Fables of fame – Glass speaks with up-and-coming Scottish actor James McArdle


Knowing from a very young age that he wanted to become an actor, Glaswegian James McArdle has been feverishly chasing his dream ever since. From this youthful conviction, he joined and became a committed member of the PACE Youth Theatre in Paisley Scotland –  which has alumni such as actors James McAvoy and Gordon McCorkell and musician Paolo Nutini – at an early age, and from then he studied at the prestigious RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) in London where he graduated a mere three years ago.

Since then, James has worked at refining his art by playing Malcolm in Macbeth at the Globe, this role was swiftly followed by a flurry of parts in the National Theatre and the Royal Court and onwards into television and film. When talking with James, his passion for the stage is vividly evident, but his thirst to experience roles in a variety of media even more so; most recently he can be seen acting alongside Bill Nighy in the BBC drama Page Eight (2014), and also Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes in the TV film Turks & Caicos, which develops the events of Page Eight, and was written and directed for the BBC by the celebrated British playwright David Hare – where he frankly admits that even though his part was small, the learning curve was importantly bigger.

James’ drive to keep the integrity of his craft intact by avoiding a quick rise to fame in favour of choosing parts with honesty, speaks for itself. He adamantly avoids Facebook and Twitter in his perseverance against what he sees as any easy or false form of celebrity.

He is currently in rehearsals for his role as James I, one of  a new cycle of history plays, The James Plays by award-winning playwright Rona Munro,  between his hometown Glasgow and London where the play will open for the National Theatre in Scotland during Edinburgh Festival, before moving to the National Theatre in London.

James McArdle by Justin van VlietJames McArdle by Justin van Vliet

Can you attribute your thirst for acting to a particular stage or experience in your life?
Growing up I always found I understood things much better through films and plays – I could express myself much better after watching a film. I became much more critical from a very young age at what I deemed good or bad, and so I always knew I wanted to do that. It was a bizarre mix of the introvert and the extrovert, which probably, quite a lot of actors are. At times I wanted to get up and be the centre of attention in the room, and at others, didn’t even have the confidence to speak. So there were often quite extremes.

Have you reconciled those conflicting feelings now?
I’m not sure. Everyone has different facets to themselves. There are still times where I can confidently lead the room, and in other situations where I’m almost crippled by nerves – it’s bizarre because of what I do – but I find it much easier to perform on stage.

It’s been three years since leaving RADA – what’s the most important thing you’ve learnt?
I’m vey lucky to have an agent who has a lot of integrity, in terms of making sure I have longevity, and that’s our main goal here – doing good classy work. My first two years after RADA were spent on stage. I know I trained in RADA, but I actually trained in my two years out of RADA.

I feel safe in very safe hands with him, he’s very understanding about what we turn down versus what we say “no” to, and has a good head on him knowing what will benefits us – not in a financial way – but in a way that will show people I can transform and do different things. I’m starting to get a sense of how it all works now, and it can be a fickle business.

James McArdle by Justin van VlietJames McArdle by Justin van Vliet

Do you agree then that in a culture that’s saturated with entertainment, it’s even more important what you say “yes” to?
Absolutely. With the risk of sounding too earnest, the only power we have is to say no. You have to be quite picky about what you do, because once it’s done, it’s done – you should believe in it and stand up and say “I’m proud of that”. I would rather go off and do something worthwhile, than do something that I think has no cultural or social impact whatsoever. That’s the whole point of art, whether it’s acting, books, dance or art in a gallery – the whole point of it is to reflect the place we live in.

How do you practically prepare for a busy filming schedule?
Last year was quite hectic, filming back to back and also many jobs overlapped. I was jumping between characters; playing a fireman in an ITV drama, and two seconds later I had to be in 1914 in WW1. It’s about having a grasp on the social context of what you’re playing. It’s hard, you don’t want to become too cerebral – I don’t want to bog myself down with work and dates I would rather get a feeling for what it was like to be alive in whatever period it is that your playing.

In terms of preparation, the most difficult thing about last year were practical things like beard length – which turned out to be the most challenging thing.  In all seriousness I started playing Ted Finch in Salting the Battlefield (which aired last week on the BBC), and at the same time I was playing in a Channel 4 drama, New Worlds. In New Worlds I had to have really long hair and a beard, and in David Hare’s BBC drama, I played the Prime Minister’s first aide. There was this whole woo ha about my hair and beard length.

James McArdle by Justin van VlietJames McArdle by Justin van Vliet

And for James I at the National Theatre ….
I’ve spoken to some of the professors at St Andrew’s University about James I and they’ve been really helpful – I generally prefer talking to people than making it academic. I wanted to find out what people’s attitudes were to James I, not by asking directly but more if I could sense it and historians don’t really give an attitude towards their subjects away – so it was interesting fishing around finding out their own options. The opinion of him throughout history is so divided, some people think he’s a tyrant, and some a fair and just man. I like to think he was a fighter for the poor.

So is it fair to say you prefer theatre, over film and TV?
I can’t say I love one more than the other but what I find exciting about Theatre is you can’t change the channel or check online, once you come into the Theatre you have to commit to being in that room for two and a half hours no matter how uncomfortable or challenging it gets, you have to stick with it.

James McArdle in New WorldsJames McArdle in New Worlds

What has been your favorite character you’ve played so far?
There hasn’t been a character that I feel especially attached to, but actually the last time I played in the National [Theatre] I played a character called Agathon [Emperor and Galilean] and if there’s any character I have a soft spot for, it’s him.

What do you remember from your James I audition?
They sent the scripts through and let me choose whatever part of the script I wanted. There’s one central speech that spans ten pages, and they obviously wanted to see that because that speech is a real turning point for the character and shows a major side to him, so I learnt the ten-page monologue. I luckily had weeks, which is rare, but it took me days to learn. Also I knew I wanted the part.

So do you know instantly as you get a script if you want the part?
When a script comes through you can tell, it doesn’t need to be a conscious decision – I can tell by how much effort I’m putting in if I want the part.

On set how do you deal with criticism?
When your in the hands of someone you can learn from and really respect and who’s really talented – someone who I want to learn from and become better and better – the way to do that is to recognise your faults and your strengths, and surround yourself with people who you trust that can help you. Mentors are important in the industry – I’ve worked with Jonathan Kent twice and trust him implicitly. I think what you should focus on is being good, being commercially and fashionably successful is – well I think – is a waste of energy, you should concentrate on developing yourself as an artist, and then all relevant critique is so useful.

What’s next after playing James I at the National Theatre?
James takes me up until November so I’ve nothing lined up right now. Its been really nice because since December last year I knew I’ve had the part as James, so I’ve been focused on his character whilst having a part I’m really passionate about.

What inspires you?
I tend to be dictated with what’s interesting me at the time, so I’ve been really interested in Noam Chomsky and WikiLeaks, and last year was English Civil War for New Worlds so I’ve consumed everything I want to know on that. If I get interested in a topic I have to consume every conceivable piece of knowledge on that subject.

In the next few years what would you like to do?
I want to do things that I believe in and am proud of, and not to be scared or intimidated of the industry I’ve chosen to be part of.

by Stephanie Clair

Portraits of James McArdle by Justin van Vliet

James I is presented this year by the National Theatre of Scotland, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain

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