“I sing in the movie. Does it come across alright?” asks an enthusiastic Eddie Marsan. The British actor is referring to a scene early on in Sam Taylor Johnson’s Amy Winehouse biopic Back To Black, in which Marsan, as Amy’s father Mitch Winehouse, sings a rendition of Fly Me To The Moon alongside his daughter, played by Marisa Abela. “I’m no singer, I worked really hard on that,” he says, after I tell him that his voice sounded fantastic. “I got Mitch to record a reference track for me, and then I went away with a voice coach and we worked on honing his voice.” Marsan has enjoyed a decades-long career as one of Britain’s most versatile, beloved character actors, and so, despite his modesty,  it comes as no surprise at all that the 55 year-old is a natural crooner—just another notch in his belt. 

It was always going to be a bumpy ride making an Amy Winehouse biopic, considering that just under a decade ago Asif Kapadia’s Amy documentary won at the Oscars and (for better or worse) established a canon on the events leading up to the singer’s tragic death at the hands of drug and alcohol addiction. While Kapadia’s documentary strongly suggests that Mitch Winehouse and Amy’s on-and-off partner Blake Fielder-Civil (her relationship with whom Back to Black, the album, was inspired by) were contributing factors to Amy’s tragic spiral, Taylor-Johnson’s dramatisation attempts to bring Amy’s story back to the music. Whether she does so successfully will be up for debate in the months ahead, but regardless, Marsan, true to form, brings shades of grey to a figure often painted in stark black and white. “Humans are temporary sages,” he says. “We’re both sinners and saints.”

We caught up with Marsan at the Mondrian Hotel, a stone-throw from the actor’s hometown Tower Hamlets, to discuss Back To Black, Mitch Winehouse, and what he’s learnt about acting over his accomplished career.

Luke Georgiades: How much of Amy’s story were you familiar with before you got offered the role?

Eddie Marsan: I was a great admirer of her music. I’d listen to it in the car all the time. I was aware of her family’s love of jazz. And I love jazz. When I got sent the script, there was a playlist with the script. They knew that music would be a massive part of the film. If I played you, I would ask you about your life. I would ask your mothers name, your fathers name, where you went to school, and then I would also ask you to make a playlist of your favourite songs. And that’s what I asked Mitch. His playlist was mainly jazz vocalists, which is similar to my taste in music. Billie Erksein. Dinah Washington. Ella Fitzgerald. Frank Sinatra. Tony Bennet. Amy, of course, was there. Music is one of the purest gateways into someone’s being. 

LG: Which Amy song did he include in the playlist?

EM: The one she made with Paul Weller. Don’t Go To Strangers, the live recording. A deep cut. 

LG: What were your exchanges with Mitch like? 

EM: Something happened that gave me my hook into playing Mitch. When I knew that I had to record Fly Me To The Moon, I asked him first to record it as a reference. And when he recorded it, he said at the end “there you go, love you!.” I have four teenagers. And when any of my kids leave the house to go to school or to go to their jobs, I tell them the same. I love you. When he said that I realised that Amy wasn’t there anymore. I read something recently that somebody described grief as love having nowhere to go. When he said that, I realised his grief, and that his love for Amy had nowhere to go. I knew, then, that I could only play him as a father who loves his daughter—a daughter who was an addict, and one of the most famous women in the world. And he was just a cab driver. How does one deal with that? That’s how I played him.

LG: When you had that realisation, did that go against a preconception that you may have had before about who he was?

EM: I never had that preconception. I had a friend who signed Amy, and had worked with Amy and Mitch. I had seen the original documentary [Asif Kapadia’s Amy] and I asked this friend to tell me his personal experience with Mitch. And he said to me “Eddie, we’re both parents of teenage children—we know how difficult it is, but no one can deny that we love our children. When I met Mitch, I knew right away that that was the man he was.” And when I met Mitch, I felt the same. I never judged him. I felt sorry for him, that his child had died. I told myself that if I read the script and it vilified him I wouldn’t do it, and if it was a script that sanitised him I wouldn’t do it. I don’t work like that as an actor. I play complex characters, and I take refuge in that complexity. Humans are temporary sages—we’re both sinners and saints.

LG: What kind of approach did Sam want audiences to take away from this movie, based on your conversations with her?

EM: She wanted it to be a love song to Amy. When somebody as talented as Amy dies so young, and we have an attachment to that person, in a sense we have possession of her narrative. It’s so traumatic that we think there has to be someone to blame. We don’t want to live in a world where somebody can be surrounded by loving parents, a normal family, and still die of addiction, because it would mean that no matter how loving we are to our children, they can still die of addiction.

We want to live in a world where if Amy died of addiction, then it must be Mitch’s fault or it must be Blake’s fault, whereas that’s not the  truth of addiction. Addiction is the villain of the piece, not Mitch or Blake. Which is why they both have spent their lives since helping people recover from addiction. I don’t buy that binary interpretation of the world where there’s heroes and villains…it may be great box office, but it doesn’t ring true to my experience.

LG: What’s something that you learnt about Amy during shooting that you didn’t know before?

