The Virgin Queen
The Virgin Queen
Starts on BBC ONE on Sunday 22 January at 9.00pm
Hans Matheson plays the Earl of Essex
Hans Matheson didn't have to delve too far into the past for inspiration for his role as the manipulative Earl of Essex, whose lust for power eventually proves his downfall.
"Marc Bolan was quite a strong figure for me to look towards for him," divulges the 30-year-old actor.
"I didn't want to forget Essex's swagger, and Bolan seemed like he was from Mars or something – there's been no one quite like him since, and I wanted that kind of excitement about Essex.
"I listened to Bolan a lot in the dressing room. And also Kurt Cobain, just because of his aggression – he's very aggressive, Essex, he would just do really horrible things to people and because he is the Earl of Essex they can't say anything, he's like a spoiled little brat.
"It was interesting playing that – you have to slap people in the face and just look at them, as if to say 'Yeah, and what are you going to do?'"
Slapping people around and Essex's dramatic behaviour in general proved an exciting challenge for Hans to get his teeth into.
"Oh wow! It was great; I really, really loved playing this character," he smiles.
"A lot of the time with characters you play you can find safety zones that you can go and hide in; with Essex I felt I had to constantly come outside of my safety zone, which was very liberating for me," he explains, adding that initially he'd had his doubts as to how he'd cope with the role.
"When I read the script I thought, how the hell am I going to do this? I've got to be so over-the-top and melodramatic, and if I don't go there then this is going to fall on its face.
"Then I thought, the only way to do this is to go 100 per cent full welly… but I did struggle at the beginning.
"But in the end if you take those risks there's always a reward – it gives me a lot of vitality and suddenly you find a new world that didn't exist before."
Certainly Essex is a flamboyant character, inheriting the good looks of his father, Robert Dudley – though he's very much under the thumb of his mother, Elizabeth's former lady-in-waiting, Lettice, who uses him to try and gain revenge for the slights she suffered at the Queen's hand.
"She is the dominant figure in the family and she definitely has power over him," says Hans.
"He was like a pawn between Elizabeth and his mother. People are blind in these situations – I don't think he was necessarily fully aware of what he was doing or what he was trying to achieve."
What Lettice wanted was to be reinstated at Court, thinking that her son's undeniable charm, coupled with Elizabeth's feelings for Essex's father, would allow him to worm his way back into favour.
"With Elizabeth, when he's out of favour he's fantastic at manipulating and he gets what he wants through sheer will and passion and she just can't deny him," Hans explains.
"Once he is given that love, though, he takes it for granted and becomes his old self. It's such a strange relationship for a 25-year-old man to have with a 60-year-old woman really… but without a shadow of a doubt her power is attractive and all the men in court wanted her – she was the equivalent of the biggest film star or rock star around. And being that close to what everybody desires I think is what kept him there."
But he can't persuade the Queen to forgive his mother for marrying Dudley and allow her back at Court, and when his campaign against the rebels in Ireland goes badly wrong, causing Elizabeth to order him home in disgrace, Lettice plots the ultimate revenge.
She tries to use her son's popular status in the country and his dashing character to depose the Queen, persuading him he'd make a better ruler.
Hans, though, isn't convinced.
"What's driving him is flawed – what he desires is fame, he's not fighting noble causes really, it's all to do with the result for him. It's down to vanity and the need to be loved and desired – but it would never be enough. You could give the world to Essex and he'd still want more."
But he sympathises with the Earl, saying that though Essex was vain and weak his problems stemmed from a bipolar disorder.
"Paula [Milne], the writer, and [director] Coky made a strong decision at the beginning that he was manic depressive, which I think explains quite a lot about his mood swings," says Hans.
"But there again that's what made him so magnetic and attractive and persuasive."
Hans is no stranger to playing attractive leading roles, having soared to stardom as Doctor Yury Zhivago in the 2002 TV mini series of Pasternak's epic romantic novel.
"When I played Zhivago, I thought I'm never going to play a character that's going to give me so much to play with. I just loved it so much, the whole process from beginning to end, reading the book, everything.
"But then this has been the same. I can't think of two more extreme characters than Zhivago and Essex so it's going to be difficult to follow those – but hopefully something will come along!" he smiles.
Whatever does, he jokes, will have to involve horses. Having spent most of his childhood holidays on horseback in the Outer Hebrides – where he was born and where his parents hail from, perhaps explaining his romantic, old-word nature (he's unimpressed with such modern inventions as mobile phones and aeroplanes) – he was overjoyed that The Virgin Queen called for several equine scenes.
"I love horses so it was great – I can't get enough of it. When you go in for a day to horse-ride in a scene and you get paid for it, you think, this is the perks of the job!
"Some days you earn your money, sometimes the pressure can be a bit much, but days with horse-riding you think, I'm very lucky. So horses are in my contract now – even if it's a cop drama there's got to be a horse in it!" he grins.