Daniel Mays Interview: OntheBox’s New Hero
Actors. For all their pomp and prowess, at the end of the day, they’re just like you and me. They like the odd wrap from KFC and have a tendency to smear mayonnaise around their chops – or perhaps that’s just Daniel Mays.
When swimming through a myriad of Hollywood funk, as we do on a daily basis at OTB, it’s encouraging to finally meet an actor who is just plain happy to graft his way to the top. A man dedicated to honing his craft, and learning from his prestigious predecessors.
But as heart-warming as Mays’ down-to-earth nature came across, I was still moved to throw myself at his feet in a Wayne’s World style “We’re not worthy!” outburst. His humble patter only served to elevate him to the highest echelons of McIlhone appreciation. But rather than start gushing like a proverbial fountain, I will keep it simple: Mr Mays, we salute you.
OTB: You’ve been in film and TV for almost ten years now, working hard under the radar, but recently you’ve had a great run of well received shows: first Plus One, then Red Riding and now Shifty is taking off. How does it feel?
It’s weird that. I feel really pleased that these three jobs have been hitting at the same time. It’s not planned; you need to continuously work and obviously some things get held back and you have no power over when they are going to be released but I’m pleased because I’m really proud of these three jobs.
I’m happy I got the opportunity to do Plus One because it was something comedic. I’ve done a lot of heavy, gritty, depressing stuff so getting the chance to do something light and comedic was really fun. I really enjoyed that challenge and now I’m kind of bringing out the big guns with Red Riding and Shifty again. But I’m proud of all three pieces of work.
Which do you prefer? Was the comedy more fun because it was more of a challenge?
It’s just a different discipline. I found it really challenging: you tell a joke and it either lands or it doesn’t. You approach a comedy part as you would do a serious one but you have to have that understanding of the timing behind it; the rhythm of the script. Saying ‘ok, that’s a gag and that’s a punchline’ – you have to balance those two disciplines.
It’s like a science isn’t it?
Yeah. I’m doing a film about stand-up comedians at the moment and that whole world of trying to be funny, but not actually trying to be funny – just having an awareness of it; making it natural. I found that a huge challenge actually and I was quite nervous and apprehensive about taking on Plus One for those reasons alone. Then if you compare it to Red Riding there’s a different discipline in doing the research, particularly for that part because it was loosely based upon a guy who actually existed so you have to do your homework and use a different part of your acting muscles completely.
Did you feel like you needed to pay tribute to that person?
Absolutely, I read a whole book on Stephan Kisko, the guy that Michael Myshkin was based on. I didn’t know anything about his story but it was probably the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever read in my life. Then to have that awareness – that this actually happened and he spent sixteen years in prison and he was a broken man when he was released and that the Police were corrupt: they framed him for doing something he couldn’t possibly have done. When I was acting the scenes in Red Riding, I was really, really trying to somehow draw upon a smidgen of what he must have gone through.
It really helps when you’ve got this amazing script by Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and I’m sitting opposite David Morrissey and Mark Addy. That job in particular was such an amazing thing. I remember just sitting in the pub on the second day and I was sat with Peter Mullan, David Morrisey, Mark Addy and Sean Dooley and I was like, Jesus, what an amazing group of people to be able to have a drink with.
I’ve grown up and watched those guys and they are real heroes of mine. I guess you just want to work on good projects, with good actors and good writing. Certainly with that job, you knew you had to bring your A game to the table, there was no question about that. It’s just great because, when you go to drama school and you want to be a great actor, you’d give your right arm to be involved in a project like that and I’m very appreciative that it came my way.
What attracted you to Shifty?
It was an offer straight out of the bag and then when I met the team I really connected with Eran, the director. I grew up in Essex and I spent a lot of time in Harlow where we did most of the filming and I just connected with his story and the characters. It was clear that he knew these characters inside and out and they were really defined people. It was just, again, an amazing challenge from an acting perspective.
What I really connected to with the script, and I think I connect to a lot of these sorts of characters, is that it’s about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Chris, on the surface of things, is an extremely likeable character: he’s funny and he’s sympathetic and yet he’s dealing with this terrible incident in his past and he’s really haunted by what has happened. It’s forced him to leave, to try and start a new life in Manchester and he comes back after four years and he has to confront the demons in order to get some sort of redemption.
I think it was those epic, deep-rooted themes in the script that I really tapped into because those type of things appeal to me. But on top of that I think the writing was tremendous because it was really true to life. I’m aware that I don’t want to make Shifty sound like a really depressing, downbeat, social realist film because, although there are elements of that, for me, the banter and the humour and the wit that runs through the whole film is incredibly funny, which I think stops it taking this very bleak, kitchen sink route which so many films of this type can go down.
I think the thing that I really underestimated when I read the script was that, and this is a testament to Eran and the job that he’s done, I really underestimated the thriller aspect of it and I think the last third of the film is intensely gripping. I know it sounds cliched, but it kept me on the edge of my seat. I think the reason why that works is because the characters are so well drawn in the first place; they are likeable characters and you’re easily sucked into their world and you really care about their welfare. You want them to make it to the end.
Ultimately what the film is about is the battle for Shifty’s soul and what choices he’s gonna make which is a universal theme really, there’s lots of people who lose their way.
I liked the fact that the violence of addiction was given more emphasis than the violence in the fight scenes, it felt more appropriate given the subject matter of the film. What was your feeling about the presentation of drugs and violence in Shifty?
I think Eran has a great understanding that so many British films of this type are just awash with guns, swearing and violence and the great thing about Shifty is that there’s this sense of foreboding in the film and you gradually build up to that outbreak of violence that Chris inflicts. Eran was always clear that he wanted the character to break out in some way. In actual fact, the one scene where he never goes to the party, in one draft Chris actually goes in and there’s this huge outpouring of grief and I think it was really brave that Eran cut that because he wanted Chris to explode in anger and violence.
You can tell that this guy is just desperately trying to cope with this situation but it’s underplayed. That was something that really appealed to me, playing the part, as I’ve played some quite flamboyant or talky characters that are quite outgoing. This required me to start pulling it all back because Chris is very much an observer of people so just by looking at people and giving glances or certain sort of looks, it speaks volumes. He’s like a sort of pressure cooker that gradually just explodes.
How do you feel about the state of British cinema at the moment? Is it something that you think is going in the right direction?
Obviously with the economic climate at the moment, I think it’s quite dire, certainly in television as well. I’m positive in that, something like Film London has come along, I was encouraged by schemes like that because at the end of the day, Shifty has come out and it’s a quality piece of work. But I think, more importantly it’s discovered a great talent in Eran Creevy and it’s that next generation of great British filmmakers and I’m sure Eran’s going to be part of that clique.
I think if people are passionate about making films and they want to do it, then you’ve got to get off your arse and try. What’s great about Eran and this film is that, it’s the film he wanted to make, he’s not trying to emulate any Hollywood film. He hasn’t fallen in to the trap, like a lot of London filmmakers, of regurgitating the same s*** over and over again. This feels, although its about drugs and drug dealers, for me it feels very refreshing, it has a breath of fresh air in it.
Daniel Mays will be all over our screens in the next few years – look out for him in Hippie Hippie Shake with Sienna Miller, TinTin in 2011 and his new project about a stand-up comedy duo called Huge with Ben Miller (Armstrong and Miller).