From playing Moriarty in Sherlock, to a sinister government suit in the latest Bond film Spectre, to a sadistic rock star in Simon Stephens’ play Birdland, Andrew Scott has made a bit of a reputation for himself as a psychopath. Maybe it’s those big dark eyes – or his flashing sarcastic grin.
He enjoys playing villains, he concedes. “Of course I do, I do a lot – I think the word is antagonists, rather than villains … but having said that, it feels nice to do something really different. I’m not going to be in any way antagonistic next year!”
Indeed, the 39-year-old refuses to be pigeonholed. When we met last month, he had no fewer than six screen projects in the pipeline, ranging from tiny parts in Shakespeare-on-telly project The Hollow Crown and Tim Burton’s Alice Through the Looking Glass to meatier roles in the newly released and (painfully panned) Victor Frankenstein, and an adaptation of Swallows and Amazons.
And then there’s the real reason for our interview: his return to the stage in The Dazzle, a site-specific production of American playwright Richard Greenberg’s 2000 play about the infamous hoarders, the Collyer brothers. Produced by Michael Grandage Company and Emily Dobbs Productions, it will run in the old Central St Martins’ building on London’s Charing Cross Road in an intimate staging for an audience of just 132 each night.
Born into New York high society in the 1880s, the Collyers were found dead, buried beneath 136 tons of rubbish, in their Harlem home in 1947. Langley Collyer – played by Scott – was a pianist, while his brother, Homer, was a lawyer. And yet they both gradually retreated from the world, filling their home with stacks of newspapers and books, 14 grand pianos, human medical specimens, and the chassis of a Model-T Ford. Langley set up elaborately constructed booby traps filled with junk to protect them from intruders – one of which ended up killing him.
Sounds like a freakshow, right? Wrong. Greenberg’s play is witty, but it doesn’t mock the brothers – instead it offers a tender portrayal of love and co-dependence. In Greenberg’s imaginative telling, Langley is explained as a shy, hyper-sensitive soul. Even time seems to pass differently for him; he’ll happily spend an entire day contemplating a single leaf.
Scott hasn’t done much research – and even if Langley shows signs of being on the autistic spectrum, the actor is resistant to slapping a medical label on his behaviour. “I don’t want to diagnose him, because then you’re making ‘themes’ out of a play, which is boring. This is not an ‘issue’ play! That would reduce it.”
And Langley is a delight to inhabit, he says. “There’s something very child-like about him. As we get older, we lose that sense of wonder. Everyone is so pressed for time now, and he’s not. Having totally different priorities in life makes him not fit into the current world, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. He dances to his own tune.”
Speaking of tunes … does Scott have to play the piano? He does. “That’s part of the challenge! I will love it eventually, but I’m at the point where it’s just frustration …”
As with all productions by the Grandage Company, there are £10 tickets on sale for the whole run. Scott has a twinkling mischievousness to him, but he’s serious, and forceful, about the importance of making theatre accessible and affordable. “I feel incredibly passionate that young people get to come to the theatre. I hate the idea that it’s for middle-class white people” – that “hate” is drawn out to a long hiss – “theatre is for everybody.”
He’s also voice-raisingly contemptuous of the media fuss around Sherlock superfans getting over-excited in the theatre – Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have all trod the boards in London in recent years, and he’s proud that their presence attracts a new audience. “They don’t scream, and shout out things, as has been completely exaggerated in the press … that really makes me angry – because that’s 100 per cent not true. That’s snobbery. And if someone did get over excited and shout something out – so what? Snobbery: my least favourite thing.”
Indeed, much of our interview seems to end up in mutual railing against snobbery and its ugly bedfellow, cynicism. While discussing Sherlock devotees, Scott says he might not follow their involved theories about the programme, but he likes that the viewers get so into it. “People say, ‘are they freaky?’ They’re not! They’re just enthusiastic. I think it’s cool to get really enthusiastic about things. [Actually] there’s another word I hate – ‘cool’. Who wants to be cool? It is boring. Love something, and love it deeply.”
On the subject of Sherlock, I naturally ask if Moriarty is – as teased in the last episode of the third series – not really dead, and set to return? There’s a Christmas special coming up, after all … Scott claps his hands together and laughs at me. He has a very loud laugh.
“From the sublime to the ridiculous! Did you get bossed into asking that question?”
Of course I’m going to ask that question.
“Well I’m just going to bat that back.”
2015 has seen Scott enter another world-conquering franchise – Bond. How was it, being part of that juggernaut? “It was a really lovely experience, part of history and all that.” A bit different, I say, to rehearsing in a drafty old warehouse – though Scott points out that Bond is stuffed with theatre types: directed by Sam Mendes, written by Jez Butterworth and John Logan, starring Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes and Daniel Craig. “It isn’t that different – there’s [just] a lot more money!”
Around the release of Spectre, Daniel Craig was surprisingly critical about Bond, and its misogyny. Scott, however, sees that as a crucial, even desirable, character flaw … in Bond that is, not Craig.
“You have to be very wary of heroes in films having to be flawless. Human beings aren’t perfect – I hate perfect heroes. It’s boring. It’s kind of smug, actually, those American ones carrying babies out of explosions and saying politically correct things. They’re more sinister …”
The day we meet, Scott has just returned from Dublin – he’d gone back to his old school, to present some arts prizes. “It was brilliant! I was taken back to when I was 18 and really wanting to be an actor.” His art-teacher mother introduced him to the theatre there at a young age – he went from avidly watching in the stalls to starting his own career on stage at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in the 1990s.
Although he’s now based in south London, he made another trip back in May to vote in Ireland’s referendum on gay marriage. Scott, who is gay and has previously talked about the “isolation and shame” of growing up in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1993, says it was “an absolutely amazing day. It sends a message of hope to parts of the world that need it even more than we do. I’m incredibly proud of it … and I absolutely abhor the idea of people being cynical about it. It’s so easy to be cynical.”
I ask Scott what else is in the pipeline – there’s a juicy film project, but it has not been announced yet. What about theatre? Does he have his eye on any Shakespeares? His Sherlock co-stars have tackled Hamlet and Richard III, after all.
“I am going to do some Shakespeare at the beginning of 2017 – I am. It would be dishonest of me to say I’m not. I am going to play Ham … one of the Shakespeares in 2017… sorry to be so coy!” Though not coy enough, surely, given that that backs up a recent rumour suggesting he was in talks to play the Dane at the Almeida.
Or, then again, is that just the sort of clue any self-respecting Sherlock fan would dismiss as an obvious deflection?
‘The Dazzle’ is at Found 111, Charing Cross Road, central London, until 30 Jan