Andrew Scott on Becoming ‘Ripley,’ His Taylor Swift Friendship and Why He’s Tired of Being Called an ‘Openly Gay’ Actor

Andrew Scott
Chantal Anderson for Variety Magazine
It’s one of those odd April days in Los Angeles, the type that locals know well: Hours after noon, the sun still seems ambivalent about whether it wants to make itself known. An outsider wouldn’t think it possible for the gleaming capital of show business to feel so grayed out. But if you grew up on an island where colorless skies are the norm, it might feel familiar.

“It’s like, Will I? Won’t I?” the Irish actor Andrew Scott quips as he settles into his chair on the rooftop of the Edition Hotel in West Hollywood. He’s been in town promoting his Netflix series “Ripley,” which launched a few weeks ago, and the foreboding weather seems apt. On that limited series, the Italian vistas seem as unsettled as its antihero’s soul. The show’s vibe is “almost like L.A., what we’re looking at here now,” Scott says, as I begin to regret not bringing a jacket to our alfresco lunch. “It’s cloudy. I come from a place where the sky is normally like this.”

Scott’s “Ripley,” an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a grifter whose 1950s Euro-trip comes with a body count, is morally cloudy, too, and glamorously gloomy besides. Unlike the 1999 film “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” which placed an uptight Tom Ripley (then played by peak-heartthrob-era Matt Damon) amid the rustic charm of Italy and drew its charge from the contrast, this year’s version is a blunter object. Speedo-clad Damon romped through the Italy of your dreams; the baggily attired Scott staggers through a nightmare.

Written and directed by Steven Zaillian and likely to place Scott in contention for a limited-series lead-acting Emmy, it’s mesmerizing but cool to the touch, using Oscar winner Robert Elswit’s stark black-and-white cinematography to depict a landscape as forbidding as its central character. That may account for why the series got off to a slow start on Netflix’s weekly viewership charts. But “Ripley” has also attracted the kind of positive notices that suggest a potential long tail, especially as Emmy season looms.

Chantal Anderson for Variety Magazine

The series was a crucial test for Scott, who, at 47, has proven himself a shape-shifter. The out gay actor, who in 2019 stole scenes as the “Hot Priest” on the second season of “Fleabag,” and who had an awards-season run for his lovelorn role in last year’s “All of Us Strangers,” knows how to win hearts. Even playing the villainous Moriarty opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes on the 2010s BBC “Sherlock,” Scott became known for his loopy, outsized line readings. So what would it feel like to play a tamped-down sociopath?

But Scott didn’t see Ripley that way. “I found an enormous amount to like,” he says. “There’s something about that character that, I think, a lot of people see themselves in. And I think it’s to do with being an outsider.” Tom Ripley, plainly gifted, lacks the social connections of the wealthy American expats he meets (played here by Johnny Flynn and Dakota Fanning as layabouts and occasional boors). His flashes of rage — forcing him, later, to methodically dispose of multiple corpses — exist for Scott as a sort of frustrated creative impulse. “He probably is more of an artistic sort, but he doesn’t feel he’s got the class to call himself that.”

There’s something about Ripley, in other words, that’s tortured — a trait Scott can conjure with ease. On “Fleabag,” his unnamed Catholic clergyman struggled through a crisis of faith-versus-lust that was both funny and painful. In “All of Us Strangers,” his conflicted gay writer goes on a dreamlike journey to re-encounter his late parents, forgiving both them and himself for past miscommunications while falling in love with a character played by Paul Mescal.

“Fleabag” cut against, and “All of Us Strangers” leaned into, Scott’s rare status as a gay leading man. “And not afraid to talk about it and be open about it!” marvels Andrew Haigh, his “All of Us Strangers” director. There’s little Scott isn’t open about: In a wide-ranging conversation, he volleys back his answers with the relentless self-examination — and the fleeting tearfulness — of a person who’s spent time in his feelings.

It can be hard not to conflate the characters he’s played with the sense that Scott is Hollywood’s new prince of heartache. In fact, he has a direct line to the queen of such matters. “Taylor’s new album is sensational! I texted her yesterday to say how amazing it is,” Scott says about “The Tortured Poets Department,” which came out three days before our conversation. Taylor Swift, he says, is a friend, and he beams with vicarious pride about her 31-track magnum opus: “I think she is just a force of nature, just an extraordinary human, and this album is really, really amazing.” His favorite song on it, for the record, is “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived,” a ballad that begins with quiet heartbreak and builds toward a dramatic excoriation.

