The Look

The Softer Side Of Mr Andrew Scott

The actor has made a name for himself playing spiky villains (and a hot priest). But deep down, he says, he’s all about being vulnerable. Do we believe him? Do we?

Mr Andrew Scott’s big brown eyes are open wide in amused disbelief. “That was not an Irish accent,” he says in his musical Irish brogue. “That was a West Country accent.” How embarrassing for an interviewer who thought to connect with her subject by lightly mocking Mr Ed Sheeran’s ­– again – not-Irish accent in his cameo in Mr Scott’s episode of Amazon’s upcoming anthology series, Modern Love. Panic sets in. “It’s all right,” he says, soothingly. “It’s all right. Accents are such funny things.”

You know what else is a funny thing? Sitting with Fleabag’s “hot priest” – 2019’s most unexpected sex symbol – in a wine bar in Bermondsey, southeast London, talking about vulnerability, romcoms and love stories. Or, to take another angle: sitting across the table from the deranged Jim Moriarty and letting him pick out a rosé. That tickles, too. Having Hamlet express the need for a mini-break in, he doesn’t know, Copenhagen? Amsterdam, maybe? Surreal.

But actually, Mr Scott, who is wearing what can only be described as a modified sweatsuit (shorts and a zip-up sweatshirt, no shirt beneath) after our photoshoot isn’t funny funny. No, Mr Scott is serious: reserved and contemplative, but with the energy of a theatre nerd who, every once in a while, rests his head in his hands, cupping his fingers around his eyes to form blinkers while he thinks about a question you’ve just asked. In this quiet wine bar. He’s not an evil murderer, an agent of a shadowy organisation, or an overly excited (wink) cleric. He’s just a nice guy who sympathises about the difficulty of parsing the subtleties of the many accents in the British Commonwealth (and beyond).

Mr Scott is still hot off his run in Fleabag, even though the show ran from March to April of this year. A few weeks ago, he received a GQ Men of the Year Award, and just a few weeks after that, was in Los Angeles at the Emmy Awards where Fleabag cleaned up, winning three awards.

Of course, this is not Mr Scott’s big break. He’s been in the business since moving from Dublin to London 20 years ago to pursue acting. His dad worked in employment, helping young people find the right careers and his mother was an art teacher. “They were definitely into following your passion and doing that for the rest of your life,” he says. “Rather than, ‘You should be a lawyer,’ or whatever the fuck.”

And this has been a year for Mr Scott’s passions. Aside from Fleabag, and an episode of Black Mirror that landed on Netflix this June, he’s making a poignant appearance in the aforementioned Modern Love,­ which will drop all at once on 18 October. A series of discreet episodes, each one features its own starry cast (Mr Dev Patel, Mr John Slattery, Ms Tina Fey, Ms Anne Hathaway and, of course, Mr Ed Sheeran, among others), based on the much-loved New York Times column from which it takes its name. Mr Scott’s episode, which co-stars Ms Olivia Cooke and Mr Brandon Kyle Goodman, is loosely based on an early column written by the sex-and-relationships writer Mr Dan Savage about the unusual experience he and his partner had with adoption. “It’s just a really sweet little story. It’s not about a romantic relationship,” he says, (many Modern Love entries are not). “It’s simply about the relationships between people.”

He’s also currently filming in Cardiff for the BBC TV series of His Dark Materials. And maybe there’s a Marvel movie in his future? “Oh, fuck. Completely false,” he says. “Someone said, ‘Are you going to be in a thing?’ I said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘There have been discussions.’ And it’s like ‘Andrew Scott has been in discussions.’”

That’s what happens when suddenly everyone wants you – to use Twitter parlance – to run them over with your car. The Priest, unlike his other characters, was a sex symbol, one that wears the hell (forgive me, Father) out of a cassock. But who could be surprised that Mr Scott turned a priest into the “Hot Priest” simply by saying “kneel”? (If you don’t know what that means, stop reading now, watch the show, come back.) In fact, he has been making words positively drip with meaning for nearly a decade.

Consider Moriarty, the insane criminal puppet master Mr Scott played for six years across four seasons of the BBC’s Sherlock, opposite Mr Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. This particular Moriarty – Holmes’ famous nemesis, who has also been played by Messrs Orson Welles, John Huston and Sir Laurence Olivier – is indelible and utterly idiosyncratic. “If you’re going to do it, I don’t see there’s any point in doing it without putting your own stamp on it. I never look at any previous incarnations,” says Mr Scott. The result of this thinking – in Sherlock, at least – was a Moriarty who is all sing-song eeriness, molten physicality, and questionable cutaway collars. “He was quite theatrical; he was grotesque, sort of the archetypal villain,” he says. Archetypal, indeed: the role propelled him into the world of maniacal superfandom. He might not have received a dedicated stan nomenclature like his co-star (ahem, “Cumberbitches”), but the role made Mr Scott a household name.

