Public Enemies’ Daniel Mays on his route to stardom

He was an everyman in everything from EastEnders to Hustle - now it's his turn to star

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Where did you get your big break?

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EastEnders, dauntingly. My first professional job was with Tamzin Outhwaite inside the Queen Vic in 2000 playing one of Kat Slater’s ex-boyfriends. There was talk of a longer contract but I knew enough to know that you want to go out and try different things.

Within a year I was working for Mike Leigh on All or Nothing, playing an abusive boyfriend, and that changed everything for me. He was an amazing teacher.

Are you typecast as a cockney?

It’s difficult because everyone wants to put you in a box, especially after I worked so much with Mike Leigh early on. It was hugely refreshing to play an educated doctor in Treasure Island (New Year’s Day, 7pm Sky 1).

The director, Steve Barron, contacted me after seeing me in Made in Dagenham and I thought he was joking. I said to him: “But you know he’s posh?” I loved that part.

You may not be posh but you were born in Epping, so you’re not cockney either. Are you an Essex boy at heart?

Definitely, at heart. You won’t see me on The Only Way Is Essex though! I tried to watch it once and lasted three minutes. But I was born and grew up near there, although these days I live in East Finchley in north London [with his girlfriend Lou and their five-year-old son, Mylo].

Mind you, I’m always going back as my parents and brothers still live in Essex. I have two older brothers and one younger so my desire to perform might also have had something to do with being stuck in the middle of that testosterone. I wanted to be heard.

What did you do to get noticed?

I went to Italia Conti stage school when I was 13. That always surprises people when they find out because they can’t imagine me dancing around in tights doing musical theatre.

What made you want to dance around in tights?

Seeing Michael Jackson at Wembley – the Bad tour. I admitted this on my first day at Rada and the teacher was aghast: “You can’t come here and say that!” I had to re-educate myself at Rada; suddenly it was from the inside out, rather than jazz hands.

Have you ever been tempted to try to break into American TV or film?

Only for Tintin, when I played Allan, one half of a smuggling duo alongside Mackenzie Crook’s Ernie, which was a very different kettle of fish because it was all motion capture where you wear body sensors on your joints so your movements are used to animate digital characters in 3D.

You get to a certain level over here and there is pressure to go to America and, logically, that’s the next step. My agent said, “Wait for them to come to you” and I am. It’s so unpredictable: you never know what part you’re going to be playing. That’s the beauty and fear that come with being an actor, I think.

In Public Enemies, you play a man on probation after serving a life sentence for murder. What made you want to play a murderer?

I was sold the moment my agent said it was a Tony Marchant drama [who wrote Channel 4’s Mark of Cain and BBC1’s Garrow’s Law], but the dates didn’t work because I was doing a play at the Donmar.

Then the production company put the filming back to accommodate me. I was really appreciative; I’d never had that happen before. What happens to this character and where it goes tested me to the max.

What’s your dream role?

An American gangster flick in the vein of Goodfellas or the Godfather movies.

Have you perfected your “Noo York” accent?

It’s not bad. I wouldn’t mind putting it to the test a bit more often. 

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 23 December.  

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Public Enemies starts tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD and continues on Wednesday and Thursday