'Jonathan Strange' Star on Early Hesitations, Author's Surprising Set Visit (Video)

Eddie Marsan also reveals why shooting 'Ray Donovan' is so much fun: "The darker and more serious the material, the more jokes that go around set."
BBC America

Things are getting rather strange for Eddie Marsan.

The British actor is best known in the U.S. for his work on Showtime's Ray Donovan, where he plays Terry Donovan, the tough-as-nails former boxer and brother to Liev Schreiber's title character. Next, he is poised to unleash Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an ambitious, seven-part fantasy drama airing on BBC America beginning June 13.

Set during the Napoleonic wars, the series takes place in an alternate history in which magic was once a very real thing, but has not been around in more than 300 years. Then two magicians — Norrell (Marsan) and Strange (Bertie Carvel) — emerge and are able to practice magic once more. 

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During a SAG Foundation panel Wednesday moderated by The Hollywood Reporter, Marsan weighed in on the series' challenges, talked meeting author Susanna Clarke, and also spoke about making a living as a character actor in projects by Martin Scorsese and Alejandro G. Inarritu.

Watch the full video, or read highlights, below.

How did you come on board the project?

I was here shooting the first season of Ray Donovan. They sent it to me and they sent me the first four episodes. I'd never read the book. I read it and thought, "this finishes really weird." I didn't realize there were another three. They sent me the book, and they said, "read the book and we'll have a discussion and we'll explore the idea of you doing it." I was in the middle of Ray Donovan, suffering from Parkinsons [his character Terry is afflicted with it] and trying to get a Boston accent, and I looked at the book and it was about this thick. I said "no, you pay me and I'll read the book." I started reading it and I was blown away. It took me three months to read it.

It's so dense, full of footnotes. It's like reading a history book almost.

It's very Dickensian in a sense. But it was great material for an actor because all of your research is there.

Did you have concerns about how they could adapt this into the book?

It did. The book is so dense and the footnotes are so informative. Sometimes when you read a novel, you think the idea of making it into a film is frightening. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was never frightening, because it was inspiring. You were so excited. [Writer] Peter Harness said to me he couldn't wait to do it, because all the information was there that would enable him to do it. But also television has changed as well. I shot Little Dorrit five years ago and they were trying to make the Dickensian story into half-hour excerpts because they thought that was the attention span of the general public. Now they make seven, one-hour episodes because television has the confidence and influence now that it's never had before. They tried to make this into a two-hour film and they gave up.

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How do you become Norrell?

You just serve the book. You serve the script. I'm an actor. I've been an actor for 25 years and I'm not a film star. I'm an actor. I'm a great believer that actors are very similar to session musicians. You wouldn't ask a session musician "how do you play jazz and then how do you play classical?" They just do it, because if they don't do it they don't eat. I'm given my script. I look at it. I read it. It tells what to do physically, what to do psychologically, and then I just do it.

Is there anything that surprised you about this character?

Norrell is such an internal character. He's a man who is scared, and everything he does is from the point of fear. [Reciting a prophesy in the show:] "There are two magicians. One will be fear and one will be arrogance." Norrell is fear. That's why he can't access magic, and why Strange can. Strange is in touch with the subconscious, the creative aspect of ourselves that is creative in spite of ourselves, and Norrell isn't.

Did you find yourself relating more to Strange or Norrell?

I am definitely Norrell. Especially around Bertie. Because Bertie has got the flowing locks and he's got the sexy magic. Every time I do magic, they threw a bucket of water over me. All Norrell ever does is magic with water.  I did identify with Norrell, especially in the sense of being a fish out of water in Cosmopolitan London. He's a northern gentleman who has been isolated and lived on his own. My own journey, as many actors will testify, you start off insecure. You start off afraid and then you suddenly become a working actor and you go through rejection. And then you go all over the world and work and you always slightly feel a fish out of water. So I identify with Norrell more than Strange.

When did you finally realize you'd "made it" as an actor?

The same year I did 21 Grams for Alejandro [G. Inarritu] and I did Vera Drake for Mike Leigh and they came out on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time, it enabled me to get work on both sides of the Atlantic, which has been my trick really. I let the people in America think that I live in England and I let the people in England think I live in America. So when I turn up they go, "I got you! Quick offer him a job because he's going to go."

What was getting the call from Martin Scorsese for Gangs of New York like?

It was very nerve-wracking. My first day somebody came up and said you're going to have lunch with Jim Broadbent, because you're playing his sidekick. I basically just took refuge in Jim Broadbent's generosity and his intelligence for nine months. There was a day when Marty came on set and we were shooting this big scene. There were hundreds of people waiting for him to make a decision and he said, "I don't know what to do." And it relaxed me. I thought, "well if he doesn't know what to do, and he's not afraid to tell people he doesn't know what to do," then I suddenly realized it's OK. I had been acting for 12 years by then. So I watched these actors who everybody said were of a different level, and I watched them and I realized they weren't. They were good actors, but there is no great mystery to acting. If there are any young actors out there, if you were given the facilities these big stars are given, you'd be in the running for Oscars. That empowered me. It didn't give me arrogance, it just empowered me.

What has Ray Donovan done for your life and career?

My career used to be 70 percent in the UK and 30 percent in the U.S. Last year it was 50/50. I think I wanted it to be, it could be more here than there. But my family is there. I've got a wife and four kids and I like to mix it up. It's a necessity for my employment, to guarantee employment is to be diverse. 

How did you figure out who Terry Donovan is? Did you go to Boston?

I've never been to Boston. So I just read a lot. Listened to the Boston accent. Watched videos. I watched documentaries on Boston. I'm very blue collar myself. So it was easy for me to embody that in a sense. It's much harder for me to embody Norrell than it is to embody Terry Donovan.  

Why Is Norrell tougher?

I always think no matter what I wear I look like a longshoreman. I'm more physically like Terry than I am like Norrell.

What did author Susanna Clarke think when she came to set?

She was blown away. She found it very weird her characters were outside her head and walking around. 

Is Ray Donovan or Jonathan Strange more fun for you?

Ray Donovan is more fun. Ray Donovan is more of a family because we've been doing it for four years now. We do have a laugh. Ray Donovan is very dark and very serious. As actors will tell you, the darker and more serious the material, the more jokes that go around set. It's a counterbalance. The hardest thing to do and most miserable films are comedies. We're all abused, and screwed up and we're killing priests.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell begins airing Saturdays at 10 p.m. on BBC America June 13.

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