Alex Macqueen: From Collingwood to the heights of the acting world

Alex Murphy-O’Connor meets with well-known actor and Collingwood alumnus Alex Macqueen to discuss his time in Durham, and the great acting success he later achieved.

By Alexandra Murphy-O’Connor

What do Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, and Will Ferrell have in common? These are just a handful of the acclaimed actors whom Collingwood alumnus, Alex Macqueen, has shared the stage and screen with. Modern comedies to period dramas, goodfellas and badfellas, Macqueen has graced audiences with hilarious and terrifying performances alike.

I met Alex Macqueen outside Collingwood Principal Joe Elliot’s office, trying to spot himself in his 1992 matriculation photograph. In the sea of familiar faces, alas, he has no luck finding his own. He fondly reflects on his time here: ‘I loved every ounce of it from start to finish. It was just such a brilliant experience.’ Having never worn black tie before, he relished the formals, and generally found college to be a ‘friendly environment.’ A disciplined student, he went to the library religiously each day from 9am – 9pm, alongside his involvement in Drama productions: ‘Durham gets the balance between academic rigour and social life really perfectly.’

As a student here, he set up his own theatre company called ‘Cardinal Theatre Company’, named for the Bishop of Durham, since the Company’s first production saw Macqueen direct and play Macbeth in the Cathedral to celebrate 900 years of its establishment in Durham. This was the first time Macbeth had been performed in a holy environment, and he describes it as ‘an abiding experience.’ He secured funding by writing to famous individuals, whose details he had found and copied from a contact book during his time at the National Youth Theatre (NYT). Several wrote back and donated, including a generous sum from Sir John Gielgud. Though this endeavour proved successful, it also backfired as news of it got around to one of the other members of the NYT, and Macqueen was asked to leave.

He attributes the happiest memories of his time at Durham to being part of the Revue troupe. From filming a sketch with local police in the Collingwood turning circle, to partaking in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, his ‘crucial and closest friends today were forged doing the Durham review.’ And this is exactly the advice he gives to all students regarding one’s life at university: ‘I can’t remember much of the literature I read if I’m perfectly honest, but I can tell you about the friendships I made and the life experience – its more about the people you meet and the life experience that is the most valuable.’

‘My career started in a telephone box outside Elvet Riverside.’ Having been released from the NYT in first year, and with nothing to lose, he phoned up the office to see if he could come back to audition for their summer play. Fortuitously, the person on the other end of the phone recognised his voice and plugged him in right at the end of the audition day. The audition itself was ‘like a dog’s breakfast.’ It turned out that forgetting his lines was perfect for the part of Rodrigo in Othello, in which he starred alongside his peer, Orlando Bloom. He was readmitted into the NYT, where he signed with an agent and landed his first on-screen appearance – an Utterly Butterly commercial. This led to his casting in The Thick of It, and the rest is history, If there’s one lesson to take away from this, it’s ‘put yourself in the pathway of good luck!’

My career started in a telephone box outside Elvet Riverside

After graduating from Durham, he trained to be a barrister. ‘Although the NYT was great in terms of the people you met as well as having to concentrate, learn lines, and perform,’ actually what he learnt most when it came to television and film ‘was the cold face of going into court, feeling absolutely terrified and out of your depth, but pretending not to be and handling myself professionally, even though inside it was a crumbling shambles.’ Furthermore, ‘when it came to performing in front of an 80-man crew in front of a camera for the first time, I told myself, ‘just pretend that camera is a high court judge and the crew are members of the jury etc,’ that’s how I got through my first ever filming experience.’ He continues, ‘doing a lot of theatre at the NYT and at Durham, being able to inhabit a character and not be yourself was very valuable. Putting on a wig and gown was very critical to that.’

Barrister training was a form of insurance for Macqueen in case his acting career didn’t get off the ground. Thankfully it did, and the moment he attributes to taking that leap of faith into the industry was when he was looking down onto Leicester Square from his legal office where the premier of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was taking place. He spied his NYT peer Orlando Bloom there, and thought ‘if he can do it, the least I can do is give it a go!’

