me. I don’t think Charles is this ambitious person. I think it’s far too obvious—nothing is black-and-white in life. And that’s one of the reasons that people love the book so much is because not everyone has an understanding of the world of aristocracy, but everyone can understand the want to better themselves and the want to have a little ambition and also to be in love with people, and the fact that it doesn’t work out. And life is complicated–and as complicated as this book.
G: I wanted to ask too about that ambiguity. Because obviously as an actor, it’s your job to make it specific for yourself, even if the audience doesn’t necessarily know.
MG: Well, specifically in some ways. But as in life, you can’t play Charles knowing what’s coming—as with any of us. So you’re just open. And one of the things that people, I think, get a little wrong about Charles is that he never does anything really wrong. Look, he is thrown out of the Marchmain life and out of the Marchmain family, and everyone feels very sympathetic toward Sebastian. But it’s like “You should have saved him when you get to Morocco.” It’s like, well, he went out. He went out and he saw him and he asked him to come back. And he didn’t want to. And, you know, we hurt the people we love the most, and that intense love between them is probably the love that all the guilt is bound up in at the end of the novel. But he never does really—…when Julia asks, “Why did you marry Celia?” it’s like “Well, physical attraction and ambition.” And at that particular point in life, that was quite a cold thing to be doing. But he’d been so hurt by life by that point and was lonely and whatever that, you know, it’s kind of understandable.
G: Yeah. And the weight of it–just by the choices made in the adaptation–it’s given that less weight because it’s of less real meaning to him.
G: But I wanted to ask about his flirtation with homosexuality…it is kind of lightly dealt with in the novel and sort of brought up more in the film—but still ambiguous.
MG: Yeah. Very much so.
G: I got that he enjoyed the attention and the company and there was a real love there but he was too socially repressed to ever take the plunge—but how did you see what was going on there?
MG: Well I just don’t think he’s gay. I think there’s…particularly around that time—and he’d been to boarding school–whether he had been abused by any of the older boys when he was younger, when he was sent to live in boarding school, it’s a definitely likelihood that it might have been because that’s what happened a lot at that time. So he would have been well in the knowledge of being around other boys who may or may not have been homosexual. But he has a huge love for Sebastian, and that love is born out of these two lonely boys who have never had a proper childhood. You have their entire childhood, kind of, in that long summer that they spend together at Brideshead—this idyllic long summer where they’re just together and alone and it’s romantic and it’s just utterly charming. And they’re pretending to be adults, drinking wine, like they’re sucking in life. They’re talking about the ideas of beauty and, you know, modern philosophy in many respects. And he’s very aware that Sebastian is gay, but it doesn’t stop their relationship and it’s not about ambition. And he’s not unwilling to take the plunge. It’s just that he’s not gay. And I think the reason [for] the psychology is the fact that Julia is mentioned to be so alike in look and so alike in manner, it’s an easy understanding that that’s why there’s a transference of not love—because he always has that love–but he’s in lust with Julia because he’s eighteen and his hormones are going crazy. Although it only happens in this sort of, because of the –
G: It’s shifted up a bit.
MG: It’s shifted up a bit in our film, because obviously in the book they don’t start talking about Julia until the second book and the second chapter. So they sought permission from the Waugh estate to bring her into the story a little earlier just because we only had two hours, and we don’t have the luxury.
G: Yeah. And it does make sense dramatically, as you say.
MG: Yeah. It makes total sense.
G: Though Catholicism’s redemptive effects are certainly explored, and that’s intrinsic to Waugh—
G: The film also seems to tease out maybe a bit more than the novel the cynicism about organized religion that’s maybe more modern. Do you agree with that, and do you think it’s a sign of the times—or how did you see that aspect?
MG: I think that obviously there’s a real cynicism in—when the priest arrives…surely you can see that this man doesn’t want that. And yet I think you have to sort of separate those ideals of what we think these days about, you know, the sort of hypocrisy that’s involved with religions and the idea of forgiving people. I mean, I’m sitting here in San Francisco, and people’s attitudes to being gay–which, when the first Brideshead was made in 1981, are very different now, thankfully—but still you still don’t always get married and those sorts of things. And I think it’s as much about bad parenting in conjunction with religion as it is about anything else. It’s not saying that religion is bad, I think, because there are ambiguities in the novel, to say that Charles, despite everything he’s gone through, has actually kind of –he has come to Catholicism himself. And he says at the end, “I said a small prayer in newly learned words” or whatever. It’s very, very subtle, but it’s there. And we had a slightly different ending, because we’re not in front of the tabernacle with the red glass candle and the light. But he’s saying—and that’s what that whole last sequence is about—and it’s slightly different because we’re not saying that he has become Catholic in our film at all. But how could you possibly forsake religion and the idea of the people’s faith and belief in God—regardless of Catholic or whatever, I think, when he sees other members of the army in there, praying. I think, if anything, Charles finds redemption in religion, possibly through the sheer loneliness that he feels. I think that’s part of the concept of it. But it’s not certainly being damning about religion, per se. It’s just—it’s damning about its misuse.
G: Mm. Yeah. And I think also the final moment is an acknowledgement or an honoring of his deep love for her. Right? In what he saw in her soul, perhaps?
