Leeds actor Malcolm McDowell: 'I feel a bit left out having never seen a ghost'

As Amazon Prime’s new haunting eight-part comedy Truth Seekers launches, Danielle de Wolfe speaks to its Leeds-born star Malcolm McDowell.

Wednesday, 28th October 2020, 4:45 pm
Malcolm McDowell as Richard in the show. Picture: PA Photo/Stolen Pictures/ Amazon Prime Video

"You know, I’d like to tell you I’m a believer in all this but I’m just not,” confesses Malcolm McDowell solemnly. “I mean, I’d love to meet a ghost. Bring it on! But sadly, I think you have to be stoned or something before you start seeing ghosts coming through the wall.”

It’s an unusual line of conversation, one that has veered towards the existence of the supernatural, or lack thereof, courtesy of the 77-year-old actor’s latest role in Amazon Prime’s spooky new comedy series, Truth Seekers.

It’s a distinct change of direction for the Leeds-born actor, who rose to fame as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange, subsequently starring in cult classics including Time After Time and Gangster No 1...

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Malcolm in Truth Seekers. Picture: PA Photo/Amazon Prime Video/Colin Hutton.

As for whether the new project is able to stand shoulder to shoulder with those classic titles? Only time will tell.

Directed by Jim Field Smith and co-written by (and starring) Shaun Of The Dead duo Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, the eight-part horror comedy is best described as a very British take on Ghostbusters-meets-Scooby-Doo.

Drawing inspiration from old issues of Fortean Times and Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, the script tells the tale of broadband engineer Gus Roberts – a keen amateur ghost hunter and paranormal investigator brought to life by Frost, 48.

As with many of Frost and Pegg’s greatest comedy journeys, Truth Seekers is yet another case of a mundane nine to five job turned on its head as a more appealing adventure beckons.

Pegg takes on the role of Dave, Gus’ jobsworth boss, who partners him up with new recruit Elton, played by Samson Kay. Before long, a run-of-the-mill call out rapidly transforms into a collective bonding experience shared by strangers with a passion for the paranormal.

“Nick and Simon, they’ve done a brilliant job with the script,” says McDowell. “I call it the suburban Ghostbusters. I could never imagine producers going to a network in the US and pitching this story.

“They’d go ‘oh, get out of here! There’s no guns, there’s no excitement, there’s no chases.’ The truth is, it’s so English in a way and yet so utterly charming. There’s nothing like it on television that’s for sure.”

Following the loss of his wife, Emily, we see Gus searching for purpose as he lives at home with his elderly father Richard, played by McDowell.

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A cantankerous senior citizen who’s pining for company, McDowell describes his character as just another “lonely old man”. “He’s such a lonely person,” McDowell says.

“In a way, when he has a friend or somebody that he has something in common with, however tiny it is, he just leaps onto it. It’s really about isolated, lonely people this show in a weird way. Everyone in it, every character is very lonely really, trying to find something – that’s my take on it,” he says.

“Going up and down on the upstairs-downstairs (chair lift), that sort of became a fun kind of thing. You get the whole character from that by the way, because when he’s excited or in a little bit of a hurry, he just jumps off the thing and runs up the stairs.

“I mean, I thought he had a bad leg? What’s with that? Of course, it’s just a tactic for him to get sympathy and lay on and stuff and it’s sort of fun.”

And, as the actor goes on to explain, it’s sometimes the unscripted nuances that define a character and make them memorable.

“So often, in movies especially, the best things are never written, they’re just improved on the set, in the moment. You have to have a director who will let you have the freedom of that and make you comfortable in doing that, which we did.

“And of course Nick, he loves a good ad lib – I think everybody is open to it. But we didn’t do too much of it. It was such a well-rounded script we didn’t really have to.”

However, this latest role as a comedic pensioner is a far cry from the villainous characters the film veteran has long been associated with.

McDowell was born in Horsforth into a working class family and grew up in the North West. He starred in Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 film If… before he was cast three years later by Stanley Kubrick in his controversial film A Clockwork Orange in which he played Alex, the character who is destined always to hang over his career.

One of the most controversial films ever made in Britain, it follows a seriously deviant street thug leading a gang of “droogs” dressed in white boiler suits, leather cod pieces and bowlers as they commit a grotesque catalogue of rape and murder.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post back in 2006, McDowell revealed that the idea came from nine months the actor spent living in a Roundhay bed and breakfast. “That time was my drama school. I was a coffee salesman, driving round Yorkshire playing different roles for each customer, being posh for some or common for others if it made them buy coffee. You’re acting when you’re selling. That was how I learned to be a chameleon.”

He didn’t go around beating up cafe owners at the drop of a bowler to sell them coffee, but the job taught him how to seamlessly change personality.

McDowell went on to become a Hollywood star, often playing the villain of the piece. “In America mainly, I’m known as ‘the heavy’,” he says today. “Like The Mentalist, I had quite a big reoccurring part, because I was the Red Herring in that and they thought I was Red John, so this was such a nice change of pace.

“You get sick of playing the same part over and over and over and over again. And you’re right, yes, I am very choosy now. I mean, I’ve always been, but particularly now.”

As you’d expect from his past roles, this self-proclaimed Hollywood ‘heavy’ is not one to believe in or be intimidated by the supernatural, despite his latest project.

“I’ve never seen [the supernatural] myself,” McDowell says, “going to a medium and laying on the hands – I’ve done that once or twice and always had to suppress a big giggle.

“I don’t think we want to believe that when we pass over that there’s just going to be a void,” he continues.

“There would be no hope for the human condition and I think one hangs on to a belief that there’s something – and I’m not talking about religious stuff, we’ll keep that out of it. So, if you take that belief even further, then you start to see things – or not.

“It always makes a wonderful story in an old house, it can be a great selling tool,” he adds. “I understand why people totally believe it and some people swear to God that they saw a ghost; I just wish I’d seen one. I feel a little bit left out.”

Truth Seekers launches on Prime Video on October 30.