Northern Ireland actor Andrew Simpson on playing the fame game his way
The Northern Ireland actor tells Suzanne Breen of the drastic measures he took to conceal a broken leg from the Hollywood actress, what his deeply religious mum made of those sex scenes and how Dame Judi Dench gave him some wise advice.
As a Londonderry schoolboy, Andrew Simpson burst onto the big screen as Cate Blanchett's underage lover in the Oscar-nominated film, Notes on a Scandal. It was an eye-catching performance which wowed the critics and seemed set to guarantee stardom for the teenager.
Ten years on, the young actor isn't to be found in London or LA. He sits with a beer at a candlelit table in the Woodworkers' bar on Belfast's Golden Mile, across the road from the hotel of which he is manager.
He is serious, charming and disarmingly handsome. If he is to reach the dizzy heights that a decade ago looked a certainty, he is determined to do it his way. "I can't begin to explain how much I love acting, the passion I feel for it, the buzz that it gives me," he says.
"But I lived in London for three years and it wasn't for me. It was too big, too overpowering. I felt like a number. I hated the Tube, it made me feel dirty even though I'd showered half an hour earlier. I missed the open spaces of home."
He found Hollywood equally awful. "I was there for a Teen Vogue shoot and it was all fake tan, fake faces, fake hair and fake breatss. There was even Botox by the pool. The men walked about like muscular gods and there I was, white-skinned and freckly, with my head in a book," he says.
"I became friends with Eddie Redmayne and I remember him saying to me, 'It's all b******* but as long as you know it's b*******, it's good fun.' I didn't take to it at all. It was what you were, not who you were."
Andrew (27) is manager of Benedicts Hotel, a family business. "It pays the bills and it's certainly not boring," he says. "Now, a desk job, I couldn't do that." Despite running the hotel, he hasn't abandoned acting.
He has just auditioned for a Christopher Nolan movie set during the Second World War. A confidentiality agreement means he can't talk about the film but it's recently been revealed in the media that it's based on the mass evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk.
And Andrew is currently starring in RTE's Rebellion drama about the 1916 Rising. He plays a young Protestant barrister, George Wilson, who initially opposes the insurgency but then develops republican sympathies.
While George's romance with Ingrid - a Belfast woman who dumps her fiance to be with him in Dublin - is part of the story, there is certainly no X-rated action and the focus is on George's changing political allegiances.
One person breathing a sigh of relief at Andrew's latest role is his mother, Marian."She's a proper Irish mammy, very religious," he says. "Watching her son as a 15-year-old schoolboy having an on-screen affair with Cate Blanchett was hard on her.
"My dad is very liberal but my mum is a lot more traditional. She was sitting beside me at the New York premiere of Notes on a Scandal as I delivered this extremely sexually explicit line to Cate. I was squirming in my seat but she was great and said nothing."
In 2011, Andrew played a young Irishman travelling across Africa in the film, All That Way For Love. He hitches a lift with an older married couple and ends up having sex with the woman. He beat Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Stephen Fry to win Best Male Actor at the Rhode Island International Film Festival for the role. "But my mum just raised her eyebrows and said, 'Not another sex scene, Andrew. Can't you act in something more ordinary'?" he laughs.
Andrew grew up in Fahan, on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal, but he was educated in Derry, attending Foyle College. His mother sent her four children to Sandra Biddle's speech and drama school in the city. "We weren't a performing family," he says.
"My mum just thought it would be fun and a way of developing our confidence and making friends.
"I enjoyed it more than my brother and sisters.
"My first memory is of playing a wise man in the Nativity play. Sandra was an inspirational teacher and a second mother to me."
Andrew's early career included appearing in the film Song for a Raggy Boy - about the physical and sexual abuse of children in a Catholic school - and a part in a PSNI advert as a young thug who breaks a window.
But it was Notes on a Scandal, a psychological thriller based on a Zoe Heller novel, which launched his career. He beat 15,000 boys for the role of Steven Connolly, the pupil in a London school who has an affair with his art teacher.
