In the Prime Video mini-series A Very British Scandal, Paul Bettany and Claire Foy play Ian and Margaret, two upper-class people who meet on a train. When Ian takes Margaret to see the castle he’ll inherit when he becomes the Duke of Argyll, she becomes even more interested in him, despite the fact that he’s married with two children. The two chatted with me about their research for their roles, filming at the actual castle where this true life relationship played out and working with a female director. ~Alexandra Heilbron
This is a really fascinating story and you were incredible at portraying this couple. When you get a character like that to play, how do you approach the role? Because this is based on real life people, who probably didn’t realize they were so unlikable.
Paul: Well, you try to be fair and build a human being who’s really flawed and probably a narcissistic sociopath, but you try and build someone that there are not necessarily mitigating factors, but factors that go some way to explain some of his behavior. Ian was 70 pounds when he came back from a prisoner of war camp, you know, I’m sure there was self medication of undiagnosed PTSD at the time. Not that any of that absolves him, but it certainly makes it more interesting for me to play him and try to make him not just a sort of evil bad guy.
Claire, why do you think Margaret stayed in that toxic relationship for so long? Was it for status?
Claire: No, I think it was maybe the status of not having failed at being married. She’d already been divorced once and although I don’t think she necessarily questioned her decision to get divorced, but I think getting divorced again — and they were such a famous, fashionable, lauded kind of couple when they got together — would have been a massive failure for her in her eyes. And also, the idea that she couldn’t let go of the idea that she could make it work. I think for her there was some sort of competitive and also naïve understanding that she could make him fall in love with — well, he was never out of love with her as far as she was concerned, even though he never was actually in love with her (laughs). But that she could win him round. Because she’s won every man that she’s ever come across, basically. And so the idea that he was out of her reach was what kept her interested, but also, she couldn’t get her head around that, I don’t think. I don’t think that she knew the marriage was over. Ever. Even when they were in court together and they were going for each other, there was an element of her that it wasn’t the end, it wasn’t over. I think she’s in complete denial the whole time.
How did you research your roles, were you able to meet people who had known them?
Paul: Well, when we had the luxury of shooting at the actual castle [Inveraray Castle in Scotland], the present duke was there and he had lots to say about it, and there were lots of documents that the family had kept, which were interesting to look through. And you know, there’s been a lot written about it, but all by men. But in the end, you just sort of try to make it up (laughs). It’s always going to be fictionalized and you know, documentary will get you to the front door but will never invite you in for a cup of tea. To get in for a cup of tea you have to make sh*t up so that you feel that you’re really getting to know somebody in a less dry, factual way. One of my favorite things that we came up with is this idea that they had a contract between each other to never bore each other. And I think they both started feeling they were reneging on that in different ways. Him by being a boorish drunk and her by having these sort of petty notions of fidelity and alcoholism and all of that stuff. You know, they probably fell sort of in love with ideas of each other and not actually each other.
Claire, how did you feel about the costumes from the 1950s and ’60s? I mean, they were gorgeous, but how did you enjoy wearing them? Were they comfortable?
Claire: These costumes were beautiful, really incredibly designed and really indicative of who Margaret was as a person and her place in society and how much money she had — and it said a lot about the character. They were very well made, but not particularly comfortable. Listen, costumes are costumes. And basically I would love to turn up in a pair of pajamas ever day, which would be my absolute dream — and even then I’d get bored with them. At the end of the day, you’re just really relieved to put your own clothes back on, which is basically what I feel about every costume I’ve ever worn.
All three episodes were beautifully directed by Anne Sewitsky — what are the differences between having a female or male director?
Paul: I haven’t really noticed any. I mean, I’ve noticed differences between good directors and bad directors. She’s a fantastic one.
Paul: I think it was really right for the subject matter because she’s Norwegian, making a show about, in some part about the class system in England and I think she has a distance from it that allowed her a really unique perspective. And so for me, as far as her attributes, being Norwegian was really great for that because she wasn’t encumbered with all the preconceptions that maybe a British director would have had.
Claire: Like Paul said, a director is a director. I think there is an important distinction to have, when you’re telling a female story, to having a female pair of eyes on it at some point, whether that’s in the cutting room, or the DOP [director of photography], it’s really useful as the actress in it to know that there’s someone who’s also got an eye on the female perspective. But yeah, it’s very centered around Anne and who she is as a director and what she’s like as a person and she has such a sense of humor and she’s got no time for bullsh*t, basically, which I think with this was really useful because…
Paul: 100 percent.
Claire: She didn’t want to see the version of this which was us [messing] around being posh presenting some people that you’ve seen a million times before. She wanted to see the underbelly of who these people were and investigate who that might be, based on the facts of the situation. Which is I think the only way you can make a drama like this.
Paul: And you’re not necessarily going to have the female perspective protected by every female director.
Paul: You know what I mean, so her being a great director and frankly, in this circumstance, a fast director… (laughs)
Claire: (laughs) Very fast!
Paul: With the ability to make incredibly brave decisions very quickly, because we had no time, I think was amazing and a really uncluttered view of what the show really was. I think she was really fascinated by their relationship.
Claire: And their ugliness and dirtiness as opposed to them being seemingly aristocratic or what that comes with, I think.
A Very British Scandal begins streaming on Prime Video this Friday, April 22, 2022.
June 27, 2022 | Leave a Comment
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