No one can deny that, in his latest role, Richard Madden makes an impressive entrance. Midway through Disney’s live-action revamp of Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh, he comes galloping into a forest glade on a steaming black horse, mid-stag hunt, to embark on a gentle flirtation with the heroine (a poised Lily James). With his blue eyes and sumptuous green velvet frock-coat, the Game of Thrones star looks every inch the Prince Charming he is portraying. And that, according to him, is where the trouble starts.

“I mean, apart from the fact that he’s dashing, what do we know about this prince?” he asks in his lilting Scots burr. “Nothing. I felt like I was creating something from scratch, so how do you prepare?”

Madden has a point. Even Prince Charming’s own Wikipedia entry harrumphs that “these characters are seldom deeply characterised, or even distinguishable from other such men who marry the heroine”. So the actor turned to Branagh for advice. “He had me studying the likes of the princes of Monaco, reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Machiavelli’s The Prince,” he says, grinning. “And I’m going, hang on, this is Disney, right? But it had to be a slightly more complex take than the standard girl-in-distress, handsome-man-saves-the-day thing. We’ve changed the message: he needs her as much as she needs him, and they don’t realise it till they meet.” He takes a swig of water. “It modernises the story.”

Well, up to a point; it’s safe to say that the average viewer of the movie won’t be pondering the maxims of Marcus Aurelius, but will rather be marvelling at James’s ball ensemble, lip-smackingly described by the film’s press machine as “a cerulean gown with a voluminous skirt composed of more than a dozen layers of gossamer-fine silk in different shades of pale blue, turquoise, and lavender”. Indeed, publicity shots of James in the gown have already sparked a debate online about her tiny waistline.

Cinderella remains the ultimate tale of makeover wish-fulfilment – “Project Runway for five-year-olds”, as one critic has described it – and its resurrection is a canny move on Disney’s part. Following the success of Maleficent (£500 million at the global box office) and Frozen (more than £800 million), the company has realised that young girls, rather than boys, are now driving the family multiplex market. Madden hopes that “boys are going to like this movie, too”, but that may be wishful thinking. Within 24 hours of being released online, the Cinderella trailer was viewed 4.2 million times on YouTube and a staggering 33 million times on Facebook – a record for a Disney film. 

Madden says that he accepted the role – once he had established, contrary to his initial impression, that he wasn’t being asked to submit to a panto season in Poole – because “it’s a fairy tale, sure, but there’s enough bubbling away beneath the surface so it’s less binary and simplistic”. But this is no dark reimagining along the lines of Kristen Stewart’s punky performance in Snow White and the Huntsman. 

James, who is best known for playing the flighty Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, is at pains to show that Cinders is no sap; it’s her strong moral code, inherited from her saintly parents, that carries the day. She can even offer ringing redemption to her evil stepmother (played with steely hauteur by Cate Blanchett) and the ugly sisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, who, in this version, are only truly ugly on the inside). 

Cinderella is, in any case, very far removed from the murky, bloody universe of Game of Thrones, in which Madden played the ill-fated Robb Stark. The King in the North wouldn’t be caught dead in Charming’s outfit of unforgiving white leggings and knee-high boots.

Today, in a London hotel room, the 29-year-old Madden is in classic off-duty-actor attire: well-cut black jacket, jeans, T-shirt and heavy-duty boots. His hair is back to its naturally curly state after being straightened to play the prince, and his thick brows and generous stubble lend him a handsomely saturnine look. He opens the windows, so that he can smoke, and then, as he perches on the edge of a sofa and elaborates on his career, promptly forgets to do so. He is affable and loquacious, but not without a certain reserve; it’s not surprising to hear that he initially got into acting to overcome his shyness.

Madden grew up in Elderslie, a village about 12 miles west of Glasgow. His mother, Pat, is a classroom assistant, and his father, Richard, has been a fireman for 30 years. “I was a nervous kid, not great socially,” he says, “and I was terrified at the prospect of going from primary school to a high school that I knew was rough. I thought, how do I get confident? My best friend was really cool, and she went to a youth theatre in Paisley, so I thought, maybe that’s the way to do it. I went along, and I immediately found something I was passionate about and really enjoyed.”

