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ELLE Nov. 1986: THE REAL McGANN Interview by Louise Chunn

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 27, 2006 8:53 pm    Post subject: ELLE Nov. 1986: THE REAL McGANN Interview by Louise Chunn Reply with quote

Paul McGann is getting a name for himself. Several in fact. The new Paul Newman…another James Dean…Merseyside's Martin Sheen…He's a face to watch and, despite the fact that when we meet, he's made up to look dirty-haired and decidedly seedy, that isn't hard to do. He is, after all, a good-looking man.

But, mercifully, not too good-looking. He's not a cool appraiser but a natural enthusiast. Talking between takes on location for his first feature film, McGann bangs the already rickety table to emphasise his points, jumps up to act out a story, and fixes you with his intensely blue, almost unnaturally clear eyes as he talks about himself (a little) and his latest project, the film Withnail and I (a lot).

McGann's biggest--and best--project to date was playing the lead in the recent BBC series The Monocled Mutineer, in which he gave a riveting performance as PercyToplis, a petty criminal and racketeer who became the leader of a mutiny of British troops in the First World War.

Now 26, McGann is the second eldest of the moderately famous McGann brothers. They are all actors: Joe is making another BBC series, Rockliffe's Babies, to be screened next year; Mark played John Lennon in the West End play and film about the Liverpool hero; and Stephen is currently appearing in the BBC series Help!. They have only ever perfomed together once, in Yakety-Yak, a West End hit several years ago. Basically a pastiche of Fifties songs, it wasn't exactly high art but it got their name know and won them a recording contract.

'We've always sung--right since we were little kids in Liverpool. We all love it,' says McGann, who retains a fairly strong Merseyside accent nearly 10 years after leaving home. 'But it was a complete disaster. The record company wasn't interested in pushing us; we made a terrible record. Really, it was dreadful. I don't even want to think about it…

'Such a shame really, as I love singing. Probably even more than acting. I did some recording recently--tunes from the First World War to go with The Monocled Mutineer. And I've got a little porta-studio at home, so I haven't given up yet. But the public don't seem to like the idea of actors who sing. You're only allowed to have one talent.'

But it's some talent. From Mo, the snooker-playing lead in the BB series Give Us a Break, to a recent 10-week run as Constantine in Chekhov's The Seagull in Liverpool, McGann is hired for depth, not decoration. Though hardly impartial, his agent Marina Martin describes his talent: 'The intellectual approach coupled with an incredible physicality. He totally inhabits his characters and he's not afraid to make an ass of himself.'

All of this rings true during our meeting. Dressed in the costume of his character--a genuinely distressed long leather coat over a mangy maroon sweater and amusingly dated hipster jeans--he's staggeringly enthusiastic about Withnail and I. Set in the last six weeks of 1969, it's the story of two struggling actors--played by McGann and Richard E. Grant--living in squalor in a London flat. Cruising in their clapped-out Jag, sucking on giant joints, eating mouldy baked beans out of the can, they live from day to day. They visit Withnail's uncle in the country. They return to London. McGann (he has no name in the film) gets offered the lead in a play and the relationship falls apart.

And that's it? McGann laughs. 'It's a true original. In fact, the most incredible thing about this film is that it's being made at all,' he says, sitting in the unpleasantly accurate recreation of Withnail and I's front room, complete with stuffing-spewing armchair on the balcony and an en-suite kitchen that has just been coated in instant grease.

The film's director Bruce Robinson wrote Withnail and I as a novel in 1970. Nine years later he rewrote it as a screenplay. But it wasn't until after his success as the screenplay writer of The Killing Fields that the executive producers, Handmade Films (already responsible for Mona Lisa and Madonna's Shanghai Surprise), realised Robinson's very personal dream. For Robinson is the real 'I' (played by McGann) of this autobiographical movie. He cast Mgann on sight. 'I didn't get to read a word,' recalls McGann. 'He just said: "That's him." Extraordinary.'

Robinson has never directed a film before; McGann has never been directed like this before. With amazement he says, 'Bruce knows every word and exactly how it should sound. We even did line readings, virtually unheard of on a film. But it worked. It's his and it's important he should be happy with it.'

Proof of McGann's own individuality and difference in approach is demonstrated by his determination to avoid the glitzy theatrical scene in London. He doesn't even live in the capital any more, but moved to Bristol a couple of years ago. 'All the things that turn me off about London are absent in Bristol. It's a great place to live.' He shares a large house there with seven other people. 'And they're not all artists, thank God.'

McGann won't be drawn further than that on domestic matters. Right now, they don't seem to be important to him. Red-eyed from the make-up, hot and sweaty in his costume, he's 'I' and it's 1969. 'As one of the characters says: "…the greatest decade ever known to man",' quotes McGann. He probably believes it--until the next part comes along.

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