Interview: Andrew Lincoln, actor

Andrew Lincoln's sleek, polished exterior masks a frisky mischievous streak. Classically handsome, and still buff from playing a soldier in Strike Back, which aired on Sky in May, he has the sort of hair that you'd struggle to ruffle out of place.

• Andrew Lincoln stars in the romantic comedy Heartbreaker

But there's no hiding the telltale twinkle in his eyes, his willingness to giggle or his relaxed approach to dialogue that rambles. "I'm going to scat as well," he says, when I reveal my questions won't proceed in an orderly fashion.

He exudes laid-back yet restrained charm – no indiscretions – but my suspicions are confirmed when I'm emboldened to ask if he was a man about town before meeting Gael Anderson, (whose father is Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull) whom he married in 2006.

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He gulps and lets out a noise best transcribed as Eeeeeerrrrr. "You'd have to ask the town. I don't think I was any worse than the people I was hanging out with." He pauses. "But the people I was hanging with were pretty baaaad." Oh what a wicked laugh! "I have paid my party taxes, I will tell you that much."

In Heartbreaker, Lincoln portrays a bloke who's more buttoned up than wild. The romcom, which stormed the box office in France, made its UK debut last night as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and airs again tonight. He has a small, but pivotal role as Jonathan, the almost too-perfect fiance of Vanessa Paradis's Juliette. Romain Duris is Alex, who's hired by her father to break up the seemingly happy couple. Rumour has it Hollywood's already planning a remake.

Lincoln's character is British – the French script had his lines picked out in English. "I speak a bit of French. I call it shallow French. I can get around on holiday. We were filming in Monaco and Nice and Paris in August and September and it was a gas. There's something about working in a different country with a different language that is scary and revealing, but also exciting. Revealing because you have to find a different way of tuning into the other actors.

"They only gave me a translation of my lines. It got to the costume fitting and they said, 'He is a dondi.' It turned out they meant 'dandy'. I said, 'I don't see him as a dandy,' and they went," he nods slowly, "'Oh. Yes.' So there were a few subtleties that I missed in the untranslated script."

One of the lures of this job was the chance to work with Paradis who is, he confirms, "an absolute delight. Another reason I wanted to do this was to work with the director, Pascal Chaumeil, and an exciting actor called Romain Duris, who did The Beat My Heart Skipped. But what I failed to realise was that all the other characters were A-list comedians in France and Belgium. It was an amazing cast."

Did he feel like Cary Grant, swanning about the Riviera playing a suave millionaire? He laughs, and describes the close of a day's shoot on an airstrip – his character has a private jet, as one does – and how the start of the Tour de France meant all road access to Monte Carlo was cut off.

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"We got whisked to the port where we hired a boat and we shot back, while the sun was setting, literally to the pier of our hotel! I thought, 'This is living the dream.' And somehow because they're French, it was all chicer. Everyone was so relaxed about it, like 'Yes, this is the most natural thing. Of course we're going to go home via the Med!'"

What a distance he's come from that first, breakthrough job, playing Egg on the hit BBC series This Life, a role he landed not long after graduating from Rada in 1994. He's never endured a fallow period – does he worry that people might think he leads a charmed existence?

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"People are always going to write whatever they want to write. You are going to write what you want to write. I was chatting to my publicist, who's Australian, and she said, 'You Brits, you need to big yourselves up a little more. What's wrong with you, why do you apologise, as if it's by luck or chance that these things happen? You work hard. You're good at it. Why wouldn't you succeed?'

"The same five per cent of actors keep working because they're good," he continues. "As long as I do my job well, turn up, do the best I can…" Is he competitive? "I used to be. That's a young man's game."

Now it's my turn to laugh. Lincoln, born in Bath in 1973, is light years away from his bus pass, but these things are relative. He says lately he's treated like the old veteran on set, fielding queries from the younger actors.

He's not one for looking back and says he never watches his own stuff, but as part of a career strategy that includes leaving it no longer than three years between theatre gigs, he recently compiled a show reel. "My agent suggested it would be a good thing for America, so that while they're making decisions, you can show them what other things you can do. They don't know who I am out there, really, in LA.

"So I was trawling through lots of things, and watched the first episode of This Life. We knew nothing about anything; we were newcomers. And there's something so brilliant and unsullied and open about the performances – the sort of acting that you aspire to a lot longer down the line we were just doing without thinking. We didn't have all those mannerisms. That's why I try to push myself in different directions and turn the ship, as they say, to trick myself and reinvent myself. It's like a spring clean, to reinvent myself every ten years."

Lincoln feels it's easier to tackle characters that are a little bit outside his comfort zone when he's on stage, which compensates for being cast closer to type in films and television. But how does he balance time spent treading the boards with paying the bills? He has two little ones at home, Matilda and Arthur.

