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Stephen Graham
Photograph: Joseph Sinclair

Stephen Graham: ‘My daughter said she’d disown me if I didn’t do “Matilda the Musical”’

The on-screen tough guy is a big softie IRL, it turns out

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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Stephen Graham wasn’t up for starring in the new big-screen adaptation of ‘Matilda the Musical’. At least, not until a ‘Matilda’ superfan started threatening him. ‘My daughter told me if I didn’t do it she’d disown me,’ says the Liverpudlian actor. ‘She and my wife are massive fans of the musical.’

When you consider that Graham’s role in superhero movie ‘Venom: Let There Be Carnage’ was taken at the behest of his Marvel-loving son, a picture emerges of a doting dad who is: a) nothing at all like his on-screen character, Matilda’s dishonest and uncaring dad Mr Wormwood, and b) apparently delegating some big-career decisions to his kids. ‘I’ve done one for each of them now,’ he laughs. ‘So I’ve got that out of my system now.’

Not just a hero to his children, Graham is now officially a national treasure – despite a filmography that often involves him doing distinctly non-national-treasure-y things, like brutally murdering people (‘Boardwalk Empire’), administering savage beatings (‘This Is England’), or being on the end of them (‘Gangs of New York’). Unless there’s a cut of ‘Nanny McPhee’ we haven’t seen, you wouldn’t catch his ‘Matilda’ co-star Emma Thompson battering anyone to death on screen.

When he’s not playing mobsters or mean dads, or making must-see kitchen-sink dramas on telly, Graham’s all boisterous energy and good vibes. During Time Out’s photo shoot at Fulham greasy spoon, River Cafe, he’s the life and soul, making firm friends with the photographer’s dog (he has a couple of his own) and merrily imitating a photo on the wall.

Stephen Graham
Photograph: Joseph Sinclair

It’s the same when I catch up with him a few days later over Zoom. He’s soon steering me around his family home in Leicestershire via his phone camera. He plonks himself down on the sofa, gets up, moves rooms, and at one point respectfully checks in with his missus, fellow actor Hannah Walters, on what he can and can’t say about a new period boxing drama the pair are working on for Matriarch, their new production company. ‘Hannah, love… Am I allowed to talk about the thingy…?’ he asks. ‘No!’ comes the firm reply from next door.

The boss’s word is final: we don’t talk about the thingy.

London calling

The pair have been together since Graham’s early days studying at south-east London’s Rose Bruford drama school (fellow alumnus: Gary Oldman). They were friends first before he eventually plucked up the courage to profess his love on the platform of New Cross station. Which, I suggest, must be the most romantic thing that’s ever happened there. ‘It might well be,’ he laughs. ‘Our first little flat was in Beckenham and we lived there for a long time. I love London and I really enjoyed living there.’ 

There were plenty of shitty days, too. ‘There was a time after [Guy Ritchie’s] “Snatch” when we were getting money out of the jar and counting £1.28 to get milk, a loaf of bread and a tin of beans,’ he remembers. As a young actor he struggled with his mental health too. There was a suicide attempt he talked about movingly on ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 2019.

There was a time after ‘Snatch’ when we were getting money out of the jar to buy food

Nowadays, he’s in a good place – meditation, the gym and ‘just living in the moment’ are all key for him – but the demon of self-doubt took a long time to wrestle to the ground. ‘It's that working-class mentality of imposter syndrome,’ he says. ‘Always feeling that someone will find out that I’m not really that good and what am I doing here? If I’m completely honest, I’d say that it’s been over the last four years that it’s completely dissipated.’

Stephen Graham
Photograph: Joseph Sinclair

Kitchen confidential

Graham is in a good place on screen now, too. Alongside the new Tim Minchin-penned ‘Matilda’ musical, which involves some singing – ‘My daughter went over it with me so I didn’t sound like a dying cat’ – he’s got that hush-hush project, ‘A Thousand Blows’, a bare-knuckle-boxing drama set in 1890s London, on the go. 

