Richard Madden has two main criteria for selecting a new project. First, does it involve horses or swords? And second, is it something he would want to watch?
“That’s a lot of the thing when I’m choosing a role,” the Scottish actor says, sitting in a corner of the bar in London’s Dorchester hotel. “When I pick up a script, I have to work out if I would watch it. If I want to read it again, that’s my big litmus test. If I do, then it’s right for me.”
As for the horses and the swords, well, he’s had enough of those for now. Ever since departing “Game of Thrones” during the infamous Red Wedding episode, which killed off his character Robb Stark (along with many, many others) in 2013, Madden has been looking to do things that are as different as possible. That’s one of the reasons he said yes to “Bodyguard,” a six-episode miniseries that originally aired on BBC in the U.K. earlier this year before being picked up by Netflix for worldwide distribution. The series was the most-watched new drama in the U.K. in a decade, compelling viewers week after week with its nail-biting storyline.
“I want people to see different aspects of me. And I want to keep finding different aspects of myself,” says Madden, who is filming the upcoming Elton John biopic “Rocketman” as the pop star’s manager and lover. “I don’t want to get typecast into one kind of genre. And I’ve tried my hardest to do that since ‘Game of Thrones,’ since the beginning of that, when I said ‘I don’t just want to be defined as the guy from “Game of Thrones.”’ You have to really try and resist doing that or you can get stuck in a hole.”
In “Bodyguard,” created and written by Jed Mercurio, Madden embodies a specialist protection officer for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, tasked with protecting Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes). His character, David Budd, is grappling with PTSD from serving in the British army and is attempting to piece his crumbling marriage back together. He’s doing his best to be a father to his two young children, but Budd is a victim of his anxiety and lingering stress. When he finds himself mixed up in a plot on the Home Secretary’s life — which may involve a terrorist threat — he’s immediately in over his head.
“There’s a recurring thing that happens in his life about the prince that saves the day and rescues the woman,” Madden says of Budd. “He’s … up in his life with his wife and his kids. And all of it is actually him trying to save himself. To look after the home secretary is again him trying to save the damsel. And if he can save her, if he can fix everything, if he can make her right and safe, then he’s done his job and he’s the hero. That’s the hangover from the war and it’s a big subconscious driving force in him. If he does his job right, then he’ll be fixed. But that’s not how it works.”
Madden accepted the role after reading the first three episodes, which conclude with a massive plot swing that shifts the series into something else entirely for the remaining three. Because of this, the actor didn’t want to know what came next when shooting the initial episodes.
“I got the information as I went, and it gave me a lot more to play with,” he notes. “I didn’t end up playing episode six in episode three — I had to wait. That made it more interesting for me.”
Beyond the plot, he wasn’t even clear on his own character’s motivations going in.
“I was pitched on this first concept of this bodyguard guy and not knowing if he was bad or good,” Madden says. “That’s something I tried to hold on to as much as I could through the show, because it gives an ambiguity to him.”
It’s not just Madden’s character; you’re never quite sure who is bad or good in the series. “Bodyguard” purposefully withholds essential information from the viewer throughout, which adds to the thrilling aspect of the show. You may think you know, but “Bodyguard” is all about upturning those expectations.
The series filmed for five months last winter in Central London, and the production managed to keep its spoilers a secret — even as Madden was acting out pivotal scenes in the middle of very public locations. The filming was intense for the actor, who lived and breathed his lines throughout and ultimately had trouble letting go of David.
“It was kind of relentless,” Madden says. “You do take a lot of things home with you, and that’s difficult. I’m not method in any way or anything like that, but you live in someone else’s clothes every day, and I said his words more than I said my own, I think. You can’t help but be infected by him. And he’s not a character that you want to be infected by that much. So that’s something you have to deal with. You have to check yourself, like, ‘OK, let’s get out of his head.’”
To better understand PTSD and its effects, Madden spoke with several army vets and did as much research as possible. He wanted to ensure that the way it was depicted wasn’t clichéd in any way. “I’ve had some really nice messages from people that are overwhelmingly positive and supportive, saying, ‘Thank you,’” Madden says. “I’ve had a few people say, ‘Thanks for portraying him how you did’ because they’re so used to PTSD being portrayed as wacky flashbacks when you’re sitting in a restaurant or as crazy things. And that’s just not how it is. Sometimes it’s just underlying, devastating anxiety or versions of panic attacks that override your day or are subtly with you all the time. It’s not just someone smashes a glass and you duck for cover.”
He adds, “There’s a big blanket with PTSD where it’s very different for everyone, and I had to try and think what that was for David and try to play that and sew it into his life.”
Even the British government has commended the show for its realistic portrayal of those who work to protect politicians. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd wrote an article for London’s Sunday Times saying the show offered an “accurate depiction” of the job.
“One of my big worries about the show coming out was that we worked so hard for it, and we tried our best to be as accurate as we can, and people could have said, ‘Oh, yeah, just another show; we don’t care,’” Madden says. “And actually people have had such a good response to it. It is fiction. It’s not a nonfiction piece. But we tried really hard to make something that was accurate and that was entertaining.”
Madden says he hasn’t seen a real career shift from the show — yet. Still, rumors have been flying that Madden is being tapped as the next James Bond thanks to his performance as David Budd. The British tabloids have recently claimed that producer Barbara Broccoli is planning to reach out to Madden with the role. Is it true? Well, not that he’s saying.
“I try to avoid reading any of the tabloids,” Madden says. “It’s very flattering to have my name even mentioned in that conversation, but it’s all just hearsay to the best of my knowledge. I worked really hard on this, and you never know how a job’s going to turn out or what’s going to come out of it. But people really enjoyed the show, which is brilliant, and if that leads to me doing this more and keep in this profession and keep working, then I’m really thankful for that.”
After this, he’s not sure. But he’ll know it when he sees it. “I don’t have a clue what’s next,” the actor says, laughing. “I’ll just have to wait to find a script I want to read twice.”
When: Now streaming
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)