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Risking everything

Karen Hockney

HE has just taken on the role that will catapult him to certain stardom and Hans Matheson admits he is more than a
little nervous at the prospect. Hans who? You may well ask, because up until now he has only worked on highly acclaimed  but ultimately small-budget arthouse films like Stella Does Tricks, Mojo and Still Crazy. Following ITVís much-hyped  adaptation of Dr Zhivago, however, it will surely be a different story for the 26-year-old actor.

  Hans plays Yury Zhivago, the role Omar Sharif memorably made his own in David Leanís epic 1965 film, and meeting him today  during a break in filming in Prague, he looks every inch the  tormented hero in a brown plaid suit and embroidered shirt, with his floppy hair pushed off his face.

Matheson, who was born in the Outer Hebrides, is broodiingly intense and quite old-fashioned in his principles, more of which later, but flashes of self-deprecating humour prevent him from coming across as too much of a luvvie. Iíve been warned that he can be tricky but as we sit down to chat at the  table in a scruffy cafe in the city centre, he is charm personified.

Revisiting Boris Pasternakís Russian classic 37 years on is a  brave move for any actor, especially one who is at the beginning of his career. In the new version, Hans stars alongside Keira Knightley, who plays the Julie Christie role of Lara, and Sam Neill, following in Rod Steigerís footsteps as evil seducer Victor Komarovsky. He is realistic about the expectations surrounding the remake of one of cinemaís  greatest love stories.

"I donít know if weíll come off favourably," he says, stirring his coffee thoughtfully. "Iíve got a feeling some people will hrow stones at me and Iíll get hate mail. Itís like someone redoing a Beatles song - itís never going to be the same, is it? But thatís your job as an actor, to put yourself on the  line. When you fly, you fly high. I havenít put any more energy or commitment into this than I would into any other production.

"I found the book incredibly poetic and detailed - I could relate to it. I hadnít seen the film before I auditioned, but
when I read the script I saw a fantastic love story. Then  Iwatched the film and thought it was very good. Omar Sharif was fantastic and so was Julie Christie, but it was a completely different story to the book.

"Itís not a competition, itís just a different way of doing  it. The film was groundbreaking in its time but cinema has become more daring in the last ten years. I think the [David Lean] film was limited emotionally and I hope that we are breaking new ground in terms of the emotional barriers. Yury is a man of great integrity and I feel very strongly about the love he has for Lara and his wife Tonya.

"Itís a great opportunity for me - I donít care what people  think of it, the experience will have been enough. There is a lot of expectation, but weíll see. Hopefully people will open their hearts before they get their daggers out."
Then, with a laugh, he adds: "Even friends of mine can't imagine me playing Omar Sharif! Weíre so different and Iím much younger than he was when he made the film."

That he will become an overnight star after the three-part drama - adapted for television by Andrew Davies - is not in doubt, but his upbringing will stand him in good stead. The son of a musician and a psychoanalyst, Matheson was born in a caravan in the Outer Hebrides in 1975 but spent his early childhood in Canterbury. He has no trace of a Scottish accent but his strong ties to the country of his birth have remained, and he often returns to visit his family who still live there.

  "I spent the first year of my life in the Hebrides, before we moved to a farm in Canterbury. I remember I used to spend my summer holidays at my grandparentsí house on the islands. My mum and dad were born there, so we have a lot of family still up there.   "I go as often as I can - itís an incredible place. It is so unspoiled. But problems are starting to occur with capitalism and consumerism, and the kids are wanting out because there are no jobs. The fishing trade is dying, the mills are closing down, and the culture is rapidly disappearing.

  "This is what I worry about in the world most. I think itís sad, but kids want opportunities. Itís easy for me to say all this when Iím living in the south with the chance to travel and work on films, but the most important thing in life is family. Everyone needs a solid base. In London, if you die, you are forgotten tomorrow; people get on with life. But if you are from a small community, there is a wake and mourning for you. Your loss has an impact."

Deep stuff for an actor, but Hans is a far from typical example. He has a huge social conscience and eschews the material rewards and fame factor that his job brings, choosing to lead a simple lifestyle that he finds more enriching. He wonít be drawn on whether he has a girlfriend and says only that he lives alone in a large Victorian flat in Chislehurst, Kent. He relaxes by playing the guitar and violin, which he started learning for a film role three years ago and has kept up ever since. He also chooses to travel everywhere by train rather than plane. His journey to Prague took a day and a half overland rather than a two-hour flight. "Given the choice, Iíd always rather go by train," he says. "Aeroplanes are the death of travel. You never see where youíre travelling or the countries youíre passing through on a plane. On a train, you can read a book or think about what is going on in your life. You have absolutely free time.