"It was down to three boys in the final audition and Cate felt most comfortable with me," he says. "A week before I heard I was picked, I broke my leg at a funfair. It was in a cast which the hospital told me to keep on for six weeks.
"Once I got the part, I was asked to go to London immediately. I knew if they found out about the broken leg, I'd lose the part. So I cut the cast off. I was limping in studio and they asked me what was wrong. I told them it was nothing, that I'd just slipped in Topshop.
"But the limp went on for days and the director ordered me to a medical examination by a top Harley Street doctor. Somehow, I passed. I told him my ankle hurt, so he never examined my leg. But I was in agony in the early days of filming."
The sex scenes were "obviously daunting" for a sexually inexperienced boy, Andrew admits. "But I didn't think, 'I need to go and practise before I head to London'. I knew it wouldn't matter if I didn't know what I was doing. What 15-year-old boy would? And it would be better if it was raw," he adds. Cate Blanchett really put him at ease. "She was very nice," he says. "Most famous people are. It's only the ones trying to get there who sometimes are jerks."
But it was Judi Dench, who played an older lesbian teacher in the movie, with whom Andrew most bonded. "I'd sit in her trailer in the evenings listening to The Archers with her. We became very good friends and we've stayed in touch. I know she's there if I need her," he says.
After Notes, Andrew returned to Foyle College. "Nothing changed that much," he says. "Some lads were asking, 'Did you really have sex with Cate Blancett'? Not too many teenage boys are lucky enough to be asked that question.
"And no, girls my own age didn't throw themselves at me. Though over the years, a few female teachers whom I didn't know sent me Facebook friend requests. I didn't accept them. I wasn't going down that road."
Not everyone who contacted Andrew about the movie was a fan. "I had religious nuts berating me for doing bad things," he says. "One man sent me bags of crucifixes and warned that I had to change my ways. Others said rosaries for me." He earned a "top-end five figure sum" for his six weeks filming. "I wanted to buy a car, even though I didn't drive," he recalls. "But my dad made me see sense and I bought a house which I rented out. That paid my way through university." Andrew remained impressively focused on his school-work, securing four A grades at A-level. He went to the London School of Economics (LSE) to study law. "That was a mistake," he says. "I'd wanted to go to Trinity College in Dublin but my agent told me London was the best place to combine studying and acting.
"As it happened, law wasn't a course that left much time for acting. I loved law but the focus at LSE was on the commercial end. Mergers, acquisitions and tax matters just didn't appeal to me. I was attracted to the softer side, like family law, which doesn't really pay."
After his three-year degree ended, Andrew fled London. "I didn't even pick up my belongings from my lodgings. I just got on a plane," he says. "I love going over to visit now but after a day or two, I'm glad to come home."
For five months after university, he worked on a building site in Derry. "The normality was brilliant. I was so much more relaxed and at ease back living in Ireland. I appreciated the beauty of the place, and the sense of community, far more than I had before I left."
Andrew is "very proud" of his part in RTE's Rebellion as George Wilson, who is junior counsel for the prosecution of the 1916 leaders. "I knew nothing about 1916 before then. I'm not in the slightest nationalistic but I found filming very emotional. The extras on set were crying during the executions.
"George is a fascinating character. He is against what the rebels did but he's troubled when martial law is brought into Ireland. The rule of law is not applied and the men don't get a fair trial. George starts to develop republican sympathies, he's torn between his career ambitions and what he feels in his heart."
Andrew is committed to building his own career and fulfilling all that early promise. "I would have loved more roles than I've had since Notes on a Scandal," he admits. "On my first day on set, Judi Dench said to me, 'Work might seem easy now but it won't always be. This is a cruel business'.
"At the time, I thought she was wrong but my older self realises how true her words were. Life is hard for young actors. But I've still a lot of time left. Judi never made it on screen until she was 60. People come and go at different ages. You just have to work at your craft and wait for your time."