First he was Robb Stark in Game Of Thrones, then Lady Chatterley’s hunky gamekeeper. Now he’s winding up Idris Elba in buddy action film Bastille Day. Meet an actor going places.

Richard Madden can recall with clarity the moment he crossed the line with Idris Elba. The “odd couple”, as Madden describes himself and his Bastille Day co-star, were just days into the action film’s three-month shoot in Paris. The 29-year-old actor plays a pickpocket who becomes the unlikely partner-in-crime of a former CIA agent (enter Elba, giving the Bond audition of his life). They had been rehearsing for a car chase, and were preparing for the first take, when Madden decided to wind Elba up. “I turned to him and I said: ‘Are you going to do it like that on the take?’” Suddenly there was tension in the air. “I could see him thinking: ‘What the fuck’s this guy doing?’ It was great. At the end of the scene, he realised what I was doing and was like: ’You’re a fucker! You’re just trying to fuck me up!’” Madden laughs, then lets out a long breath. “He could have taken it the wrong way…”

The opening passage of Bastille Day, in which Elba’s agent chases Madden’s petty thief across Paris, sets a pace that doesn’t let up. But though the film serves up plenty of moments for Elba to showcase his action-man talents, it’s also an effective two-hander. The dynamic between the duo develops into something reminiscent of the odd action couples of old (in Lethal Weapon or 48 Hrs). When, on the verge of big shootout, Madden’s character asks Elba: “Can I have a gun?”, and gets a withering glower in return, it feels like Joe Pesci pestering Mel Gibson. Madden says that he improvised the line, and you can tell he’s proud it made the final cut.

Winding up Stringer Bell may be a bold move, but would you expect anything less from the King In The North? Madden’s turn as the ill-fated Robb Stark in Game Of Thrones ended with him being offed in the show’s most famous set-piece. Since then, his biggest roles has been playing the lusty gamekeeper in Jed Mercurio’s TV adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the more clean-cut prince in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. But this year looks set to be bigger: as well as Bastille Day, he’s landed a key part in another big-budget TV drama, starring alongside Dustin Hoffman as Cosimo, the charismatic heir to the ruthless Medici clan in Medici: Masters Of Florence.

In person, Madden is more self-deprecating than self-assured. Our interview is littered with phrases such as “I’ll keep doing the things I don’t know if I’m good enough to do” or “It will probably slap me in the face at some point”. He confesses that, during the filming of Bastille Day (the release of which was postponed due to last November’s Paris attacks), he kept up his American accent even when off-set, not for reasons of method acting, but so that his colleagues could understand him. His Scottish accent is so broad, he says, that he often plays the American to get by “because even Siri doesn’t understand me! She doesn’t get a word I say. I’m like, ‘What time’s the next train?’ And Siri’s like: ‘Calling: ex-girlfriend.’” Fake accent he may have, but his face is still recognisable to ardent GoT fans. He gets stopped in the street a lot. I suggest he dress in disguise. “I’ve done that before,” Madden nods. “The problem is, you look like someone who is trying to be in disguise and it actually [looks] worse.” He describes the effect of this second-guessing over being recognised as “fucking with your head. You think: ‘I can’t order the fucking spaghetti because there’ll be a photo of me on the internet with tomato sauce down my face,’ and the next thing, no one’s recognised you at all.”

Global fame may be relatively new, but Madden had his first big-screen role at the age of 11, in an adaptation of Iain Banks’s novel Complicity. He went straight on to a role on children’s TV, but then stopped. Rather than become a child star, he chose to return to school, picking up drama again at the age of 18 when he enrolled in the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama. “For the first time in my life,” he says, “I was surrounded by people my age, who loved this acting thing, and it was acceptable. You know [at school], to want to be an actor … you may as well be Billy Elliot. It’s like: ‘What’s that about?’”

This is about as close as Madden gets to talking about class. His parents were a classroom assistant and a fireman, but he describes them not as working class but as “old hippies” who found his career choice “completely bizarre”, if only because “there’s no background of creativity in my family; there are no actors or musicians”. He’s reluctant to wade in on the debate over whether rich kids are dominating the arts, perhaps because he’s worked with several of them (including Eddie Redmayne in BBC1’s Birdsong and Douglas Booth in BBC2’s Worried About The Boy). But he does offer an insight into his early years, and they didn’t involve silver spoons.

“My school didn’t have a drama department,” he recalls. “I was one of the lucky four children who got to travel twice a week to another school, because our school could only afford one taxi. Now, if I was at one of these private schools, how many more people would have been on a drama course? Undoubtedly there is a difference between people with money having access to the arts that people from working-class backgrounds don’t have, but that’s not their fault. I’m not taking anything away from these brilliant actors who are doing great stuff in Hollywood. A lot of them are my friends.”

He’s equally even-handed when I ask him how ambitious he is. “I suppose ambitious isn’t the right word,” he says. “I think hungry’s the word. I’ve not got a plan. I don’t have an ambition to be a superhero. Maybe I’m a shit liar, but I don’t want to get up at 4am every morning for something I don’t care about.”

Madden’s next appointment is a return to the theatre, reuniting with Branagh and Cinderella co-star Lily James for a new West End production of Romeo And Juliet. His take on the role is typical. “I was 21 when I first played Romeo and I turn 30 during this run, so does that mean I’m moving forward in life or moving backwards?”

I’d say he’s moving forward.

Interviews From 2016

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