  "I donít have a mobile phone either. I like the unpredictable  things that happen when you donít have a mobile phone. You might be left waiting if someone canít meet you but you go for  a coffee and meet someone you havenít seen for ages. There might be a reason for it. "I hate mobiles; they take the spontaneity out of life, the magical things that happen when youíre not expecting them to. My agent is great about it. She understands that I want to live my life this way. Iíve got an answering machine and everything can wait a day.  "Itís sad that when you go to a party, half the people there are on their phones finding out what else is going on rather than enjoying being where they are. Everyone is moving so quickly all the time. I find it frightening but I donít want to sound too fuddy-duddy."

  Hans applied to Avondale Hall drama school in Clapham, south-west London, which numbers Orlando Bloom among its old boys, on the advice of his parents who actively encouraged his dream to be an actor. "When I left school, my mum and dad suggested I do a drama course. They were very supportive. Ialso did a course on personal development. I think everybody should do it, because when youíre 17 and insecure about who you are, it teaches you to be confident and express your feelings.

  "Drama college gave me confidence first and foremost, and a belief in myself. I had a teacher called Kevin Dowsett, who was fantastic, I couldnít have asked for better. I owe a lot to him. He encouraged and supported me all the way along. I miss the innocence of it all. At that time in your life, youíre doing it for all the right reasons, youíre allowed to fail, there is no pressure and youíre not making any money out of it.

"I think the basis of becoming an actor is to get to know  yourself and have the confidence to play and get up in front of people. Risk is great; youíve got to take risks or life  gets too predictable, even if itís just asking a girl out. The worst that can happen is that she says no - but what if she says yes? Iíve learned to take risks."

Hansís first break came at 19, through his tutor Kevin who put him forward for Jez Butterworthís Channel 4 film, Christmas. He moved straight on to Mojo at the Royal Court before starring in the film version alongside Billy Connolly. He also played guitarist Luke Shand in the cult hit Still Crazy about a legendary 1970s rock band who reunite 20 years after they first split up.

He says: "If you come out of drama college and are offered a lead role in a TV film, agents are eager to meet you, so I was lucky in that respect. Even before theyíd seen it, they were  keen. I didnít have to grovel. I donít think anyone should grovel - theyíre lucky to have you. Youíve got to believe in yourself.

"Iíve had good breaks in interesting films and now Iím playing  Dr Zhivago. I canít believe it. I give credit to them for choosing me because Iím young and not as experienced as other actors and therefore a risk. It could have been disastrous. It might still be disastrous, but even if it was, I wouldnít care - Iíve taken something positive away from it."

Hans hit it off straight away with his co-stars Keira  Knightley, who starred in Bend It Like Beckham, and Hollywood heavyweight Sam Neill. "Sam is so humble. Heís a lovely man. He has taken us out for dinner a few times while weíve been here. When I was her age, I didnít know about life in the same way that she does. She is a wise head on young shoulders, with such confidence."

His bond with Keira helped when it came to shooting the many sex scenes between their characters, although Hans says itís difficult not to feel embarrassed when you are stark naked in a room full of people.
"Youíve got 20 or 30 pair of eyes watching, youíve got nothing on and youíve got to pretend you are making love. Itís not enjoyable - you just have to do it, you canít think about it. Youíve got to show that these people are in love, so you have to commit to that and block everything else out. It can be embarrassing. We were doing a scene with me in the bath and Keira had to wash me. Some people came in to see the rehearsals and I was lying as low down in the bath as I could with 30 people looking over me. Some days you just want to blend in with the wallpaper. But I donít have a problem with love scenes or with the way I look in the flesh. If people want to look at my bum, fine, I canít change that."

After four months in eastern Europe, Hans is looking forward to spending time at home. He knows that the anonymity he has long enjoyed is likely to disappear after Dr Zhivago and views that with some trepidation. "Up until now, itís been quite  easy. Iím not known as a household name or through any big films and I love that feeling of freedom. I guess that might change now, and Iím a bit worried about it.

  "I like going to a party and meeting people who donít already  have an opinion on me. It must get boring talking about the same old films youíve been in to people you donít really know, having the same conversations time and again. But once youíre Dr Zhivago, thereís no going back. If people donít like it, Iím in trouble."

Dr Zhivago is on ITV on 24 November