How did you get involved with the show?
I just got a, "Do you want to do this role?", and I thought, yeah. So, it was pretty simple.
Had you read the books before?
No, but I’d heard Teddy talk on the radio in Sydney – he was at a writer’s conference in Adelaide – and I thought he sounded wonderful. It wasn’t long after that I got this offer, so I started reading them immediately.
David is very dark and complicated – very cruel...
That’s the acting challenge. He’s a monster, he’s absolutely monstrous but he’s a human being – and there are monstrous human beings in the world. In the book we understand a little bit of perhaps what has led David to be who he is. Talking to Teddy underlined that for me as well – you have to assume that something similar happened to David in his childhood. But we don’t really have the room in this piece to delve into those reasons, so we deal with David as a sadistic, misogynistic paedophile, who’s also incredibly charming and creative but deeply damaged and unhappy. So, yes, very complex.
With Agent Smith is the Matrix you made a killer AI into a three-dimensional human character – was this at all similar?
Well I suppose with Agent Smith he’s so inhuman, but the interesting thing about him was the humanity that started to appear in him and that he hated. David’s full of self-loathing as well. Most of the roles I’ve played in smaller Australian films are psychologically complex individuals. I’m fascinated by how we present ourselves and to what extent we’re in touch with our true self. One of the major themes of the book is to what extent we can become free by understanding our own past. Patrick’s journey is coming to terms with or forgiving if he can his parents. David is a monster because he was totally unable to deal with his own damage.
Is there any sense in which you have to protect yourself from the darkness of playing David?
On one level I’m just really fascinated by what makes people tick – but these things do play on you and the more you try to inhabit a character the more that can stick in you to some extent. I’m always mulling over Teddy’s book and the script and thinking, well what are the dots that aren’t there and what prompts that in someone’s brain? So I’m always prosecuting the character while I’m in his head and I don’t get too lost in it.
And obviously you’ve spoken to Edward St Aubyn more than once...
Yeah, a couple of times. We had a preproduction dinner in London and Teddy was there. I literally bumped into him as we were going in and talked to him for about an hour and a half, which was fantastic. He was very forthcoming and very warm and just delightful. I was absolutely thrilled. And then we had a dinner the next night as well, just a few of us, so it was great to spend time with him.
Did he give you any particular tips?
Just things that I was thinking about anyway, but it was good to hear it from his mouth – things like the humanity of the man. And also, this isn’t necessarily Teddy’s father fully fleshed out. It’s Teddy’s father strongly based on Teddy’s experiences. But he was wonderful, lovely to spend time with.
I guess you didn’t actually play any scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch?
We had one scene, and I was dead in a coffin, so I couldn’t exactly work with him – although he did poke me in the face trying to get me to laugh on screen.
Have you worked with Jennifer Jason Leigh before?
No, never. There are very tense exchanges where all the hideousness of their sadomasochistic relationship is sitting underneath the whole scene. I think she’s wonderful and it was a real treat to work with her.
You’re British Australian but you weren’t in the UK for long – so does the aristocracy this portrays make any kind of sense to you?
I was born in West Africa, my mum’s from Bristol, my dad’s from Cheltenham, and I moved between Australia, South Africa and the UK – ending up in Bristol till I was 16 before moving to Sydney. I feel very English and I still have an English passport – so that’s definitely my DNA and my cultural comprehension. I mean, these books are about a minute little upper echelon of a contemptuous culture and I think we all have experiences of people like that.