“The book was always our Bible, really,” said Matthew Goode, who plays Charles Ryder in Julian Jarrold’s new feature adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” which was previously the subject of a cherished 1982 British mini-series with Jeremy Irons in that role. “We were constantly referring back to it. Particularly for me—I needed to look at that prose to figure just how you’re going to play it. I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to adapting a book.”
But in a Dallas interview Goode noted that the film does make alterations to the original, the multi-layered story of Ryder’s involvement with the members of an aristocratic Catholic family whose ancestral home is the magnificent Brideshead Castle, and that some of them are quite significant.
“It was just a tremendous challenge, truncating the story down,” he said. “It’s not a vast novel, but it certainly has an epic scope to it. And no Hollywood ending in this. It’s deep, it’s tragic, and it’s complicated.”
Goode added that his own connection with the book went back many years. “I read the book when I was about twelve, actually,” the twenty-nine-year old actor said. “I was a real book hound when I was young, so I read a huge amount of things. Then I saw the TV series, because I was given it as a present by my agent. That was quite prophetic, really—it was five or six years ago. Then the script came through, and I read it, and I immediately thought, God, he’s so vocal in the novel—he’s the narrator—and in this he’s practically mute! That’s really a challenge. And he seemed so cold, without all that beautiful prose that Waugh wrote. So I was a little disconcerted and worried about that.
“That’s the reason on the TV series that there’s this mournful future voiceover sort of commenting back and setting the scene for the character. Our major worry was that I didn’t want to demonstrate everything. You want to show Charles thinking, and the gray areas…but not go, ‘Now I’m sad, now I’m happy!’ It was a major concern. I was worried I might get acted off the screen by people giving fairly large performances,” he added with a chuckle of his co-stars Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Ben Whishaw and Hayley Atwell.
Apart from Charles’ lack of narration, another major change moved up the beginning of romance between Ryder and Lady Julia, the sister of his college friend Sebastian, to much earlier in the narrative. “I had concerns [about that],” Goode admitted. “It makes Charles seem cold and very, very ambitious, I think, a little earlier than he is in the novel. And I still argue about how much of a social climber he is. I was worried that it might make him look like he didn’t care for Sebastian and was all in it for himself—which he’s not, really.” As to Ryder’s basic motivation, he added, “it’s a desperate search to understand what love is and where he fits into the world. We didn’t really focus that much on whether Charles converts, but I think in the end he opts for Catholicism because it’s lonelier being an atheist. He is ambitious, as most men are. I think there is a time he starts to social climb, but really and truly, for me it’s not about being the possessor of Brideshead. It’s just, for me, the only place he’s ever truly been happy. That long idyllic summer really has an effect on him.
But, Goode said, he set aside any worries about the changes. “They sought permission from the Waugh estate, and they gave their permission,” he said. “Ultimately you’ve got to do your job and put your trust in the director, because it’s his vision. In particular with Julian on this project, he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. If it doesn’t work out well, it’s the director’s fault. If it works out well, the accolades tend to go to the actors!” And Goode, lavish in his praise for Jarrold as well as his fellow cast members, clearly thinks the film worked out well.
Goode was also highly complimentary about other directors he’s worked with. One was Scott Frank, for whom he’d made the suspense drama “The Lookout” (2007). “No one else, if they’d been directing, would have pursued me,” he said. “It was a chance to do a really…psycho character, and morally ambiguous—all those lovely gray areas you love to try to unravel.” Another was Woody Allen, for whom he made “Match Point” in 2005. Noting that Allen would normally do only a couple of takes and readily allowed tweaking of the lines, Goode said, “He’s ‘Let’s get on with it.’ And that sort of empowers you as an actor, in a way, because you have to start trusting yourself rather than [saying], ‘Tell me what to do!’ He’s a very hands-off director, just very aware of his own mortality—he wants to get on with it and live life outside the film. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
And most recently there’s Zack Snyder, of “300” fame, for whom he played Ozymandias, one of the super-powered characters in “Watchmen,” another adaptation of an influential graphic novel. “It’s the ‘Citizen Kane’ of the graphic novel,” Goode said, with a rabid fan base. “It’s a tough audience to please, [but] you’ve got the right director. I think that Zack’s a visionary. I know in my heart that he upheld the integrity of the novel as much as Julian did [with ‘Brideshead Revisited’].”
In fact, Goode was working forward to seeing the footage of “Watchmen” Snyder had prepared for the San Diego Comic-Con. “I’m flying out this evening,” he said. “Doing more ‘Brideshead’ there.”
“At Comic-Con?” someone asked.
“No, San Diego,” Goode replied with a laugh. “That would be an interesting screening, though!”