Interview: Daniel Mays

© Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Mar 28 2011

You may not have heard of Daniel Mays yet, but you soon will. As this versatile actor prepares for Pinter's poetic 'Moonlight', he talks about torture, Mike Leigh and 'Doctor Who'.

In the 12 years since he graduated from Rada, Daniel Mays has impressed some of the best in the business. Mike Leigh discovered him: in 2002, the thuggish Jason in 'All or Nothing' was his first film break, followed swiftly by Sid, the backstreet abortionist's son in 'Vera Drake'. Since then, the roles have streamed in, with psychos and Essex boys bringing greatest acclaim: Michael Myshkin in Channel 4's instant classic drama 'Red Riding'; Chris in low-budget Britflick 'Shifty'. And, back in 2006 at the Royal Court, Danny the champion psycho of them all in Simon Stephens's 'Motortown', an era-defining drama. His portrayal of a Dagenham soldier who, in one eight-scene day, bonds with his autistic brother, tortures and murders his ex-girlfriend, then meets a liberal couple in search of a threesome, was fearless and extraordinary.

Now the 33 year old is back treading the boards, rehearsing in Southwark for 'Moonlight', Bijan Sheibani's Donmar Warehouse production of Pinter's sad, unusually dreamy drama about a dying father and his estranged wife and sons. Crouching obligingly by the rehearsal-room radiator for a photo, Mays is friendly and unpretentious: definitely more Essex boy than psycho. But as he gets into the rhythm - in one motion recalling 'smashing' his girlfriend on the heel in the 'Motortown' torture scene - you see the sheer reckless physical fluency that made Danny so terrifying.

People were so shocked by 'Motortown' that they walked out. Was it the hardest thing you've ever done?
'Yes. But I absolutely loved it. If I had to pick the part where I felt most alive as an actor, it was playing Danny.'

Simon Stephens had seen you in another play at the Royal Court and wrote the part of Danny for you: what did he make of your performance?
'It was a time bomb, that play. It landed on my mat and I was like, “Shit, this is the best thing I've ever read in my life.” The first thing Simon saw when he came into rehearsals was the torture scene. And he thought,“What have I done?” '

In that season at the Royal Court, another of our best writers, Jez Butterworth ('Jerusalem'), created a role for you in 'The Winterling'. Has it been a hard act to follow?
'I was spoiled for choice. It was like a dream, that season. Where do you go from there?'

Back to Dagenham, perhaps? You're from Buckhurst Hill in Essex; 'Motortown' was set in Dagenham, and you play a reluctant house-husband in Britflick 'Made in Dagenham'…
'I seem to be stuck in Dagenham! I should date what's-her-name, Stacey Solomon. I'm getting something different from playing Jake in “Moonlight”. I've played a lot of damaged characters and he's certainly that, but he's not a cockney wideboy, which I've done a lot.'

You're in Sky's 'Treasure Island', series six of 'Doctor Who' and Steven Spielberg's first ever motion-capture 3D movie, 'Tintin', which is out in October. Has your five-year-old son, Mylo, influenced any of those choices?
'Mylo loves “Doctor Who”. He was like, “Do it, do it!” I'll be hung, drawn and quartered if I let anything out of the bag. But it was a really fun job. I needed to do that because, you know, I've played a lot of angry young men.

Now you're doing Pinter with a hugely experienced cast. Are you nervous?
'I did feel a bit rusty in the first few weeks. I thought: I've got to pull my socks up. These actors are really good. I can't drop the ball.'

In 'Moonlight', you're all on stage for the whole time but nobody connects. When Jake's mother rings to tell him and his brother that their dad is dying, they pretend she's got through to a Chinese laundry.
'A lot of the work I've done has been about being very raw and open with your emotions. But the brothers don't communicate like that. The play is the surface. You just see ripples. We've been watching footage of Pete and Dud, to get manic energy into it. It's funny when you see these two guys playing it out. But imagine you were the only other person in the room. You'd either ask politely to leave or jump out the window.'

How does it compare with working with Mike Leigh?
'Bijan's approach is a bit like Mike Leigh's: we've done improvisations, timelines going through their whole lives, to the point where their sister maybe died. You rewind, regress.'

In your rehearsal room, I saw the interview where Pinter talked about his estrangement from his own son, Daniel.
'It's very autobiographical, this play. It's heartbreaking, that situation. Imagine what it would do to a family.'

What do you draw on, for these screwed-up characters you play with such feeling?
'I certainly always do draw upon stuff in my life. You do that instinctively as an actor. You think of a bad memory, it will conjure something up. Siblings, whether you decide to have kids, whether someone dies - it's just life. Any experience will just make you a better actor.'