The first time I saw Eamon Farren, he was savagely beating a young woman to remove any witnesses from a murder scene in a small Washington town. Earlier this month, I looked on helplessly as his clicking typewriter spelt out cryptic acts of unspeakable horror to an ageing Hercule Poirot. So, as his six foot frame prowls towards my table at the Ivy Chelsea Garden, my instinct is to run away.
But I sit tight, and thankfully so — for it take less than two seconds for my misgivings to be swept off the table. True, Farren might have all the features of a pre-mixed villain (cut-yourself cheekbones, a relentless gaze, a sinister screen presence), but he talks laughingly in a Gold Coast drawl as we place our food order, “I was looking for a scone, but that’s too fancy for us — let’s have crumpets!”
“I think we allow ourselves to sit within the horribleness...”
We’re meeting just a few short weeks before the bumper Christmas TV guides hit the shelves, inevitably hailing his latest project, The ABC Murders, as the unmissable drama of the season. The project is the latest in a string of outrageously successful Sarah Phelps adaptations of Agatha Christie novels — and will, on Boxing Day, treat the country to a Poirot mystery unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Over breakfast, the 33-year-old actor describes sharing a screen John Malkovich, wishing he’d discovered Russian literature sooner, and what it is about Agatha Christie’s fiction that continues to capture our imagination.
On sitting with the darkness...
The first thing you should know about Eamon Farren is that he has a fascination with the grisly. “Everyone is really fascinated with the humanity of the horrible,” he admits. “It’s about trying to understand the why and the how. It accounts for why true crime podcasts like Serial have gotten so huge.”
“Murder and the darkness is so intimately tied to all of us,” Farren continues. “One of the most exciting things in drama is the exploration of what it takes to make someone kill. That can be an uncomfortable question for some people, but I think fuck that! It’s true!”
Again, any discomfort Farren’s theory could have stirred up inside me is swiftly washed away by his distinctly Aussie chuckle. “I think we allow ourselves to sit within the horribleness,” he laughs. “It’s more delicious to sit within it!”
“And I like playing complicated people — that’s the challenge. I like the darkness. Because nobody wants to know about your dreams. They want to know about the shit stuff — I think it’s about intimacy.”
On tackling a Christie classic...
In The ABC Murders, Farren certainly had plenty of darkness to sink his teeth into. From the beginning of the show, we see his character harbouring dark secrets in a distinctly creepy boarding house — his precious typewriter holding the only hope of spelling out some answers. And, when he finally goes toe-to-toe with John Malkovich’s ageing Poirot, things get really dicey.
“In the actual show, we spend a lot of time mirroring, chasing or surrounding each other” explains Farren, “so we didn’t see much of each other on set. But it was incredible to be able to sit in a back room with that guy and hear some of his great stories. He’s obviously a titan.”
"It’s really just about being nosy — I’m always looking for the shit!”
"Studies of humans who are broken, or breaking, or rising — they’re very familiar to us..."
“I love actors who are able to be a bit strange sometimes — and who have an understanding of the reaches that humans can go to. Malkovich pulls stuff out of you because he’s so present, and that’s the best gift another actor can give you.”
Another gift, Farren says, was the exquisite set design, and the world he was allowed to live in. Set in the 1930s, the show will transport viewers to the filthy underbelly of an interwar society — all cigarette curls, peeling wallpaper and twitching net curtains.
“Period work in the UK is amazing,” extols the actor, “because you can film in places that still look exactly as they would have done when the show is set.”
On having no Plan B...
But grubby 1930s London couldn’t be further from the sun-soaked Australian beaches where Farren grew up. “Surfing was basically a subject at my school,” he quips.
But he didn’t spend all of his time on the waves. As a child, the actor used to watch The Wizard of Oz every night. “My mum says that I would focus on one character each time,” he smiles. “So, one day, I’d watch everything that the Tin Man was doing. The next day, it would be the Scarecrow.”
So was acting the plan from the beginning?
“There was never another option,” says Farren firmly. “And I don’t mean to be coy with that answer. I auditioned for drama school when I was just out of high school, but got told to come back in a year.”
“I hadn’t really fostered any other skill, so I asked a friend what he was doing at university. He said International Business and Economics — so I tried that! Six months into the course, my economics lecturer pulled me to one side and said “I think you should audition for drama school.”
For Farren, it seems that storytelling has been about making sense of the world around him as much as entertaining audiences.
“Plays and characters gave me that sense of safety,” he says, “because I was investigating everything from pain and loneliness to pride and happiness. It’s not just people in single parent families who have that experience but, if that is your situation, you are exposed very early to a lot of adult dimensions of relationships.”
This upbringing clearly brought about a natural curiosity. “I’ve always wanted to investigate people in different dynamics,” says the actor.
“Those inquisitive natures are what make really interesting people, not just actors. It’s really just about being nosy and deep-diving into other people’s problems — I’m always looking for the shit!”
On feeling troubled...
So, with a labyrinthine plot — meticulously laid out in delicious bread crumbs over its three episodes — can Farren let slip any grisly spoilers?
“We have many examples of brokenness in this show,” reveals the actor about Malkovich’s Poirot — a far cry from David Suchet’s self-assured, mustachioed Belgian. “It explores what it must be like to be the most celebrated detective in the world, and then suddenly to not be that anymore.
“Those inquisitive natures are what make really interesting people, not just actors..."
“It’s that great old adage of ‘youth is wasted on the young’,” he adds, “because there can be so many shiftings in your life that mean you have to be reborn. I think Poirot is such an incredible character, but it’s a one-off to be able to see the ‘what if’ version of him being broken.”
These troubled stories, it seems, are the ones Farren loves best — and in this latest project he has found one of the finest. “They’re brilliant,” he says, nodding his head in agreement. “You find it in all the great Russian literature, too — these studies of humans who are broken, or breaking, or redeeming or rising. They’re very familiar to us — and that’s why they work as entertainment.”
He pauses, before smilingly summing up the upcoming drama with a final, frightful thought.
“It’s all horrible paranoia and gritty, shitty humanity.”
The ABC Murders will air over three consecutive nights at 9pm on BBC One this Christmas, starting on Boxing Day (Wednesday 26th December).
Looking for more star interviews? We chatted with the star of Mary Queen of Scots, Jack Lowden…