This time last year, Richard Madden was best known for his brutal death in the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones. But after the first episode of Jed Mercurio’s six-part action drama Bodyguard aired, the Scottish actor became a household name practically overnight as David Budd, the buttoned-down personal protection officer drawn into a high-level conspiracy. Madden presented a damaged everyman for these turbulent political times—an image he promptly turned on its head with his portrayal of Elton John’s ex-lover in the pop biopic Rocketman.
How did you get involved with Bodyguard?
I’d worked with Jed before—he directed me on Lady Chatterley’s Lover—so I was really excited to work with him again, because I’ve always loved working with Jed. And when I read the script… Well, kind of my litmus test for a script is, if I get to the end of it, do I want to start it again? And I got to the end and wanted immediately to go back to the start and start reading it again. I thought, ‘OK, I’m onto something really interesting here.’ I didn’t tire of reading it, or trying to work out was going on with this character.
Was it just the one script or did you get several?
I got the first three, read them in one sitting, and then went back and read them immediately again. So I read six hours’ worth pretty much straight away. It was pretty special.
Was the part always yours?
I don’t know, I suppose that’s probably a question for Jed more than me. He told me that he always had me in mind for it, so maybe that’s why it suited me so well. He has a talent for pushing for me in the right direction, for pushing my talents and skills, and he did that with this part, with this script. When I met Jed [for the part], he’d only written the first three episodes, and I guess the later episodes reflect [my casting]. He was always on set, working on the script—rewriting and editing it.
Were you always confident that you could pull it off?
No, I absolutely didn’t have a clue if I was going to be able to do it or not, and that’s why I took the part. That’s kind of why I chanced it, to see if I was good enough to pull it off. I was intrigued to see how I would try and deal with someone that was so complicated, and also try to deal with a role that involved so much restraint, both in terms of the character and as an actor—not giving away anything instantly. In fact, doing the opposite of that and trying to hold a lot of things back. This is a character that doesn’t show what’s going on underneath. So that’s a challenge in itself, and I was really excited by that—how do I convey everything that’s going on in a man that shows nothing? How do I access a man that doesn’t give anything away?
What did you do to prepare?
The problem with preparing to play someone suffering from PTSD is that most people with PTSD—most people—don’t want to talk about it. I mean, the average time is 14 years from the trauma to someone seeking help, so it’s quite a hard thing to research. But I did speak to some soldiers, some ex-servicemen, who’d been going through that, and I just tried to create something with Jed that was true to my research into PTSD, which is not how you see it in the movies. It’s often been conveyed in a very clichéd way. It’s a constant, everyday thing. It’s not that you hear a glass smash in a restaurant and you duck for cover. It’s much more complicated and detailed than that. So I tried to focus on how to convey a man who’s… He’s suppressing everything, and it’s bursting out in other areas of his life—with his wife, his children, his friends—in ways he can’t control, because he’s a man in denial about what he’s going through.
How did you approach the physicality of the role? What kind of routine did you have—or didn’t you have one?
I had to have one for this. He’s a bodyguard, and he’s an ex-serviceman, so he has to be fit. The shooting schedule was such that some of the action sequences were repeatedly done over, so I had to be fit for that too. I had to be in the gym at 4am before we started shooting for the day. My bulletproof vest was actually a real Kevlar bulletproof vest, and that really helped. You’re strapped into it this thing, which gives you this stature. It’s like a forced corset in terms of keeping my back straight, my posture straight, and my chest looking large. Costume sometimes does that.
How much did costume play a part?
I had to make definite choices with my off-duty looks, because I’m always in the same kind of suit—it’s kind of a non-costume, really. It’s a standard suit that I use to hide my bulletproof vest and my gun and all that. So when he’s at home, alone, I try to focus on the comfort that he tries to find when he’s not on duty. Comfortable things and also softer things, because you see him in such a strict uniform that it’s nice to see him put on a soft jumper when he’s at home that’s slightly oversized. He’s a big man but that gives him a certain boyishness. That was a huge part of the job for me—trying to find moments, or vessels, that I could sneak in to help portray a character that shows nothing most of the time. So costume was one of those things I could use to show a softer layer there.
How long did that first series take?
About five months, shooting six days a week, 15 hours a day. So that’s quite a grueling schedule, really.
How do you keep up the intensity of a character like this over such a long period of time?
