The awesome British crime drama The Fixer is set to premiere on KCET in a week, and series lead Andrew Buchan and I had a chat about the program plus and a whole lot more.
Chatting with Andy Buchan is like getting a lesson in the care and feeding of acting as a craft, not just as a livelihood. It’s also like having a conversation over a pint with a down-to-earth and utterly charming guy, who’s comfortable and confident enough in his own skin to unabashedly share his respect for his fellow actors and the people who watch his shows, to credit writers who create intelligent fare that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator amongst viewers, and to share himself with you (me), a virtual stranger.
Buchan has starred and costarred in some of the most talked-about and well-loved series on both sides of the pond, from Cranford and Garrow’s Law, to Broadchurch and The Honourable Woman. And when his series The Fixer premieres on KCET on Monday, 28 March 2016, at 10 PM PT, it will surely take viewers in Southern California by storm.
(Viewers in other areas, check your local listings, as various public TV stations across the US have also picked up the series.)
In The Fixer Andy plays John Mercer, a convicted murderer who’s sentenced to life in prison but gets released after only five years. If it seems too good to be true, it’s because there are strings attached. A former cop turned “deniable operative” springs Mercer from behind bars for one reason: Mercer is to help him “bring order where the law has failed.” Translation: Mercer is his gun for hire, a killer whose job is to dispatch permanently certain criminals who’ve escaped the long arm of the law.
Buchan wasn’t long out of drama school when he was cast in The Fixer, a role he says was “a big ask.”
“In general, in life, I’m quite a lean chap, and to all of a sudden go up for a casting that involves some muscle-bound killer… I remember going to the gym a lot and listening to the opening [theme song] to The Sopranos whilst walking across Ravenscourt Park on the way to the audition… So there I was, going up for the unlikely part of John Mercer… I’ve certainly got an anger in me, but it was whether I could match it with the physicality. So I got recalled and was put in front of a room full of executives, and then they offered me the job. And then I had a personal trainer for three or four months, where I was put through this grueling routine and had to bulk up a little bit, and the rest is history.”
Peter Mullan (Top of the Lake) plays Lenny Douglas, the shadowy figure to whom Mercer owes his freedom and little else, as his living and working conditions are anything but ideal. John is forced to share an East London flat with Calum (Jody Latham, Shameless), an irrepressible former cell mate who’s now a colleague, and to work alongside Rose Chamberlain (Tamzin Outhwaite, New Tricks), the tempting sexpot of a honeypot.
“It was a complete honor and a pleasure to be in the same room as Peter Mullan. I think I’d watched My Name Is Joe on a loop not long before getting The Fixer job, so I was pretty star-struck in meeting him. And we’ve become great friends since. I did a job up in Glasgow for three years and would often meet up with Peter in his hometown, and that was wonderful.
“It was a really, really close, tight-knit cast. We [were] quite a mix-matching bunch, really, but I think that’s why it worked. Jody is as you see him on screen, and I always used to say to people that that relationship between John Mercer and Calum is a little bit like Shrek and Donkey, in the same way that he is constantly, constantly in my ear, coming out with all sorts of rubbish and things I don’t need to know or hear. And yet he’s definitely the refreshing, comedic element to the show that I think it needs. It has such a dark heart, the show, that you need those moments of brightness and the occasional laugh.”
But make no mistake. Buchan’s Mercer has a few zingers of his own in the series.
“All credit to the writer [Ben Richards, MI-5], cuz he managed to incorporate so many different strands within the story, so many different complexities. It wasn’t just a drama about a killer. It had so many more facets to it than that.”
And therein lies one of the challenges of playing John Mercer.
“It wasn’t just the physical challenge. Here was a man who was a killer, who had a conscience, and every act that played out, he had to somehow justify it and check it against his own moral fiber. And I think that’s what makes it interesting to play.
“Seeing someone just kill someone for no reason on screen is hugely uninteresting. But seeing the way he’d been written and the way he is, not only asked to perform these duties in a way that Peter Mullan’s character asks him to do, but also the fact that he’s just dropped into this environment with Calum, the disbelief at that situation. There were so many just uncomfortable elements to it that, as an actor, you immediately think, ‘I’m slightly fearful of how to approach that’ in a sense, and I think that’s part of the reason why you take it, cuz there’s a part of you that doesn’t quite know how you’ll play it. There’s no easy way of approaching it. Within the overall challenge there has to be an element of fear, as well.”