Of course, establishing yourself as adept at playing evil incarnate probably leads to people wanting to cast you in more Moriarty-like roles. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yep, yeah,” he says, six times. “Yeah, exactly right,” (one more). “I turned down a lot. The shadow of that character took over for a little while.”  The craze got to be so tiresome that he asked the interviewer for a recent profile in The Guardian not to ask him about Moriarty at all (two years after he last appeared in the series). But now he sees a bigger picture, understands how being the object of abject obsession can be a good thing. “I think to answer your questions,” he says, tapping his fingers on the table, “it’s been really good fun.”

Mr Scott demurs when asked what it’s like to be the quencher of many thirsts on the internet. “People don’t say that to me. People don’t say, ‘Oh my God...” He shakes his head and trails off, perhaps in horror of what fans could be saying to him. It’s a little hard to believe that he wouldn’t be mobbed as he walks down the street. After all, one major British publication declared that Fleabag and the Priest were the only couple worth talking or tweeting about this year. (We guess Meghan and Harry, and Kim and Kanye can relax.)

“If I’m honest, it’s only really just starting to dawn on me, the global effect the show has had. People like a bit of transgression, they just do.” Any follower of his career, though, understands that it’s more than just good writing that makes him so very watchable (though good writing, is, politely, what he puts it down to). His chemistry is electric with Ms Phoebe Waller-Bridge, as it was electric with Mr Cumberbatch, and palpable even if you weren’t lucky enough to catch his rendition of Hamlet and – like this interviewer – had to watch a clip on YouTube.

Mr Scott’s character, Tobin, in Modern Love is the most subdued we might ever see him. There’s very little shouting, and none of the wide-eyed glaring that has defined his roles to date. Instead, he plays sweetly, quietly off a tiny baby, and tells goodnight stories to an adorable little girl. Perhaps this is a harbinger of softer roles to come. “I’d love to be in a romcom,” he says. “I love watching people fall in love, and how mad it is.” And yet: it was just announced that he will be playing Tom Ripley in a new adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley. So much for avoiding the nutters.

“What always amazes me is how innocent we are as human beings,” he says, sidestepping yet another probing question about being so irresistible right now. “We are very easily manipulated by stories. If someone puts scary music behind someone and they’re told this person’s eyes are absolutely terrifying, you go: ‘Oh my God, that person is scary, and his eyes totally freak me out.’”

“But then,” he continues, “[you’re told] ‘the priest is hot, wait till you see him’. And then you look at his eyes in a very different way and it’s the manipulation of the storytelling. It literally changes your character.” Hmmm.

“The success is the writing,” he tries, again, to argue. But it’s hard to be convinced that an actor who’s hopped from one iconic character to another is simply lucky with writing. He sees he’s not getting anywhere and changes tack. “Acting is just a way of experimenting with different parts of myself. Vulnerability is something I’m really, really interested in. I think vulnerability is at the centre of every character I’ve ever played even if they don’t appear or present as vulnerable.”

Throughout this conversation, his eyes have flicked around the bar, and he pauses from time to time to comment on the other patrons. At one point, a woman is coughing so vehemently, he stops mid-sentence to remark, humorously, on whether she might be dying. Now, he spots something on the bar. “Oh my God, she’s reading Brené Brown.” We both turn to stare at the book.

“She writes a lot about vulnerability,” he explains, excited. “[Being vulnerable] is how you get ahead. I really, really strongly believe that. [Vulnerability is] strong, it’s really strong.”

Perhaps this is the secret we’ve been trying to distil about his appeal: Mr Scott uses vulnerability to bring us all into a space of fear or sadness or lust or anger with him so that every character he plays – whether it’s the hottest priest in London, a gay man in Brooklyn trying to become a father, or a murderous villain – thrums with the heartbreak that comes with being human.

“The more I work,” he continues, “the more I just think every story is in some way concerned with love – or the lack of it.” He smiles an earnest little smile and we both know this is the place to stop. “That’s the way life is,” he says. “It’s so fast and furious.”

Modern Love is on Amazon Prime Video from 18 October; 1917 is out from 25 December