Not many actors can easily step in front of the camera, move behind the scenes to write, and take to the stage for a play, but Mark Gatiss does it effortlessly. The British actor and writer only recently finished a London run of the play “Coriolanus” with Tom Hiddleston for three and a half months. Sometime in between, he awed TARDIS fans worldwide by writing a TV movie for the 50th anniversary of “Doctor Who.” By creating, writing and acting in the BBC drama “Sherlock,” Gatiss finds his life in great balance.Speaking on the phone from Liverpool to the press in Southeast Asia, Gatiss humbly acknowledged his busy schedule by joking he would much prefer lying in bed at home, but was thankful for the wide medium for acting in the UK.
“When you do one, it’s the other one you miss, so I miss writing a lot while I was doing the play,” he said. Right now, he is feeding his creative juices by writing “Doctor Who.”
Hailing from Sedgefield in England, his home country offers rich inspirations to his taste of fantasy and horror stories, preferably with anything that is slightly bizarre, Victorian and strange.
Two years ago, he and “Sherlock” co-creator Steven Moffat decided he would write “The Empty Hearse,” the first episode of the show’s third season, which premiered on AXN Asia last Thursday. The episode has the large task of explaining the previous season’s cliffhanger, in which Sherlock faked his death.
“Obviously, there’s a massive ways of expectations,” said Gatiss, who also plays Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft in the series. “Conan Doyle had exactly the same thing, and I thought [his] approach is correct.”
Gatiss is a Doyle fanboy. He grew up reading and watching Sherlock Holmes, from the era of Basil Rathbone to Jeremy Brett. The fictional detective is, after all, the most dramatized literary character in history. When Doyle resurrected the detective from the dead in “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Empty House,” Gatiss realized the Scottish author deliberately turned it into a low-key story. For “The Empty Hearse,” he immediately came up with the idea of having a fake opening.
“People wanted to know how he survived, but we cannot possibly just say it straight away,” he said.
The first episode features emotional reunions, as well as the most delightful banter brought on by a game of deductions between Mycroft and Sherlock. And even after Sherlock finally gives away the most plausible explanation, Gatiss likes to keep interpretations open. “It’s like explaining a magic trick,” he said. “You can only be disappointed in the end.”
The third series of “Sherlock” mainly runs on the reaction to Sherlock’s return, as well as introducing the new character Mary Morstan. It was clear for Gatiss and Moffat that they wanted to create their own version of Watson’s other half, as well as the blackmailing villain, Charles Augustus Milverton. In a separate interview with the Jakarta Globe, series producer Sue Vertue said they had secretly cast actress Amanda Abbington to play Mary Morstan after the second series aired. Compared to the first and second, the new season is equally dense in terms of script writing, but notably light regarding character growth. It remains, however, consistently adventurous.
The upcoming episode, “The Sign of Three” which will air this Thursday, unexpectedly contains a huge amount of comedy.
“There’s a lot more humor in the original stories than people give credit for,” Gatiss said. “Steven and I find a lot of humor in it.”
Even though, as fanboys, they are committed to adapting the original stories, Gatiss and Moffat also have their own ways of revealing the various layers of the “Sherlock” characters. In the new season, supporting roles are given more details and larger exposure than Conan Doyle ever gave them. Gatiss wanted viewers to relate to these characters and consider them family. He recognized the danger of relying too heavily on that, but insisted this is what audience responded to. His character, Mycroft, is one example.
“Apart from being cleverer than Sherlock and enormously fat, there isn’t much more to Mycroft in the original stories,” he said.
His interpretation of Mycroft takes cue from the same role played by Christopher Lee in the 1970 film “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” by Billy Wilder. The movie also shows a much more antagonistic relationship between the Holmes brothers, which Gatiss enjoys. The sibling rivalry between Mycroft and Sherlock flares up throughout “Sherlock.”
“There’s a warmth somewhere deep down, but it’s much more brittle, and I think it’s great to play with,” Gatiss said.
The same can be said about Detective Inspector Lestrade. Other than being a good policeman from Scotland Yard, he is only mostly known for his rat face. The BBC series sees a bigger role for Lestrade as played by actor Rupert Graves. Both Mycroft and Lestrade, Gatiss said, are there to look after Sherlock Holmes.
“He’s a very dashing, handsome, good leading man,” he said. “If Sherlock wasn’t around, it would be his series.”
“Sherlock” has turned actor Benedict Cumberbatch into a star, but for Gatiss, the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes stories comes from the fact that everybody sees the detective through Dr. Watson’s eyes. Everything Sherlock does seems slightly godlike, with exciting possibilities that us ordinary people might also be able to deduce details from trivial things, like the way one ties their shoes.
Gatiss speaks highly of Martin Freeman, who plays John Watson in “Sherlock.”
“Martin Freeman, other than being an astonishingly good actor, is the heart and soul of the show,” he said.
Commenting on the big legion of female fans of the show, Gatiss said the persona of Sherlock was similar to a certain male character in a Jane Austen story.
“It’s like Mr. Darcy; he’s cold, unapproachable, not interested in the opposite sex, which makes people interested in him,” he said. “I think it’s the oldest recipe in the book.”
After juggling roles in “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock,” arguably two of the biggest television shows in Britain, Gatiss is also involved in the hugely popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.” Gatiss plays Tycho Nestoris, who will have a brief appearance in the fourth series and returns in the fifth. He will also appear in the 2015 film “Frankenstein,” helmed by “Sherlock” director Paul McGuigan.
“Paul kindly asked me, I only got a small part and did it for a couple of days, it’s a huge multi-million dollar film and very exciting to do,” Gatiss said.
As a testament to the magnitude of the show, “Sherlock” will host its first ever official convention in Europe and the United States later this year.
Responding to a rumor about a special Christmas episode for “Sherlock,” Gatiss said, “ I don’t know anything about the Christmas special, and I would know.”
“Sherlock” returns to AXN Asia this Thursday at 9 p.m. The third season will conclude next week.