Halfway through our interview, Richard Madden discloses that he didn’t have sex until he was 18. “Eighteen!” he exclaims, as if that’s ancient. “I was the fat boy: 38in waist. I’m a 31 to 32in now, so add another seven inches…” he draws my attention to his crunched midriff. At school he was shy, and taunted in the playground. At one point he even thought, “If I get beaten up it will end” – and so scheduled a lunchtime fight with his tormentors. “And then my mum drove by and saved me. I love my mum for that.”

This “big potato”, as he describes himself, is hard to square with the 32-year-old man sitting with me now, ripped and vacuum-sealed into a navy polo shirt and jeans; blue eyes, thick brows, jaw as sharp as a bowler’s elbow. On screen he’s brooding, melancholic: everything you’d expect from a west coast, working-class Scot from Elderslie, the birthplace of William Wallace (also known as Braveheart). But his accent doesn’t have the volatile edge of fellow actor David Tennant’s, raised up the road in Ralston, nor the casual rolling confidence of Gerard Butler’s, from nearby Paisley. It’s like a lawnmower on moss – a sweet flat purr.

And he’s still boyish enough to giggle at the enormous pink bed headboard in the Soho hotel room where we meet, and to bounce briefly on the sofa and find it too soft – Goldilocks style. He settles instead in a stiff velour tub chair opposite my own, flipping one leg over the low-slung arm. Is he comfortable being the hottest man in film right now? He says he’s “flattered”, but I sense deep down he’s baffled that his taut buttocks drew record audiences to Bodyguard, the BBC thriller for which he won Best Actor in the 2019 Golden Globes. His torso spawned a thousand memes after Game of Thrones and he’s been cast as every romantic cliché – smouldering in a smock in Medici: Masters of Florence, simmering with a scythe as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He’s played Romeo twice (“I love that character, although I am happy to leave him alone for a while”), even Prince Charming in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.

So perhaps he’s made a timely swerve for his latest role as John Reid, the manager of Elton John (played by Taron Egerton) in the 1970s-set new biopic, Rocketman. Reid was Elton’s manager from 1970 to 1998, and his lover for the first five years of that, as well as a Machiavellian legend in the music industry. “I’ve spent so much of my career doing the good guys, or the guys to whom bad things happen, and this guy is not that,” he says.

Although once he’s growled his way through this sentence, he adds brightly: “But they were in love, Elton and John. After they broke up, John continued managing him and was best man at his wedding [to ex-wife Renate Blauel].” Madden seems relieved by this love – even though both men could be “monsters”. Though any sinister edge must have been hard to sustain in costume. Wardrobe appears to have been one long scream of “More Lycra! More glitter! More feathers!” Madden’s role involved dressing up in Cuban heels, fitted three-piece suits and shades – which, by the end of filming, he was all but ready to adopt in everyday life. “Then you imagine going to the pub.”

I ask how he feels about straight men playing gay parts and this is the only time he seems nettled. “Actors not taking roles because they are not this or that is not what our profession is about,” he says. “I am an actor. I should be able to play anything.” He’s “all for diversity”, he adds, but also “for the best people for the part”. Has he ever questioned his own sexuality? “I’d rather not talk about my personal life.”

Obviously we get to see his bum – when don’t we? “I am potentially naked,” he confirms, still chilly. Then he repeats “potentially naked” back to himself and chuckles at his pomposity. “We’re all potentially naked at any point, aren’t we?” He relaxes. “Yeah, I’ve been naked in lots of things.” He doesn’t find it “fun”. Nor did his parents (a teaching assistant and a firefighter) the first time they settled down to watch him with their tea and were treated to a full-blown sex scene.

Lately he’s taken a harder line with “gratuitous nudity”. “I read scripts where, within the first 15 pages, it says, ‘He gets into the shower…’ And I think, I know exactly what this is, it’s just a scene to get me to take my clothes off. And then I’m like, ‘Right, if you can f**king explain to me why it’s important that I have my shirt off then I will absolutely do it. But if you can’t’ – which they often can’t – ‘then I won’t.’”

On occasion, it’s “totally necessary… There’s a way you speak to someone when you’re completely naked. For comedy, for intimacy, if there’s a reason, OK. But I try to avoid gratuitous shower scenes.” Isn’t this the complaint of starlets? Madden says there’s a shift: Hollywood men are ever more conscious of objectification. Even as he says it, a mental image of him, from one or other of his bare-all roles, flashes through my mind. So he has a point.

And actually, he adds, “We’re projecting a very unrealistic body image. I find myself with actor friends – after we’ve done a kind of barely eating, working-out-twice-a-day, no-carbing thing for these scenes – looking at each other going: ‘We’re just feeding this same shit that we’re against.’”