Macqueen flourishes when he has the freedom to experiment and improvise, and this is what he admires most in a director. The Inbetweeners writer/directors were very particular about how they wanted their characters portrayed, since they were based off their own friendship group and people they knew at high school. Similarly, in Becoming Elizabeth, the recent period drama about Queen Elizabeth I’s early life, there was ‘not much room for improvisation.’ However, he thoroughly enjoyed working on those sets. In contrast, directors such as Woody Allen offer little direction, allowing a more personal and organic way of acting and reacting.  ‘They don’t direct. They allow you space to create – only if they really need something which you haven’t provided, for example emphasis on a line, will they step in. They encourage everyone to be autonomous – that is the mark of the best directors…I feel my better work comes out if I feel I have room to make errors and mistakes.’

My better work comes out if I feel I have room to make errors and mistakes

Similarly, Kenneth Branagh’s directorial manner allows room for actors to experiment. He directed and acted alongside Macqueen in the West End play, The Painkiller. In rehearsals, Branagh would schedule time for ‘thought experiments’ and ‘lab work’ to encourage the actors to ensure they had a thorough grasp of the characters and their characterisation. However, it is unlikely we will see Macqueen perform in anything live soon, as he finds theatre ‘too nerve-racking.’ One day across the Waterloo bridge on the way back from rehearsals, fellow The Painkiller star Rob Brydon asked Macqueen, ‘do you have a morbid fear about forgetting your lines one night?’ He replied, ‘I’m so glad you say that because that is the one fear I carry with me most days!’ Performing live does have its charms, however. Corpsing (breaking character) does indeed happen, even by professionals in the West End. He remembers one time when Kenneth Branagh ‘found himself just laughing his head off on stage, and he was burying his head into my back because he was made to laugh by Rob Brydon.’

Rob Brydon and Kenneth Branagh are, of course, among the esteemed actors he has worked alongside. For Alex, the most surreal figures he has worked with have been Will Ferrell, Woody Allen and Michael Caine. ‘These are childhood heroes of mine, almost genres in their own right – to be able to work with them was so exciting.’

There was one brush with ‘A-Listers’ in particular which Macqueen recalls on the set of Peaky Blinders. ‘There was a guy on the set one day with a broken leg and walking around with a lot of swagger. I thought to myself, ‘who is this guy? It must be one of the technicians, because he was in very casual clothes, but a very, very confidant electrician.’ He then came up to me when I was with Cillian Murphy, and said, ‘I really enjoyed you last night on Alan Carr.’ I said, ‘thank you’ et cetera, flattered, and then Cillian Murphy said to me, ‘how do you know Chris Martin….?’’ If he can impress Chris martin and Cillian Murphy, he’s not doing so badly!

The difference between working on a television series and a film is that ‘one episode of a tv series has the quality, scale and money that a feature film would’ve had 20 or 30 years ago. The idea that one episode could cost £10,000,000 is astonishing. That is why feature films are in jeopardy now.’ However, when I asked about the future that cinema has in society, he believes that Barbenheimer – the double bill of Barbie and Oppenheimer, both premiering on July 21st, 2023was ‘a very encouraging sign that people wanted to go to the cinema, into a public space for the scale and the community of it. When you see something on the big screen it’s like going to the opera, and we will not want to let that go.’

However, his ‘big fear’ for the future of actors’ careers is Artificial Intelligence. ‘I did a show recently where the main cast went into a very large tent with 400 go-pro cameras fitted around the circumference so that their features could be captured and used later without having to call the entire cast back.’

When you see something on the big screen, it’s like going to the opera, we will not want to let that go

As befits a Collingwood alumnus, we adjourned to ‘The Stag’s Head’ to conclude our interview. Over a glass of red wine, we exchanged anecdotes about Durham life then and now, and both agreed that Durham University has been the source of some of the happiest times of our lives.

Image: Alex Macqueen

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