12 Apr 2009: Amy Raphael talks film, fatherhood and football with brilliant young actor Daniel Mays

Daniel Mays is lying flat out on the towpath of a north London canal, his head hanging precariously near the choppy brown water. Every time a cyclist or jogger appears, he bends his knees to let them pass. The people of the capital don’t seem to find it at all odd that he’s lying there, in a battered khaki shirt, narrow grey jeans and white hi-top trainers. In fact, they barely look at him as he has his picture taken. He doesn’t try to catch anyone’s eye; he doesn’t court celebrity and is happy not to be recognised. All he cares about is being a “fantastically good actor”.

  • Shifty + Q&A
  • Production year: 2008
  • Country: UK
  • Cert (UK): 15
  • Runtime: 86 mins
  • Directors: Eran Creevy
  • Cast: Daniel Mays, Jason Flemyng, Nitin Ganatra, Riz Ahmed
  • More on this film

Which could so easily sound horribly pretentious and predictable. But when Mays says it, you believe it. At 31, he’s one of the most exciting, sophisticated and disciplined character actors of his generation and he’s been working pretty much non-stop since leaving Rada in 2000. He made his debut in a single episode of EastEnders – “It was awful; the actors treated it like it was just a day job” – before auditioning for Pearl Harbor. “I was pilot three; you have to play the DVD in super slow motion to even see I’m there. I did a scene with Ben Affleck and it started to rain, so the scene was cut. Which is no bad thing because it’s a horrendous film.”

Mays’s first real break came in 2001, when he was cast as the raging, abusive Jason in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing. More often than not, it is to this type of troubled character he’s since been drawn, from a young heroin addict in Antonia Bird’s BBC drama Rehab to a disturbed hero in Funland and, most recently, the desperately sad and brutalised Michael Myshkin in Red Riding. While he was still at Rada, Mays’s principal predicted he’d go out and play young men on the edge. When I ask why he thought this, Mays says quickly: “I don’t know. He’d obviously seen something in me.”

In person, Mays is anything but edgy. There appears to be no anger simmering beneath the calm, casual exterior. He arrives at a quiet café with a wheelie suitcase and a hat he bought in LA, where he recently finished filming The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn with Steven Spielberg. It later turns out that the bag is full of outfits for the photo shoot by the canal; among the smart suit and casual shirts there’s a tube of face cream for men, some hair gel and a pocket diary. The photographer didn’t request the outfits, Mays brought them along just in case.

Spend part of a day with Mays and the most striking impression is of a bright, funny and easy-going Essex boy. No matter that he hasn’t got movie star good looks: his easy charm and charisma make him far more alluring and allow him to lose himself in roles. He is surprisingly open about most things, including how he sees himself in the mirror. “I know you can’t say I’m conventionally good looking. Which can be a struggle. When I was in America I saw so many guys who fit that good-looking stereotype, and I’m just not that – which matters when it comes to landing a lead part, doesn’t it?”

I’m not so sure. Mays has immense screen presence and is electrifying on stage. Anyway, he’s an old-fashioned actor, not a movie star. Stirring a latte thoughtfully, he nods. “When I really connect with a character, none of those factors matter. The prospect of taking on that character and doing it justice supersedes anything about vanity or wanting to look good.”

Yet he still looks a little disappointed by the idea that he might not land a certain type of lead (most obviously a romantic lead in an American film) and I wonder if he has had his head turned a little by his spell in Hollywood. His part in Tintin was very much that of a supporting actor – Mays and Mackenzie Crook play Alan and Ernie, sidekicks to Daniel Craig’s Red Rackham – but he got a taste of working with Spielberg. He’s been warned by the film company against discussing Tintin, which isn’t due for release till 2011, but he does laugh about the weird wetsuit, body sensors and helmets the actors wore as part of the performance-capture technology, in which actors’ movements are used to animate digital character models in 3D animation. “It was like doing a piece of theatre; you don’t have to worry about where the camera is because you’re being picked up the whole time. I only had a couple of moments on set, but there Spielberg was, telling me what to do!”

