Actor John Simm is best known to TV fans from cop show Life on Mars, which has just completed its second and final series on BBC One. For his leading role as police detective Sam Tyler, who is transplanted from the modern day to the 1970s after an accident, Simm has been nominated for Best Actor in this year’s BAFTAs, which are announced at a ceremony at the London Palladium on 20 May.
Simm’s other television credits include State of Play, Sex Traffic, The Canterbury Tales, Clocking Off, White Teeth, Crime and Punishment, Heartbeat, Cracker, Never Never, Spaced, Forgive and Forget, The Locksmith, The Lakes, Magic Hour, Crime and Punishment, Blue/Orange and, coming up, The Yellow House and Doctor Who, while his films include 24 Hour Party People, Human Traffic and Wonderland.
The screen star now returns to the stage for the first time in 11 years to take the title role in the English-language premiere adaptation of the cult Norwegian film comedy Elling at west London’s Bush Theatre. The production reunites Simm with playwright Simon Bent – who has written the piece based on Axel Hellstenius and Petter Naess’ Norwegian adaptation of the 2001 film, which was based on the original novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen – and director Paul Miller. Simm’s last stage appearance was also at the Bush, in Bent’s 1996 play Goldhawk Road, directed by Miller.
In Elling, Simm and his co-hort Kjell Bjarne (played by Adrian Bower) are the Odd Couple (à la Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon) of the dysfunctional world. What’s the point of ever going out when you can get pizza delivered and all the sex you want on the phone? And who needs a bed to sleep in when there’s a perfectly good wardrobe to stand the night in? Given a flat in the centre of Oslo by social services, Elling and Kjell’s mission now is to re-assimilate themselves back into society. It’s that or return to the asylum. All they have to do is convince their social worker Frank (Kier Charles) that they really are ‘normal’.
Date & place of birth
Born in Leeds, West Yorkshire on 10 July 1970.
I went to a classical theatre drama school, the Drama Centre in Chalk Farm. It was a Stanislavski-based method kind of place. It was pretty full-on. Good training but a lot of living in fear, which I didn’t think was healthy. Many students were thrown out, others had nervous breakdowns in their teens. I just kept my head down and they seemed to like me so I sort of sailed through and got all the lead parts.
How did you find the transition from stage to screen?
I had to learn how to act on screen myself because we didn’t really get taught that at Drama Centre. I was in my last term when I got a TV part in Rumpole of the Bailey and it just kind of snowballed. Now I’m used to learning a ton of lines a day but then forgetting them an hour later when we move on to a different scene.
First big break
I played the killer in Cracker for two episodes. It’s a long time ago, but Cracker was hugely popular in the early Nineties and from there I got a TV series called The Lakes. Human Traffic is when it started to get quite full-on.
Career highlights to date
Playing Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment because I love the book and love the part and it was a real dream come true.
What’s been your most exhausting role?
Life on Mars without a doubt. The character I played was in every single scene and I spent two years filming a punishing non-stop schedule in Manchester. It was horrible and hard leaving my young family behind. One reason I’m doing Elling is because it keeps me in London for at least two months.
I’m lucky to have worked with many very good directors. But I guess I’ll say Paul Miller (who directs Elling). He’s a great director. A perfect director. He works meticulously and is always open to suggestion. The last play that I did was at the Bush with Paul and Simon (Bent), so it seemed the perfect way to ease back into stage acting. And they’re friends of mine, so it’s a comfort zone after so long away from the stage.
What’s the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
It’s not very often I see something I think is amazing. I enjoyed Fool for Love, the Sam Shepard thing in the West End, because I had a friend in it who was excellent and it was quite short, which was a bonus. I can’t think of other times I’ve been – I don’t go to the theatre much.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
Become a musician. I was a musician before I was an actor. I was in a band, Magic Alex, made an album and did two big tours. I was lead guitar, wrote music and sung backing vocals. You can get the albums on I-Tunes. At one point we were quite a big unsigned band and we got offered a recording contract, but I was right in the middle of doing really well in my career and I couldn’t give it up. We split up two years ago.
The Beatles. I’ve been obsessed with them from an early age. They’re just sprinkled with magic as far as I’m concerned. They made me very happy. Beatles songs are the soundtrack to my life. My favourite song changes every day, but I suppose “Eight Days a Week” because that’s the work schedule I adhere to.
What’s the worst job you ever had?
Working in a bar in the West End during the late Eighties where I had to serve drinks and do dance routines to “Greased Lightnin’” wearing cycling shorts. I also worked as an usher at the Albery and saw Blood Brothers about a thousand times. After that, I knew I never wanted to do musicals.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
On my first day of drama school, a third-year student clearing out his locker said, “Take what works and if it doesn’t work don’t worry about it”. That advice stood me in good stead for that drama school because I’d see a lot of people driving themselves to breakdowns worrying about things they couldn’t do and taking it all far too seriously. If it doesn’t work, don’t worry about it – that is a really good bit of advice.
What advice would you give aspiring actors?
Be honest with yourself and confident, but not misguidedly so. Then walk into interviews and auditions as if you’re doing them a favour by doing the job.
Why did you want to return to the stage after such a long absence?
I haven’t done a play for ten years. I’ve had a few offers for the West End, but after such a long time away from the stage I didn’t want all the pressure of long runs. I’ve done so much filming, in fact most of what I’ve done has been TV and film, and I wanted to go back to my roots before it went far too long and I couldn’t face the stage.
What attracted you to Elling in particular?
It’s a charming play by a great writer, and the part is unlike those edgy dark characters I’m known for on screen. It’s a comedy about two misguided souls who found themselves in an institution in Norway because of various reasons, and they get moved to a halfway house and have to reintegrate into society. They need to learn things like answering the phone, going out for food, things normal people take for granted.
Have you read Ingvar Ambjornsen’s novel?
I’m sort of halfway through. It’s based on the film so I watched the film quite a while ago. The novel is different but it’s good for the background of the characters and I can get inside Elling’s head. It’s a good novel. Funny. Easy to read. I’ll have it finished by the time we go up.
What’s special about performing at the Bush Theatre?
The Bush is a great space and a hotbed of brilliant writers and new plays. I’m more familiar with it than a West End theatre.
What are your future plans?
I’m not sure yet. There are a few films knocking about and a few things in the pipeline but nothing confirmed yet.
How would you most like to be remembered?
As a great father and husband and son and friend and as an exceptional actor. That’d be nice.
- John Simm was speaking to Malcolm Rock
Elling opens on 27 April 2007 (previews from 25 April) at the Bush Theatre, where it continues until 26 May.