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Interview with Andrew from The Stage (23/6)

Andrew discusses acting, Emperor & Galilean and Moriarty.

It’s under a “read more” because it’s over 1600 words.

Note: You can use this anywhere you like, of course, as it’s freely available in the paper - but please credit me for typing it out and link back here, it did take a quite a while!

The emperor’s new prose

Andrew Scott is playing the lead role in Emperor and Galilean at the National this summer after a well-received turn as the villainous Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock. He talks to Maria Hodson.

If you haven’t already heard of Andrew Scott, chances are you will soon. This 34-year-old Irish actor has twice won the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement or Performance in an Affiliate Theatre, has appeared alongside Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy on Broadway, starred opposite Ewan McGregor in the 2000 film Nora and is currently appearing in the lead role of Julian in Emperor and Galilean at the National. And that’s not to mention his brief but thrilling turn in the BBC’s Sherlock series, in which he made an appearance as the detective’s great nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

Born and raised in Dublin, Scott speaks with a lyrical cadence that makes his conversation a pleasure to listen to. He has been hailed by playwright Simon Steven as “a beautiful actor” – Stephens even wrote the one-man play Sea Wall specifically for Scott – ad yet Scott happily admits to having had next to nothing in the way of formal training.

As a teenager, he attended a local class on Sunday afternoons – “I just went for an hour, we did improvisation and so on” – and later began a drama degree at Trinity College, Dublin, but dropped out after finding it dry, academic and unsatisfying. Instead, he joined Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and effectively learnt his craft on the job.

So does he think there is any merit to drama training? “It really depends on the person. I don’t feel any loss for having not trained – I feel there’s a certain amount you can learn on the job. But for other people it can be the making of them, because training builds your confidence up.”

Scott didn’t need his confidence built up, taking to acting like a duck to water. He received the Theatregoers Choice Award for his role in the National’s Aristocrats in 2005, and was directed by Sam Mendes in The Vertical Hour on Broadway in 2006, for which he was nominated for a Drama League Award. And now, of course, he is leading a 50-strong cast at the Olivier. He is held in regard by his peers and industry figure-heads, so what’s his secret? What skills are required to become a ‘beautiful’ actor? Scott laughs at the question. “I suppose the main thing that you have to have is a good imagination. Everything else you can survive without, but to do all sorts of work you’ve got to have the ability to see yourself in lots of different scenarios, and you need to have a quiet confidence and a knowledge of what your abilities are.”  

He explains that young actors often struggle with typecasting and external pressures when entering the industry, and says that half the battle is sticking to one’s guns while being pushed and pulled in various directions. “In this industry you’re told quite a lot, particularly when you’re a young actor, what kind of actor you are. People think, ‘Oh you’re a TV actor, you’re a screen actor, this is what I see for you’, and because there are so many options, it’s really important for you to have your own very strong sense of what you are and to know what you want to do, even when you’re not doing it.”

In that regard, Scott displays both a strong sense of self – in that he clearly makes the choices he wants to make - and also an amorphous self, because his roles are wide-ranging and varied. He doesn’t appear to go for profile roles, as happy performing on stage as taking on roles in HBO series or Hollywood films. And yet he has a knack of picking well-received productions.

“I do respond t the writing – I’ve worked at the Royal Court and I’m really into the power of the writer,” he says. I’ve got better – your ear becomes more attuned to what goo writing is I was lucky from the beginning to work with some of the great Irish playwrights at the Abbey. Once you start to work with the good stuff, you know what other good stuff is.

And of all of the good stuff, does he have a particular favourite – one that stands out about the rest? “That’s very hard. I absolutely adored doing Simon Stephen’s Sea Wall because it was very stripped back and beautifully written, and there was no set and no costume.  Found it quite difficult, not having the other actors – because it was a monologue – but I did love doing that. And I’ve got to say I’m going to really enjoy doing this – it’s the total opposite because its’ epic.