While in Los Angeles, Mays also got himself the same American agent as Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel and Twilight pin-up Robert Pattinson. Would he now consider uprooting his partner and three-year-old son Milo from their first-floor flat in north London and taking a risk on Hollywood? “I don’t know. I’ve never had a game plan. Maybe I need to be clearer about what I want to do. There’s this mentality that you get to a certain level here then up sticks and try to make it in America. But I’ve worked with Mike Leigh on both All or Nothing and Vera Drake [as the abortionist’s son], with Joe Wright on Atonement [as James McAvoy’s comrade Corporal Nettle] and on Red Riding. I’m really proud of the work I can do here … “

Although Mays talks of wanting to support his young family, he loves making the kind of British films that pay very little. The upcoming Shifty, an excellent urban drama from 32-year-old writer-director Eran Creevy, was made with the help of Film London’s Microwave division for just £100,000. Even though it’s yet another tale of drug dealing gone wrong, it boasts a sharp script and impressive performances from Mays, Riz Ahmed (most memorable from Britz) and Nitin Ganatra (a decent actor who pays the bills as Mr Masood from EastEnders.

“The first day on set I was like, shit, how is this going to come out?” says Mays, laughing. “We’ve only got three weeks! I’ve never worked with such a skeleton crew. There was no way we could pick up two days at the end of the shoot. But cast and crew were all paid the same – about £1,000 each in total – and it produced a great feeling of camaraderie. It actually produced fantastic work.”

Despite the flirtation with Hollywood, Mays is probably – hopefully – too fired up by British drama to leave this country anytime soon. He has made the odd misjudgment – the recent Channel 4 comedy Plus One just wasn’t funny – but mostly he’s worked with the best television and film directors and writers this country has to offer. He has also done such good work at London’s Royal Court Theatre that playwrights of the calibre of Jez Butterworth and Simon Stephens have written roles specifically for him. Stephens saw Mays in Vassily Sigarev’s black comedy Ladybird, chatted to him in the Royal Court bar afterwards and went away and wrote Motortown for him. A stark, brutal and often unpleasant account of a squaddie returning from Basra overflowing with inarticulate rage, it won rave reviews from the liberal press and predictable rantings from the Mail.

Mays was a revelation, even to Stephens. “Danny can be violent and funny, deeply scary and deeply loveable, which is intoxicating for both a writer and an audience. I watched the audience lean into him every night. After the show, in the bar, I looked on as people fell in love with him despite the violence he’d just shown on stage. He understands how people are. He has remarkable access to a well of emotion and a tremendous emotional intelligence, but it’s all incredibly controlled.” David Morrissey, who acted alongside Mays on Red Riding, has a similar perception of the ease with which his characters can shift: “In the green room he’d have me laughing my socks off and on set he’d have me crying my eyes out.”

So where does this come from, this ability to tap into anger and violence? The answer is not immediately obvious. Born and bred in Essex, Mays was the second youngest of four boys, all of whom were obsessed with sport. It was a boisterous household and he had to shout to be heard. I ask if his was a happy childhood and he shrugs, nods, changes the subject. “I went to stage school when I was very young, about 13. I was doing all that musical theatre crap…” How did he end up going to the Italia Conti Academy? He colours slightly then grins. “God, this is embarrassing. I used to lock myself in my bedroom and do Michael Jackson dancing. Constantly. Seriously!”

His interest in performance was, he admits, a little leftfield. He was torn between art and acting when he had an epiphany. “I started doing improvisation classes and something clicked. I had to be a rent boy and there had to be some kind of emotional or physical explosion. I had a freak-out in class, went ballistic. Something really connected in that moment.”

James Corden, co-writer and co-star of Gavin & Stacey, remembers Mays from around this time. “We first met when we were 15, as extras on a student film. His energy was infectious. What’s amazing about Danny is that sometimes he’s playing a character without any redeeming features and you shouldn’t care about or like him. And yet he has such charm that you find the good in him. He understands that acting is about the truth, which is what essentially sets him apart. He’s at his best when he believes in what he’s doing. If he does, you do. He could be one of the greats.”

He might have been able to impress an actor as cocksure as Corden, but when he got into Rada after leaving Italia Conti, Mays was still initially intimidated by other students philosophising about acting. He didn’t want to talk about it, he wanted to do it, feel it. I’m still not clear about the source of his complexity as an actor, so I ask what he was like as a kid. He was neither the bully nor the bullied at school; he was too busy being the joker to be either. He’s never been in trouble with the police, other than being told off as a teenager for being drunk and disorderly. “I’ve always kept my nose clean.”

