From Line of Duty to Dad’s Army and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker at The Old Vic – why East Finchley resident Daniel Mays is well versed in tackling icons of the stage and screen
Words: Mark Kebble
North Londoner Daniel Mays is running late. He has been held up with rehearsals for The Caretaker, the Harold Pinter classic being revived once again by The Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus. So I take a look around the room reserved for our interview and clock a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. If you are a fan of Only Fools & Horses and the sayings of Del Boy, you will know why I got the giggles.
Talking about the Trotters is rather apt considering Mays’ recent appearance on the big screen. ‘It’s up there with Only Fools and Fawlty Towers, it’s one of the iconic British comedies,’ says an exhausted looking Mays as he arrives and slumps back into the sofa opposite me. He’s talking about Dad’s Army, revived for a new audience and currently on in cinemas.
On the day of the first rehearsals for Dad’s Army, there was a part of you thinking if it was career suicide
‘On the day of the first rehearsals, there was a part of you thinking if it was career suicide. But when I saw the cast they had assembled, and read the script by Hamish [McColl], it was a no brainer for me. There’s no way I could have turned that project down – it was a chance to work with an array of fabulous actors.’
Playing the spiv Private Walker, Daniel Mays is certainly not over-egging the cast plaudits: Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, Toby Jones, Tom Courtenay, Bill Paterson and Catherine Zeta-Jones were all involved. ‘I was slightly nervous walking into rehearsals,’ he admits. ‘Five minutes in their company, though, and you realise they are all just so down to earth. They were funny, professional, easy going, and we had such a giggle in between takes.’
When The Caretaker premiered in 1960, the play changed the face of modern theatre
From a mammoth cast to just three people on a stage, The Caretaker is a whole different proposition. When it premiered in 1960, the play changed the face of modern theatre and now a new production is running at The Old Vic (running until 14 May 2016). Playing the role of disturbed handyman, Aston, was a challenge Mays was eager to take on.
‘My last two plays, Mojo and Red Lion, were very explosive parts,’ he explains. ‘Aston is the polar opposite to that. I am playing someone who is basically suffering from shock treatment and he’s a very insular character, very closed down, quite numb and flat. In terms of the character it presented a very different challenge to me.’
He appears alongside two actors at different stages of their careers: George MacKay is a rising star, fresh from a superb performance in British film Pride, and then there’s one of our most-loved actors, Timothy Spall. ‘He told me he hasn’t been on the stage for 19 years,’ Mays says with more than a hint of awe in his voice. ‘To stand alongside someone as great as Tim, playing the iconic character of Davis, is a great honour.’
To stand alongside someone as great as Tim, playing the iconic character of Davis, is a great honour
I can’t wait to see what such a great cast and director make of Pinter’s masterpiece. Daniel Mays’ character Aston has invited an irascible tramp (Timothy Spall) to stay with him at his brother’s jumbled London flat. At first it seems that the manipulative guest will take advantage of his vulnerable host. But when Aston’s brother Mick (George MacKay) arrives, an enigmatic power struggle emerges between the three men that is in equal parts menacing, touching and darkly comic.
The reason for Mays’ late arrival to this interview is down to them having the first full run of Act One. ‘I feel mightily relieved not to have had any major hitches with it,’ Mays puffs out his cheeks. ‘It’s a strange, weird and wonderful play to get your head around.’
The East Finchley local – ‘Doing rehearsals is like a 9-5 job, getting on the Tube commuting with everyone else’ – is clearly up for a challenge, as we are seeing now with his starring role in the third series of critically acclaimed Line of Duty on the BBC. ‘We had a BAFTA screening of that a couple of weeks ago and the response is unlike anything I have been in before,’ Mays says excitedly.
When they sent me the script for Line of Duty, it was hands down the most exciting, edge of the seat read I have ever gone through
‘When they sent me the script, it was hands down the most exciting, edge of the seat read I have ever gone through. My part was the most complex, dark, twisted character – it was an absolute gift.’ Essentially a police procedural thriller, it follows a police anti-corruption unit as they seek to uncover rogue cops. ‘It’s based in this absolute reality,’ Mays adds, ‘which gives it a weight of authenticity. Your hope is the beauty and brilliance of it transfers to the screen. It’s one of the most exciting things I have been in.’
If it will remain long in the memory like the Trotters adventures in Peckham only time will tell, but Mays only needs to look across the rehearsal room to know what he wants from his career. ‘It always tells you something when actors are consistently good,’ he says about Timothy Spall. ‘For me it was always about longevity. No-one ever wants to be a flash in the pan. You want to be doing the job 30 years down the line.’
Daniel Mays’ top three roles…
- Jim Keats in Ashes to Ashes: [SPOILER ALERT] ‘To play the Devil was an absolute scream. It was such a well loved show that it opened a few doors and put everything on the map.’
- Eddie Mottram in Public Enemies: ‘It took a huge amount of effort to get through that. It was a gift, a great part to take on.’
- Sergeant Danny Waldron in Line of Duty: ‘It’s just a fantastic thing to be a part of. It’s the most layered, complex and interesting character I have taken on for a while.’