For Andy, it’s not just the fear that compels him to take a role. There’s the truth of the character, too. He’s a father now, but wasn’t while playing Mark Latimer during the filming of the first series of Broadchurch.
“Playing the father of a murdered boy, there is no single, easy way of approaching that. And also, I couldn’t, in any way… you can’t underplay it, you can’t overplay it. You have to be entirely true in every single moment of that, so as not to disrespect people who are watching it, who maybe have lost children. There’s always that element to it when you are playing a role like that. I would never even be able to comprehend what it would be like to lose a child. I would never be so bold or big-headed to presume to know what it’s like, yet you have to treat a role like that with the utmost sincerity and honesty and truth, and you can’t shy away from any of it. You can’t treat any of it lightly, and so there’s a huge amount of fear attached to a lot of the grieving scenes, cuz you want to get them absolutely right.
“You do have to go to some pretty dark places, as did all the cast. It was a collective endeavor. I remember for my audition… I’d actually missed the day of auditions, so I had to self-tape, and I did the scene where I had to identify Danny in the mortuary. And the gentleman who I do the self-tapes with in Leicester Square, I know him quite well… I remember him saying, ‘What are we taping today, mate?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think it’s a very happy one today.’ He’s seen me self-tape for a whole spectrum of things, and that was a particularly dark day.”
And more dark days are coming with Broadchurch: Series 3, which will likely premiere on both sides of the pond in 2017. Said Andy:
“We’re not long off from beginning filming… Filming will take about four or five months.”
From the dark, we moved to the historical.
If you’ve had the pleasure of watching Andy play 18th-century barrister William Garrow in Garrow’s Law, you might also have seen him portray an even earlier historical figure — Thomas Farriner, whose bakery was the place where the Great Fire of London began in early September 1666 — in The Great Fire, a role he describes as being “damn hard.”
“It was phenomenally hard. I don’t know how many night shoots we did. It must’ve been over twenty, over thirty. I had acute bronchitis, running through real fire, running through rivers, often with children in tow, often carrying children, and it was unbelievably grueling. But I think the reason for that, and the great thing for that, was the director [Jo Jones, The Diary of Anne Frank] wanted that to come across on screen. He wanted very few special effects. He wanted a sense of credibility that we were actually being put through this, which we were.”
“The Fixer and The Great Fire were two incredibly physically demanding roles, very different roles in their own right, but very, very physically demanding. And, of course, the allure of playing [Farriner] was it’s such a crucial and interesting part of London’s history.”
In The Fixer, Broadchurch, and The Great Fire, Buchan worked with some of Brit TV’s top actors. Ditto The Honourable Woman, Party Animals, and more besides.
“Charles Dance [Game of Thrones] is a towering presence, isn’t he? He has an aura about him that’s unmistakable. Whenever he walks on set, you know about it before you’ve even turned around and seen him… But the whole cast were pretty phenomenal… Rose Leslie [Downton Abbey] and Danny Mays [Mrs Biggs] and Ben Crompton [Game of Thrones]. There were some brilliant, brilliant, brilliant people, so it was an absolute pleasure working with them all.
“You know, when you first leave drama school, people often ask you, ‘What’s the dream? Who would you most like to work with?’ And I always reply, ‘Sometimes you don’t know what the dream is until it’s happened.’ And then you kind of look back retrospectively and go, ‘Oh, that was the dream. Yeah, that was the dream.’ And The Honourable Woman was definitely one of those instances.
“A lot of the people I’ve worked with have been… it’s been phenomenal working with them, a real treat. You know, back in the day I did Romeo and Juliet with Andrew Garfield [The Amazing Spider-Man], and that was extraordinary. He was Romeo and I was Mercutio… In Party Animals I got to work with Matt Smith [Doctor Who] and Andrea Riseborough [Birdman]… So many great, great people who play their craft honestly and seriously and are totally and utterly committed, and it’s been a great journey for me to have been acting alongside these people. It’s been superb.”
