The Mists Of Avalon
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Hans Matheson wants to be invisible.
So what is he doing starring in a multi-million pound remake of Dr Zhivago?
The Herald; Glasgow (UK); Nov 2, 2002; Teddy Jamieson;
Caitlin from Washington really likes Hans Matheson. Really, really likes him. "I love this man!" she gushes. "Gosh, he's hot!" I think you get the idea. Hans is her man. Still, I'm not sure Caitlin likes Master Matheson quite as much as Gry from Denmark does. "I dream about him at night," Gry declares. "I know he is my only one!" I think we can take it that Gry is quite keen on him too then.
The degree of Matheson's "hotness" is, dare I say it, quite a heated topic of conversation on the internet. Type his name into Google and you'll discover tens of hundreds of Caitlins and Grys extolling the young Scots-born actor's virtues. Not bad for someone who until now has been more a background figure than an upfront face on the big and small screen - unless, that is, you've seen such arthouse fare as Stella Does Tricks.
That is all about to change, however. In December there's another supporting role in British chiller-thriller Deathwatch to add to small parts in Still Crazy and Les Miserables on his CV, but more immediately and more importantly there's the little matter of stepping into Omar Sharif's shoes. Later this month Matheson can be seen in the title role of Granada's adaptation of Boris Pasternak's epic novel Dr Zhivago. Safe to say that Caitlin and Gry will soon have rather a lot of competition.
Actually I think they already have. "He's a real sweetie," Holly and Natalie the PRs tell me before I meet him on the Zhivago set in Prague. When I arrive, the Czech capital is overrun by film crews. Out in the country Jackie Chan is chop-socking his way through his latest blockbuster, while Sean Connery is due in town to start filming the Victorian fantasy The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in a couple of weeks. Granada, meanwhile, has taken over a rather shabby block in the centre of the city just around the corner from the old town square and recreated a little bit of old Russia in it. Before Matheson arrives I get a guided tour. Here's Lara's bedroom, a dark, dingy space with a copy of the Sunday Times sports section lying on the bed. Outside at the back is the bakery where, according to my guide, the Russian Revolution begins and downstairs there's a vaulted cellar that's doubling as a Russian Orthodox church, complete with some rather pretty Byzantine icons freshly painted on the walls (Lara, played by teenager Keira Knightley, is scheduled to get married to Sam Neill here in three days' time).
When I emerge Matheson is waiting for me. He's not got any scenes today but he's on stand-by just in case and so meets me in full costume - early twentieth century Russian peasant chic. As we sit down to speak a little French boy from the next table decides he has to play around our feet. Matheson keeps breaking off from talking to me to talk to the kid.
It's soon clear why Caitlin and Gry should be so enamoured, though he himself is a bit bemused by their interest. "If they saw me in the flesh they'd think twice. I'm just a wee thing," he says. It's true he's no giant, but there's those high cheekbones, the greeny-blue depths of his eyes, the almost black hair that falls across his face. He's the stuff of every sensitive teenage girl's dreams. Frankly even I can tell the man's a bit of a dish. Better yet he lives up to the image. His co-star Knightley has said Matheson has "a truly poetic soul", which sounds like luvvie gush, but, fact is, he does fulfil the requirements of the romantic hero to a T. This is a man who tells me he likes "a storm and a wild night", who never travels without his guitar, and who loves to write and play his own songs. And ladies, he is still looking for a "soulmate" to share his life with.
He talks passionately about Pasternak's novel (his second-hand copy goes everywhere with him: "It's like a little bible," he says) and about his role. "He's so open," he says of doctor-fighter-poet Yury. "He's a man of the heart and he doesn't become cynical." Which is also the last thing you could say about Matheson.
Actually setting hearts aflutter, teenage or otherwise, is not the 27-year-old actor's primary concern as we sit in a Prague cafe just off the square the television crew have co-opted for the duration. Rather, he's only just beginning to come to terms with the fact appearing in the title role of a multi-million prime-time drama is going to transform him into public property. "Now I've started doing interviews it's making me think, my God, it's going to be on national television and shit, I don't know how many people are going to see it." This is not something he wants to think about.