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"I'm lucky that I have another career, which is voiceovers." Gosh, and I thought Arthur Smith and James Nesbit had that market cornered? Smiling, he says, "Now that you know I'm out there, maybe you'll recognise me. I've just been doing an alcohol awareness one on telly, and did the advertisements for Ricky Gervais's new movie." Gervais, it transpires, is a pal, as is his wife, Jane Fallon.

"For me it's about maintaining a passion and enthusiasm for what I do," Lincoln continues. "The more I mix it up, the easier that is. And it's a relatively anonymous way of earning a living, which enables me to do theatre. Because otherwise you have a problem – with two kids, (theatre] becomes a bit of a hobby, unfortunately, in this country."

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He really is anonymous, because in real life he's still Andrew Clutterbuck, which, he says with some pride, is the surname his children bear. "Everything in my life is Clutterbuck. So I can fly under the radar."

So low, in fact, that he had trouble checking into a Los Angeles hotel once. "The concierge leaned in and said, 'Your real name,' and I went Clutterbuck, and he went, 'No, sir, your real name."

After taking vows but before having kids, Lincoln told a journalist that marriage made him a better man and a better actor. He was somewhat misquoted, he tells me, but agrees that it's correct in principle, and that being a husband and father gives much-treasured structure to a life that could easily spiral into chaos. "It's family first. It makes me more efficient. Work is work time, then I come home – and there is nothing more grounding. You're fawned over and wined and dined in LA, and you come home and have to change the nappy."

Given that he's "paid his party tax", how did he know he was ready to settle down? "I just kind of made the decision. I saw someone that I just fell for, it was amazing. You can't really quantify or explain emotions. It's part of my business, sure, but when it's the real deal… Ours is a very ordinary love story, I suppose. We met, we spent time together, and then I proposed and we got married and had children. I think about my family and Gael's, we're a rare breed now. My parents are still together and so are hers, and I think that's why we wanted to get married.

"The longer I've been somewhat in the public eye, the more I've wanted – and fought tooth and nail for – an ordinary life. I'm fiercely proud of my work, and fiercely proud of my privacy, as well. I don't want to wash my laundry publicly. Why court that attention? It's only going to make one self-conscious and miserable. So in answer to your question, I don't see my life as more problematic because I do my job."

In common with most actors, he loves the aspect of his work that sends him winging to the four corners of the world, and he's also aware that this is the ideal time to attempt to straddle the Atlantic, given that his kids are so portable. This month, the family's in Atlanta, Georgia, where Lincoln just began filming the keenly anticipated TV drama, The Walking Dead.

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Made by AMC, who brought us Mad Men, The Walking Dead comes from the eponymous graphic novel by Robert Kirkman. It's being directed by Frank Darabont, whose previous credits include The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. And while he may have a lower profile stateside, his starring role as Rick Grimes, a small-town cop who goes head to head against ravening hoards of zombies, gets the thumbs up from Kirkman, who told the Hollywood Reporter: "Writing Rick Grimes month after month in the comic series, I had no idea he was an actual living, breathing human being, and yet here he is. I couldn't be more thrilled with the way the show is coming together."

Grimes, explains Lincoln, is a cop from Kentucky, married, with a ten-year-old son. "It begins with a shoot out, an armed robbery, and he gets shot and goes into a coma, then wakes up and finds himself in a zombie apocalypse. It's a horrendous situation with piles upon piles of bodies, and he goes and searches for his wife and son.

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"You realise it's a horror novel, but it's extraordinarily like Lord of the Flies. Forget about the zombie thing. It's like a plague has occurred, and what is left of humanity? It's about society and humanity and family, a love story really, and within that, everything has run riot and the rules no longer apply, people have gone extremely feral."

He's understandably excited about working with some of the best in the business, but I wonder, given that he's sat in the director's chair himself and plans to do so again, how well he actually takes direction.

"That's a good question. Because the older I get, the more…" big sigh "…suspicious I become. The job, as you say, involves a lot of travel. Lesley Sharpe, when we worked together on Afterlife, said a brilliant thing: 'You have to be as certain as you can before you embark upon a big series, because you sacrifice so much'.You really invest in something: it's your ass that's up there, you've got to believe in the material, you've got to believe that the production has got class and has got clout, and it's going to do what they say they're going to do. You're going to spend a lot of time away from the people you care most about on the planet, so you want the end result to be as close to what you envisaged as possible. So yeah, I have to know that I work well with someone, but I would say that if I trust someone, I will jump through hoops for them. My job is not to direct myself, when I go to work, I go to act."

It's time to close. We've discussed everything from acting to cookery and raved in tandem about Martin Amis's acerbic, very English wit. I've discovered that one of Lincoln's favourite books is Albert Camus's The Outsider, and along the way, taught him some new fake names to try on snooty concierges.

"That's brilliant," he laughs. "I've got to play a character called Dick Hertz now!"

Heartbreaker is on at 4:45pm at Cineworld 3, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and out on general release in the UK on 2 July. Visit www.edfilm

• This article was first published in The Scotsman on Saturday, June 26, 2010

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