Richard Madden might be best known in the US as Robb Stark, the ill-fated king-in-waiting of Game of Thrones‘ first three seasons. But that may be about to change with the arrival a week ago on Netflix of Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard, the BBC hit action drama, which became a national sensation on its release in August. When the finale aired in late September, some 11 million viewers were hooked, with the show capturing a 47.9% audience share in Great Britain. Even politicians commented on its portrayal of an ambitious Home Secretary and her ideologically-opposed personal protection officer, David Budd, played by Madden. A war vet with undiagnosed PTSD, Budd is drawn into—and made the pawn of—a conspiracy that threatens to unseat the government.
When I meet Madden in Central London shortly after the show’s Netflix debut, the buzz of its British success is still reverberating. Madden has watched the reaction from the set of Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman, the Elton John biopic, in which he plays John Reid, John’s long-term manager, and partner. A second season of Bodyguard seems inevitable, despite the self-contained narrative that drove it, and Madden has some interesting ideas for where it might go…
Some spoilers follow for those who’ve yet to catch Bodyguard, which is streaming now on Netflix in the US and BBC iPlayer in the UK.
You’ve just finished shooting Rocketman, right?
Yeah. I love Dexter, and he’s in his element on this. It’s a strange one, and we kind of don’t know what it really is yet. You do a lot of very serious drama and then jump into a song and dance routine. I’m still getting used to all the singing and dancing—and we wrapped yesterday [laughs]. It’s a lot of different work. Different skillsets, and things that I’m not used to.
Have you never done musical stuff?
Never. Thank god for autotune, that’s all I’m saying.
You’re coming off the back of a banner summer with the release of Bodyguard. You had the entirety of Great Britain enthralled when this show aired there on the BBC. And now it’s out in America on Netflix. How has the experience been?
It’s been quite mad. You never expect things to go quite as well, or to catch that many people’s attention, so it was quite overwhelming. And I’ve been filming, which is quite good in a way. It’s kept my head out of looking at what the response has been, and it’s been pretty big, I hear. Obviously Game of Thrones was huge too, but people have really enjoyed Bodyguard, which is just great.
You work so hard on these things that they nearly kill you. You do six days a week, fourteen hours a day, for five months. And then it’ll come out and get two stars and people go, “Yeah, it’s alright.” This has been the absolute opposite, and all that hard work has paid off; it’s been worth it.
What did you make of this character? David Budd has got a lot of demons…
A lot of demons. It was a huge challenge, trying to show all of that within him. By nature, this guy has to be someone who doesn’t show his emotions. Doesn’t show a lot. So I was trying to work out how to do that, and also give the audience what’s going on in his head.
Luckily, we shot so many scenes in this brilliant way—which was a gift to me—which is we shoot it all, and then we bring the camera in really close on my face and shoot again. I got to play it two different ways, which was useful for connecting it to the audience. Then there was that big opening sequence on the train, where the audience kind of gets to know me a little bit before I shut down and go into work mode.
But for sure, that was the big challenge: trying to give away as much as I can for the audience without giving anything away, because David Budd doesn’t. I was constantly straddling those two things.
He has PTSD after his army days. How did you research that?
The problem with PTSD is that people don’t want to talk about it. The statistic is, on average, it’s 15 years for someone to seek help for PTSD. That’s a huge amount of time. It was really hard to get people to talk about it. I know some ex-soldiers, and they don’t want to fucking talk about it. We had people on set who’d been in the army, and they didn’t want to talk about it. I had to try and come up with something with Jed, and just within my own head. Trying to work out how to pitch what’s going on for this character. And the loveliest responses to the show have been from people who’ve been affected by that. It’s such a delicate thing that I know very little about, and it’s been very underrepresented.
The way it’s presented in the show has made people quite thankful. Because it wasn’t just, you know, someone drops a glass and I have a flashback of being in war, which is how it’s been done before. What people did say to me was that it’s a constant anxiety they live with, all day every day. A constant impending doom. It’s not just those flashback moments we get in movies.
