Stage-wise, Daniel Mays is happy to be known as a Royal Court actor. Since leaving drama school in 2000, all but one of his professional stage productions – David Eldridge’s M.A.D at the Bush Theatre – have been at the landmark Sloane Square venue.
He opens tonight in the London premiere of Fiona Evans’ Fringe First-winning Edinburgh Festival hit Scarborough in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. It’s his sixth play at the Royal Court, following The One with the Oven, Just a Bloke, Ladybird and, as part of the theatre’s 50th anniversary programme in 2006, Jez Butterworth’s The Winterling and Simon Stephens’ Motortown. His parts in the last two were written specifically for him.
On screen, Mays has worked twice with director Mike Leigh – on All or Nothing and the multi award-winning Vera Drake, in which he played Imelda Staunton’s son. His other film credits Pearl Harbor, Atonement and the soon-to-be-released The Bank Job. On television, Mays has recently been seen in Funland, Half Broken Things, Middletown, Saddam’s Tribe, Consent and Tipping the Velvet.
Date & place of birth
Born 31 March 1978 in Epping, Essex.
Lives now in
Crouch End, north London.
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
What made you want to become an actor?
As a little kid, I was always jumping about and doing impressions of people and doing funny voices to all my brothers. I have three brothers, two older and one younger. But it was only when I got to about maybe 15 or 16 that I decided. I went to the Italia Conti stage school before going on to RADA. I was very much influenced by Robert De Niro. His work had a profound effect on me. It amazed me how all those characters he played were coming out of one person. I find it incredibly enjoyable just to act for a living - it’s a way of expressing myself, I guess. Why do actors put themselves through it? Why do they feel compelled to perform? Perhaps deep down, it’s just about feeling accepted or something.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
I would probably have been an artist. I do a lot of painting even now, I have lots of oil paintings at home. I don’t do it as much as I did, as I don’t really have the time or the patience nowadays. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Both acting and painting are notoriously difficult jobs!
First big break
The first film I did with Mike Leigh, All or Nothing. I got it within a year of leaving drama school. As a young actor starting out, to work under the guidance of someone like Mike was just so beneficial. It was an acting lesson all in itself. It’s weird, because Mike has such a unique way of working. You try to apply it to work you do after, but it never quite fits – it seems to be a style exclusive to him. He instils in you that your character is the centre of your world and he gets across the importance of backstory preparation and leaving no stone unturned in the character-building process. At the end of the day, as an actor, all you can do is try and be as truthful and honest and entertaining as possible, I guess.
Career highlights to date
Vera Drake was a highlight because of the way it was received. Essentially, it was a very small film and that ensemble of actors are really close to my heart – Imelda Staunton, Phil Davis and Eddie Marsan – they were great people to work with. Then all of a sudden we won in Venice. I’ll never forget it. I was wrapping up a birthday present in my flat on my own and had the radio on. It came over the radio that Vera Drake had won the Golden Lion in Venice and I was just jumping around in my flat on my own – my neighbours must have thought I was crazy! It snowballed after that. Atonement recently was also a massive highlight, getting the opportunity to work with the director, Joe Wright. Television has also been really good to me. Funland on BBC3 was an incredibly good job to do. I really enjoyed the originality of the script - it had moments of comedy and then the next scene would be high, intense drama - and it seemed to catch the public’s attention. We got BAFTA-nominated. Half Broken Things on ITV, which was a one-off drama with Penelope Wilton and Sinead Matthews, two great actors to work with. It’s difficult to pick something which stands out though. Every new project, I like to wipe the slate clean and come into it fresh.
Imelda Staunton. She never ever had an off day. She’s so consistent and her professionalism and talent just shone through. She was great to work so closely with – a real inspiration. It was a pleasure working with Robert Carlyle as well. I’ve never worked with someone who took full control of the set the way he did. He used his status as an actor in a really positive way and was a real joy to work with.
People like Joe Wright. He works so well with actors but also allows you into the whole visual of the story. Different to Mike Leigh I guess. I’ve also got to say Ramin Gray at the Royal Court because he keeps employing me - he wouldn’t talk to me again if I didn’t mention him! Ramin and I so familiar with each other now that we have a kind of shorthand, which is great. I also loved working with Ian Rickson on The Winterling – he kept his notes bang on the nail really.
I really like Harold Pinter and Patrick Marber. I’m definitely going to see Dealer's Choice. But if I had to put down an absolute favourite I’d have to say Simon Stephens. And that’s not because he wrote a part for me in Motortown, I’m not scratching his back or anything. I’ve just always been to see his work: Christmas at the Bush, Port at the Royal Exchange, On the Shore of the Wide World at the National. I think he writes so passionately and soulfully for ordinary people who are in really difficult predicaments. Some people find Simon sentimental, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. People who are violent, or whatever, can have immense humanity in them as well – Simon writes about that very well.
What was the last thing on stage that had a big impact on you?
I saw The Hothouse at the National, that Ian Rickson directed. It was fantastic, incredibly well done. I didn’t realise how funny it would be either, although it was billed as a comedy. And Paul Ritter was fantastic. I’ve seen him in about four plays now and he’s always been extraordinary. I think he’s a real major talent and he’s not appreciated as much as he should be. Quite underrated. The play I saw before that was Elling with John Simm, who gave an absolutely spellbinding performance. It really surprised me actually. It was such an uplifting play as well, and I enjoyed the interplay between him and Adrian Bower too. It was really well-observed characterisation from both of them.
