Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Interview: Marc Warren

Ep1In the BBC production of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Marc Warren plays The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, whose Machiavellian machinations are at the heart of this story of the revival of English magic. Paul Simpson caught up with Warren for a brief chat just before the final episode was broadcast in the UK…


The final episode is rather spectacular…

I’ve not seen it yet. Is it good?

The whole thing comes together – there’s a crescendo to the final confrontations…

Good, I look forward to seeing it. I’ve seen episodes one to six.

What did you think of the final versions?

I’ve been very happy with what I’ve seen, yes, very happy. I think it’s great. I really enjoyed last week’s episode, episode 6. I think it’s everything and more than we expected. [Director] Toby [Haynes] has done an incredible job on it.

Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverHad you read the book before playing the part?

No I hadn’t. The first I became aware of it was when Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan mentioned it to me, because they said it was their favourite book and they thought I would be really good casting as the Gentleman. So when I heard that the BBC was making it, I got my agent to get me an audition. I went in and met Toby and subsequently I got the part. Then when I got the part, I read the book.

A lot of people might have stayed just with what the script gave them…

I think most of us read the book – it’s a big read! A thousand pages – and I read all the footnotes as well.

Peter Harness has had to fillet the story considerably to get it even into seven hours; were there any moments from the book you hoped to have a chance to bring to life that you didn’t, or did you get everything that you were expecting?

I read the book and I probably referred to it a few times, just for specific scenes, but I wasn’t married to it. Once I got the script, I just did what was scripted, basically. If it was a good scene, they’d include it, and if it wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be in the TV version. You just have to trust in the people who are making it.

How long was the shoot for you?

I started on November 5, 2013, and I finished around February, maybe into March. But it was sporadic. It wasn’t the heaviest shoot for me by any stretch of the imagination. Although the Gentleman is in throughout it, there is plenty of time when he’s not on screen as well.

Strange gentHe’s a presence that’s felt in a lot of scenes where he’s not physically there…

Yes, which is good.

What did you think of him as a character? Did you see him as “the baddie” or an amoral character?

Well, he’s obviously the baddie in it, but I didn’t really have any judgment on it. I knew what his motivations were, and I just played them without anything else.

It’s a very simple process for me: I just learn it and I kind of know roughly what the character wants, and then I speak the lines. It’s not rocket science! So much work has been done before you get to it in terms of the script, and then so much work is done afterwards, after you’ve done your bit, in terms of the editing and the effects, that the actual saying of the lines is a very small piece of it, really. It’s a big jigsaw puzzle – you’re just one element of it.

But an important element which is difficult for the rest to work without…

Yes. I knew there’d be a stillness to it, and I knew what I wanted to go to vocally. Then the makeup and costume, they’ve got their vision, and it all just comes together, and it either works or it doesn’t work.

Apart from in the final episode, he is almost a very restrained character, except for the odd moments of sheer venom. Particularly in the scenes in Lost-Hope, where there’s the dancing and the camera was moving as well, he became a still point. Did that restraint come from you?

That’s how I saw it. I thought he’d be very economical in his movements, and often when you’ve got that sort of stillness, it’s very powerful on camera, whereas if you’re moving around a lot, it can distract. You need to convey as much power as you can within that so I think any extraneous movements would have been detrimental to it.

He’s almost not a “period” character, whereas everyone very definitely is…

He’s kind of timeless. In Fairy, they’ve been alive for a long time.

Strange and gentAnd he believes he can’t be defeated…

…but quite obviously he’s wrong. From what I remember, he’s eaten by a tree!

Which was presumably you lying down in front of a green screen…

Yes. How does that look?

It looks very good. The branch curls round you and looks like it’s going to go down your throat…

Oh wow! I’ll look forward to seeing that.

What was the most challenging aspect for you?

The voice and wearing the fingernails! (laughs) I couldn’t go to the toilet with the fingernails: it’s very hard to go to the loo when you’ve got those long fingernails on!

It took three hours to get the whole makeup, hair and costume done and then I’d stay in it as long as I was filming. To get rid of it took minutes: it’s a long time getting it on, and it has to be absolutely right because you’re shooting in HD, but getting it off is just get the spirit gum off, get the wig off, and get in the car and go!

Strange and ArabellaYou’ve done various pieces of sci-fi and fantasy across your career, but is it something you’re personally interested in?

I think they’re very interesting characters to play. I’m not really very aware of fantasy stuff; I couldn’t name anything to you, so I wouldn’t say I’m exactly a fan of it. I really enjoyed the book and I enjoyed meeting Susanna as well: she’s an incredibly interesting woman. It was a great project to be a part of and I’m really glad that I was a part of it.

What’s next for you?

At the moment I’m just finishing off Fungus the Bogeyman. I’m doing that for Sky; Tim Spall is playing Fungus. But then that’s it. As from next week, I’m out of work!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn Label. Click here to read our review

And here to win a copy

JSMN_BD_S1_3DThanks to Louiza Bennett at AIM Publicity for her help in arranging this interview.



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