For me, the most powerful thing was watching him ask for help at the end of it. You don’t get to see that a lot. I think that was really clever on Jed’s part, and a really important part of David’s character progression, that he gets to that point. He has to go through a hell of a lot to get there, but he gets there and asks for help. He’s the hero, and he asks for help.
It manifests as stoicism, hyper-alertness, and, in some cases, lashing out and fighting. All of these are the skills he needs to do the job he does when faced with a threat. You’re left wondering how much his condition is being exploited by the people who put him in the job.
It’s actually the thing that keeps him together; he’s constantly repeating those same cycles. He’s got this strange hero complex, where he wants to be the knight in shining armor, saving the damsel, and he thinks that if he can do that, then everything will be right in the world. If he can save the day; if he can fix things… And actually, that just puts him in a constant cycle of feeling like he’s failing.
Did you know his whole arc when you started?
I had the first three scripts. That’s all I got. As I started filming, I was like, “Jed, where are the next three? I really need to know what’s happening.” But I reached a point where something good happened, which is that I realized I didn’t want to know where it would end up. I didn’t want to play that. If I had the knowledge, I might preempt it. So it was ages after getting it that I actually read Episode 6.
It helped me a lot, actually, because I could find it with the audience. I wanted to keep the ambiguity to David, of not really knowing if he was good or bad, or what his motives were throughout.
You build it to a climax where, in that final episode, you’re strapped into a suicide vest for an entire day, and you’re trying to convince your colleagues that you didn’t put it on yourself. How long did that take to shoot?
I suppose Episode 6 was about three or four weeks. And it was the biggest strain, really, because, physically, I was in a shirt with a bomb in Central London in January—outside for 12 hours a day. It takes it out of you. But also, you’re not doing a comedy. You’re in this guy’s head and he’s just constantly thinking about not getting blown to pieces or shot at. He’s alone; nobody believes him and he feels like he’s going crazy—that he might even be crazy. All of that gets to you. It was a tough month of shooting, living that.
Are you able to leave that stuff at the office at the end of the day or does it stay in your head?
Inevitably it stays there. I mean, you spend more time in someone else’s clothes, speaking someone else’s words, thinking someone else’s thoughts than you do your own. I’m not Method in any serious way like that. But you do go home and carry it. Also because you need it. You need to stay in a certain way. Even in the middle of a day, when you’re doing those kinds of scenes you can’t just cut and have a laugh in between takes. You need to stay in a place to allow you to come back and do it again. You can’t ever go too far away from it.
The nature of a job like this is you do three months of these really intense things, and on this one, I was there every day. I love that because you’re totally immersed in it, but you have to take a little while afterward to come up for air and come back to reality after a ride that crazy. And then it comes out and there’s another crazy ride.
Budd’s relationship with Julia Montague—played by Keeley Hawes—is no less complex. Ideologically, he opposes everything she stands for.
Yeah, and trying to work out how to do that was really interesting. Luckily, I had Keeley. She was my saving grace in this whole thing, and that’s why I love her. I had her with me for half the job, which is great because the scenes are so intense that when the camera’s not running you do still need to bring a little lightness to it. We’d giggle like schoolgirls and be silly where we could be. The rest of the time was so, so serious.
What was so good to explore was that knight and damsel thing in Budd’s mind. Despite all of that shit, he can’t help himself from wanting to save her and save the day, because if he does it’ll keep him intact. And I mean, he fucks that up, doesn’t he? Shittest bodyguard ever.
Would you want him protecting you?
He could be brilliant at it. He kind of is brilliant at it. But he’s not really fit for work, is he? It’s just there’s nobody better than him. And he does get to save the day in the end.
Have you seen all the excruciating videos of British politicians like Sajid Javid trying to make gags that reference the show?
I haven’t, thank god. Don’t try it, guys. But of course, it’s popular, so they’re going to talk about it and try and jump onto it somehow. Stay away from our fictional show, guys. None of your business.
Had you met Keeley before?
