Like most British actors, Marsan paid his dues in theater, a highlight of which was touring Europe in Richard III, a production set in London's gangland, which he hopes to direct as a film when his children are older. "When I told my dad I was working at the National, he thought it was a horse race," he says.
Given that the 40-year-old Marsan looks and sounds as though he'd just stepped out of a Dickens novel, it's strange that television roles largely eluded him until recently, when he completed Little Dorrit and The 39 Steps for the BBC, and God on Trial, an HBO Holocaust drama in which he plays a Jewish concentration camp inmate forced by the Nazis to choose which son to sacrifice. Though he's not Jewish, his broad East End twang landed him another Jewish role as a loving but repressed father opposite Helena Bonham Carter in the sweet film Sixty-Six, and last year he played John Houseman (not an English gent but a Romanian Jew; who knew?) in Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles. "I got a script recently for a gangster movie, and my agent wasn't quite sure which role I was up for," he says, laughing. "I asked if there were any Jews, and he said 'Yes.' I said, 'Oh, it'll be the Jew.' And it was."
Marsan's English role models are Timothy Spall, Toby Jones, and Jim Broadbent, his American heroes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti — all gifted character actors with elastic ranges. When he calls himself a jobbing actor, it's less out of false humility than a shrewd sense of the staying power of the supporting player. "The guarantee of regular employment is versatility," he says emphatically. "If you don't let people have a fixed idea of you, you've got more chance of working."
Marsan does abject beautifully — he was a near-mute love interest in Leigh's Vera Drake and a timid murderer in Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman. His capacity for quiet thuggery put him on the Hollywood radar after he appeared in Paul McGuigan's Gangster No. 1., which led to supporting roles in Mission: Impossible III, Gangs of New York, Miami Vice, 21 Grams, and, last year, as Will Smith's evil nemesis in Hancock. Next, he'll be seen as the incompetent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, opposite Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson. Given the shrinking British film industry, though, he admits that he may have to consider moving to Los Angeles, not a terrible fate considering he enjoyed living here with his family the summer he did Hancock. But, he adds, "I love living in England. I love my kids going to a state school. I take refuge in the normality."
When Eddie Marsan tells you he likes not being recognized on the street, you can tell he actually means it.