But Scott is perhaps being modest. Some believe that he is as much to credit for the title of the album as the men Swift sings about. Consider the explosion online after a 2022 Variety Actors on Actors conversation between Mescal and Joe Alwyn (who was dating Swift at the time, and is thought to have inspired a few songs on the album) in which they discussed their membership in a group chat called “Tortured Man Club.” Scott, they said, had initiated the chat.

“Let me tell you what that is!” Scott says. Just before Alwyn was to appear in the TV adaptation of novelist Sally Rooney’s “Conversations With Friends,” Scott — Alwyn’s co-star in the 2022 film “Catherine Called Birdy” — set him up with Mescal, of “Normal People,” another series based on Rooney’s work. “So they were about to play these tortured characters, and I had played a tortured character in ‘Fleabag.’ It wasn’t about our own characteristics!” The chat quickly died on the vine, he says. “I think there were three texts, like, ‘Hey, guys.’ You know those groups that you set up, and they just collapse.”

Chantal Anderson for Variety Magazine

Short-lived or not, the existence of the chat had taken on a second life ever since the announcement of “The Tortured Poets Department.” And the whole incident speaks to Scott’s easy way of connecting people.

“He’s a great guardian of actors, if you’re lucky enough that he admires you or has respect for you,” Mescal says. “He’s got an overseeing quality, in terms of understanding that good art and good actors are hard to come by.”

Mescal, 28, and Alwyn, 33, feel in a sense like peers of Scott’s. “Fleabag” Season 2, which brought Scott to a new echelon of fame, was just five years ago, and in conversation, he has a Peter Pan energy: raffish, barking laugh and eyes that seem to twinkle with each new disclosure. And yet Scott makes for a notably older Tom Ripley — a character written by Highsmith to be just past college age.

“It was just a beautiful film,” Scott says of Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation. “The idea of approaching that again, one of my first questions was ‘OK, who wants to do a carbon copy?’” Scott gestures at what, in the dim light of the patio, appears to be his delicately lined face: “Jesus, look at my age!”

Scott’s take on the character reads as more experienced, and wearier. More tortured, over a longer timeline. Scott can relate. Our conversation is the final stop on a lengthy press tour, which came on the heels of promoting “All of Us Strangers” during Oscar season; he flies back home tomorrow. Before that was “Ripley”’s long road to the screen: After some 162 days of principal photography from summer 2021 to spring 2022, the series, which had been made by Showtime, bounced to Netflix amid a fire sale at the Paramount-owned cable network.

Following “Ripley,” “All of Us Strangers” and his solo show “Vanya” on London’s West End last fall, Scott is on a career high, and he’s become a red-carpet fixture as a fashionista. (His all-white tux-and-tee combo as a nominee at this year’s Golden Globes deflated the pomposity of the event, while looking dazzlingly fresh.) “It’s a way of having fun, being creative — going, OK, well, this is a bit of a laugh.” Scott stammers, but goes on: “My mother was a very stylish, creative person, and it’s something I’ve always been interested in. Why not just have a bit of fun while we’re here?”

Scott has brought up his mother a few times before I get the chance to offer my condolences. She died unexpectedly on March 7 — less than a month before “Ripley”’s premiere. “It came very suddenly to our family,” he says, “and it’s landed in the middle of all of this stuff. Her spirit is so alive in me in the immediate aftermath of her death.”

There are painfully mixed feelings at play: Scott is proud of the work he’s done (and duty-bound to promote it), while part of him is elsewhere. Talking about his mother is a way of keeping her close. She was an art teacher, “and her way of dealing with people was so kind, but she wasn’t very good at small talk,” Scott says. “She connected with people in a very particular way. What I was taught was the idea of being authentically yourself.”

Which extends to Scott’s self-presentation. In our meeting, he’s neon-bright, wearing a teal crewneck sweatshirt under a fuzzy cardigan the precise shade of cerulean that Miranda Priestly popularized. “People say that they look back at photographs and cringe,” he says. “Who cares? It’s about playfulness. It’s about going, How would I be if I wasn’t scared of criticism?

“Ripley,” in its ambiguity, is a show unafraid to trigger debate. Among the choices Zaillian (best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Schindler’s List”) made was a greater fealty to Highsmith’s text. Minghella’s film untangled her complications: Tom lusted after Dickie (played by Jude Law), and he had to destroy what he could not obtain. Here, though, Tom seems repulsed by Dickie, even as he admires his lifestyle and easy way of being. Tom doesn’t seem to fit into any identity at all, leaving some viewers to wonder whether he’s even gay in this version.

“Everything that I feel on that subject is in the show,” Zaillian says when asked to clarify Ripley’s sexual orientation. “I don’t like to do anything overtly; I think subtlety is best. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, but I think it’s all there.”