If you could swap places with anyone (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Cristiano Ronaldo, the Manchester United footballer. Purely because I just want to play with footballers as good as him. We’ve got the same colour hair - that’s about it! I wish we had the same football skills.
The last book I read, which I thought was brilliant, was The Damned United by David Preace. Again, we’re talking about football, but it was a time when Brian Clough took over Leeds United. I also like Birdsong. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is a great book too – and I was fortunate enough to be in the film!
Favourite holiday destinations
I hadn’t had a holiday in about four years – it was ridiculous - and my girlfriend kept wanting me to take a break. When I finished a film called The Bank Job, I realised I was physically and mentally burnt out. So we went to Barbados, which is absolutely like paradise. It took me a few weeks to completely unwind and relax, although I did have my one-year-old son with me so it wasn’t too relaxing! But it was great.
Favourite after-show haunts
We always used to invariably end up at Shuttleworths. I’m not a member anywhere though. When I go to Century or Soho House, I’m always with someone who’s a member. Or I go to the door and say “I’m with such and such – they’re just behind me in the taxi”. And the Royal Court bar, when I’m acting there.
Why did you want to accept your current role?
It was an offer from the Royal Court. Apart from one play at the Bush, all my stuff has been at the Royal Court. I’m not saying I’m ruling out working anywhere else, but this is my sixth play there. I don’t mind being known as a Royal Court actor. I’m indebted to the people there. Particularly Ramin Gray, we’ve done three plays together. It’s been a pattern in my work - working with certain directors who’ve thankfully asked me back. I’ve had that with Mike, I’ve done two films with him. And Ramin keeps asking me to back to the Court. Doing The Winterling and Motortown in 2006 was an absolute dream. There I was at the 50th anniversary of the Court in two plays by two playwrights who had specifically written parts for me. That was a massive highlight. It was a showcase for me to show two very different sides. The Winterling was very comedic, and Motortown was incredibly brutal. It took me a long time to get to the right place with that character. I know it was difficult for people to watch. We had people leaving in the middle of the performance - I think ten left on the press night.
What was it about Scarborough in particular that appealed to you?
It’s a fascinating concept. This play takes place at a B&B in Scarborough where a teacher and an underaged student meet for an illicit weekend. When they first did it in Edinburgh, it was a female teacher and a 15-year-old boy. In order to bring it down to London, the playwright Fiona Evans had the idea to make it a two-part production and switch the genders halfway through. A lot of the reaction in Edinburgh was “Well, it’s just a young guy getting his sexual experience”. But by seeing the two versions back-to-back – the one in which I play Aiden, the PE teacher, comes second – I think it’ll raise some very different moral questions.
How do the two parts of Scarborough differ?
The text for the two versions is identical. In rehearsals, our director Deborah Bruce purposely kept the two casts completely separate. We weren’t even allowed to talk to the others about it. But apparently, even from the initial read-through, the versions were vastly different. The way the play is set is fantastic too. It’s just in the one B&B room and the audience are literally in the room with us, sitting on the bed or the dresser or somewhere. They’re like voyeurs, seeing this incredibly intimate, heartfelt and dangerous love affair played out right beneath their noses.
How would you describe Aiden?
When I was first approached, I was concerned that this was just going to be a caricature of a paedophile, but my part is really three-dimensional. Aiden’s backstory is really interesting. He was an under-18 regional swimming champion. He’s going out with someone older than him, Jenny, who’s 47 and was his swimming coach. Jenny has a young son from a previous relationship, Patrick, who’s now 15 or 16 and bringing girls home. In a way Aiden’s stepson is sexually more experienced than he is. And then all of a sudden he becomes attracted to Beth, the student, and has a huge crisis on his hands. He’s going through a rather early mid-life crisis. Aiden is someone who, at 30, has gone into meltdown, and when he meets this girl (played by Rebecca Ryan), he loses control and falls head over heels in love. He is a dark character in a sense, but I’ve sort of made a career out of playing people on the brink. I enjoy it.
Why do you enjoy playing people on the brink?
I always try to play a character as humanly as possible, even when they do horrific things - they’re violent or in this case, sleeping with an underage girl. It happens. Drama is about looking at these situations that do really happen and maybe learning from it.
What’s your favourite line from the play?
“I wish that we could stay like this forever.”
What was the most unusual thing that happened during rehearsals?
The nature of the play threw up a lot of challenges in rehearsals of course. Rebecca is a fantastic actress but it was a sort of tentative period. It was like stepping stones with the sexual stuff. In any rehearsals, you have to gain each other’s trust and be supportive of each other - with this, even more than usual.
What are your plans for the future?
I haven’t got anything lined up. No doubt I’ll start auditioning for things soon. The great thing about doing this play now is that it’s very early in the year. And the beauty of the Royal Court is that they don’t usually do really long runs. I’d like to do a bit more TV and film, but I wouldn’t rule out a six-month run in something in the West End. I definitely want to do more theatre – that’s where I feel most comfortable.
- Daniel Mays was talking to Terri Paddock
Scarborough opens on 11 February 2008 (previews from 7 February) at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, where it has an extended season through to 15 March 2008.