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Matthew Macfadyen: Disgraced 'Stonehouse' politician 'just got in over his head'

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Emer Heatley (L-R), Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes star in "Stonehouse." Photo courtesy BritBox
Emer Heatley (L-R), Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes star in "Stonehouse." Photo courtesy BritBox

NEW YORK, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- "Succession" and "Operation Mincemeat" star Matthew Macfadyen says he had no trouble humanizing the disgraced politician he plays in the new limited series, "Stonehouse."

Premiering on BritBox on Tuesday, the three-part drama is based on the rise and fall of British Member of Parliament John Stonehouse, a family man whose seemingly perfect life spiraled out of control, leading him to unsuccessfully fake his own death in the 1970s amid allegations of fraud and espionage.

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Macfadyen's real-life wife, Keeley Hawes, plays Stonehouse's spouse, Barbara, while Emer Heatley plays his secretary-girlfriend, Sheila, and Kevin R. McNally plays Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

"He thinks he's doing his best and it's sort of an accumulation of mistakes," Macfadyen told UPI about his character in a Zoom interview Sunday.

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"He just got in over his head. He had a terribly complicated love life. He was a ladies' man, and then he started spying for what was then Czechoslovakia. He was getting funds for that and spending them on lifestyle stuff," the 48-year-old actor said.

"He got lost, I think, until he became stuck, and the only way out was to start again. I found him quite sympathetic in many ways, as well. He's not an evil man."

Those hearing his story for the first time might be surprised to learn he was discovered and brought to justice without the aid of security cameras, Google or GPS.

"He was tracked down because he was careless and daft; that was tied in with his pomposity and vanity," Macfadyen said.

"He was away and he was making friends. He developed quite a big social life in Australia and he was going to parties. He was attracting suspicion and he was opening bank accounts in different names.

"But, ultimately, it was because they thought he was Lord Lucan, who had murdered his children's nanny in London and escaped. ... That's why they arrested him and then it unraveled from there."

The actor credits John Preston, who wrote the series, with creating a character to whom viewers can relate.

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"The writing is so deft and witty and funny and real," Macfadyen said.

McNally, who at 66 recalls watching the "absurd" story unfold in real time, said Wilson's voice and personality were "firmly embedded" in his head when he signed on to play him in Stonehouse.

"I could summon the feeling of him up from the age of 10 to the age of 19," McNally said. "He was there all the way from my transition from my childhood to my adulthood. It was sort of a click of the fingers to bring him to life."

The series shows ambitious Stonehouse trying to ingratiate himself to Wilson as the prime minister becomes increasingly frustrated with the politician, reluctantly keeping Stonehouse around because his agenda needed Stonehouse's support.

"Stonehouse was very much enthralled to Kevin's character, being prime minister, and he wanted to shin up the greasy pole of the Labour party and was doing very well, until the wheels started coming off," Macfadyen said.

McNally added, "I likened it in my mind to a rather promising, but ultimately disappointing teenage son.

"It's like one bloody mess after another, and it is interesting to me. I do believe having done this, though, that Stonehouse was part of the demise of Harold Wilson," the actor said, referring to Wilson's resignation from office in 1976.

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If this story has a message for audiences, McNally said he thinks it is "It is ever thus in terms of success and power and the way people deal with it."

He added: "Shakespeare wrote about it quite a lot, as I remember. So, it's been going on for hundred of hundreds of years. It's getting worse, if anything."

"It's the perils of vanity and self-obsession and the rest of it," Macfadyen agreed.

The miniseries also features three fascinating female characters who influence Stonehouse and Wilson's actions.

"That was a lot of fun -- the John, Barbara and Sheila stuff. He really does fall for Sheila, and he stays with her after he comes out of jail. They had a child together and they were together until his death in the '80s," Macfadyen said.

"It wasn't a fling. It was a real thing. But also he loved his wife and family. Strange. I don't have the answers. It was just great fun to play, especially the scenes in Australia with the three of us."

Wilson's secretary, Betty (Dorothy Atkinson), also plays a big role in the story.

"She is such a larger-than-life person and Dorothy had played my wife on a TV show, actually, so we knew each other," McNally said.

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"[Betty] was a really wonderful sounding board to have and, again, very nice because it was a transitional period from a patriarchal time. The show is littered with strong women.

"Betty virtually keeps Harold going for the second half of the show and for the second half of his prime ministership. I think that is very good to remember -- that it was a big breakthrough-time for women."

Neither woman in the Stonehouse love triangle is painted as a villain -- Barbara is patient and loyal, to a point, while Sheila is lovestruck, not intentionially looking to break up a happy home.

"I believed it," Macfadyen said, joking it was "very difficult" to work with Hawes on the project.

"No, it was joyful. It was lovely. It was really lovely," he said. "You think, 'Oh is this going to be tricky?' And, actually, it was just great because we met on set [years ago] and worked together a few times over the years, but it was lovely.

"Also, the odder the relationship is on set, the more fun you have. The further away it is from your own relationship, the easier it is."

Macfadyen's other credits include The Enfield Haunting, Death at a Funeral. Frost/Nixon, Little Dorrit, The Pillars of the Earth, M1-5 and Ripper Street. McNally is known for his roles in The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, as well as Valkyrie, Conspiracy, Supernatural, Turn: Washington's Spies, Doctor Who and The Crown.

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