Scott is willing to go a bit further. “I didn’t want to diagnose him with anything in particular,” he says. “I don’t think he would be comfortable in a gay bar or a straight bar. I think his sexuality is elusive to him.” What he does to Dickie is an expression of frustrated heartsickness, perhaps. “I think he has a feeling of love for him. Sometimes it could be sexual. Sometimes it could be fraternal. And sometimes it could just be amicable.” What was a quarter century ago rendered as an outright homoerotic story here gets into levels of confusion that feel more challenging, more novelistic. “If she was alive today,” Scott says of Highsmith, “I’d love to ask her a bit more about that.”

Chantal Anderson for Variety Magazine

Highsmith, whose own relationship with her lesbianism was complicated, likely wouldn’t recognize the world through which Scott strides. Indeed, he has previously expressed his dubiousness about language around sexuality — specifically, the term “openly gay,” which he derides. “It’s wonderful to be able to talk about sexuality in an open way,” Scott says. “But I do feel sometimes, other people — and by other people, I mean straight people — don’t have to explain or talk about their sexuality every time they go to work.”

Scott, thus far quick-witted and voluble, has begun to weigh his words carefully. “The idea that I’m being defiant by just being exactly who I am … Be open about it? Why wouldn’t you be open about it?” The distinction between disclosing one’s sexuality and not isn’t lost on Scott, and he doesn’t mind it — that’s what, to him, the word “out” is for. “But the word ‘openly,’ for me, just seems a little loaded.”

The actor’s newfound prominence as a gay leading man is both a turning point for our culture and a fact that might seem to lend him special access to certain characters. In his first conversation with Haigh about “All of Us Strangers,” “he understood so deeply what that character needed to be,” Haigh says. “You want someone to connect to the character on a personal level. And I don’t think Andrew is afraid of that. In fact, it excites him, and he wants to embrace how he can make it personal.”

And yet Scott resists the idea that the story is solely one for gay viewers: He remarks that just today, he received a note from a friend who watched with his wife, and was moved. “A lot of this stuff has really affected me in my own life growing up — God knows I didn’t have a lot of gay content,” Scott says. “We live in an identity-politics era. We’re separating each other more than we need to. This hysteria about your sexuality and how that is something that is only understandable to people who belong to the same tribe as you — it just doesn’t seem truthful.”

Part of Scott’s response might be a desire to sidestep misreadings of his intentions with “All of Us Strangers” and “Ripley.” In both projects, he plays a character who has experienced some version of same-sex attraction; in both, his character also seems miserable. “Sometimes I find it hard when you’re doing press,” he says, “because I feel so joyful and so emancipated. It seems like I always want to talk about the difficulties that I have with being gay, when actually, it’s the greatest joy of my life.”

His presence on the celebrity circuit, though, suggests that culture is still figuring out how to treat an out star at Scott’s level. At this year’s BAFTAs, a red-carpet reporter for the BBC asked Scott about Barry Keoghan’s genitalia as seen in the film “Saltburn,” implying that Scott and Keoghan (who is dating the pop star Sabrina Carpenter) had been intimate. Scott quickly walked away. “It was awkward,” he says. “It was a little bit weird. But I got an apology from the journalist. I think it was a series of unfortunate events. And I totally accepted his apology.”

Scott doesn’t dwell on the incident, saying, “I wouldn’t want him to suffer any more.” But the story resonates with a general sense that Scott’s work, or his public self, is held to a different standard. The understandable excitement around Scott booking massive jobs — and his experience of being the “first” or “only” in many professional settings — feels strange from the inside. “What is the best thing that we could do?” he asks me. “I don’t have the definite answer. Would it be unusual for us not to mention my sexuality at all?”

Well, yes — but we move on. The moment Scott’s experiencing is the culmination of an incremental build, after an initial leap of faith. He’d dropped out of Trinity College in Dublin (alma mater of Irish artists such as Oscar Wilde and, more recently, “Normal People”’s Rooney and Mescal) after six months to pursue theater. “Sometimes you shouldn’t have a safety net,” he says. “If you have a safety net, you’re going to be really, really safe.” Early screen roles included appearances in “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers.” The parts gradually got bigger — his performance in the 2014 drama “Pride,” about the gay-rights crusade in Britain, is a fan favorite, and he was an appropriately sinister opponent for James Bond and MI6 in 2015’s “Spectre” before playing the lead in a 2017 London staging of “Hamlet.”

