In "Happy-Go-Lucky," Poppy Cross (Sally Hawkins) is relentlessly optimistic in the face of adversity. She quickly finds that opposition in Scott, her driving instructor, played by British actor Eddie Marsan. Scott is a wildly damaged man, living off the fumes of his own bitterness. Obsessed with conspiracy theories, he creates a driving method called En-Ra-Ha, derived from the dollar bill, which he believes proves Masonic control of the United States. It's much funnier than it sounds -- and than his character intends.
In both "Happy" and director Mike Leigh's previous film, "Vera Drake," the actors created their characters during months of rehearsal and improvisation. Marsan has also played supporting roles in "Gangs of New York" and "21 Grams," as well as a villain in this summer's Will Smith hit "Hancock." Taking a brief respite from work on "Sherlock Holmes" for Guy Ritchie in his hometown of London, Marsan sits on the patio of the Cat and Fiddle on Sunset Boulevard on a recent sunny afternoon, nurses a shandy and tells of bringing sad Scott to life.
How did you develop Scott? Where did that character come from?
We came to the idea of a character who is very isolated, has issues with women, is a misogynist, he lives on his own, he's never been loved. One of the first things Mike said is that Scott's somebody who's a conspiracy freak, and what would that entail. And then when I studied conspiracy theories -- which I did for a year, I could tell you every conspiracy theory there is -- something became apparent. A lot of people who are into conspiracies feel quite powerless about life, therefore they look for someone to blame. And that's what Scott does. His main hobby in life is to look for someone to blame. It all developed from there.
Did you have a "eureka" moment working on the character, or was it a slow process?
When we were first making the film, I thought I was going to be in a really dark thriller. I thought I was going to be a stalker who kills somebody. And then Mike gave me a piece of paper that said, "You have to go to this address and give this girl Poppy a driving lesson." I didn't know who the girl was. I didn't know it was going to be Sally Hawkins, I didn't know anything. I went to her house, knocked on her door, Sally came out and we improvised. And what you see in the film is in essence what happened on that first improvisation. We then went back and shot it later on.
Where was Mike?
He was lying in the back of the car, trying not to throw up. But the "eureka" moment, in a sense, came during that improv. When I was working on Scott, I was being kept away from everybody else. I was in isolation. As an actor, I suddenly understood Scott more in contrast with Poppy.
He's such a piece of work, and yet he's so vulnerable, even in the scene where he practically kills her. And her response is so incredible. That all came out of improv?
Yeah, and it went on for hours. We were running up and down streets, fighting. It was really frightening, I could have really hurt her. But Sally's so brave, she has no fear, she just jumps right in.
How did Scott's instructional mantra of "En-Ra-Ha," the driving safety pattern he created, come about?
Mike was working with me, giving imaginary driving lessons. You've got to remember, we're improvising for hours, so I don't even remember 90% of what I say. Then at the end of it, Mike debriefs me, and says, "You said this. I think we should use it as a teaching tool." Mike has the patience and the resilience to sit through hours and hours. A lot of it's crap, basically, and then he finds little nuggets.