Colin Morgan is a man of many talents. Enigmatic performer. Charming Ulsterman. Method actor. Qualities that have underpinned his ability to reinvent himself at every turn. Since bursting onto the scene over a decade ago, Colin has transported us back to the Middle Ages, explored the meaning of life as a twenty-first century android, and broken a few hearts as a troubled Victorian shrink. Gee Wong talks to the rising star about the intensity of the roles he plays, his way with accents and why he’s giving social media the cold shoulder.
Arranging an interview with Colin Morgan is a lesson in timing. Given that his brisk schedule and unforeseen events have thwarted our previously arranged powwows, it’s a relief when the phone eventually whirrs into life. He introduces himself in his deep loquacious Ulster drawl and all is forgiven. “I’m glad we’ve finally got the chance to talk, there’s been a lot of back and forth, hope everything is alright?” he says. The raw accent, while expected, is captivating to hear for the first time—largely because he’s a master at disguising those native vowels.
From the West End stage to television to the silver screen, the vocal gymnastics have been key to defining this award-winning actor’s march toward stardom. In fact, they often go hand in hand with the intense and angst-heavy roles he clearly relishes. “I couldn’t write down any specific reasons why I go for a part because it really is instinctive. It’s more of a feeling than a reason, you know what I mean?” he explains. “It’s like when you meet someone and you just click, but you don’t really know why, but you just do. It’s a bit like that. I’m meeting a character when I read it on the page and if it does something to me, it literally calls.” His confidence in an ability to single out roles is striking and the approach clearly works for him. “It has to be the only way. The scriptwriter, director and producer—theyre all on board because they’re passionate about a project and you’ve got to come in and respect there’s been a lot of hard work gone into the stage where they’re casting—these things can go on for years!” Auditions must be pretty intense then? “Yeah, I can feel it sometimes in auditions—if you can’t come in and deliver that level of what’s come before then you shouldn’t be there. You’ve got to love it.”
For his breakout performance—as the eponymous young wizard in the BBC’s fantasy drama Merlin—Colin owned an English accent so convincingly that his burgeoning fan base couldn’t quite believe he was from County Armagh. What’s his secret to cracking an accent? The answer is, of course, a lot of talent, practice and immersing himself in the role. “When I’m working on a character the voice comes first, or initially the way they move, it all influences each other,” he says. It’s a habit that’s seen him in good stead over the years. “Just like a runner training for a marathon, you need to do your training, listen to a lot of people, the way they talk and move, and imitate a lot because you’re working in the business of mimicry,” he admits. “It’s a case of muscle memory for me. I love accents, I love doing them, as many as I can really.”
He’s recently been back on the box—fine-tuning his Received Pronunciation English—in the supernatural period drama The Living and the Dead. It’s a darkly written role about grief and holding onto the past, with no shortage of terrifying apparitions to hammer home the message. What was it like returning to the fantasy genre after a few years away? “It’s weird because fantasy implies a story is lifted from reality. I don’t feel like I get affected by the genre because the character is just living their story,” he says. “For me, it’s all about the script and reaching into the character that I can inhabit.” The actor gave his all to the role, including staying in accent throughout filming. “I didn’t plan on it at all on the first day, but after we did our first scene it just stayed with me for the whole shoot. You’re in costume and even on your lunch break you’re still dressed as the character, you’ve still got the long hair and the beard,” he explains, laughing. “You still feel it—the person and the voice are just part of it.” So, in reality, not as odd as it sounds. “It’s just so much easier especially when you have a Northern Irish accent. To try and go from that to an English accent from 1894—they’re miles apart!”
Talking of his appearance, his fans set Twitter alight after the first episode. The reason? A sit-up-in-your-chair topless scene that let slip an ‘all growed up’ physique and, inevitably, a new-found pin-up status for the actor. It’s a far cry from his fresh-faced debut in Merlin at the tender age of 22. Nevertheless, the comments went right over his head—he shuns social media. “It’s just not me really. You have to want to do it,” he states without hesitation. “It’s an amazing medium for getting the word out for shows, promotion and for staying in contact, but there are a lot of negative sides as well.” Can he point out a few of the downsides? “When the words you want to say don’t have to be said face to face people tend to say a lot of stuff—that’s not something I think is healthy for an actor to be an open party to,” he adds. I get the impression he’s been burnt from personal experience and now views his privacy as sacrosanct. When pressed further, he confesses to a distaste for so-called ‘insta-stardom’ and all the baggage that comes with it. “The good stuff can make you arrogant, the bad stuff can stay with you forever,” he declares.
