BEING ON TOUR WITH A PLAY FOR five months can get repetitive, but not when you're acting opposite Ian McDiarmid. Richard Madden, who plays the cocky teenager befriended by McDiarmid's priest in the National Theatre of Scotland's Be Near Me, is kept on his toes.
"Each night when the play goes on, I get my first eye contact with Ian and that sets the tone for our interaction. Because he can change every night, nothing's set in stone."
Madden has been attracting the favour of critics for his performance as Mark McNulty, a bolshy 15-year-old who conceals his inner struggles. The play, adapted by McDiarmid from Andrew O'Hagan's novel, opened in Kilmarnock in January before an eight-week run at London's Donmar Warehouse, and is about to begin a Scottish tour.
"Mark is great fun to play," says Madden. "I find it very interesting to have to deal with someone who can't express what they want to. As an actor you've got to make things as clear as possible, but this character doesn't let me do that, he's constantly doing the opposite. I want the audience to dislike me a bit for being loud all the time, shouting, invading people's personal space."
Madden's acting career began when he was 11, when he picked up a role in the film adaptation of Iain Banks's Complicity. Now 22, he graduated from the RSAMD in 2007, but spent the last 18 months of his degree working as a professional actor. Incredibly, he already has seasons at the Globe and Royal Shakespeare Company under his belt.
He grew up in Elderslie, near Paisley, and joined PACE Youth Theatre to increase his confidence before going to high school. Through that, he was cast in Complicity as a young rape victim. "My first piece of professional acting was getting raped by a 45-year-old man in a forest. I learned to be detached and to engage at the same time. My mum has this photo where the director is talking to this actor, who is over the top of me, and I'm just playing with bits of grass."
A lead in children's TV series My Barmy Aunt Boomerang followed, before peer pressure kicked in and he quit acting. But at 17 he was back. "I got to the point when they ask you to choose what to do for the rest of your life and I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do more. So I went back to PACE and spent a year being one of the oldest ones, which wasn't the easiest thing to do, but I had to get back into acting."
After little more than a year at the RSAMD he picked up work at the Arches and Glasgow Repertory Company, followed by Tom Fool at the Citizens, which transferred to the Bush Theatre in London. In his final year he was cast as Romeo at the Globe. Teachers at the RSAMD offered crits on his professional work, enabling him to graduate.
After a run in London, the production toured to a series of open-air stages in the wet summer of 2007. "Vocally it was the best training I've ever had: gales and torrential rain. Six hundred people and 600 umbrellas, and your voice still has to get to the back row."
An RSC casting director suggested he read for director Dominic Cooke, who was working on an adaptation of Malorie Blackman's Romeo and Juliet-style novel, Noughts and Crosses. "Dom was considering making the lead Scottish, so it was a case of: 'Why don't you go and read it so he can hear it in the voice of a young Scottish boy?' I did read-throughs of drafts with him for about six months, then he decided he wanted it in a London accent, but he offered me the part anyway. It was a great experience."
More recently, he has worked on TV drama Hope Springs, about a group of female ex-cons hiding out in a remote Scottish village, which screens on the BBC this spring. "It was five and a half months of good hard time in front of the camera, really learning how to do that kind of acting and working with great actors like Alex Kingston and Annette Crosbie. I think it's good for an actor to bounce between stuff on camera and stuff in theatre. If I could do half and half every year I would be a very, very happy man. My bigger hope is just to keep working."
And to keep learning, both from the experts, like his fellow actors on Be Near Me, and the less successful. "I think often I learn the most from other people's mistakes. If I'm in the audience watching an actor and thinking, 'I don't believe you', I spend the rest of the play working out why I don't believe them."
&149 Be Near Me is at the Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow, 25 March until 4 April, then touring to Eden Court Theatre, Inverness; Traverse, Edinburgh and Perth Theatre. Details on www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
What other people are saying
"Andrew O'Hagan's portrait of disaffected yoof is brought to vivid, shudder-inducing life in the performances of Richard Madden and Helen Mallon."
– Charles Spencer, The Telegraph
"Mark is played by Richard Madden with a perfectly judged mixture of thuggish teenage swank and vulnerability."
– Kate Kellaway, The Observer
"Richard is a fiercely talented actor and incredibly hard-working – he deserves all the success that I know is coming to him."
– John Tiffany, associate director, NTS