‘This’ is Emperor and Galilean, Ibsen’s historical epic charting the true odyssey of Julian the Apostate, a fourth-century emperor, who over 12 ears struggles to contend with a declining empire and the rise of Christianity. The play has never been performed before but thanks to Ben Power’s new version, which cuts it down to a just-about-bearable three hours plus, it is receiving an airing.

Scott says he was attracted to the production on first reading it. “It’s unlike any other Ibsen I’ve ever read and it has the dynamics of a political thriller – it’s very fast-moving and very epic.”

It sounds like fairly heavy stuff- Ibsen, fourth century emperors, epic drama – that will only appeal to traditional old-school theatregoers. Yet Scott is confident it has broader appeal. “I absolutely think so,” he says. “It’s been like working on a classic, because it’s got all those elements, but even more it’s been like working on a new play. It would be boring if it was a slow-moving, big old dinosaur of a play - that’s not the kind of theatre I’m interested in and I don’t think it’s the kind of theatre most people are interested in. People are going to be really excited and surprised, at least, by how dynamic the play is.”

He becomes animate when discussing the relevance of the play to today’s society, pointing out that many of the themes addressed still resonate: “Big, existential questions, such as, is there someone looking after us, how we can tolerate other people’s beliefs and hold our own, at the same time, how does our personal life affect which political or religious path we take, what happens when religion divides up friendships. In short, he’s a real genius, Ibsen – not that we didn’t know that already.”

Scott has quite the task on his hands as Julian, who is on stage for most of the production and has a huge number of lines to deliver, not to mention the job of making the character interesting and engaging. He spent seven weeks in rehearsals from early morning until late at night, and jokes that he even came in a week before rehearsals began just to learn the names of the asst.

However, he confesses that usually he does not prepare in advance for a role, limiting his preparation to reading and rereading the play. Instead, he finds the character along the way through trial and error. “I think it’s important to make mistakes in rehearsals and be brave because that’s your duty, and for me, sometimes the research can take away from what you’re there to do, which is to tell a very specific story.”

Perhaps the reason he prefers not to research too deeply n advance is in order to maintain an element of spontaneity in his performances, which frequently display an exciting, live-wire edge e points out that audiences can spot false, learned behaviour a mile off and says the key is to remain aware of your colleagues on stage. “The audience can always spot a proper connection so you’ve got to always be interested in what the other actor is doing.”

Naming Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon and Donal McCann among his favourite actors, along with his contemporaries Ben Whishaw, Benedict Cumberbatch and Anna Maxwell Martin, Scott says he particularly response to actors with a sense of humour or a playfulness in their performance. His bête noire is overly grave, portentous theatrics. “There are many types of bad acting but my least favourite is humourless acting. I hate ‘great’ acting and I also hate slow acting - it’s like, ‘Get on with it’.”

Equally, he can’t understand how some theatregoers can enjoy a play without being moved or swept along by the story. “I can’t bear when people go to the theatre and say, ‘What a great evening, that was so beautifully spoken’. Who goes to the theatre to see something beautifully spoken?”

Which is not to say Scott doesn’t speak beautifully, but he demands more of theatrical experiences and his own performances. In the BBC’s Sherlock, he played Professor Moriarty as a modern, young and darkly capricious character, and deliberately didn’t worry too much about how the infamous villain had been portrayed before “People can be over-reverent about how things should be done. My responsibility was to explore the inner evil in me, to be fun and a little bit scary – the essence of Moriarty is he’s unpredictable.”

As, it seems, is Scott himself. He has various roles t contend with at the moment, with a film, Dual, coming out later this year, a play at the National to lead, and a second series of Sherlock to complete, but when asked which roles he’d like to tackle in the future, he is adamantly uncertain: “I have absolutely no idea.”

All the more intriguing. Perhaps it’s best to expect the unexpected.

Emperor and Galilean runs at the National’s Olivier Theatre, London, until August 10.