EM: That nobody could tell her what to do. The narrative that was perpetuated was that she was the victim and that people took advantage of her. When I met people who knew her and had worked with her, they said that you literally could not tell Amy what she could and couldn’t do. So the idea that she’s this exploited victim simply isn’t true. She was an incredibly talented, vivacious, life-affirming, obstinate, stubborn, brilliant young lady. That’s what she was. She was an addict, and there’s a reason why alcoholics anonymous has the word anonymous in it, because you have to have privacy to deal with your addiction—she was never given that privilege. 

Marisa Abela behind the scenes
Marisa Abela and Sam Taylor-Johnson on set of Back to Black.

LG: Do you bring elements of your personal life into most of your roles?

EM: I come from Tower Hamlets, which is probably the most diverse borough in the country. When you live in a place like this, you learn to transcend your own cultural orthodoxy. You meet people with different cultural narratives and you listen to their stories. The reason that I’m a diverse actor is because I came from a diverse community. The reason I do John Adams and Mitch Winehouse and bring my own personal humanity into both of them, is because I was brought up and challenged to go to school with kids who had a completely different historical and cultural narrative to me, and to embrace it. 

LG: Was it a shock for you to come into the film industry from that background and see that maybe it wasn’t so diverse as the place you grew up?

EM: My biggest shock was meeting people from different classes. If I was with a Nigerian guy who was working class, that was where I felt comfortable. If I was with a Bangladeshi kid who was working class, that was easy, I grew up with him. Going to drama school and meeting posh kids, I struggled with that. That was when both mine and their prejudices came out. 

LG: Do you feel diversity has come a long way since you first started out as an actor?

EM: No, I don’t. I think there’s a pushback against it. I’m the patron of a charity called Streets of Growth, which helps younger kids in Tower Hamlets, most of whom would be from Bangladeshi descent, who are struggling with the same issues that I did as a kid: gangs and knives and people being stabbed. The tories perpetuating this idea that there are no-go areas really affects the funding of charities like Streets of Growth. I did an interview with the big issue, and next door there were three social workers who were talking to a young kid whose best friend had just been stabbed and was in a coma. They were trying to convince this young kid not to go out and take revenge, and destroy his own life. That’s incredible work they do. They put their life on the line for these kids. So the idea that there are no-go areas for muslims or black people…it’s all a load of bollocks. 

Eddie marsan Mitch Winehouse
Eddie Marsan stands in front of an Amy Winehouse mural. Image by Streets of Growth.

LG: What was your relationship with film growing up? 

EM: I knew I wanted to be an actor after watching On The Waterfront and I knew very early on what my casting would be. All the young actors wanted to be Marlon Brando, but I knew I was going to be Rod Steiger. I thought “that’s the guy I’m going to be.” I always looked out for the Robert Duvalls of cinemas. I always wanted to emulate the great character actors. I love making films. Paul Newman described it as an interpretive and collaborative artform. That’s the great joy in it. 

LG: Did you feel seen by movies growing up?

EM: The Long Good Friday was the first time I heard someone speak in my accent. I remember thinking “that’s me, that’s the people I grew up with.” That was validating. But also, one of the biggest challenges I faced as a young actor was to not be defined by my upbringing, and people’s preconceived ideas of me. There’s a big debate right now of whether actors should have lived an experience if they have to portray it on screen. I think what happens is we need to categorise people in order to measure and tackle inequality. The problem is we then define people by those categories, and consequently we end up taking away any opportunities we give them. Mitch Winehouse is Jewish and I’m not Jewish. I think gay actors have the right to play straight roles and straight actors have the right to play gay roles. Actors have a right to express all of humanity.

the long Good Friday
Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday.

LG: I imagine it can be a struggle at times as a young actor to both show pride in your upbringing but also to now allow yourself to be defined by it.

EM: If you look at my career early on, it’s Crime Monthly, and The Bill. It’s all drug dealers, thieves, and muggers. That’s what they thought I was. That’s why I didn’t go into Eastenders. Instead I worked as a waiter, a labourer, I took a printing apprenticeship, in order to keep studying acting three times a week. So I could be as diverse as possible. The best advice I was ever given was by Wendell Pierce. I was doing a season of Ray Donovan with him, and he asked me “what are you doing in America, Eddie?” and I told him that I came over to the States because I didn’t want to be defined as a working class actor, and in Britain that’s what I was. He said “it’s interesting you say that, because I’m black, and I can’t not be a black actor. What I’ve learned, and what I’d advise you to do, is don’t seek not to be defined as a working class actor…challenge what the definition of what a working class actor is. He was absolutely right. 

LG: Is there a certain set of principles or a philosophy that you’ve carried with you over your decades-long career?

EM: There’s no big secret. When you first get into this business, you think that the people at the upper-echelons know something you don’t. That’s not true. It’s about asking questions and taking risks. When you first see yourself in a film you’re so self-obsessed and insecure. I still hate the first time I see my performance in a film. But then I see it with an audience, and I somehow tune in with their consciousness and relax. I suppose I’ve tried to bring that mindset into the process itself now. Film acting for me is digging a hole and sitting in it. And then you let whatever happens, happen.