Matthew Goode interview: ‘Downton’ star chats about his new Agatha Christie role

Matthew Goode, who played Henry Talbot in the final season of Downton Abbey, is back in a new period drama series.

He’s appearing as Philip Durrant in the BBC’s latest Agatha Christie mini-series, Ordeal By Innocence, alongside Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark), Bill Nighy (Love Actually) and Catherine Keener (Get Out).

From the makers of 2016’s The Witness for the Prosecution and 2015’s And Then There Were None, the new adaptation of Christie’s 1958 detective novel is written by Sarah Phelps (Great Expectations, The Casual Vacancy).

Here Matthew chats about his new role…

Can you tell us about Philip Durrant and how we first see him in the story?

“When we first encounter Philip, he’s disabled in a wheelchair and we’re not quite sure where it happened or why it happened. He was a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force and flew fighters. I suppose the psychology of Philip is that he had all that freedom, was a war hero yet when we first encounter him he’s poisonous, a drunk, addicted to morphine and also likely to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress.

“He’s a very interesting character. I also think he ended up this way is because of the way he has to live, it being the 1950s, some of the conditions he has to live his life by are particularly shocking.”

Can you tell us a little bit about his relationship with Mary, and how that is affected by his accident?

“Unfortunately for Mary, we hurt the ones we love the most as Philip becomes trapped in this effeminate room with no escape. Mary over does her care for him. Imagine someone continually touching and fussing over you, the poor girl has to do everything for him; all of the stuff that isn’t particularly nice.

“I think he does love her in some way but for someone to see you in such a state when you were such a hero and a very masculine character to now be completely emasculated and trapped in this room and this life, where there’s no escape must be nightmarish.”

He seems like a very brash and hard character?

“He’s not shy of letting people know exactly what he thinks and thinking he can get away with it. He treads a very dangerous line but no one’s going to throw him out because of his circumstances. I think there’s a vast amount of sympathy for Mary but no redeeming qualities in Philip.

“It sounds awful to say but he was a really fun character to play because there’s no limit to the nastiness that you can bring to him or the story, the duplicity. I found myself apologising after takes, I would go full Philip and after “cut” was called, I was just so sorry. Although very fun to play.”

Is he actually attracted to Hester or is he just doing that to be spiteful to Mary?

“I think he probably does, but the thing with Mary is he probably was in love with her, was attracted to her, she came with money. But then he lost the ability to use his lower half shall we say, and therefore the person looking after you and babying you and saying it’s ok they don’t need that part of her life anymore, it enrages him as that can’t be romantic.”

How is it playing a character in a wheelchair? There must be a lot to think about in terms of the physicality of the part, as well as playing the role of Philip.

“What I found difficult was the way Philip showers, and the way he brushes his teeth. We decided that it might be that he drags himself in, which was very likely and again sort of underlines what a nightmare he lives and how other people would have lived after the war if they’d had a similar injury.

“It’s quite interesting that we see him exercising because he needed that upper body strength. There is a vanity to him, massively, but this wasn’t a vanity for him, he just needed that strength.”

You see him use that strength to his advantage when he goes to see Arthur. Tell us a little bit about that scene and story…

“That was the first scene we shot. Luke Treadaway is a very, very talented actor, just fabulous. It’s really interesting to see what’s he’s done with Arthur. I suppose that’s one of the reasons it’s such a great Christie is that it doesn’t follow the same format as many of the other stories, there’s no detective. In a weird way Arthur is the detective but he doesn’t go about it in the way that a normal Christie would work.

“The scene between them both is an interesting one, on the one hand Philip is being the nice guy from the family because Arthur has been shunned as a liar, but Philip can’t quite hide his true self as he’s been drinking and had an enormous injection of morphine.

“You get to see him at full speed, to see the cogs working. Arthur can’t really see a train when it’s approaching I think it’s fair to say, so it ends with Philip sort of getting his way and terrifying the wits out of Arthur and making it look like Arthur has attacked him. It was quite a smart play in a weird way.”

This Christie seems to be a lot darker than perhaps we’re used to of previous adaptations in which you’ve starred before (Patrick Simmons in Marple’s A Murder Is Announced). Have you seen the style of Christie change since then? And how do you think Sarah Phelps has contributed to that?

“It seems to me like there’s a slight shift in realising that a lot of this older stuff, the way it’s been shot before was very chocolate boxy and everything’s great. Whereas actually in the post war period there was a lot of philandering going on, a lot of people who had lost everything financially.

“Why commit murder? Most murders are to do with money and to do with sex. That aspect doesn’t change, but the way we are now filming it has. It feels like it’s been updated into a language we can understand, rather than it being twee. So the violence is going to be slightly more graphic and so too is the language.”

Sarah is so descriptive in her scripts. How does that help you as an actor?

“I love it. We would call it the given circumstances. It feels like it’s almost wasted words really because none of them are being spoken. Sarah is just really, really talented and so nice to work with. She’s as cool as Bill Nighy, and that is saying something.”

Speaking of Bill how has it been working with him?

“He’s a joy. I’ve loved Bill for a long time and met him years ago; I was thrilled that he actually remembered me. He is everything that you’d want him to be and more. He is charming, incredibly smart, and intelligent and a clinically brilliant actor. He knows exactly what he’s going to do and it’s a joy to watch. He also brought a calmness to the set and I think everyone was just slightly in love with him.”

You feel sympathy for so many of the characters…

“I think all of the characters have that. That’s what’s so great about it. One of the ways Sarah has crafted the script is that it’s not one character heavy, or two characters, everyone gets a fair crack of the whip in it which I think really suits the format of the murder mystery as everyone’s in play.

“Everyone does things that are slightly morally dubious or slightly corrupt and that’s fascinating. There’s no one red herring, as a red herring generally stands out, with this particular story, it could be any of them.”

How has it been working with director Sandra Goldbacher?

“Sandra was brilliant; she’s very smart and with John, our extremely capable DOP it worked very efficiently. She had a lovely short hand way of working where it’s not reams of notes; it’s succinct and was very adept at the psychology of all the characters. There wasn’t a person I witnessed that didn’t go ‘Ah that’s a good idea’, which is exactly what you want from a director.”

The story is very dark and disturbing. Have there been chances to have some fun on set?

“That’s the thing with Agatha Christie; it’s just really fun. I think that’s the case with all sets, you need to lighten the mood a little bit but also I’m playing one of the most ridiculous characters. He’s in his wheelchair and he’s angry and high on all kinds of things and just completely vile which has been fun.”

Ordeal By Innocence continues at 9pm on Sunday night on BBC One in the UK.