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James McArdle on bringing ‘Sexy Beast’ to the small screen

As the prequel to 'Sexy Beast' hits the small screen, actor James McArdle tells Rolling Stone UK about playing Gal - the character memorably portrayed by Ray Winstone in Jonathan Glazer's crime classic.

By Anna Smith

James McArdle Photographer - Jonny Storey Stylist - Tom O'Dell Grooming - Choocy Sanchez

Scottish actor James McArdle was “wee” when the film Sexy Beast came out in 2000 – 11 years old, to be exact. When he sneakily watched it on TV, little did he know that he would one day play Ray Winstone’s gangster character in a prequel series. “I got my first TV in my bedroom, and it was like Big Brother and Friends and Eurotrash and things you’re not supposed to watch,” he laughs. “And Sexy Beast came on. I probably didn’t understand it properly, but I remember being really captivated by the visuals. The imagery was so striking and obviously [director] Jonathan Glazer is so cinematic, and it’s always stuck in my mind. When they asked me to do this, it was quite daunting and I went back to visit it again and I just loved it so much. Ray Winstone’s performance as Gal… it was irresistible.”

The Glaswegian actor does a good job as the younger Gal, who’s gaining a reputation in 90s London along with his hot-headed chum Don (Emun Elliott, in the role made famous by Ben Kingsley). The pair of Scots first met when Elliott played Macduff to McArdle’s Macbeth. “We have a real friendship, we still see each other all the time. And that was something we could build upon.” He says the role really clicked into place when Irish actress Sarah Greene (Bad Sisters) was cast as his girlfriend Deedee (originally played by Amanda Redman). “I was wondering how it was going to work with Deedee. I was filming in Ireland at the time and all the drivers and all the crew were all going on about Sarah Greene, the charm of Sarah Greene… you couldn’t escape it. When I met her, I absolutely knew what they were talking about. I was boasting that she was going to be my girlfriend. We immediately clicked.” There was one particular line in the script that resonated with them both. “He says: I know that you love me, because I feel strong. And that really, really leapt out to us. Gal has this whole constellation of characters around him that all need him. They all rely on him. That’s the same for her. They don’t need anything from each other. And I think that is what pulls them together.”

So how did he approach the role made famous by Winstone? “I always wanted to show respect and honour that because I think his performance is flawless. But it’s at a different time, so the main things were making sure the physicality and the voice were right.” He also credits his dialect coach, hair and makeup designer and costume designer. “We spent a long time getting that to look great. But in terms of the character, in the film he was dealing with the consequences of life he’s lead. This Gal has possibility and opportunity and believes he can break out of his class. He’s one of the first members of his family to come out of Thatcherism. He thinks, why can’t he get more, why can’t he aspire? So that’s a very different Gal.” 

Photographer – Jonny Storey Stylist – Tom O’Dell Grooming – Choocy Sanchez

Reaching the end of a couple of days of press, McArdle talks fast, laughs a lot and punctures his wit with a hint of anxiety about how the series is going to be received. “I was nervous watching the show but to be honest, I absolutely loved it. My biggest thing was the tone of it. I don’t think I’m biased, I’m quite critical of my own stuff and I personally am satisfied with the tone of it, I think it’s fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s not trying to emulate the film and copy the film. It’s got this sugar, energy and vitality, it’s escapism.” He also credits the series’ 90s soundtrack as giving it a fun feel that’s different to the film.

There is one thing that’s been on his mind. “I hope Ray Winstone knows that this was out of respect for his performance, that I never took it lightly.” The pair haven’t met, but McArdle did reach out when he landed the role. “We have someone in common. I sent a text, I seemed like the polite thing to do and I don’t know if he knew I was doing it. He sent me a really gracious text. It really gave me the confidence to use my imagination to explore different parts of the character. We see an aspect of Gal for an hour and a half of the film, but in eight hours, we’re gonna see different aspects of the character. So that was something I had to use my imagination for.”

Transformation is a big part of the attraction in acting, McArdle says. “I always have to transform for something, my accent is quite specific and where I’m from is quite specific. I’ve had to learn to transform and I really do enjoy it. It’s one of the things I find most pleasurable about acting.”

It’s something he learned to do when he was really “wee” and playing make-believe with his friends. “When people would play games and do bits of characters, I used to think: that’s not what they’re like! I always inhabited [characters] fully, really committing, whether it be accent or physicality.” Most of the time he was play-acting Star Wars or Batman, but one repeated scenario does surprise. “Home and Away! There was a scenario where a character was poisoned by a wasp. I repeated that endlessly.”  

Photographer – Jonny Storey Stylist – Tom O’Dell Grooming – Choocy Sanchez

He progressed to getting paid to transform fairly rapidly, bemusing his parents, who aren’t in the industry. “I think they’re still a bit bewildered, but completely supportive. I think they were frightened as well, because it’s such a departure from anything that they could ever give advice on. It’s caused tension because of that. I told my Mum I was doing Macbeth at the Almeida with Saoirse Ronan, and [dad] said, ‘Mum’s told me you’re doing Macbeth and it’s not a very big theatre. I think it’s a step back for you. I said, ‘Just trust me. I think playing Macbeth in the Almeida, I think it’s honestly fine, just trust me.’”

Next up is a film, Four Mothers, in which he acts opposite a quartet of octogenarians. “It was brilliant to work with these women, listening to all the wisdom they have to offer.” He’s also got a mini-series called Playing Nice, about a switched-at-birth mix up, with Jessica Brown Findlay, Niamh Algar and James Norton. He’s clearly a hard worker, committed to acting. He describes asking Saoirse Ronan to be his Lady Macbeth as “the closest I’ll ever get to a marriage proposal”. And now that Sexy Beast is out on Paramount+, his ability to transform is as evident as ever – the chatty Scot in front of me is a far cry from the London gangster that we see on the small screen. 

The series is very violent in parts, with Stephen Moyer taking on the role of the sadistic Teddy, previously played by Ian McShane. I mention that I found those scenes quite hard to stomach – and apparently Gal does too. “When Gal enters Teddy’s realm, and experiences the violence that comes with that, and the aggression, I think he finds that violence shocking. Gal can throw a few punches, but it’s part of the job. I don’t think he would ever torture someone, kill someone. I think that’s why the violence has to be shocking.”

Does James wonder if real-life gangsters like Teddy and Gal might watch the series? Surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. “I’m more concerned with Ray Winstone watching it!”