Forget references to The Shining in Toy Story or Star Wars nods in Indiana Jones, the greatest Easter egg in movie history is a Mike Leigh leading character cropping up as the villain in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Eddie Marsan, fresh from playing unhinged driving instructor Scott in Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, arrived in LA on the set of $150m superhero film Hancock. “They put a bazooka in my hand and said, ‘Blow up Will Smith’. But if you watch Happy-Go-Lucky and Hancock, my characters are the same because I couldn’t get Scott from Happy-Go-Lucky out of my head.”
There wasn’t much for Marsan to work with in Hancock, so you can’t blame him for fleshing out his part with what came to mind at the time. The 46-year-old has appeared in several huge movies – Gangs of New York, Miami Vice, Mission: Impossible III and War Horse – and made a big impact in small roles.
But it’s through playing larger parts in smaller movies and quality television that he is becoming one of the best British character actors of his generation.
He was born and raised on council estates in the East End of London.
“I love Bethnal Green and where I’m from. Nothing there, especially the people, ever held me back but I never felt that I was successful there. I wasn’t that hard, I wasn’t that tough, I wasn’t that funny – I looked like me. Acting was a way of me finding myself, which I think is the case of a lot of actors, regardless of where they come from.”
As a boy, he watched films on TV with his dad, a lorry driver, who would point out actors like Al Pacino, Albert Finney and Gene Hackman. “He’d say, ‘He plays a good part.’ I remember that phrase, and it inspired me.
"I also remember watching The Godfather and being blown away by Robert Duvall [who played lawyer Tom Hagen], just by the way he did nothing but you understood everything that he was doing.”
“Nothing doing” was the response to all of Marsan’s teenage drama school applications, sent while he was working as an apprentice printer in the basement of a merchant bank. But he was also persistent.
“I thought, ‘I know I can do this but I don’t know how to.’ I needed the tools, and I’m a great believer in that, in learning how to do something. I was never really a natural actor. Paddy Considine is a great friend of mine, and he is a natural actor because he is an artist, and I’m not an artist. If I ever blow my own trumpet, it’s as a craftsman.”
Eddie Marsan in Tyrannosaur
It was Considine the director who showed that Marsan and his trumpet could be a one-man brass section, facilitating a remarkable turn as an appalling, abusive husband in the 2011 film Tyrannosaur. Two years later, he played a polar opposite spouse in Southcliffe, the Channel 4 mini-series about a mass shooting in a small English town. There’s nothing more heroic in the recent output of Marvel or McConaughey than Marsan’s kindly rescuing, in Southcliffe’s final stretch, of his broken-by-grief wife. Spoiler alert: you will cry.
He appeared in the adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Filth but was most widely seen as Inspector Lestrade in the two Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes films, Marsan is now stopped by people who mostly ask him about Ray Donovan, the US cable drama, in which he plays Terry, brother to the title character, a Hollywood fixer played by Liev Schreiber. Terry is a former boxer, now gym owner, suffering from Parkinson’s.
The plum job offers keep on coming. This month, you can see him in the British dramedy film X+Y, playing the co-ordinator of the UK mathematics squad, a sort of Roy Hodgson of numbers.
“I’d prefer it,” he suggests, politely, “if you said Harry Redknapp.” (Marsan is a Spurs fan.)
Eddie Marsan with Sally Hawkins in X+Y
Later in the year, he’s playing the latter title character in the family-friendly epic fantasy mini-series Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, coming soon to BBC One.
He’s good company, too. During his couple of hours’ talking to Esquire, he finds plenty to laugh at, and when he does, he swivels to his right on his chair just a fraction and claps his hands together once at his right-hand side in time with his “Ha!” — an unfettered, joyous, physical punchline to whatever has just tickled him. It’s startling, in the nicest way, to see this from an actor who rarely plays a character who might do the same.
At the goodbye, he shakes hands and says it was a pleasure to talk. This is not always the case with the interviewee-interviewer exchange. “It really was. And honestly, it was much worse when no one gave a fuck who I was.”
There is no danger of him passing unnoticed now.
X+Y is out on 13 March. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell starts on BBC One in May