Since playing the dreamy cleric in Fleabag’s second season — and showcasing some serious onscreen chemistry with costar Phoebe Waller-Bridge — he developed a much different fan base than his days as Sherlock‘s ruthless villain Moriarty: typical reactions now include “Strangle me!” and “Hear my sins!” “Then, when they meet you in real life,” Scott notes, “they’re like, ‘Hello, I really enjoy your work.’”
When one character “becomes too hot” — and the Hot Priest is seriously hot — the actor says it’s usually time to look for the next big thing. “I suppose I was very lucky in the sense that I spent a lot of years as an actor without any scrutiny and I was able to really learn, particularly in the theater, what I like and what I’m good at,” he says. “I wouldn’t work as a child actor, but I took drama classes as a kid and they were really associated with playing, and playing off of different parts. For me, it’s a way to play with all those different sides of yourself without losing yourself, just imaginatively going there. That’s why I love acting, to do a lot of different things.”
True to form, Scott has three upcoming projects he calls “slightly left of center. That’s always what I’m looking for.”
In 1917, “there’s nowhere to hide” because the WWI film from director Sam Mendes, where he appears opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, was shot to look like one continuous take. Scott likes to think of it “as a very expensive film [made] on your iPhone. You can’t cut away. You have to just pick everything up and you can’t make any mistakes. No matter how long the scene is, you have to get it perfectly from the beginning of the scene right to the very end.”
The film, set for a theatrical release this December 25, follows two young soldiers in World War I, played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. As one searches for his brother in the trenches, the pair are sent on a mission to deliver a message that could lead to a massacre if not relayed.
Scott’s working relationship with Mendes goes even further back before their James Bond movie Spectre: Mendes directed him in the 2006 Broadway play The Vertical Hour, and it’s this kind of stage work that Scott says helped him maneuver the logistics of shooting 1917. “That was a definite challenge,” he says. “There are a lot of extras. If your cigarette lighter doesn’t light and you’ve done a perfect take, you’ve gotta start from scratch because you can’t get the close-up, cut-away, or do a master shot to cover you. It was a really exciting way of working.”
The actor is also eager to put his stamp on Tom Ripley, “an iconic literary character” on Showtime’s take on the Patricia Highsmith novels. Steven Zaillian of Schindler’s List writes and directs the entire first eight-episode season of Ripley, which sees the title grifter accepting his first job that will propel him into a life of deceit and murder.
Scott considers this his “first proper foray” into serialized storytelling, in the sense that Moriarty was used “sparingly” in Sherlock, and Fleabag had an end point in mind. “To go into that territory is a really interesting one — and one, if I’m being honest, I avoided to a certain degree,” he explains. “But, the Highsmith novels are very, very different. They are completely different stories and different countries and different characters and different ages for the characters. So, they feel very separate.”
With TV specifically, which presents Scott with the idea of sticking with the same character for multiple episodes and, potentially, multiple seasons, he looks for parts that are “actable.” It’s the difference, he says, between “what people feel and what they present. Those things may not be simpatico with each other. That person is concealing something but feeling something completely different.” It’s about writing that has a distinct voice and remains void of “TV speak.” (No, lines like, “I knew I’d find you here!”) “If nuance dies, drama dies,” he says.
In terms of parts that are furthest from Fleabag, HBO’s fantasy saga His Dark Materials brings Scott to the other side of the cloth as John Parry, an other-worldly traveler who crosses to an alternate reality controlled by The Magisterium, an authoritarian religious institution. We first glimpse John through photos in season 1, but the character will make his formal debut in season 2, filming for which is already nearing completion. Scott performed much of his scene’s opposite Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and he deems it a “spectacular” experience.
“Those books are really important for kids,” Scott says of Philip Pullman’s trilogy that inspired the series. “It teaches them about goodness and kindness in the world. It talks about science vs. religion. There’s a certain darkness to the books that I think is no bad thing for kids to have.”
Growing up as a gay man in the Catholic Church, Scott faced his own struggles with faith, making him appreciate “the ethics” of His Dark Materials. “You can be a good person in the world, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow an organized religion. I love the message of that.”
Scott remembers a recent moment when someone asked him if he would ever consider playing a villain. It just made him laugh, since, obviously, he played one of the most well-known villains in literature on Sherlock. “There you go. There’s showbiz.” Between all his new career adventures, Scott says, “People will forget about the Hot Priest.” Blasphemy.
To read more from the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly featuring The Rise of Skywalker and other untold stories from the Star Wars universe on the cover, pick up the new issue at Barnes & Noble on Friday — or buy your choice of covers now featuring stars of the prequels, original trilogy, or current saga. (The issue will be on newsstands starting Nov. 28.) Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.