But it was “Fleabag” that lit his career aflame. Scott calls Phoebe Waller-Bridge “one of my main homies” and, to the extent that the Hot Priest phenomenon has followed him, says it’s all for the good. “It hasn’t prevented me from playing any other characters. And I just feel so proud of the process and the product.” Would he return to a hypothetical “Fleabag” Season 3, if Waller-Bridge asked him to? “Of course I would,” he says before unleashing one of those great Andrew Scott guffaws. “But she’s not going to!”

Chantal Anderson for Variety Magazine

It’s hard to overstate the impact Hot Priest had, turning what had been in its first season a charming critics’ favorite into a world-devouring, Emmy-sweeping hit on the strength of Scott’s chemistry with Waller-Bridge. (Scott was not himself Emmy-nominated for “Fleabag,” but was the following year for an episode of “Black Mirror.”) Sad-eyed yet smiling, H.P. forges a deep understanding with Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag: They both know that they want to be together, and they both know that they cannot.

Which makes “Fleabag” an intriguing counterpoint to Ripley, a character who pushes his way past every limitation he cannot hack his way through. The monochrome look of the show turns Scott’s eyes into vampiric black pools of need; over eight episodes, we witness Ripley’s lower-class life and high-class ambitions, and his willingness to turn to violence to bridge the two. There’s an unholy gnarliness to Ripley that Scott sells well.

“Ripley” is a double risk, as Scott knew when he took on the role. The series updates — by more closely following Highsmith’s tricky, nasty novel — a film that’s widely beloved, and does so with a leading man whose reputation is for suffering sweetly. “I’m just concerned about how it would be perceived, how it would change things for me,” Scott says. He acknowledged that fear — then let it go.

“When I played James Moriarty, I was younger than people wanted the character to be. And they’d go, ‘I wanted the character to have a beard and wear a top hat, and this little fucker is now playing it like this, and I don’t want that!’ The biggest challenge for you is to put your dukes up and go, Sorry, but this is this.” Risk — in comparison to what Scott calls “cynical and unconfident” compromise — works.

His co-stars have noticed the chances he takes. “Technical brilliance is one thing. And then there’s this other part of Andrew that is incredibly raw in his performance,” Mescal says. “You could sit around and talk to actors about their lives all day — they love nothing more than talking about themselves. But Andrew lets an audience into the corners of themselves that we don’t talk about.”

Sam Yates, the director of Scott’s 2023 “Vanya” — which won an Olivier Award for best revival in April — describes the places Scott would go onstage as “trancelike.”

“How do you go through that without a level of someone else taking over?” Yates says, adding that Scott “is being led by a certain degree of technique, but by a huge degree by his aliveness to his own emotions. He would surprise himself constantly onstage.”

He seems to surprise himself in conversation, too, returning with frequency to a subject that’s evidently joyful to recall and painful to discuss. Previously this season, while being interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” his voice got tight when she asked him, seemingly not knowing the answer, if his parents were both still alive. Now, though, his mother feels like the third person at our table under a gray L.A. sky.

“You keep your Irishness alive by telling the story,” he says. “Thinking about my mom recently and talking about her — it was really important to me, in the eulogy, to celebrate her.”

I remark that his mother — her artistic sensibility, her impatience with pleasantries — feels very present to me. He pauses, seems to shudder slightly. Like a sudden storm, tears are rolling down his cheeks, and he takes a moment to speak. When he finally does, his voice is steady.

“It’s a really funny thing, to be honest,” he says. “I can’t disappear the fact that this has happened in the midst of all this. The juxtaposition of these two extremes in my life where all these projects are coming out, and I’ve had to be much more public-facing than I usually am, at a time when I’m going through this extraordinary personal loss.”

Chantal Anderson for Variety Magazine

He begins talking more rapidly, becoming more animated as he wills himself out of crying. “I’m not even sure if it’s the right thing to do, but you have to tell your own truth. My job is to understand what it’s like to be a human being, and I don’t like perpetuating the myth that we’re all perfect. That you have to be a movie star.”

Scott’s production company, he tells me, is called Both/And — he notes the slash in the middle. “I’ve always believed that things are always both something and something else. It could be the happiest day of your life, and you’re hungry. You’re at a funeral, and you have a laugh. There’s always something else.”

I can relate: I’m pleased to be connecting, but sorry that I upset him. And so I apologize.

“No, no, listen! I’m upset anyway!” he says, then lets loose another hearty laugh, loud and rich enough to crack the tension of the moment. In its gusto and its surprising timing, it does feel like a laugh at a funeral, but sometimes those are the kind one needs.

“Ripley” may represent the greatest challenge this versatile actor has experienced — he’s at the center of each of its eight episodes, and nothing happens without him.

“We would do what we could in our time off, but I know it was really taxing for him,” Fanning, Scott’s co-star, says. “We found a lot of common ground, because we’ve both done this for the majority of our lives. We approach work in a very similar way — there’s a time and place to be serious, and there’s a time you need to tell some stupid joke. And we did that too.”