Never. We got on straight away, and performance and acting wise, I had a really great time with her. She’s just a brilliant actress. She’s playing opposing things as much as David is as well; she’s got a lot on her mind too. It’s kind of good that you have these two very isolated, independent, lonely people, clutching onto one another in the dark. Literally. I mean, we actually filmed that [laughs].
If you’re on stage you have six weeks to practice that. But when you get into something like this, it’s day three and they’re like, “Could you just pop your clothes off and jump into bed with each other and pretend you’re really into it?” It’s one of the curses of the job—and one of the joys of it as well—is that you instantly have to end up in a trusting, intimate place with people. And then it all vanishes at the end of the job because you’re onto the next thing and you never see these people again. It’s a real headfuck.
You know, you end up doing a lot more work that’s not on camera actually, to get to the point where you get that 30 seconds of doing that thing. I wish it was as easy as putting on clothes and a silly voice. That’d be great. It’s actually much harder.
You were acting from when you were a kid, right?
From 11. I did my first gig when I was 11. Then, I think, it was about putting on silly clothes and pretending. From there, a technical skill comes into it, and that’s what you’re trying to do as much as the pretending bit.
I just loved doing it. The first job I did when I was 11, my character was raped by a 50-year-old ginger Scotsman in the forest and then murdered. I had a film called Complicity, based on an Iain Banks novel. I suppose that’s not fun in a way, but in another way it was. It was acting and pretending, and it was fun.
As I got older, I stopped for a while, because that all fucked me up when I was a kid. I did a TV show, I missed school, and I was famous among my peers, and that’s a headfuck in its own way. I’m thankful for it, because it makes life better to deal with when things like films come out, when this comes out, because you’ve been through it at different stages in your life, I suppose.
You made a conscious decision to stop?
Yeah, I had a bad time with school and dealing with that. I didn’t really have any friends. I missed school for three years. I was the first person I knew to have a mobile phone because it was the only way to keep in touch with my mum and dad. And strangely, that’s kind of not dissimilar to how it just goes in this profession, you know. Because you have to give up a lot of the rest of your life, to kind of go in and make someone else’s life real. I’m not complaining about it, I love it.
When you stopped, did you know you’d come back?
No. I didn’t. Until I hit 17, and then you must decide what you want to do with your profession; with your life. So I made a conscious effort to stop and then had to make a really big effort to get back into it when you’re at your most insecure and shy and nervous. At 17, going, “Shit, I have to start acting again?” I mean, it’s the most unnatural thing to do.
Did it feel inexorable at that point?
Yeah. It’s just, there was nothing else I could see myself doing, or wanting to do. I just had to do it.
You went to drama school, started doing theatre, and not long after that, you landed Game of Thrones, right?
I left drama school after the first year but still graduated because they graded me on the jobs I did with the school. I’d pop back in when I could, kind of thing. And then, yeah, I moved on, I went to the Globe and played Romeo. That was in my second year of drama school. And then I had to make a big effort to go, “Right, I’m going to stop doing theatre. I’m going to go for the camera work.” When you’re at that sort of age, with that experience level, you have to make a deliberate effort to pick one or the other. And then I got Thrones, which helped [laughs].
Did you know going into Game of Thrones that you had a time limit on your participation?
Yeah, because the books were already out and because I had a contract. I knew I’d die at the end of Season 3. In hindsight, that was just brilliant. It was five years from the pilot by the time I finally finished. Five years is more than long enough to play any part. We’re not supposed to play parts for that long, I don’t think. It meant I could go and do a bunch of other things, which I’ve done. I tried to not be defined by just being the guy from Game of Thrones for a while. And then, luckily, you get things like Bodyguard that come along, and you go, “OK, good, I’m not totally defined by one thing.”
I remember being spoiled on what would happen in the Red Wedding because I didn’t watch that episode until later in the week.
