“I was a waiter more than an actor, and I was always the most ignorant person in that rehearsal room.” – Eddie Marsan on the His Early Career
Nobody would confuse actor Eddie Marsan as a typical leading man, but the London-born Ray Donovan star has an impressive list of credits since spending the first decade of his career playing small roles in various British TV shows. In an extensive conversation with Interview, Marsan speaks about his experiences as an actor, including why he was failing at it early on and what he learned from working with Benicio del Toro.
Like many other actors, Marsan didn’t have a glamorous way into the movies. He says, “After I left school, I became an apprentice printer, but while I was doing that, I used to work for a bookmaker. When I finished my apprenticeship, he said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I used to dance a lot, and someone had asked me to be extra in a movie, and I realized that I wanted to be an actor, so I said that. He and my mom got together and they raised the money for me to go to drama school. I auditioned for every drama school in London and every one turned me down. Then I tried the next year and they turned me down. And then one of them offered me an evening course. And I did the evening course. From the evening course, I went on to do another course. And then I became an actor.”
Marsan points out that his early career stumbles were a result of his own failings. He recalls, “I think one of the reasons I was unemployed for the first couple of years was that I had a terrible chip on my shoulder. I used to have this working-class hero mentality: ‘I don’t need to know all of this academic stuff.’ Then one day I realized that I was just unemployed. I was a waiter more than an actor, and I was always the most ignorant person in that rehearsal room. So the next time I went in, I just asked people questions. People who had more of an intellectual background gave me language and the reference points to become more self-aware.”
As someone who doesn’t have the “Hollywood look,” Marsan points out that he has never had to compete with famous names for the types of roles that he plays. He says, “Some friends of mine are really great actors and good-looking boys. They would go in and do a great audition. The director would love them. The money people would say, ‘You can’t have that guy. We’ve got Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise or whomever.’ But for my role they’d say, ‘You can have whoever the f**k you want for that part.'”
The fact that Marsan conditioned himself to learn from his peers after his early career troubles helped when he learned how to be more flexible in his performances from working with Benicio del Toro in 21 Grams. He reveals, “I realized as a British actor, I was technically very adept. Economically, we have to do everything in one or two takes because we don’t have any money to make movies in the U.K. But sometimes what’s sacrificed is the freedom. When I watched Benicio, I became suddenly very aware of the amount of freedom this guy had—an incredible freedom—that British actors don’t inherently have. He is incredibly relaxed, incredibly open, and incredibly receptive to what the other actor is doing. I remember turning up thinking, ‘I just have to learn the lines and dodge the furniture’ and here was this guy completely free in inhabiting his character. I realized that’s the level I had to aspire to. It’s very interesting because I now work almost exclusively in the U.S. And I think it’s because I’ve been attracted to and aspired to that level of acting.”
Of course, the character actor is quick to note that having that sort of freedom is often a luxury that comes with experience and not something that every actor should expect when he or she begins a career. He adds, “The danger is that you have a lot of young actors coming on set and wanting to be indulged to explore the psychological dynamics of their character, and you have a crew that needs to get home and a producer who has a limited budget, so he says, ‘I’m sorry, mate. Can’t do it. Just learn your lines and let’s get out.'”