Backstage chats with “The Imitation Game” and “The Good Wife” actor about co-starring in the Alan Turing biopic opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, his acting crushes, and the epic lie he told to get out of his worst survival job.
Tell us about “The Imitation Game.”
I play Hugh [Alexander], and he’s pulled into Bletchley Park to head up the code-breaking team [during World War II]. Hugh had been a British chess champion twice—although artistic license: They said twice but he won the second one after the war. He’s much more of an alpha male compared to Alan [Turing]. Truly, the main part of our job was to get the atmosphere right and to get a deeper understanding of what it was like. Because they lived at Bletchley, there was no escape. They’d start work at six in the morning and finish at midnight and that was attritional on them.
How did you prep to play Hugh?
I spoke at length with the writer, who had more access to other materials. It was a real collaboration about what we were doing together. We had two weeks of rehearsal, which is very, very rare, and were able to get the feeling of what it would’ve been like to live there together. Myself and [co-stars] Allen [Leech] and Matthew Beard, we’d sit down and try to go through ideas of what the bomb was, and some of the mathematics behind it, and doing crosswords together. Just getting a feeling of camaraderie that I think comes across quite nicely onscreen.
What’s one thing you wish you knew before you started acting?
More technique about how to work with the camera, because I was trained for the stage. I didn’t know what to do in front of the camera—I didn’t get how it worked. I felt like I was unlocking a code. Some of my early work, there were some pretty big performances in there! It’s a learning curve but there’s a bit of a different kind of technique to working in film.
What was your worst survival job?
It was, like, a telesales job where you cold-call people. I think I did it for about two hours and then I was like, I’ve got to get out of here! It’s making me quite upset and I’m not going to be good at this job where you have to lie to people and rip them off—it felt like a scam. So I produced this fake phone call, pretending my agent had phoned and said that I had got the part in the next Steven Spielberg movie. I had to make a real show of it and then everyone in the telesales started getting up and giving me high-fives and hugs. Suddenly I had this huge sense of euphoria and then I walked out in London and thought, Fuck, I’ve got to walk home! I haven’t got any money! It was awful, but luckily a few days later I did get a job. But it wasn’t with Spielberg.
Who do you have an acting crush on?
So many people! When I was up in Toronto recently I realized that Sam Rockwell was going to be coming in a couple of hours after me, so I wrote this note up on the board that said, “Sam, you’re amazing!” So that’s a bit of a crush. I think Sam Rockwell is just brilliant. I reckon also Tom Wilkinson; I just think he’s fabulous. Al Pacino and [Robert] De Niro, good God! My favorites tend to be people who are the Chris Coopers of this world, who are just fantastic and not the tentpole name.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
When I got my first job, maybe? Probably? I always had a fascination with it, I always loved it, and I did it at school. My mother was a director of amateur dramatics and so she used to get me and my brother into productions. I’d always been someone who sang in the choir. I was head chorister of my choir at my prep school and we did school plays and bits and bobs. I played lots of sports as well, so it sort of went on the back burner a bit, but by the time I got to 18, I had to get a degree to make my parents happy and I went to the University of Birmingham to study drama. Then a friend of mine got into the Webber Douglas Academy. I thought, I should give that go! Why don’t I give it a crack? I went up to London to audition and managed to get the postgrad course there.
What’s been your most challenging role?
I think playing my first American character, an ex-con on “The Lookout,” was a challenging one to start off with—just trying to trust your instincts and not worry about accents and that sort of thing. Also, working on “Brideshead Revisited,” where you’re the narrator of the story but actually you don’t speak that much in the film. But it’s always a challenge—there are always time constraints, there are always things. It’s what makes it fun.
What is your best/worst audition horror story?
There was an advert very early on when I was just starting to work with Simon Beresford, my agent. I would go out for a lot of adverts, which was a very depressing place to go because there were just lots of very beautiful people, models generally, and you’re asked to do the most stupid things. There was this crisp packet commercial, some chips commercial, and I looked at the brief, the instructions of what they wanted, the script if you will—hardly, though—and it involved having to make out with the crisp packet. In the waiting room, sitting surrounded by all these beautiful people, I’m thinking, They’re never going to fucking give me a job! I was like, I’m just going to go to the loo and then I’ll come back and put myself on tape. I just walked out the door. I’m not saying it’s below me; I was just tense with embarrassment. I just couldn’t do it. Another slow day in the Matthew Goode career! I said to Simon, “I know that some people can make a lot of money doing commercials but please never send me up for one of those again.” Simon was probably like, “This guy just doesn’t want to work!”
Which of your performances has left a lasting mark on you?
You mean scarred me for life? There are a few journalists who’ve stabbed at my heart! I mean, really, I move on pretty quickly. You do a job and then it’s the next thing. I don’t have much time to dwell now that I’ve got two kids. It’s like, “The sailor outfit’s off now, can you just come back to being Dad?” You’re like, “Yep! No problem.”
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