That said, don’t call him a technophobe. Although he doesn’t watch much television these days, he’s all for the BBC’s decision to simultaneously broadcast and stream his latest show. “It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely in keeping with how people are watching nowadays. When I do watch television, it’s on catch-up, Netflix and Amazon.” He does also venture online to shop and email. He has googled himself once—purely out of curiosity—which was enough to put him off for life. So, how does he receive feedback on his performances? “I never hear about it unless it’s mentioned to me. Fans show their support in many different ways. A lot of them write fan letters, which I think is much more in line with how I’m likely to respond.”
A low-fi solution indeed, but totally in keeping with Colin’s old-school, yet easygoing style. Not much fazes him: was turning 30 a big deal last year? “No, not really, weirdly. I can appreciate it’s one of those milestones in your life,” he states matter-of-factly before pausing and reflecting on intriguing new possibilities. “At the minute, I think I’m still on that younger side of the age bracket, but I’m looking forward to being an ageing actor and getting to play all those great Shakespearean roles as well.”
A busy year it certainly was. Having played the lead in the mystery drama Waiting for You, he returned for the second season of the UK sci-fi drama Humans. Apparently, there was tremendous pressure to live up to the first season, which was a surprise hit for Channel 4—its biggest show in 20 years. “It definitely went up in scale, much bigger, much faster, lots of new characters and more storylines,” he says of the production. “I think fans will have loved the direction it went in.” A third season looks like a shoo-in.
Then there was the closing chapter of The Fall. Over the course of the show’s story arc critics and audiences endured the stuff of nightmares as Gillian Anderson’s detective hunted sadistic serial killer Paul Spector, played by fellow Ulsterman Jamie Dornan. Colin joined the show in season two as enigmatic detective Tom Anderson and reveals it was equal parts tension and anticipation during the filming of the endgame. “A pure page-turner! I couldn’t wait to get the next page of the script and that says a lot about the writer’s skill,” he admits. What was it like working with Gillian? “Just brilliant. Gillian’s a consummate professional, such a joy to work with and she has a really good sense of humour. She had really heavy scenes, but she was just able to let go after filming.” What about Jamie? “Absolutely brilliant, he’s had global success and he’s exactly the same as when I first started working with him. He’s a real talent.”
If last year was good, then 2017 is set to be even better. He’s in final talks on a number of projects, including another film that he hopes will start shooting in the early summer. Meanwhile, he’s attracting considerable attention from across the Atlantic. “There are a lot of exciting dramas happening, and right now a lot of American things are coming through,” he says.
Talk turns to the day of his photo shoot, which I suspect might not have been the most enjoyable experience for the publicity-shy actor. “It was brilliant! The guys were so good! It was basically a group of people in a room with a camera having a bit of a laugh,” he volunteers, somewhat enthusiastically, before pausing as if to compose himself. After a few seconds he continues: “Obviously, in any of those situations it’s not a normal thing to be photographed, it’s not really second nature to me. So, anything that makes the whole experience relaxed, enjoyable and fun that’s the key, and the guys really did that for me.”
It’s apparent he draws a clear distinction between performing for his art and self-promotion—the later of which he accepts as part and parcel of his profession. “I think it’s important to divide the line between your professional and personal self,” he says. I press him further on how he finds the right balance between championing his work and maintaining a safe distance from media intrusion. “With so many shows being on TV there is a commitment in terms of publicity that wasn’t as strong as in the past. Yes, when you work on a job, it’s important that you’re proud of it and you want to support it. The other side of it is the nastier side, which can backfire on people.” A diplomatic answer tempered with his signature frankness.
It’s nearing the end of the interview, but his last remarks remind me of something he said at the outset that neatly sums up the actor’s perspective. “Whenever I did theatre, I’d go in, do the job, go home and trust that the work we had done was enough. We didn’t need anyone’s approval, disapproval or opinions.” In our current hashtag culture, it’s refreshing to hear someone completely unfazed by fame, while somehow still managing to wear their sensibilities so lightly.
The Original Interview on Big Issue is no longer available.