2 Mar 2010: From Crosby beach to a big match at Anfield, actor David Morrissey takes Amy Raphael on a tour of his hometown – and explains why it has inspired him to direct a new film
Past the Hillsborough memorial and beneath the legend “You’ll Never Walk Alone” atop the Shankly Gates, through the creaking turnstile and into the main stand. A subdued Liverpool team warm up on the pitch. Freezing fog swirls in the floodlights. David Morrissey warms his hands on a cup of hot chocolate and wishes he hadn’t left his gloves back home in north London. Two officials stare and nudge each other, but no one else even glances at him.
We are sitting five rows from the pitch and, for the first half of this Premiership game against Birmingham City, all the action is at the other end as Liverpool attack the Kop. Morrissey – 6ft 3in, broad of shoulder, very Scouse when he’s supporting his team – keeps standing up to get a better view. Two blokes sitting down behind us poke him sporadically in the back. They shout, “Sit down, Jack! Jack! Jack in the box, fuckin’ sit down!” Morrissey, lost in the game, is oblivious.
Liverpool go 1-0 up, 2-1 down and finally draw 2-2. Still, Morrissey finds it in himself to laugh as the City fans chant “You’re just a fat Spanish waiter” at Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez. When Stevie Gerrard steps up to take a penalty, a thousand flashlights sparkle in the fog, but this is not a game – or season – to be celebrated. As we leave an unusually grave Anfield, I wonder if Morrissey regrets agreeing to show me around his home city. But his disappointment at the result quickly evaporates.
He exchanges text messages with Albie, his 14-year-old son, at home in London. He explains: “Normally we sit in front of the TV watching the football, laptops on our knees. Him on Facebook and me half-watching funny videos on YouTube . . . “
Although Morrissey, now 45, has been living in London since going to Rada in his late teens, his heart still belongs to Liverpool. He has spent the last three years co-writing, financing and directing his second film for television, Don’t Worry About Me; ostensibly a boy-meets-girl story about a Cockney lad who ends up in Liverpool and talks a local girl into showing him around, it’s really a love letter to his home city. While Passer By, a Tony Marchant drama starring James Nesbitt that Morrissey directed for television in 2004, was strong on characterisation and plot, Don’t Worry About Me is at its most impressive when the camera drifts along the landscape.
The escape from Scouse roles
The most iconic shot is of the three graces – the Royal Liver building, the Cunard building and the former offices of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board – standing proud on the edge of the Mersey, if only because of the modern architecture now butting up against them. “Every time I come home, I’m amazed by how the shore line is changing,” Morrissey says. Is London – where he lives with his wife Esther Freud, and their three children, Albie, Anna, 12, and Gene, five – not home? “Liverpool will always be my home. In my 20s, I wanted to distance myself from it – I didn’t only want to be offered Scouse roles. But the older I get, the more of a pull it has.”
The day after the Liverpool game, we drive to Crosby beach to see Antony Gormley’s iron men. On the way there, like someone in the first flush of love, Morrissey talks endlessly about Don’t Worry About Me. He made it for £100,000, shot it over three weeks in September 2007 and worked on the post-production either between roles or on set (in the same period, he appeared in Sense & Sensibility, The Other Boleyn Girl, Is Anybody There?, Doctor Who, Red Riding and Nowhere Boy).
He says he is the sort of actor who hangs around on set even when he knows he won’t be called, watching how films are put together and feeling frustrated that he is only dipping into the process. “Actors come into the process late and leave early. As a director, your work is finished only when it’s on the screen. But I will always be an actor who occasionally directs. And no, I have no interest in directing myself. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on both jobs at once.” What has he learned from the directors he’s worked with? “To create a space for actors to work in and see not problems, but opportunities.”
The youngest of four, Morrissey grew up in a council house in Kensington, to the east of Liverpool’s city centre, that had been in the family since the turn of the 20th century; his mother, aunt and uncle were all born in the house, his grandparents married in the backyard. “It was a real Coronation Street, back-to-back, outside-toilet house. Terence Davies lived two streets away, and the area was his inspiration for Distant Voices, Still Lives. I very clearly remember women on their knees, scrubbing the front doorstep.”
When he was seven, the family – his father was a cobbler, his mother worked for Littlewoods – moved to a new housing estate in Knotty Ash. “We had four bedrooms and an indoor loo, but I was used to the community spirit in Kensington; I knew all the neighbours. I got a paper round in Knotty Ash, and I’d always have two or three papers left at the end because the estate was a labyrinth.”
Lazy and disinterested at primary school, he failed the 11-plus and was “fucking miserable” at secondary school. He left at 16, did “a bit of boxing” and joined the Everyman Youth Theatre. “As a kid I spent most of my time watching TV. Hollywood musicals, Colditz, anything. But they never reflected my life – until I saw Ken Loach’s Kes. I was a happy kid, but the football scene where Brian Glover bullies Billy Caspar reminded me of my school. I felt total empathy for the lad, but I was also transported. Like God knows how many blokes my age, it made me want to act.”
At 19, Morrissey was cast alongside Ian Hart – still his best mate – in Willy Russell’s One Summer, about two Scouse lads who run off to Wales. He got into Rada, acted at the Liverpool Playhouse, Stratford East, the RSC and the National, and, for a while, was typecast as a copper in television dramas.
In the early days, Morrissey took the job home with him. “As a younger actor, I indulged myself in murky, dark, depressive places. Now I try to have a laugh on set; if you are thrusting rats in Peter Mullan’s face in [Channel 4’s] Red Riding, you have to be able to laugh at the end of the scene or you’d go mad. I find humour helps in all sorts of situations: often you meet an actor for the first time, introduce yourself then strip off and jump into bed. If you can laugh about the absurdity of acting, the boundaries drop, and you quickly create an atmosphere where anything goes.”
Anne-Marie Duff, Morrissey’s onscreen wife in Nowhere Boy and Is Any-body There?, tells me that she approves of his method: “David makes me laugh till I cry. He’s one of the funniest, naughtiest men.” Yet there is a serious, thoughtful side, too, and it is probably this that has elevated him from the run of TV cop shows to being first on the list when it comes to casting quality British drama (this week he is part of BBC1’s impressive Five Days ensemble, even if he is playing a police officer).
Yoga and the iron men
Like most actors, Morrissey can look exposed by a weak script (he shone as the slippery MP Stephen Collins in 2003’s State of Play, but was lost in Basic Instinct 2), and he has an uncanny knack for getting inside a character’s head. He researches his roles – be it Gordon Brown in The Deal or, more recently, a memorably chilling police interrogator in the BBC drama Mrs Mandela. And while he is not without ambition, he takes nothing for granted, perhaps because his father died when he was 15. He has tried yoga and meditation but not therapy (he often says his wife’s name is the least interesting thing about her). If pushed, he would no doubt say that acting is his release.
There is a harsh beauty to Crosby beach: sand dunes frame an industrial landscape to the east, endless dark yellow sand to the west and turbines out at sea. Morrissey jokes that he has planned our visit to perfection: the tide is right out, and only a few of Gormley’s cast-iron men are submerged. Morrissey’s mum and his three siblings live just up the road. “The city centre is changing,” he says, “with new buildings flying up all over the place. Some exciting and vibrant, others I’m not so sure about. But, to me, these iron men capture the history of Liverpool as a port.” He places a hand on a silent figure. “Looking out to sea, waiting for friends and family to come home.”