When it comes to award shows, always listen to Julianne Moore.
Richard Madden knows this now, though he didn’t in January, when the Scottish actor found himself seated next to Moore at the Golden Globes. Madden had received his first Globe nomination for playing a British politician’s PTSD-stricken protection officer in the hit miniseries Bodyguard, and before the names in his category were read, Moore leaned over to strategize.
“She was like, ‘OK, sweetie, if you win, do you want to come out behind me or do you want to go around the other way?’” Madden recalled. He responded incredulously: Of course he wouldn’t win.
But he did. And as the orchestra began to play, Madden had no idea where to go. With a professional’s ease, Moore stood up, stepped back and coaxed Madden past her to the stage. “And then when I came back to the table after,” he said, “she was like, ‘I asked you which way you wanted to go!’”
When it comes to navigating his path through Hollywood, the 32-year-old Madden prefers to figure it out on the fly. This week, you can catch him in the musical Rocketman, where Madden plays a cunning music manager whose seduction of Elton John extends past the boardroom and into the bedroom. It’s a far cry from Madden’s best-known role as Robb Stark, the virtuous, doomed Game of Thrones character who perished during the show’s notorious Red Wedding episode.
That series only got bigger and bigger as it went on, but after his third-season exit, Madden was no longer around to partake in the spoils. Still, being killed off early has its benefits: It let Madden gradually age out of callow-prince roles and start playing complicated adult men. His role on Bodyguard last fall served as a reintroduction of sorts, a signal to the industry that Madden’s matinee-idol looks had grown gratifyingly flinty. Even his vulnerability now seemed dangerous.
“I’m so used to playing the good guy that bad things happen to,” Madden told me in a Cannes hotel room this month, just days after Rocketman premiered at the film festival there. Initially tired from a day of doing press, Madden became warmer and more animated as he spoke, his blue eyes widening often for emphasis. “I was interested in playing a slightly darker character, with different motivations to him.”
His Rocketman role, John Reid, lets Madden play the Machiavellian type with a jolt of sexual electricity: When Reid tells the young, untested Elton John, “You’re so humble, it’s embarrassing,” Madden makes his taunt sound like a come-on.
“What Richard has as an actor is great weight and assuredness,” said Taron Egerton, who plays Elton John in the film. “People call it sex appeal — and hell, there’s no doubt he has that — but it’s more than that. The sex appeal is a byproduct of his strength. You feel safe around him, because he has this certainty about things.”
Ask Madden about that certainty, though, and he seems startled that anyone would think he possesses it. “You have to summon the strength to try and fake it,” he said. The character of John Reid may seem like a shark, but Madden conceived him as a big bluffer working hard to conceal his nerves, “because that echoed me on set, trying to be the cool character but actually panicking underneath.”
Madden has felt that sense of precariousness since he was a child actor growing up outside Glasgow, where classmates teased him relentlessly for leaving school to pursue roles. Even when Madden got his big break on Game of Thrones, it came with a catch: Many of his co-stars were recast after the pilot was shot, an early reminder that “you’ve got to bring your best to this show, because it’s going to go on with or without you.”
Eventually, the show did just that, though not before bestowing Madden with a level of fame that surprised him. “I thought it would just be like a niche, cult show,” Madden said. “I didn’t think it was going to be, like” — he paused to think of something appropriately huge — “‘Game of Thrones,’” he said finally.
Still, even that series couldn’t quite prepare Madden for the level of attention he’s received since Bodyguard debuted. A twisty, sexually charged action drama set against the war on terror, Bodyguard was a sensation in Britain when it came out last fall on the BBC (the show later debuted worldwide on Netflix), though Madden kept expecting the other shoe to drop.
“You’re always waiting for it to fail, or go wrong,” he said. “I did it with every episode of ‘Bodyguard,’ thinking, ‘This will be the week where the audience turns on us and starts hating the show.’”
They never did, and the frenzy kicked up by Bodyguard has led to new roles — Madden is soon to shoot the Sam Mendes-directed World War I drama 1917 and, it’s rumored, the Marvel movie The Eternals — as well as new scrutiny. Paparazzi attention has become so prevalent in London, where Madden lives much of the year, that his neighbors have started a group chat to warn the actor if any photographers are lingering outside.
Tabloid interest in his personal life has increased, too: Madden, who was in a relationship with the actress Jenna Coleman until last year, has recently been photographed several times with the actor Brandon Flynn, who used to date the singer Sam Smith. Are the two men an item?
Madden shrugged, unbothered by the question but in no hurry to answer it, either. “I just keep my personal life personal,” he said. “I’ve never talked about my relationships.” He’s working on a way to deter paparazzi interest in who he’s seen with: “I wear the same clothes days in a row, because if it looks like the same day, they can’t run the pictures,” he said. “There’s only so many photos you can have of me with a green juice walking down the street.”
He knows, though, that some actors court that kind of attention. “I’ll be at hotels and restaurants where they’ll tell you, ‘There’s paparazzi in the front, do you want to go out the front or go out the back?’” Madden said. “And you go, ‘Who wants to go out the front?’ And they say, ‘Oh, quite a lot of people!’”
Madden shook his head, laughing. He had been invited to the Vanity Fair party that night, one of the biggest see-and-be-seen soirees of the festival, but decided to beg off another night of flashbulbs and schmoozing. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” he explained. Instead, he’d opt for something more modest, satisfying no one’s appetite that night but his own.
“I’m going to eat a cheeseburger in bed,” he said, grinning.