You gotta watch it live [laughs]. That’s what’s been so great about Bodyguard airing on the BBC. I wonder how it’ll go down on Netflix when people can just binge it in a day. What was so great was this weekly installment thing, which is kind of mad, because you’re filming it and I was walking about London in a bomb vest, and we weren’t worried about people taking pictures and spoiling it. Suddenly, the show’s coming out and everyone’s hysterical about what’s going to happen next. I was like, “Shit, I’m sure there are pictures out there, you can probably piece it together.” It was really nice to watch the reaction as it grew over the run of the show.
I think people didn’t want to be spoiled by it.
That was the difference between Bodyguard and Game of Thrones. In Game of Thrones, people were always like, “What’s happening next?” And Bodyguard, people are saying, “Don’t tell me what’s going to happen next.” So I thought it was interesting that people didn’t want those spoilers. We just hit a strange moment of people actually enjoying discussing it and waiting for the next episode of it, which we can’t really do, when we binge watch things, as easily. “What episode are you on? I’m on Season 5 now.”
What are the chances Bodyguard gets a second series?
What would happen in it?
I have no idea. But it feels like that conversation must be happening after all this success.
Yeah, I think it probably is. I’m going to meet Jed in a couple of weeks, to have a chat and see what’s in his brilliant brain. So I’m like, what can happen next? You know, with David. Because he had a hell of a couple months there. Where do you go with this guy?
Perhaps he’s earned a vacation.
Maybe that’s it. I also thought, maybe it’s going to be like American Horror Story where, in the second series, it’s a whole different incarnation of it, and I’m a royal and Keeley is on my protection team. And you get all the rest of the actors back, and we all do different things. But who knows what’s in Jed’s mind. I’m very keen to hear.
Also I think, you know, David Budd, he walks about London with a bomb on. I mean, everyone definitely knows his face now. He can’t really slip back into police work again. What’s his life like after that?
You could also see this show being a one-and-done kind of thing.
Yeah, a really contained little adventure. I think that’s a brilliant thing. It’s great, you’ve gone on a big old journey during that. And you go, “Right, OK, that’s great. Peace.” But I suppose it’s the landscape of TV; maybe we’re moving away from, “Oh, it’s good, let’s make nine series of it.” Are we going, “Oh, it’s good, let’s do something different next?” I’m just really glad it got people watching television, nationally. You know, lots of people watching the same thing.
Other than Rocketman, what’s the plan?
I don’t know. Never have one. My only test is if I want to read a script again when I get to the end of it. Because I know that, by the end of the job, I’ll have read it about six times. So if I don’t want to read it immediately again, then I’m probably not going to want to read it next week or the week after that or the week after that. So that’s usually how I kind of judge it. I’ve deliberately just tried to do very different things, from a 14th-century banker, to like, 1800s gold miner, to Bodyguard. I try to mix it up as much as I can do.
How much do you think the success of Thrones and Bodyguard helps you make choices rather than take jobs?
What I hope for Bodyguard as it goes out in America is that I’m keen for people to see me in a different light; not just as Robb Stark. In May, Rocketman will come out and see me in another totally different light. And hopefully, that’s just kind of layering different things in, that are going to hopefully keep lots of doors open for me.
I spent a lot of my 20s playing different incarnations of Romeo. And literally Romeo twice. I kind of did that and I want to move on. It’s nice to move into these roles which are, you know, David Budd was a father. And being a father instead of a son, that’s a different kind of casting. So, I’m excited about that. And hopefully much more of that.
I’m sure there was a good proportion of the viewership of Bodyguard that saw David Budd as a bit of a Romeo figure in their minds.
Maybe. Like a really fucked-up, dramatic Romeo. Maybe I’m doomed to play Romeo in different guises…
If you wanted to be pretentious about it, you could argue that there he is at the end, in a suicide vest, and everyone thinks he’s about to kill himself. Keeley’s character is Julia Montague—I mean, I know Juliet was a Capulet, but…
Fuck! I never thought that Keeley was going to come back from the dead. Maybe that’s Series 2? There were parallels…
All right, well you’ve ruined it now. Here’s me thinking I’m doing something different, and actually I’m just playing Romeo over and over for 10 years.