He kept us all gripped during the pandemic, starring as a prison officer in the brilliant ‘Time’ (co-starring his wife) and the equally essential NHS drama ‘Help’ with his old pal Jodie Comer. On the big screen, there was the ace one-shot restaurant drama ‘Boiling Point’ in which he played a boozy head chef circling the drain. A small-scale indie set over one night and shot in Dalston’s Jones & Sons, it was an unexpected, zeitgeist-surfing triumph.  

I wonder if dining out has changed for him, post-‘Boiling Point’? After all, there’s not a chef in the land who doesn’t have a strong opinion on it. ‘Commmmm-pletely!’ he grins. ‘It’s wonderful: eight out of ten restaurants I go to, I’ll end up in the kitchen. It’s brilliant, honest to God. It can be anything from fancy hotels to greasy spoons. It seems to have really resonated.’

Boiling Point
Photograph: Vertigo FilmsGraham with co-star Vinette Robinson in ‘Boiling Point’

So much so, the BBC has just commissioned a ‘Boiling Point’ miniseries, picking up a few months after the film in a new restaurant. ‘It’ll be similar to the way “This Is England” went from a film to a TV series,’ says Graham. ‘We’re getting the chance to look at the other characters and what’s going on in their lives.’

Unlike ‘Boiling Point’ the movie, ‘Boiling Point’ the TV show won’t be using a one-shot device, but all the same intensity and authenticity will be there. More shit will go down over gas burners and shucked oysters.

For Graham, it’ll offer an antidote to a lot of current British TV drama. ‘There’s a lot of coppers and a lot of sci-fi,’ he says. ‘Personally, I feel we’ve lost that nuanced social realism that we’re fantastic at as a nation. I see a lot of stereotypes and caricatures. Not every Scouser is a drug dealer.’

I see a lot of stereotypes and caricatures… not every Scouser is a drug dealer

That kind of relatable social realism is the common denominator in most of Graham’s work – as well as an obvious love of people and their stories. And people love him right back. He gets stopped a lot in public by people wanting to tell him how ‘Snatch’ is their favourite film, or have a chat about Shane Meadows’s ‘The Virtues’ (his best work, he thinks) or ‘This Is England’, or just have a natter about his latest telly drama. ‘I’ll be in Co-op and a 78-year-old woman will go: “Ooo, I saw you last night. That was a heavy one,” and I’ll say: “Ah, thanks love.”’

As someone who emerged from the pandemic struggling with the most basic tasks, I wonder how he makes it all work back home: the parenting, marriage, work, that new production company, travel. It seems like… a lot? ‘Look, we’re not the Waltons. There are days when we allllll want to kill each other.’ He laughs. ‘But we don’t. Me and Hannah, we’ve known each other for longer than we haven’t. If things get heated, we just end up laughing at each other.’

Local hero

Just shy of 50, and with his husband-and-wife production company clicking into gear, there’s loads more to come from Graham. Scorsese and Spielberg are major fans, he’s mates with DiCaprio and recently worked with De Niro and Hanks. But he has no plans to swap the Midlands for Hollywood or stop telling stories about life in the UK.

Matilda the Musical
Photograph: Sony Pictures ReleasingAs ‘Matilda the Musical’s bad dad, Harry Wormwood

His next one, of course, comes courtesy of Roald Dahl – to which he’s added his own helping of cinematic nostalgia. ‘I remember watching a lot of Ealing comedies at my nana’s house when I was younger,’ he says, ‘and they were wonderful escapism. I loved George Cole, who also played Arthur Daley in “Minder”. This is my little homage to them.’

But when you see him playing an outsized cockney spiv with bright green hair, just remember: he’s still a social-realism guy at heart. It goes back to that 78-year-old lady in Co-op, engaging with him about the message behind his latest hard-hitting drama. ‘“It needs to be said, doesn’t it?” is what she told me.’

He smiles at the memory. ‘It’s lovely.’

‘Matilda the Musical’ releases in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on Nov 25.

Shot at The River Cafe Greasy Spoon, Fulham.

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