Ask Matthew Macfadyen and Kevin R. McNally, the stars of the new Britbox limited series Stonehouse, which is based on the bizarre true story of an MP’s attempts to evade the law. Truth really is stranger than fiction. John Preston, who wrote A Very British Scandal, created a dramatised version of what occurs when a powerful guy tries to vanish but fails miserably.
As John Stonehouse, played by Macfadyen, a member of Parliament who agreed to spy for the Czech Secret Service finds himself in a financial mess. To get out of it, Stonehouse decides to fake his death and move to Australia with his wife (Keeley Hawes) and children, far from British politics. McNally co-stars as Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who controls Parliament with a mere one-vote advantage over Stonehouse. Wilson is desperately attempting to maintain control of the situation lest his political career unravel completely.
In this conversation, the actors talked about how to portray actual people while balancing research and acting the part, why the story still resonates with contemporary audiences, and what it was like for actor Matthew Macfadyen to play a couple alongside his real-life wife Cara Hawes. Watch the entire interview in the clip above, read the transcript below, and don’t forget to stream Stonehouse, available exclusively on Britbox.
COLLIDER: It’s a pleasure to meet you both; what an honour. I’m really eager to discuss this programme with you. Even for an American who is not particularly familiar with British politics or the absurdity of this narrative, seeing it was a wonderful experience.
MATTHEW MACFADYEN: We too had no knowledge of it. Anyway, I didn’t. Kevin acted.
Was going to inquire as to whether you were familiar with that. I am familiar with Matthew; you mentioned that you were pretty young at the time.
MACFADYEN: I was born in 1974, the same year [John Stonehouse] committed the crime by flying to Miami and leaving his clothes at the Shimmering Sands Hotel on the beach. I was therefore unaware of it. Strangely enough, there was a tale about a guy who faked his own death and dove into the ocean, a novel titled The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, which was adapted into a television series starring Leonard Rossiter. And I believe that followed Woods. Is that accurate?
MCNALLY: I believe it served as a type of inspiration for it.
MacFadyen is correct. But I had no knowledge of Stonehouse.
I was interested in that, since I know you guys have done it before, when you’re portraying a genuine person. It goes without saying that some events are dramatised for television, movies, or other media. How much of your work involves research, and how much is based solely on the information shown on the page?
MACFADYEN: I have no idea. I’m not sure whether you’d agree, but you can conduct as much research as you like, depending on the type of project you are working on. So it’s a different type of study, I suppose, if you’re trying to portray it as exactly as possible in a really realistic sort of scenario. But whenever I play a real person, there always comes a point where I say, “Right, forget the real, I’ve just got to play the script.” I haven’t done this very often. Due to the fact that you must play the text and the story you are filming, you cannot play the research or the actual occurrences. It’s similar like reading the first draught of a legendary script. Up to a point, it’s useful, but you’re filming the script, not the book.
MCNALLY: I agree. To that, I would also add that… According to me, Stonehouse is actually more accurate to the original event than many things I’ve ever seen, while being somewhat broad and ludicrous, humorous, and well-told. In particular, I recall that the movie In the Name of the Father, which was about IRA bombers, received a lot of flak for Tom [Wilkinsondefense ]’s role and the ridiculous story they made up about her looking at park benches and other stuff when, in reality, it was just tenacious, tedious police work that led to the Guildford Four’s capture. Additionally, I’ve watched other programmes that are based on genuine situations that I believe do contain some exaggerations “So why do you feel the need to do that? You could stick with the original narrative.” Watch it, and you’ll see that there really aren’t any—if anything, we’ve just left a lot of stuff out there since we didn’t have time for it. I also voiced the companion documentary, The Real Stonehouse, for this. However, I fail to see any invention in it at all.