Daniel Mays: interview

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Daniel Mays, who stars in this week’s ‘Shifty’ says that Mike Leigh made him the actor he is today. The director cast him, not long out of Rada, in ‘All or Nothing’ in 2001. Since then, Mays has appeared in ‘Atonement’, ‘The Bank Job’ and Leigh’s ‘Vera Drake’ as well as on TV and stage. In his latest film, ‘Shifty’ – made in 18 days for less than £100,000 – he plays Chris, back in his hometown for a party and trailing after his drug-dealer mate Shifty (Riz Ahmed). Mays’s favourite scene features the usually classy Francesca Annis playing a crack-addict nan with a collection of stuffed cats. Mays is not long back from doing ‘Tintin’ with Spielberg. Not that he’s allowed to talk about it, or Leigh’s famously intense rehearsals for that matter

You’ve said you were a bit nervous taking on this tiny film by a first-timer, Eran Creevy. What clinched it?
‘I thought it was a sensational script. I come from Essex, Buckhurst Hill, where Jade Goody was buried. My hometown will forever be known for that. I used to have a sovereign ring on, those flares and hooded top. So I’ve got an affiliation with that area. Eran’s from Harlow, which is not far. There are so many films, you know, like “Kidulthood”, that are all about inner London. This is suburbia, and I think that Eran got that small-town mentality. And before it was a film about drugs it was a film about friendship, two men in love [laughing]. Know what I mean?’

You must have been the most experienced person on set.
‘This is Eran’s first film. Riz was pretty inexperienced, although he had made “Britz”. Actually, I don’t know why he was worried. But I felt a responsibility because I’ve been in the game longer. It’s sounds like I’m being the daddy!’

Eran Creevy based the character of the drug dealer Shifty on a childhood friend. Did he talk much about that?
‘Yeah, there is actually a real Shifty. think he’s in jail now.'

I heard that Creevy showed him the script and he thought it was a bit soft.
‘Yeah. I think he had artistic licence.’

There’s quite a lot of humour in there too, what with crack nan and her cats.
‘They were meant to be real cats. But they didn’t have the budget so they used stuffed ones. It worked out in our favour. That’s one of my favourite scenes. Again that helps the film, that it retains its humour. If it got heavy it would become too kitchen sink. All that social realism stuff. Which is fine.’

And which you’ve done a fair share of.
‘Yeah, I’ve done lots of that.’

It’s another film with you using the F-word every second sentence.
‘Oh man. God. When I did “All or Nothing” someone counted the fucks in it. My mate did. And I’m only in seven scenes and it went into the 50s. I remember the cast-and-crew screening I took my mum and dad along to. My mum was sitting next to me and as soon as I came out I went “fucking hell”, and she just buried her head in her jumper. But she liked it. I owe so much to Mike Leigh. He’s made me the actor I am without question.’

The improvisations on ‘Vera Drake’ are well documented: the family not finding out that Vera is an abortionist until the police come knocking. How hard is it to stay in character?
‘You’ve got to have that discipline not to break it. The thing is when you’re in character you don’t come out of it until you are instructed. And you’re never allowed to talk to the other actors about your character. You only know what your character knows. I cannot describe how it felt when Phil Davis, who was playing my dad, came back and said: “You should sit down, she’s been helping young girls.” I was in fucking bits, absolute bits. There are loads of amazing methods, exercises that Mike uses, that I could talk all night about. But I’m sure he wouldn’t want me to tell anyone about it.’

Atonement’ and ‘The Bank Job’ were well received in the US and Hollywood loves a Brit. Are you tempted by that?
‘Well I’ve just done “Tintin” with Spielberg, which was great, but I can’t really say anything about it. So that was awesome. AWESOME [laughing]. Listen to me. I got an American agent. I don’t know what to think about that. I’m sort of in limbo with it all really. You go over and there are all these fantastic English actors in shows. You never know what’s going to happen but I think you have to be careful. Because I’ve got to look at the work that I’ve done: the films or “Red Riding”, or the dramas like “White Girl” or “Consent” that I’ve done for Channel 4. I’m proud of them.

‘We should be proud of what we can achieve in Britain. It’s some of the best stuff in the world.’

Shifty’ is out in cinemas now

Author: Interview: Cath Clarke



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