There’s a long pause. He leans forward and clears his throat. “My older brother had a lot of trouble with that side of things, if I’m being honest. When I was about 12 he went spectacularly off the rails. During his adolescence he was very hard work, to say the least. He was really into Acid House and the love drug [ecstasy] and, like a lot of kids at that time, lost his way. He wasn’t on heroin but he certainly battled addiction and it caused huge turmoil. It was quite difficult for us as a family at times.”

He stops and sighs. “When you ask how I get to those places, it’s not like I’ve never seen a family fighting physically and verbally. I witnessed both when I was very young. When I think about it now, my brother has been the biggest influence on my life, in terms of wanting to take a different direction. You’ve got to try and do something with your life. Don’t get me wrong, I love my brother to bits. He’s got an unbelievably big heart. And he’s OK now. I’ve always been reluctant to talk about him because I don’t want to sacrifice him in any way. But if I’m brutally honest, many of the characters I’ve played have been heavily based on him, from Jason in All or Nothing to Adam in Rehab.”

Acting allowed Mays an opportunity to disappear from his own life when he was barely a teenager. He could pretend to be Michael Jackson in the privacy of his bedroom and, as he grew older and bolder, let himself go in improvisation classes. Although great fun to be around, when Mays takes on a role he is able to leave his ego at the door. All of which appealed to Mike Leigh when he cast him in All or Nothing. “He’s a versatile and consummate character actor,” confirms the director. “Anyone who thinks he’s just an Essex lad is wide of the mark. He’s extremely intelligent and a terrific guy to be around.”

Mays, in turn, says that Leigh made him the actor he is today – “You leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of truthful, believable characters when working with him and that’s something I now apply to everything I do.” But if he found the experience rewarding, he also found it hugely challenging. When Mays was in rehearsal for his second Leigh film, Vera Drake, he kept thinking that he’d done nothing of any substance. At one point, he went into a panic and, despite being cast as Vera’s son, asked Leigh if he was going to be in the film at all.

Leigh reassured him and, shortly afterwards, the Drake family did a lengthy rehearsal in which the police came to arrest Vera and the family discovered for the first time that she had been illegally performing abortions. After she’d been taken to the police station, Mays fled. “I went out into the woods nearby. It was dark and I was crying; I was in bits. My chest had been ripped open. I was in a complete state. All of a sudden I could see Mike coming through the trees. He came up to me really quietly and said, ‘Come out of character.'”

It took Mays all night to recover. He was living alone at the time after a relationship had fallen apart. These days, with a make-up artist girlfriend and son, he finds it easier to leave his work behind. I suggest he settled down relatively young and am again surprised at his honesty. “The whole baby thing wasn’t planned. It was a shock. And I found it very, very, very difficult to take on board. When my girlfriend told me she was pregnant, it was like someone had told me the best joke in the world. I couldn’t stop laughing. That sounds horrible, but I was in complete shock. I went into complete meltdown. But you have to get through it. And now,” – the look of despair melts away into a huge grin – “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Mays has a good life in London. After his initial wariness, he is now thinking about having another child. He occasionally plays football with other actors in James McAvoy’s Sunday knockabout team (“James is quite good, yeah…Very good in fact. I wouldn’t say better than me… though I’m pretty unfit these days”). On the way to the canalside photo shoot, we talk about the next series of Jimmy McGovern’s muscular northern drama The Street, in which Mays co-stars with Anna Friel in one episode. He jokes that she was offended because he knew her only from the American TV series Pushing Daisies and was clueless about her famous lesbian kiss on Brookside. Filming in Manchester with their respective families, Mays and Friel became friends. “My partner Lou was there with Milo, and David Thewlis was looking after his and Anna’s daughter, Gracie. Both kids are three and David and Anna were staying two floors above us. In fact, I first met David – who is one of my heroes – when he came down to borrow some nappies. I said to Lou, ‘Johnny from Naked is coming to pick up nappies!'”

When Mays and his family were in Los Angeles recently, they were invited round to Friel and Thewlis’s house. As we approach the canal and the wind coils around us, Mays looks wistful. “That’s some life they’ve got; six months working in Los Angeles, six months off back here…” Is Hollywood on his mind again? “Right now? Let’s just say I don’t know. I’m never going to walk into a room and see everything stop. It’s never going to be like that for me. It’s going to be a slow burn.” He repositions his hat so that I can see his eyes. “To me it’s all about staying true to myself and being the best actor I can be. Wherever that might be.”

• Shifty is released on 24 April