What's particularly bothering him is the idea that he's about to become a media face, someone who's well known by people he doesn't know. It's not an idea that appeals to him. "Life becomes a bit predictable then, doesn't it? Socially people ask the same questions. I'd rather just meet people. They don't know who I am, I don't know who they are, so let's see whether we like each other, rather than you walk into a room where everybody knows who you are and some people take an immediate dislike to you and some think you know something. I'm a bit worried about it actually." So worried that he half-jokingly wishes - but I suspect only half - that Zhivago isn't the success everyone expects it to be. "I hope it's good but I hope a lot of people decide not to watch it on the night."
He wants acting to be a vocation rather than a career. He says that filming all too often is less about the work and more about profile, "and I've tried to avoid that until now." But he's an actor: surely profile is a necessity if he wants to get more work? "Is it? I don't know," he says. "I don't really want to play the game if possible because hopefully if you do good work that's what people judge you for. You get hired for your ability to play the character not because everybody knows who you are. But," he finally admits, "I suppose you're right." He doesn't seem very happy about it.
There's another reason behind Matheson's reluctance to embrace his impending celebrity. At the start of this year when he had just been cast in Zhivago he gave an interview to a tabloid in which he talked about his Hebridean childhood and his own troubled teens. In doing so he painted a picture of the isle of Lewis swimming in alcohol, its people "caught between the cross and the bottle".
He winces when I bring it up. "When I did that interview it caused a lot of problems in the Hebrides. And I think in a way I didn't really know what I was saying. You've just got to be careful what you say. When people read these things in the press they make quite big judgements about the island and they are beautiful people and I felt very guilty after that. I felt in a way I betrayed them because they've done nothing but give to me."
He doesn't totally retract what he said. Alcohol is, he thinks, a bit of a problem. "I think it's a Celtic thing really. They have a comfort in melancholy." But it's the people not the problems that he's now keen to talk about. "Their hearts are so big," he says.
In truth Matheson's childhood sounds rather idyllic. He was born in Lewis and spent the first year of his life in a caravan before the family moved to Canterbury. But every summer he and his brother spent the summer on Lewis alongside his aunties, uncles and cousins. "I suppose you would call it a romantic childhood really. Fishing and walking the hills and beaches. My grandad died last year which was a big loss and things have really changed since then." It was his grandfather who took Matheson and his younger brother fishing and taught them to swim and play golf.
Those summers made a lasting impression on him. Although he was raised in England, lives in Bromley in Kent and speaks with an unmistakable southern accent he still considers himself Scottish. He idly dreams of one day buying a croft on Mull or Lewis. I make his day by producing some Irn-Bru and Tunnock's caramel wafers. His gran, he tells me, keeps sending him emergency supplies of Irn-Bru and bobend socks.
He is still close to his family and speaks of them with affection. His father is a songwriter, but made money by labouring on farms. These days he's a decorator. "He does trompe l'oiel, Venetian washes," Matheson explains. "I worked with him when I left school."
It seems the actor was not a star pupil. "I was still kind of finding myself," he says. He has described himself as something of a disruptive teenager, not averse to sampling the odd chemical substance. But this is a description he is unwilling to endorse today. He was no more disruptive than anyone else, he says now. "I think it's quite a natural process that you go through," he argues. In the past he has maybe said things for effect, played up the teenage rebel angle to make good copy. "I think I've developed a lot in the last few years and realised there's no need to prove anything to anybody, there's no need to be anyone but who you are. That's quite a difficult thing in life to be who you are and when you are doing interviews you kind of feel this need to say something interesting."
His run-in with drug culture amounted to little more than adolescent experimentation, he says. "It's what you do, you know. And now I hate cocaine. I don't know why people do it. It's the most depressing thing in the world to take cocaine. It's so soul- destroying, I think there's probably a time and a place for people to take drugs. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison was written when he was on ... I don't know what. Heroin? Speed? But it's a masterpiece. But there's so many more things to life than drugs. When life becomes about drugs it's a problem. Now I hardly drink. I smoke cigarettes and I have the occasional smoke of weed at a party, which I enjoy. It's great.
