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An Improbable Zhivago

Sunday Times - Gillian Bowditch

Hans Matheson is sitting in the soulless bar of London Television Centre hunched over a cup of tarry coffee and I am gazing into his blue eyes waiting to fall in love. Despite the gale outside, there are no thunderbolts. The weakness in my knees is nothing more than a reminder of the previous evening's tennis lesson. There is nothing to indicate that I am in the presence of one of the most enduring romantic heroes of 20th-century literature.
This month Matheson, 27, who hails from Stornoway, Lewis, plays the title role in Granada's ?8.5m serialisation of Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago. From where I am sitting this seems akin to casting Edwina Currie in The Nun's Story. It's not that Matheson is weedy, but you would be nervous about leaving him outside in a strong wind, let alone the depths of a Russian winter.
His straggly beard and fluffy moustache are just visible under his black corduroy peaked cap. A little wooden guitar hangs from a leather thong around his neck. He looks more like a refugee from a boy band than a dashing Red Army refusenik.
Matheson, who left school with practically no qualifications, seems as surprised as I am that he landed the part. And when he did, he visited Pasternak's niece in Oxford, whose home is a museum to the Nobel prize-winning author, which only confirmed his initial doubts.
"I was humbled by it," he says. "I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm not on this level intellectually.' But my job is to understand this emotionally and to play these great scenes. It was a wonderful opportunity, but tough."
Matheson's shoulders may not look substantial enough to support a small backpack, let alone the future of Granada television's drama department, the expectations of Pasternak's fan club and a Russian great coat. There is, however, a good deal riding on the production. Scripted by Andrew Davies, who recently adapted Sarah Waters's novel Tipping the Velvet, Doctor Zhivago is one of the most expensive dramas Granada has made. It has taken three years to complete, and comparisons with the award-winning David Lean epic film starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif are inevitable. According to the Financial Times, if Zhivago flops, Granada may stop producing upmarket drama.
A less fey spirit might be daunted by the responsibility. It helps that Matheson believes in karma. "While filming I think Boris Pasternak was with us somehow," he says. He identifies with "Zhivago the poet" and thinks Lara and Yury must have met in a previous life.
"We have all had great love in our lives and maybe lost them as well," he muses. "At the time, you see it as a misfortune, but that is destiny in itself. Behind every beautiful thing, there is some kind of pain." Listening to this sort of thing, you have to fight the desire to jump on a sledge and flee to Vladivostok. This could be Doctor Zhivago as played by Neil from The Young Ones.
Matheson certainly does not fit the stereotype of the dour, Presbyterian islander. His extended family still lives on Lewis. His grandmother speaks Gaelic and attends church every Sunday. There is, however, a destructive side to the family.
He has spoken in the past of the alcoholism that is rife on the island and that has blighted his family. He regrets being so open. "I didn't really have a right to say anything about that," he says. "I'd really like to put that right. I think there is a problem with alcohol in Scottish culture generally but it wasn't my place to judge my family and the island."
His remarks caused controversy on Lewis. "I was really gutted because I was so young and naive," he says of the fallout from his comments. "I felt I had shown disrespect to my family. They're family at the end of the day and they've done so much for me. Their hearts are so big but on my dad's side they die at 50 from bacon and sausages and whisky. That's just the way it is up there."
His parents left the island when Matheson was two for a hippie existence in Kent. His father Iain is a folk musician and a trompe l'oeil painter, his mother, Sheena, a therapist. "My mum and dad used to take us to Glastonbury," he says. "I went to Bob Dylan concerts. I was surrounded by the hippie movement when I was a kid. It was a very sheltered up-bringing in so many ways. When the time came to walk a bit it was difficult to face certain things. But that wasn't the fault of my mum and dad. We were given so much love. I come from a very close family."
Matheson was an introverted, shy child who did not do well at school. He has spoken of being disruptive and angry, and of his experimentation with drugs. When he was 17, his parents persuaded him to go to drama college. "I was a very inhibited teenager and drama was a very healing, therapeutic process," he says. He won a place at drama school mainly, he says, on the grounds of his gender. "I was the only boy in my class." The lack of male talent would suggest that he has plenty of experience playing the romantic lead. But no. "We mostly did feminist plays," he says. "I was the victim in everything."
His teachers pushed him to audition for the lead role in a Channel 4 production of a Jez Butterworth drama, Christmas. That led to working with Butterworth in Mojo at the Royal Court. Matheson played alongside Harold Pinter in the film version of the play, which was followed by roles in Stella Does Tricks and Still Crazy with Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly.
In 1997 he won the role of the revolutionary Marius in Billie August's film adaptation of Les Miserables and flew to New York for the filming. It was the first time he had been abroad. "It was an unbelievable turn of events. The furthest I'd been was Stornoway and suddenly I found myself in a room with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush." Doctor Zhivago, which took three months to film and will be screened in three 90-minute episodes, is his biggest role to date. The anti-hero Victor Komarovsky is played by Sam Neill, but the stakes are raised by the fact that Lara is played by another unknown, Keira Knightley, 17, the daughter of the Scottish playwright Sharman Macdonald. "I was worried to start with," says Matheson of Knightley's inexperience. "When you are 17 you haven't really experienced love in any kind of way, especially the profound love of Yury and Lara. But Keira is extraordinary. She's a natural actress and she looks fantastic. She's quite complicated and there is an enigmatic quality to her. I really respected the maturity she brought to this part."
Matheson is no stranger to traumatic love affairs. For four years he lived with actress Samantha Morton, who was nominated for an Oscar in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown and who plays the title role in Lynne Ramsay's film of the Alan Warner book Morven Callar. It was a tempestuous relationship and one he drew on while filming Zhivago.
"I've been through so many layers with the relationship," he says. "I was very innocent then. All of a sudden we found ourselves in really difficult times. We were both struggling but still very much in love.
"Love is a strange thing. I had to split with her. It was my most powerful relationship because of the amount of love we felt for each other and then the amount of pain we went through. You have to break your shell at some point. Your illusions have to be shattered. Now I can read Pasternak and understand it."
After his relationship with Morton, he spent two years on his own. "I met Sam again recently and it was really good," he says. "I didn't need her, she didn't need me. I never thought I'd be able to sit there and drink coffee and see her with her baby and be okay about it. I was proud of myself. We both were."
A regular on the folk circuit where he plays guitar and fiddle, Matheson has written an album. He is swithering about whether to give them a wider audience. "It's very personal."
He would like to return to Lewis to live. As for the future, there are no specific projects. For the past five months he has been dating an actress who is currently filming in Australia.
"I'd love to be married with children but maybe not quite yet," he says. "I'd love to have a big family. Family is under-rated these days - everyone is too bound up in their careers - but it is so important." It is not something you could imagine Omar Sharif saying. Matheson is a post-feminist romantic hero, the type who does the housework before getting the girl.
A week after I meet him, the results of the photo shoot come through. He looks fantastic: dark, brooding and devastatingly handsome. There is still no thunderbolt, though. Perhaps we're too used to seeing new-agers with a direct line to the great spirit and a penchant for playing acoustic guitar as the comic sidekick, not the romantic hero. Ah well . . . there's always Sam Neill.

Doctor Zhivago starts on ITV on November 24
November 3, 2002.