MG: What—in the church, you mean, at the end—his giving up of her?
MG: He just knows it’s not going to work. And also I think that’s part of the guilt. As I say, he had a deep love for Sebastian and a lust for Julia but not the same—although they were the same in manner, and they looked the same. It’s very complicated but it’s—
G: Well, that’s what makes it interesting.
MG: I mean, I personally—I never really thought that he was deeply in love with Julia.
G: Hm. Were you at all nervous about going toe-to-toe with Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon?
MG: Are you kidding me? Of course. I mean I was so nervous. So nervous. I mean, I’ve known–Gambon was one of the reasons I started acting ’cause I saw him on stage doing Volpone back in—you know, when I was seventeen—with Simon Russell Beale playing his Mosca, and they just blew the stage apart. They were amazing. And so it was a real thrill to work with Michael, and he’s so naughty, as well, during—he’s just always—he finds acting particularly easy, I think. And so he’s always mucking about. And Emma was just, you know—she comes with baggage. She comes with being—she’s a national treasure, beholden by society as someone who can do nothing wrong. And she’s so talented, as a writer, as a director, as an actress. But she dispels all of that, all of your worries, immediately just by being one of the world’s nicest people. And she’s like a naughty auntie, incredibly fun, flirty, and so intelligent, so talented the moment (snaps fingers) that action starts. And I’m so glad that she’s become a really good friend and, you know, that you can go and have a couple of bottles of wine with occasionally. So it’s really, really a pleasure.
G: I do have to ask—I know you get asked all the time–but about Woody Allen—
G: And you’d said, “It was a bit ominous when I first met him,” and I wonder what made that initial meeting unnerving, and when did you start to feel like “Okay, I’m okay with this—I’m at ease here”?
MG: Well it’s unnerving because he’s Woody. You know, you finally get to the interview and you’re sitting in front of him, and it’s the guy with the glasses that you’ve seen for however many years and years in Annie Hall and all these other productions where he’s been wonderful. And, particularly for me, I don’t have anybody in my family who does the job or has any contacts within the business. And so it’s kind of a real moment of “I can’t believe I’m actually—” I’m a slightly self-made man–I’ve done well to get here. You’re still not expecting to get the job. But I’m sitting next to Woody Allen, so I must be doing something right. And, I don’t know—he’s an extraordinary individual. And he said he’d like to work with me in a comedy one day, which is very lovely. I’ve never heard anything back so maybe he was—maybe he was lying.
G: He’s biding his time, I’m sure.
MG: Exactly. But no, he’s an extraordinary man. And we never really spoke, to be honest with you…you know, you just do your two takes. He says, “Okay.” You go home. And I just see him at the premieres. And it’s like “How you doing?” “I’m good.” And you blow it off. And that’s it. He’s certainly not on speed dial, you know.
G: (laughing) Right.
MG: (in a mock-lascivious tone) Soon-Yi is, though.
G: You’ve also recently joined the ranks of the rubber-suited thespians.
G: I just want to ask—again, kind of a process question. What did you do to assure yourself you were prepared to enter that world and keep your head wrapped around that complex mythology—for Watchmen, of course?
MG: Well, with anything, really, it’s like you can only bring yourself and your own ideas and your own thoughts. And your own imagination of what that character’s going to be. I mean, the better the script and the better the source material, the easier it lifts off into how you picture it in your mind’s eye. Which is why doing any adaptation, for most people that they’ve read the book, it’s like “Well, that’s not how I expected it to be.” Because the power of one’s own imagination is a billion-dollar movie in your head, because you can go anywhere and do anything.
G: Yeah, it’s very subjective. So what do you think you personally brought to that role?
MG: I–do you know what? I honestly don’t know yet until I’ve seen it…We came up with some clever ideas which we hope we’re not going to piss off the fans with—but just to sort of flesh out a few things in Adrian Veidt’s past. And just to make it a bit clearer and make it a bit more interesting to play. So he has a kind of private, now, and a public persona.
MG: And may or may not have American and German accents, so.
G: (chuckling) Lastly, I’ll ask about The Lookout because that was one of my favorite films of last year. You were wonderful in that.
MG: Oh, thank you.
G: You had somewhat of a lot of freedom in creating your backstory for that character, right? What did you work up for him, for his past?
MG: Umm, I don’t really talk about it now, I don’t think, because it doesn’t really—I mean, I can talk about the back story for some projects, where you really need to explain why you’ve done things in a certain way. And with that one, I don’t really feel the need to do that. It’s sort of—I mean, really it was just the fact that it was just coming out of “Why is he there? How well do—?” You know, all those little questions that—“Why’s he robbing this bank? What’s his—?” So those things we fleshed out. But most of it—I just thought it would be interesting if he was an Army brat and his father had, you know, been sent down from the army or dishonorably discharged and didn’t get his pension. All these kind of things start coming up. I speak to them with Scott but not even really with him. It’s just—it doesn’t alter the way you play your performance. It just gives you some stuff to—
G: Some touchstones.
MG: Yeah. Exactly.
G: All right. I think we have to wrap up, but thank you very much for speaking to me.
MG: Thank you very much, sir. Cheers. Thank you.