Things happened fast for Madden. At 11, he made his baptism-of-fire film debut in an adaptation of Iain Banks’s novel Complicity. “My first scene saw me getting raped by a big 50-year-old ginger Scotsman,” he says. Madden then spent a couple of years starring alongside Toyah Willcox in a CBBC series called Barmy Aunt Boomerang. “I think that screwed me up a bit,” he says, laughing. “I was always a bit old for my age, then suddenly I’m on set, working alongside the adults, skipping school completely for two years. Then the show ends and you go back to class, and you’re all at sea, and there’s hatefulness from your peers ’cos you’re now the guy from the telly.” He pauses. “I can see how child stars can be thrown off-kilter. It taught me a lot about being in the business and how to handle yourself when you have any sort of success.”

Madden graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 2007; that same year, he was cast as Romeo in a Globe Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet that toured the country. “It was a whopper of a role for a 21-year-old, not having done any classical stuff before,” he says, “but I brought no preconceptions to it, and I absolutely loved it.” (The Stage hailed his performance as “gravelly Glaswegian, and almost childlike”.) 

He won some television roles – notably bleaching his hair to play Theatre of Hate singer Kirk Brandon in the BBC’s 2010 Boy George biopic Worried About the Boy – and then, in 2011, Game of Thrones came along, as it inevitably seems to do for any British actor who stands still for long enough.

Shakespeare’s lines in Macbeth – “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it” – haunted Madden throughout his three seasons as Robb Stark: “Right from the start, the other cast members would say, ‘You’ve read the books, right? You know you’re going to die?’ ” In fact, Stark was offed so offhandedly and bloodily, alongside his wife and mother, in the middle of a marriage ceremony – stabbings, throat-slittings, beheadings, eviscerations – that the grisly scene came to be known as the Red Wedding, and caused viewers to spring in slack-jawed horror off their sofas. US talk show host Conan O’Brien described the carnage as “the most stunning thing any of us have seen in television, maybe ever”.

“There were lots of tears,” says Madden. “I’d spent more time with my on-screen mother, Michelle Fairley, over those years, than my real mother, so we were having to say goodbye as friends as well as colleagues, in the most violent and horrible way. And the whole structure of these six-monthly shoots disappeared overnight.” But he says that he wouldn’t have changed a thing: “It seemed natural to draw a line under it and move on.”

The show raised Madden’s profile, to the point where, as he says, “I could get into rooms with the likes of Kenneth Branagh”. And the fact that he has been in a relationship with Doctor Who actress Jenna Coleman since 2011 also hasn’t escaped the tabloids’ notice. But he likes to keep things low-key, telling stories against himself (including one about the time he was “so skint” in New York that he took a bus instead of a cab, and was fumbling for change when he noticed his own face, as Robb Stark, emblazoned on the side of the vehicle), and saying, of he and Coleman, that “we both stay away from doing press and talking about each other in interviews; we like to keep it private.” He does concede that he’s much more excited about her being in Doctor Who than she is: “She was like, ‘I’ve never really watched it’. I’ve loved it since I was a kid!”

In fact, Madden’s one brush with tabloid infamy came about when he was pictured anonymously a couple of years ago on a blog called Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train. The photograph, showing Madden’s legs splayed in classic “manspreading” style, was seized on by the internet. The responses ran from hysterical (“Castrate him!”) to respectful (“Hey now, the King in the North can take up as much space as he likes”). “This was something that could only have happened in the 21st century,” says Madden, still bemused by the experience.

Madden is still in that enviable actor’s position where he can take the Tube (manspread or not) and pass virtually unnoticed – something his turn in Cinderella might compromise. He will next be seen as Mellors, the gamekeeper and lover of Lady Chatterley, in Jed Mercurio’s BBC adaptation of D H Lawrence’s novel, and as an American pickpocket on the streets of Paris in Bastille, alongside Idris Elba. “I like to try to change things up a bit in the way that actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman or Michael Fassbender did and do,” he says. “I’ve done a few old-style romantic leads now.” And what would he rather do instead? “I’d really like to shave my hair off and get a bit more hard-edged.” A skinhead Prince Charming? Disney, you have been warned.

Interviews From 2015

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