Most actors’ careers go in peaks and troughs, but for Daniel Mays it appears to be going in one direction. Mark Kebble meets the star of stage and screen
Is there anything Daniel Mays can’t do? He has already wowed us in a host of theatre and TV roles, not to mention blockbusting films, and now he’s sitting opposite me in the ever-popular Clissold Arms rocking a rather fetching moustache – and pulling it off with aplomb.
Going ‘method’, the facial hair is helping him get into the character of Potts in the smash hit West End play, Mojo, running until February. ‘I am loving it,’ he grins. ‘Without question, in terms of all the stage work I have done, it’s the most thrilling thing I have been involved in. It was a cult hit back in the mid 90s – Andy Serkis, a Crouch Ender of course, played my part, and I worked with Andy on Tintin so I got a clue of how to get into the part.’
Set against the fledgling rock ‘n’ roll scene of 50s Soho, Mojo is a savagely funny play that delves into the sleazy underworld and power games of London’s most infamous district. This first major revival of the play since 1996 has enticed one mighty stellar cast, with Brendan Coyle, Rupert Grint and Ben Whishaw all joining Daniel. ‘Potts is very much the motor of the play,’ Daniel adds, ‘he’s pumped up on amphetamines and he just doesn’t stop talking. He has a great double act with Rupert’s character, Sweet. I just feel blessed to be involved with that company of actors.’
Mojo has come on the back of a taxing run of theatre for Daniel, but you sense he couldn’t be happier. ‘Theatre is an actor’s medium,’ he states. ‘I just love the five weeks in a rehearsal room exploring the characters, reading the scripts, doing improvisations, and then applying everything you’ve worked on in rehearsal into the performance. Before Mojo, I did a play called The Same Deep Water as Me at the Donmar Warehouse, and before that another play at the Donmar, Trelawny of the Wells, and then I was at the Royal Court before that. To do eight shows a week in any theatre is a big ask, but particularly with Mojo as it’s quite draining. But the thing with theatre is it’s about wiping the slate clean and imagining each time you do that show it is the first time for that audience, which is a good discipline to have.’
Then again, Daniel has learnt from the very best. Growing up in Buckhurst Hill in Essex and one of four boys – ‘You had to be heard in some capacity or in some way,’ he laughs about being an extrovert as a kid – he decided on acting as a career, and a few months after graduating from RADA landed a role in Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing, before going on to star in the acclaimed director’s Vera Drake. ‘The most important thing ever,’ he says when I ask how important Leigh has been to his career. ‘Vera Drake was a huge commercial success, so doors started to open, but for me it was the mechanics of doing it, of working with someone that’s so creative and brilliant as Mike. That experience is an education in itself. By the end of doing those two films I felt like I could take on anything.’
His career certainly backs up that statement. He has gone from an award-winning role on Antonia Bird’s Rehab – ‘It’s a real tragedy she has gone so soon,’ Daniel reflects on her passing in 2013, ‘she was a vital, brilliant director’ – to playing violent characters, the good guys and has even had some comedy roles thrown in too. Talking about what’s most fun to play, he smiles wide when I insist it must be the bad guy, and he couldn’t have played anyone more evil than DCI Jim Keats in Ashes to Ashes, the follow up to BBC’s almighty hit Life on Mars.
‘That was a really big part for me,’ he nods, ‘Life on Mars was getting something like 8-9 million viewers. Jim Keats, I have to say, was the most enjoyable part I have played. My agent phoned me and said ‘do you want to audition for the devil?’, so it was quite bizarre! It was great because he brought the whole mythology to a close. I thought the writers did an amazing job.’
What was it like to join such an established cast? ‘It was very daunting,’ he admits. ‘I was aware that I was stepping into something that was very popular and they were a close knit group of actors, but they were so welcoming. Philip Glenister [who will be forever known as Gene Hunt] is such a scream on set. He’s a brilliant actor, but he is also a top, top guy.’
Talking of daunting, how did it feel to play Ronnie Biggs, as he did in 2012’s Mrs Biggs? ‘That affected me quite a lot,’ he answers. ‘Ronnie was a jovial, jack the lad if you like – he was a very gregarious, fun loving guy meaning everyone seemed to warm to him. The programme was told from Charmian’s [Mrs Biggs] point of view and I found their story to be really tragic. A lot of people wondered why we were doing it, and if we were going to glamorise their life, but I don’t think it was like that. It was also eight weeks out in Australia filming, so was a lot of time away from home – but again it was a massive hit and did a lot for me.’
There seems to be a common theme running throughout Daniel’s career as, again, his performance in Mrs Biggs saw him nominated for a National Television Award. Mojo, too, has been universally praised, as has his performance – and there’s surely more to come, with a starring role in the new Jimmy McGovern drama, Common, due to be screened early in 2014. With all this going on, it must be nice to be appearing at a theatre close to home. ‘That’s the appeal if you have got a family,’ says the father of one. A Crouch Ender for a few a years, he moved to East Finchley three years ago and is fully ingrained in the artistic community of the area. ‘There’s so many actors – you have to walk around with your CV in your hand!’ he laughs.
With time just about called at the Clissold Arms, I have one final word of praise for him: I like the ‘tache look. ‘I am getting away with it because of Movember!’ he counters. ‘There’s a spivvish element to Potts, so I thought it was a good idea and it fits in very well.’ Just like a lot of things in Daniel Mays’ career to date.
Mojo runs at The Harold Pinter Theatre until 8 February – see more at mojotheplay.com