Playing a bit of music, smoking a bit of weed. Why not?"
Was it ever something that ruled his life, I ask. "Oh no, no, no. In a way I'm glad I experimented early on because I'd hate to have not experienced it and then be doing it now and maybe using it for confidence. Now I quite enjoy sobriety. I don't feel a need to do anything. Certainly not Class A drugs."
Anyway, it was acting not ecstasy that offered Matheson a way out of his teenage confusion, a place he could channel his energy. Drama college, he says, was a process of personal development. "For the first year I was just coming out of my shell." It was his psychoanalyst mother who first suggested that he should go on a course. He agreed and chose drama, though how he got into drama school he's not sure. "I think it was destiny. I really do. And my dad believes it too. When I auditioned for drama college they asked me to do my Shakespeare. I couldn't do it. They asked me to do my modern and I couldn't do it. They asked me if I had a song prepared and I said no, so I sang Happy Birthday. And I did a reasonable improvisation, a reasonable one, nothing special at all. I don't know how I got in, but I did. I think it was because they were short of boys."
Whatever the reason it was the making of him. After drama school he quickly began to earn screen time. He also became involved with another aspiring actor, a certain Samantha Morton of Morvern Callar and Minority Report fame. Their relationship lasted four years. These days he is happy in his own company, he says, but he'd rather be with someone. Caitlin and Gry take note.
It's later in the afternoon and Matheson is talking about sex. Screen sex. He is, it seems, something of a veteran. "Sex scenes are not much fun. It's important you show these characters love each other, so you have to be kind of passionate about it but you've got 20, 30 people watching you and you're constantly worried about whether or not you're going to get a hard-on which would be really embarrassing. It's not even about finding them attractive. It's about you're thinking about sex, you're thinking about loving this person so him downstairs gets a bit excited. He thinks cool, yeah, I'm gonna get some action."
Before you get too excited, though, he says there's not much sex in Zhivago, even though it's been adapted by that recurrent controversialist Andrew Davies, creator of Tipping the Velvet. "Maybe a bit more than in David Lean's film but nothing we haven't seen before."
Sex scenes or not, Zhivago is likely to be huge. ITV has invested a little too much in the drama for it not to be. What, I ask, does he want out of it? He talks about the opportunity to play a great role and about the possibility of it alerting other film-makers to his abilities - Mike Leigh, maybe or Emir Kusturica. Typical actorly answers. The kind of thing you expect him to say. What he says next, however, isn't. "I don't really know what I want. I'm still a bit lost really. I think the problem I have with films is that because there's so much hype around them they become bigger than they should be really. There are things that people do every day in their little workshops that they'll take to heaven with them. You've got to realise that it's not everything, making films."
The dam has broken now. He says he's not even sure acting is where his future lies. What he does in life has to have some meaning to him; it can't be just a way to pay the rent. "I want it to be more than a job and maybe it's not in acting that I'll find that. At the moment it is. But my music is really more essential to me for my soul. Because it's me, it's so me. I've written the music and I've written the songs and it comes from here," he says, indicating his heart.
Filming Zhivago ends a couple of weeks after we talk. From what he says it sounds as if he's not sure whether it's the start of something or something of a dead end. When we speak he has nothing else lined up. The summer months stretch before him, virgin territory. He'd like to visit a few music festivals, pitch his tent, play his music. "I'd like to get away from cameras for a while. Just to live a bit in the real world. It is important to go and live and experience other things in life. I've got a bit of money in the bank. I've got my guitar and my fiddle. The summer's coming." A last chance to disappear before everybody and his wife is familiar with his appearance.
Our time is up and I leave Hans Matheson on stand-by. With some time to kill, I wander out into the indecently pretty Czech capital. It's my first visit to Prague and it doesn't take long for me to lose my bearings. For an hour or two I'm not sure I know where I'm going. I suspect Hans Matheson knows that feeling.
Dr Zhivago begins on Sunday November 24 on ITV1 at 9pm.