The presence of co-stars was a balm, but Ripley, necessarily, is alone a great deal. “Spending a lot of time with a character who is solitary when I was feeling solitary myself was quite tough,” Scott says. “I love that about my job — that you can go into a particular world — but it was very different from what gives me joy. It’s the sheer stamina that was needed: It’s a lot of acting.”

The show’s two bravura set-pieces involve the disposal of bodies. “It was important to me that this character was not a professional killer,” Zaillian says. “And so we have to see him think each one through. And Andrew can bring us into his thoughts and feelings.”

Scott, compact of frame, lugged his fellow actors (rather than dummies) as much as was feasible: “I remember doing a long take, seven or eight minutes, me just trying to lift something up, and Steve just let the camera go as I struggled, and didn’t cut.”

He doesn’t linger on this aspect of the shoot. Easily able to access heartache and joy, he tends to stop short when specifics about the work come up. “It goes into a sort of PR-speak,” he says, “where you have to tell people how much suffering you’ve been through.” He draws an analogy of a host throwing a dinner party: “If you spend the whole night saying, ‘Well, I couldn’t find any organic chicken, and the vacuum wasn’t working’ — they’re like, ‘Just give me my fucking dinner!’”

Andrew Scott in “Ripley”
Courtesy of Netflix

“He’s aware that his work isn’t for him,” Mescal says. “You’re providing a service to an audience. Nobody really gives a fuck about your process, and if they do, they’re boring.”

Elsewhere in our conversation, Scott edges up to describing his method for finding Ripley: “I’m always really interested in the vulnerability of people. What’s the thing they’re unconfident about? What are they hiding? It was hard to access that.” What he found, in the end, was less “a biographical sort of solution,” he says, than an absence — of the ease it takes to get through life. “Not everybody is charming and capable and socially adept and sexy. You have to advocate for people who don’t have it easy. That’s what made me have some degree of affection for him.”

Affection, even on a dark project, is what it’s all about. “He’s a big advocate for play,” Mescal says. “He takes the work very seriously, but he wears it lightly. And that allowed our chemistry to be pretty playful and organic.”

On “All of Us Strangers,” the pair, already acquainted, bonded deeply. “It developed into a genuine love between them, and you can still see that now,” Haigh says. “I felt like I’d been a dating agent, and I brought these two people together.”

The film, shot quickly after “Ripley”’s protracted production, helped Scott emerge and reset after playing Tom. “Sometimes a change can be as good as a rest,” he says. “Although, I have to say, I do need a rest now.”

I have one last question before I let Scott go. He’d said he wondered how “Ripley,” with its grand ambition and with Scott at the center of the story, might change things for him. What kind of change would he want?

It turns out the real question is what kind of change doesn’t he want. “You want to keep your life,” he says. “I like my life. I don’t want people to become the enemy. Because I like people.”

He lets out a sigh. “I’m glad to be wrapping up the promotion aspect of it, because it’s been quite a big journey, and obviously, I need to go and be with the people I love.” He smiles, and his eyes turn down slightly. “So it’s just time for me to exit stage left for a little while.”

I turn my tape recorders off; Scott has given me enough. But he waits a second, his gaze once again as eager as during the formal part of our interview: What had I meant when I used the word “obversely”? (I’d said that the Hot Priest persona seemed like a gift, but — obversely! — potentially limiting as well.) He usually uses the word “conversely” to describe what he thought I meant.

We both look up definitions on our phones, and conclude that the two words mean the same thing: two feelings coursing at once, in seeming opposition to one another. Like the lovability and loathsomeness dueling within Ripley; like happiness and sorrow in a single charged moment. Both/and, or something like that. Words are funny things! And isn’t it amazing, Scott muses, that we can use language to communicate what we’re feeling. What an invention. What a gift. He grins. And if there’s another feeling behind it, both the smile and something else, the sun is suddenly shining too brightly for me to see.

Styling: Warren Alfie Baker/The Wall Group; Grooming: Jamie Taylor/A-Frame Agency; Look 1 (on grass): Jacket: Levi’s; Tank: Calvin Klein; Look 2 (cover): Tank: Calvin Klein; Pants: Givenchy; Boots: Scarosso x Warren Alfie Baker; Look 3 (standing, vest): Vest and pants: Givenchy; Shoes: Saint Laurent; Look 4 (tight portrait): Suit: Givenchy; Look 5 (seated, vest): Vest: Sandro; Shirt: Levi’s; Pants: Givenchy; Shoes: Doucals

From Variety US