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Don't call him a sociopath: Here's how Andrew Scott humanizes 'Ripley'

Andrew Scott stars as Tom Ripley in Netflix's new adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel <em>The Talented Mr. Ripley. </em>Scott says the 8-hour adaptation was an opportunity to spend "an inordinate amount of time with a singular character."
Andrew Scott stars as Tom Ripley in Netflix's new adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Scott says the 8-hour adaptation was an opportunity to spend "an inordinate amount of time with a singular character."

In the new seriesRipley, Andrew Scott plays a con artist with no conscience, but he says his first job was to humanize his character: "I found all the words like sociopath and psychopath, monster, evil villain, all those things sort of largely unhelpful," he says. "For me, I think your first job is to sort of advocate for the character and try not to judge them. So I try not to label him too much."

Scott is best known for his role as the "hot priest" in the comedy series Fleabag. He played Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, in the British series Sherlock. He also appeared in the war films Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and 1917. Scott recently won a National Society of Film Critics Award for his role in the 2023 film All of Us Strangers.

Now he stars as Tom Ripley in the new Netflix series adapted by Steven Zaillian of the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. After surviving on small-time scams, Ripley lands a bigger one when a wealthy man, Mr. Greenleaf, tracks him down with a proposition: Mr. Greenleaf pays Ripley to go to Italy, where his son Dickie has been living with his girlfriend, and convince Dickie to return home to the U.S. Ripley accepts the offer, but when he meets Dickie and his girlfriend and sees Dickie's luxurious lifestyle – he wants that for himself. So he plots a way to impersonate Dickie and claim the riches for himself.

Scott thinks people have a tendency to dehumanize people or characters who do things. "I understand that the acts that people might perpetuate are monstrous – but they are not monsters," he says. "They're human beings. And we have to accept that that darkness lies within us. And we also, conversely, have to accept that there's a real lightness within us as well. And so the humanity of people is the thing that really interests me and why I suppose I love acting. ... I think through stories we can increase our empathy."

Interview highlights

On Patricia Highsmith concealing own her sexuality as she wrote the character of Ripley, who also had a hidden identity

[Highsmith was] definitely talking about murky times in society and a lot of this stuff is coded. And there's certainly stuff that she can't speak explicitly about. And I think she uses Tom Ripley as her imp. She really adored the character. And so, yeah, I do understand that feeling of hiding. There's something about this character that, to me, is quite elusive and possibly just secretive, even to themselves.

There are so many of us – and I think this is the reason why the character is so enduring – that are strangers to ourselves. You know, that we do things that are not necessarily murderous but that we do things we think, "I have absolutely no idea where that came from." Or there are parts of us that are mysterious to ourselves. And I think that's true of Tom...

But to me, I think a lot of what she's talking about is class. We see this very talented, isolated man who has been given no access to any of the beautiful things in life just by being extremely gifted, and he lives in a rat-filled boarding house in the Lower East Side. And then he's transplanted to a beautiful country where these very entitled people with half the talent that he has are exposed to everything. And I think a sort of rage emerges in him that he's hitherto sort of unaware of. And I think it also might unearth the sort of sexuality within him, possibly that he's uncomfortable with, and envy and a kind of passion.

On worrying as a young actor that being an out gay man might limit his roles

It's something that I was very concerned with as a young actor ... that I wouldn't get that opportunity, if I had to sort of choose between playing parts that I felt that I was suitable for and having a personal life and being comfortable within myself. And I'm very grateful that I'm able to not have to think about that anymore. But it is a preposterous idea.

The pleasure for an audience is to see an actor transform. I always say representation is very important, but so is transformation within an actor. It's one of the things that I think is a real gift that human beings possess. When our mother tells us a bedtime story when we're kids and she's pretending to be a wolf, we find that thrilling. We're like, "I know that that's my mother here, but she knows she's putting on this funny voice and I feel safe." And we understand something very primal, which is that we are able to empathize and embody other people and other facets of [ourselves], in order to survive and to connect. And the same is true of sexuality.

On what's going on when he does the Tom Ripley scary blank stare

I think what's interesting about Tom Ripley is that we were watching this very brilliant person think, and I think that's a great pleasure for an audience to watch a ... particularly intelligent character use his brain in a very particular way. ... That blankness ... is actually just in the audience's mind and not necessarily a blankness that I'm consciously trying to conjure up, and so I find that really interesting — the audience participation in performance — and I think some of the most interesting performances are where you invite the audience into a kind of complicity with you, and they have to do a little bit of work. And conversely, the less satisfying performances are ones where you think, oh my God, we're being spoon-fed everything here, and we're left in absolutely no doubt as to what we should be thinking.

On the phrasing of the "to be or not to be" Hamlet soliloquy in his award-winning performance of the play

I suppose the thing about the pauses is that he's thinking: Am I going to live or am I going to die? And we're seeing that live. Your job is to not play the famous speech. ... The speech wasn't written to be famous. It was just written to be authentic. And this is somebody who's thinking: Am I going to do this? Or am I not going to do this? And nobody's watching him, so why wouldn't he take his time?

A lot of the language is archaic, but a lot of words that we still use today were invented by Shakespeare. So I have this real passion about Shakespeare that it shouldn't be kidnapped by academics. It's something that's very actable, and for young actors, if you really examine it and you're not intimidated and you're not told this isn't for you, then actually it should be really, really accessible. You may not understand every single word, but in the same way, you may not understand or get every word in a rap song. You understand that there's a musicality to it, and there's a feeling that you have to get and that that could be witty, or it could be, contemplative, whatever it is. And it's incredibly actable.

We laugh on the saddest day of our lives, and we cry in the middle of a brunch when we don't think we're going to. It's always what's always within us all the time, the potential to go in either direction.

On finding both joy and sadness in every character

I feel like you always have to go towards the lightness when you're dealing with tragedy and a little bit like Fleabag. When you're dealing with comedy, you look for the soul. And that's what I think the great art, or certainly the art that I'm interested in has a bit of both because that's the way we are as human beings. ... We laugh on the saddest day of our lives, and we cry in the middle of a brunch when we don't think we're going to. It's always what's always within us all the time, the potential to go in either direction.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.