But that’s what they’re told to do, he says. “I’ve done numerous jobs where you’re told to lose weight and get to the gym.” He’s had his fat rolls pinched. He’s been given costumes so restrictive they feel like a corset – he mimes sucking in his tummy and not being able to breathe. “It doesn’t just happen to women, it happens to men all the time as well.”

On the other hand, a shift to be embraced is the ascent of the powerful, older female lead. In Bodyguard, his character is PPO (personal protection officer) to the home secretary, played by Keeley Hawes, a decade older on film and in real life. Madden says this “new frontier… worked really brilliantly”. It felt so natural, “in terms of two people who just found each other; I didn’t think on it so much until afterwards. [James] Bond,” he reflects, “always had a younger bit on the side, and this was a different dynamic altogether.”

Ah, the Bond question. In the wake of Bodyguard, bookies slashed the odds of Madden taking over from Daniel Craig to 6/4. Constantly tipped to play 007, he’s made no secret of his interest in the part, though Craig has one more outing in 2020 before any decisions will be made. Today Madden is tight-lipped but in a playful mood and seems tickled by how the role of men in the franchise could be upended. Forget Bond Girls, he’d “absolutely” play second fiddle to a female Bond – become a Bond Boy, if you like – “if it was a good part. If it was an interesting part, a Bond Boy would be an interesting dynamic. Why not?”

He’s keen to expose his sensitive side. He complements brute weightlifting with yoga. He cries – “weeps” – at “bits of human kindness. I am so soppy for it. I want to believe in the good things.” (Later, he wells up at the thought he’ll see his niece for her birthday.) In part he attributes this soppiness to growing up with his two sisters and mother. “It was a very emotional kind of house, very expressive,” he smirks. Who cried the most? “Oh God, probably me.” Isn’t this slightly against type? “The hard, cold type?” he laughs. “My dad never instilled that ‘west coast of Scotland male mindset’ in me.”

When did you last cry, I ask: “Er, I can’t go into that.” He adopts the actorly standard of refusing to talk about girlfriends, but among his exes are the actresses Jenna Coleman and Suki Waterhouse. In December he broke up with another, Ellie Bamber, after 18 months. Yet he’s quick to reject the idea that he lives his life in some thespian bubble. He’s proud of his roots, particularly while acting is so stuffed with Old Etonians. He does a jokey “some of my best friends are posh” routine, but actually believes, “once working class, always working class”. He says, “People confuse success or money with a change of class,” but it’s a “mentality”. “I got my first job at 11 and I never took money off my parents again.”

The family wasn’t political, he says, although he won’t disclose their position on Scottish independence, or indicate which way he votes. What sparks his social conscience is inequality in education: the lack of opportunity for poor, non-academic kids at tough schools. “The idea is: ‘Right, you’re just shit and you’re gonna have to leave school because you’re not getting the grades.’ There’s got to be other options.”

His school had no music, no sports, no drama departments. Four children were sent (by taxi) to another school to take drama. Madden doesn’t know why he was picked, “Maybe because I’d been a kid actor so they thought, ‘Better send him.’” He failed the course, he says, because he couldn’t memorise all the necessary facts about Brian Friel.

He paints a grey picture of his youth. Even his first memory – a golden afternoon in the garden – he wonders if he’s made up, “because it was Scotland and we didn’t have summer”. He was deeply shy, he says, and enrolled in youth theatre to try to overcome it. A natural talent, by 11 he’d been cast in the film adaptation of Iain Banks’s Complicity, went on to study at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and spent his first professional years paying his dues on stage. Then the big break: being cast in Game of Thrones in 2010. He was off.

Now, he’s based in east London and spends months at a time in sun-bleached Los Angeles. He’s happiest, he says, “eating pizza, drinking beer”. He’d avoid “sore thighs” from exercise altogether “if 17 million people weren’t going to be watching me with my shirt off. And it’ll be on the internet forever.” He insists that at his absolute fittest – while filming Ibiza and pumping iron for Bodyguard – he was also miserable. “My body had never been as good, but I wasn’t having all the things I enjoyed. The socialising, the glasses of wine, the beautiful bread and butter.” Seriously? “Yeah. I had this great eight-pack, but nowhere to show it off, so I was like, ‘Er, this is pointless.’ I felt great physically but mentally I was depressed.”

A day later, he arrives on set for Vogue looking anything but down; fag in one hand, bottle of green juice in the other, aviators clamped movie-star style on his face. When asked by photographer Alasdair McLellan to kiss his scorching co-model Lara Stone, he swiftly obliges, but is also the first to point out that all this is part of his own necessary façade. “I am still that fat boy from school,” he says, earnestly. “I am permanently that guy in my head. You just never shake that off.”

Interviews From 2019

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