After two decades, actor Hans Matheson knows a thing or two about working in one of the toughest industries around. As his latest period drama, Jericho, airs this January, he takes a moment to look back on his career to date.
Given the current political climate, it’s not been easy for many of us to look on the bright side of life, but the same fortunately doesn’t go for Hans Matheson.
“It’s so good to come back here,” exclaims the Scottish actor almost as soon as we meet. “I arrived in London and just thought: ‘Wow I absolutely love it here.’ It’s full of life. There are so many political debates going on right now about what’s wrong with it, but there are so many things right about it. We never focus on the good things.”
I met Hans for a coffee on Friday 13 November, just hours before the terrorist attacks on Paris. Had either of us known about the devastating events about to unfurl, our conservation might have taken a very different turn, but as fate would have it, we were instead here to discuss Hans’ latest project, Jericho.
Set in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1870s, the eight-part series that airs this January tells the story of the remote shanty town of Jericho, where a community of outcasts, many of whom have deep and dark secrets, are looking to rebuild their lives and start afresh. It sees Hans take the central role of Johnny Jackson alongside Jessica Raine (Call the Midwife, Wolf Hall), who plays Annie Quaintain, his love interest.
Created and written by Steve Thompson (who has written episodes for BBC hit shows Sherlock and Doctor Who) for ITV Studios, the bleak and hostile setting of this period drama could not be further from the likes of Downton Abbey, despite it similarly being set in Yorkshire, and is therefore perhaps indicative of the turbulent mood of the times. Unlike Downton, which portrays a very stable society bounded by class, money and position, Jericho presents a community of people who, as Hans puts it, have broken free from the constraints of society and are seeking new beginnings.
Hans describes his character as a “flawed” but “lovable rogue”, who is seeking redemption from actions committed in his past. Indeed, this is a role that Hans in many ways reprises, having often played the dark hero throughout the course of his career.
His breakout role was in the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Mojo, playing Silver Johnny , followed shortly afterwards with Stella Does Tricks (1996), in which he starred as a male prostitute battling a drug addiction.
Other notable roles have been the diabolical Alec Stoke-d’Urberville in the 2008 BBC production of Tess of the d’Urbervilles (also starring Gemma Arterton and Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne), Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the BBC series The Tudors and the lead in the 2002 TV adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, alongside Keira Knightley.
As with all the characters he has played, what immediately attracted Hans to the role of Johnny [in Jericho] was his complexity. “He’s a good person, but he has done bad things in his life and so he carries these secrets around with him and feels that he’s not good enough,” he explains. “We’d all like to be filled with joy and happiness, but it’s just not the truth. We all have a dark side and it’s lovely when you can explore that through drama. I think light coming through the darkness is the most wonderful thing in the world.”
While I agree with Hans, I note that there are some characters, for instance the rapist villain Alec Stoke-d’Urberville, where it must be difficult to find a redeeming factor. “I tried to find something in his story. I don’t think that he ever intended to hurt Tess and I think he believed he loved her, but in reality it was more of an obsession. Unconditional love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but sometimes it gets taken for granted and you find yourself attracted to the things that are bad for you. I’ve certainly witnessed that in my life.”
While Hans isn’t a method actor, he has undoubtedly drawn on his own emotions to help him relate in some way to his characters. In what he deems his proudest role – playing the part of Jake in the improvised piece for Channel 4 called Comfortably Numb – he had to portray a man struggling to overcome his alcohol addiction, along with other nemeses. “Usually there’s a collective consciousness between people so you can tap into the energy of a character even though you might not know what they’ve been through,” he says. “The piece was about rehabilitation and so it was amazing when people from rehab came up and spoke to me about it and said they got a lot out of it.”
Being able to get into the psyche of a character and show their many facets is the mark of a great actor, of which Hans undoubtedly is, although he modestly admits that there have been many roles he would sooner forget. “I’m surprised people are still talking to me,” he jokes. “I always thought that if I ever have to collect an award for something, I would say that the great thing about this business is that you can get it wrong a lot. The worst is when people come up to you and say, ‘I saw you in…’ and you think, ‘Oh s***, here it comes!’ Inevitably, they’re not going to say anything I’m proud of, but you have to be able to laugh at yourself.”
Along with the rest of the acting world, Hans admits that he has occasionally had to take on jobs that wouldn’t have been his first choice in order to make ends meet: “In rare cases you get amazing filmmakers like Terrence Malick making really great films, but this is happening less and less now,” he remarks. “There’s not much money in it and we are all just gypsies trying to make a living.”
Hans’s reference to being like a gypsy is an interesting one given the actor’s slightly unconventional upbringing: he was born in a caravan in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and then moved to Canterbury, Kent where he still lives. Far from being the only creative talent in the family, Hans inherited his forefathers’ musical gift (his father Ado is a musician and his great-grandfather was crowned the Celtic Bard in honour of his contribution in the ‘50s), being proficient in the guitar, violin and harmonica. This has proven invaluable in his work, having often been cast in the role of musician.
He always hated school, but it was Hans’s mother who encouraged her son to pursue acting. “Let’s just say I’d be f***ing awful in an Oxford/Cambridge quiz,” he says, laughing. “I got very bored with what was being taught and I didn’t have any time for it. Anyway, my mum was really into astrology so she felt that acting was where my energies would be best used.” Hans attended the prestigious Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts and while he admits to initially finding it difficult, having been “very shy”, it’s pretty clear they saw something in the young actor that he wasn’t aware of at the time. After the first two weeks, Hans had taken to it like a duck to water and his parents love to tell the story of how they went into his room one morning to convince him to go and found, to their great surprise, that he had already left.
Hans admits to occasionally getting nervous when performing, commenting how he wishes he could always be in control of himself, but acting is one of those occasions when he has to let go: “You can’t guarantee what happens. It’s like with football: you can’t turn up and know who’s going to win. Let’s face it, we don’t want to know because that would be boring.”
Hans singles out his co-star in Jericho, Clarke Peters (who plays a railway agent), as someone whom he greatly admires for his fearlessness: “He’s not afraid of making mistakes and that’s not something you can teach. I find myself being very drawn to him because when he performs he’s so relaxed and if he does make a mistake, he’s completely unapologetic. He just picks himself up and carries on.”
However, Hans says that even the greatest actors struggle with a bad script and, 99 per cent of the time, a good performance is down to the writing. “My dad once asked me: ‘What is the most difficult thing about being an actor?’ and I told him that it’s all about trying to make bad writing work. It’s quite humbling to realise that you’re only as good as the story you’re telling.”
After working in the industry for two decades, the 40-year-old actor has learnt not to sweat the small stuff: “In hindsight, things have gone wrong and I’ve made mistakes, but I’m so glad they’ve happened. I definitely believe something’s taking care of us, but along the way we think that the bad things are working against us. That’s what I loved about Johnny and Annie’s relationship in Jericho; he’s being forced to deal with life so that he can be free – that’s the real reward, but it’s going to be a struggle. If we could all look at life like that, then surely we have to hang on in there.”