That’s one of the things that will actually help you with the character. I’m not a method actor in any way, but when you’re doing these things that are so intense and keep you at such a level, it’s kind of easier to be that insular off set as well. I’d go home at night, learn my lines, go to sleep and then go straight back into work. Sometimes I’d get home and I’d only have seven hours until I was back in make-up. So you can kind of keep yourself at a level of insularity and paranoia. It’s probably not good for you in the long run, but I could just about endure it for five months. We’d actually have quite a giggle between scenes, because, as you know, it’s not a comedy, so we don’t have a chance to have a good time when we’re in the scene. So between the scenes we’d have giggle fits and let all that tension out.
What kind of relationship do you have with Jed Mercurio?
Jed’s always on set, all day, every day. You actually see him in the back of quite a few shots, because when we were shooting scenes in the Home Office, Jed would take a desk, on the set, and work for the day. So, as an actor, I could go up to him and ask him how the scene was going to go. Or sometimes I would say “Don’t tell me what’s going on here, because my character doesn’t know, so I don’t want to know.” He’s the best extra you can get, because he’s really working, drinking his coffee, going to the bin, going to the watercooler… He’s the best extra a director can get, because he’s actually doing those things. But it’s also good to have him on set because the plot is so complicated and there are all these different intertwining storylines. And also for his military knowledge and his police knowledge—he’s so clued up on that. A lot of the details that I put in to give the character that authenticity, I’d get them from him.
What kind of details?
We had military advisors on set, and people who’d actually done the job I’m doing [in the show]. You learn a lot of tricks. Like, when I’m pulling up in my vehicle with someone in the back, you pop the door open before you even stop the car, so you’re straight out of the car. Your belt’s off. It’s a very specific world, and it was those details that gave me specificity and structure. We had people on set that would know how these things work. Like the language you’d use on the radio: “Sierra blue 7-9, we’ve got a 5-0 and a 7-2-9-5-7…” You’d go, “What the hell does that mean?’ But then you’ve got Jed on set to tell you exactly what these codes mean, and why you’d be using them, so I’m not just an actor slaying dragons, I actually understand the language I’m speaking.
When did you realize that the series was taking off?
Luckily, I was filming Rocketman at the time, so my head wasn’t aware. I don’t read reviews—I try to keep myself out of all that. I was getting emails from the BBC saying they were thrilled to have the show. Usually a show starts and regional viewing drops with each episode, but it kept gaining viewers with every episode until the last episode, which had the highest ratings the BBC had had in a decade. I was like, “Wow.” I kept waiting for it to stop working and fall apart, but it didn’t, and suddenly it’s all kicking off, and there are lots of people watching in America. Next thing I know, I’m in Los Angeles talking to people about this show that we’d shot in London. I thought it was just going to be a good BBC show, but it’s got much longer legs than that.
Why do you think it crossed over to the U.S.?
I don’t know, and I wish I did know, because if I did then I’d repeat it with every job I did from now on. But, personally, I think it’s to do with the moral ambiguity of all the characters in it. We don’t know if they’re good or bad. Something in that ties into human fascination, because that’s what we all are—we’re all morally ambiguous. No one is just good or bad, we’re all in a gray zone, and people can relate to it because these characters seem so real in this fictional environment. But we also touch on issues like PTSD and the Snooper’s Charter—how much do we give away when we give the government the right to look at our phones and know our intimate search history? Things that are very politically relevant, even within a fictional drama.
How did it feel to step away from it to do something as different as Rocketman?
After I finished Bodyguard I had to take a couple of months off, because I was so emotionally drained and very isolated from everything else in my life. It had just engulfed me for such a long amount of time, and, as you know from the series, he’s an insular man on a mission, so I did take a couple of months off afterwards to just kind of come back to life, because it had taken so much out of me. And then Rocketman came along, where I’m singing and dancing as well as acting, so I thought, “Let’s see if I can throw myself into this…”
Will there be a Bodyguard Season 2?
It’s something we’re actively discussing. When we did the show, it was just going to be a one-off, it’s own thing, because Jed was still writing the show as we were doing it. But the show’s engaged with so many people, and it’s engaged with me, because I’m fascinated by that character. I’m fascinated by a man who’s gone through so much, and I’m very keen to see what happens to him two years later. Where will this man be, in terms of his mental health, in terms of his wife and children, in terms of his career? He’s not going to sit back and retire, and he’s not going to pick a normal job. He’s going to be engaged in something interesting. So I’m very keen to work with Jed and work out how to move on the next bit of the story. But we decided we’re not going to rush it and shoot something this year. We’re going to give it a breath and do it justice. If we come back to do another one, I want to do something as different as the first series was, and not just repeat the cycle, repeat the formula. I want to do something totally different and I’m excited to see what Jed comes up with in that way.