It says a lot for actor Eddie Marsan that by the time we finish our conversation in his agent's Beverly Hills office, I have a somewhat higher opinion of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky than the one I had going in. Marsan, a palpably nice man with one of those round, ruddy English Everyman faces you instantly recognize even if you can't quite remember his name, is transcendently enraged as Scott, a driving instructor engulfed by anger-management issues he takes out on the compulsively sunny schoolteacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins). In turn, she counters his every bitter complaint against the world with a joke and a smile until his final outburst reduces even her to stunned silence.
"I think of Scott as more of a victim than Poppy, whose happy-go-lucky nature is underlined by a lot of courage and sensitivity," Marsan says. "The only hobby he has in life is blaming people. He hates women because he feels that they can never want him, so he never tries to change."
This being a Mike Leigh film, Scott was constructed over months of experiential research and magpie plundering of personality traits from acquaintances of the actor and director. Leigh rarely talks about his famous technique these days, and I've never been able to make up my mind about whether his method is touched with genius or a complete want of imagination. Like most actors who have worked with him, Marsan is awestruck by the mechanics of how a Mike Leigh character comes to life. "You sit in with Mike and he suggests things and you suggest things," he says with that reflexive English habit of slipping out of the first person wherever possible. "We worked out that Scott came from Stevenage [a faceless dormitory town just north of London], so you went to Stevenage and found a home. Mike wanted him to have a patchy work history, so he had to lose a job every three months. I went to 30 different workplaces and sniffed around, and once I settled on being a driving instructor I had to go and be one."
In the early stages of his laborious preparation, Leigh works in isolation with each actor, winnowing away the unnecessary and adding detail until, after three months of what Marsan calls a "journey of discovery," the cast finally comes together. "I had no idea there was a character called Poppy at the beginning," Marsan says. "I thought I was creating this really dark character, like in Taxi Driver. Then Mike said to me, 'I want you to go and give driving lessons to this lady called Poppy.' I knocked on the door and he was shooting, and Sally and I got into the car. And I suddenly realized this was a comedy."
Leigh edits down the improvised interactions between the actors into a script that they never see. "When it's shot you know exactly what you're going to say," Marsan explains. "It's like a well-rehearsed play. But the way you get to that point of knowing every beat, every nuance, every syllable — you're just doing it, doing it, and readjusting. So it's not that you read the script and then try to create it. It's in your mind all the time."
It wasn't until Marsan saw the completed movie with an audience in Berlin that he understood what Leigh was up to. "The characters don't change," he says. "The audience changes. Their initial reception of Poppy changes by the end of the film. They see that happiness is hard work, that it relies more on your perspective than on events." Still, even with the debriefing Leigh routinely gives his actors, Scott's pathology was hard to shake off. "I was paid to be pissed off for six months," he says, grimacing at how he would find himself snapping at his wife or reading bedtime stories to his three young children in Scott's impatient manner. "My wife says to me, 'Now they know what it's like to live with you.'"
If Marsan is the grumpy type, he hides it extremely well under an easy affability coupled with a slightly bemused gratitude that, in acting, he found not just a career but a vocation. "Most people become actors due to a certain amount of low self-esteem," says Marsan, who grew up in the formerly Jewish working-class London borough of Bethnal Green, the son of a lorry driver and a teacher's assistant. At school he was a disaffected underachiever, but he loved movies and his father admired great character actors like Rod Steiger and Gene Hackman. "I used to watch them and think, 'I like the way he does that,'" Marsan says.
Marsan's parents were supportive of his interest in acting, but there were no facilities for budding thespians in Bethnal Green, until a bookie he worked for while apprenticing as a printer encouraged him to apply to drama school, then paid his first year's tuition. "I'm not saying I was good," he says with the usual British aversion to tooting one's own horn, "but drama school ignited a curiosity and a discipline in me that nothing else had ever done before. It changed my life."
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