With so much darkness and tragedy in several of those shows, will telly viewers or theatre goers ever get a chance to see Andy in something a bit lighter and more upbeat?
“I made a promise to myself that I’d only go back to theatre if it was a comedy. Comedy is all I ever used to do at drama school, and then I wanted to do, you know, some tragedy, really, just to mix it up. And I feel like I’ve done so much dark over the years that I’m probably due a bit of comedy. So, I think if I were to return to the stage, it’d have to be comedy. Something that’s intelligently written, doesn’t underestimate the audience, maybe something current.
“Whenever you say comedy over here, people immediately start listing Shakespearean comedies. They’re brilliant and they’re crucial and they’re fantastic, but they’re not the be all and end all. There are other comedies out there and there are other brilliant writers out there who are writing some brilliant contemporary things. So, yeah, I think anything that’s intelligently written and challenging and gets a laugh out of the audience, ultimately.
“I’m completely open to [doing a television comedy]. I’d love to do that. I’m trying my hand as well at writing. I’ve written a few comedies, so if they ever made it out there, then yeah… I haven’t written them as a vehicle for Andrew Buchan, don’t get me wrong, but there’s definitely some minor roles within them that I could happily play.”
So why haven’t we seen him in a comedy already?
“Do you know the reason? It’s ‘be careful what you wish for,’ really. At drama school I literally did nothing but comedy, and then I saw Paddy Considine in Dead Man’s Shoes… It’s an extraordinary performance, and I remember thinking after watching it, ‘I’d like to do something like that. I’d like to do something a bit darker.’ And it’s literally off the back of that that I went to my agent and said, ‘I’d like to do some dark stuff. I reckon I could play characters like that.’ And lo and behold…”
It seems roles in dark dramas aren’t limited to the UK for Buchan, either. He recently did the TV movie Home in Los Angeles.
“Home is a psychological thriller written by Aron Coleite [Heroes], and it was such a fascinating project. I’ve been coming over to the States now, to L.A., for a good few years, on and off, doing pilot season, and this was definitely one of the more interesting scripts that I’ve read, you know? I’ve come close over the years, I’ve screen tested a good few times, on lots of different things, but this one just felt quite right. It was so interesting and took me by surprise. It was very complex and we had a great time making it. It was a wonderful cast. Sadly, it didn’t get picked up, but we were all kind of prepared for that. We gave it our all and we had a great time making it, so on to the next one.”
If Andy’s instances of “be careful what you wish for” coming true are any indication, then it seems likely that viewers will get to see him in an American series at some point, assuming working in the States is something he’d like to do.
“Absolutely! Some of the series that come out of America are point-blank phenomenal. It’s an undeniable truth, I think, that we are the box set generation. And we’re the Netflix generation. We don’t want to be drip-fed anymore. We are in a culture of immediacy, and we want quality and we want it now, and we want it in ten episodes or maybe twenty. And we want to sit down with some popcorn and we want to watch it tonight.
“Scandinavia is doing some incredible things, and not writing off Britain either, there’s some amazing work coming out of England. But half of the most talked-about shows… Breaking Bad, there’s nothing quite like that, is there? The writing, the scale of writing, the imagination on Breaking Bad is out of this world. And Fargo. I mean, don’t even get me started on Fargo. What a phenomenal, incredible piece of television. The writing is so sharp, but not just the writing. It’s the imagination, as well. It takes you to some incredible places and it doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of the viewer. It’s brilliant, brilliant, almost immaculate television. It’s almost the pinnacle, I think. So, of course, I think you’d be an absolute madman to not want to work in America. I think it’s the opportunity and the scale and the scope. It is incredible.”
And for curious minds (like me) who want to know if Buchan plays the stateside roles with a Brit or American accent…
“It’s always been American. Always. Without fail… Hopefully [my American accent is] okay… I love doing accents, exploring different dialects… It’s always been a dream of mine to do a role as an American in America. You know, actors do what they do cuz they’re sick of being themselves [he laughs], so anything that takes you far away from yourself is brilliant. You can use your imagination. It’s a great challenge, so it’s always been an American [accent].”
Regardless of which accent he speaks with, and whether he works in the UK and/or US, my thanks to Andy Buchan for chatting with me, and to KCET for arranging the interview.