[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the ending of “Howards End.”]
It’s not in the finale of “Howards End,” but in many ways, the first kiss between Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen) has much of what makes the entire Starz series compelling. Forgoing the usual white-hot romance of literary adaptations, this expression of love is a much simpler, gentler expression of mutual admiration. This version of the E.M. Forster novel appeals a bit more to modern sensibilities, but there’s a very specific drive that motivates everyone involved.
As Macfadyen explains, part of that came from a short, but illuminating line in Kenneth Lonergan’s script.
“Kenny Lonergan is the funniest,” Macfadyen told IndieWire. “It was such a brilliant bit of stage direction in his screenplay for that moment: ‘Henry realizes then is the moment he ought to kiss her.'”
It’s a perfect example of how so much Mr. Wilcox — and Macfadyen’s performance — is built around the words you don’t hear him say. Sometimes, as illustrated in the early dinner table conversations during Helen’s initial visit or in the heated conversations with his children and the Schlegel sisters, Wilcox’s ideas get overshadowed by the arguments of those he’s talking to.
“It’s very specifically overlapped on the page. So as actors you work out exactly to the syllable when you’re interrupted, what you might be saying afterwards. We rehearsed a lot, so when you get it right, it’s really satisfying and exciting,” Macfadyen said. “The big one on the hilltop in Swanage when they’re having a big conversation about the Basts and Henry loses his patience a little bit with Helen, I think that was 11 pages. And we shot it over the course of a day. It was thrilling because it was like doing a play.”
But as the story turned to the fourth and final chapter, it brought out another side to Wilcox, a man left broken after effectively losing his son to a murder conviction. One of the enduring images of the finale is seeing a father and a husband emptied of the existence he’d once known, looking for comfort and forgiveness from the wife he’s put at a distance.
“That’s a really dreadful thing for him to come to terms with. It would have been such an enormous scandal for him. I mean, he wouldn’t have been able to show his face in London. His social circle would be gone. It would be the equivalent of the worst tabloid exposé imaginable,” Macfadyen said. “I found the end of it really interesting that he sort of found this peace with Margaret at Howards End, even though he’s lost his eldest son and his life is sort of over as it was.”
As someone who’s starred in films, single-season dramas, and opened-ended TV series, Macfadyen’s played characters with fixed ends before. While it’s fun to imagine the continuing saga of Henry and Margaret, he offered that there’s a certain comfort in giving over to a character who arrives at a fixed point where the story leaves off. He and co-star Hayley Atwell would joke about what might happen after the events of the final episode, but he said he never let it keep him from staying within Wilcox’s present.
“Hayley and I would laugh, she had a gag that she actually infantilized Henry and turned him into a great big baby. That she sort of kept him chained up at Howards End forever, like a sort of baby man,” Macfadyen said. “But it’s a lovely thing for an actor just to sort of give yourself over to [a writer’s] brilliance, really. You’re just sort of channeling what they’ve come up with for you and if you can add a little bit onto it, then that’s great. I’m always bemused when actors talk about their characters. I always don’t feel it’s mine, it’s the writer’s.”
Part of that process of giving over to the words on the page is deciding whether or not to pass judgment on the person that they’re inhabiting. For Macfadyen, the process of coming to terms with Wilcox (and the rest of the “Howards End” characters) was one that happened as he read the story.
“I found myself getting frustrated, losing sympathy with them, and then finding them terribly attractive and synthetic again. It’s not clear-cut and easily digestible,” Macfadyen said. “Which is correct because they’re fully formed. They’re imperfect, nuanced human beings with failings and flaws and also wonderful qualities. Mr. Wilcox is not a bad man, he’s just a man of his time. Henry would never support a vote for women and all the rest of it, but he would, he would lie down on the road for a lady because he’s a gentleman.”
Understanding that character, especially in a literary context, led Macfadyen to do something he rarely does when acting in a project based on a novel.
“Often I don’t have the book with me when I’m shooting an adaptation of something. Because it’s not terribly useful always since you’re not shooting the book of course,” Macfadyen said. “It was like a delicious treat. You shoot and then you go and have a look at the book and see what was going on at the same time, or little moments that Kenny hadn’t put in the script.”
Overall, Wilcox gave Macfadyen a series-long charge to convey a bevy of under-the-surface emotions in the subtlest ways. It’s a challenge in its own way, but one that he relishes as an actor for all the reasons that make the entire process feel real.
“You can never adequately tell someone how much you love them, or really describe how you’re feeling. It’s more vital than anything you can express,” Macfadyen said. “Not being able to express it is perhaps the interesting thing. That may be difficult for real life, but fun for actors.”
“Howards End” is now available to stream via the Starz app.