On the set of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Olivia Colman was confused. The Broadchurch star was shooting scenes alongside her old friend, Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz, Dead Man’s Shoes, Red Riding). But something wasn’t right.
“It took me a couple of days to re-adjust…” recalls the actress. The new Victorian-era drama is a fictitious follow-up to 2011’s fact-based, top-rating debut, which was based on Kate Summerscale’s bestselling book. Colman plays a woman who hires Considine’s titular detective to track down her missing niece. “The director would be giving me notes on my performance,” continues Colman, “and I couldn’t help just flicking my eyes over to Paddy to check. And he had to say, ‘I’m not the director, Olivia.’”
They had previously worked together on Tyrannosaur. In the award-winning 2011 film, written and directed by Considine, Colman played a woman brutally abused by her husband (played by Eddie Marsan). On that project Considine wasn’t just a fellow actor – he was “the best director in the world. He was so amazing, and he made you feel so safe. And he was superhuman – you could do anything for him.”
In Tyrannosaur, Colman’s character was raped, beaten and urinated on by Marsan’s character. She wouldn’t have been able to go to those dark and difficult places for any other director. “Absolutely not. And you wouldn’t want to give it to them if you didn’t trust them. No one has come close to being as good as Paddy was then.”
Hence, then, her confusion while making Whicher. The feature-length drama’s director is the very experienced Christopher Menaul (Prime Suspect, Zen). Even still, to Colman, there was only one director in the room.
This is what we might call The Paddy Effect: an intense bond with, and a deep appreciation for, British drama’s secret weapon – an actor-turned-film-maker who does things his own way, and lights up everyone around him in the process.
Colman feels it. This Is England director Shane Meadows, who cast his old mate from Burton College in his 1999 film A Room for Romeo Brass, also feels it. Simon Pegg does, too – he recognised Considine’s comic gifts, casting him in both Hot Fuzz and the forthcoming The World’s End. ITV director of Television Peter Fincham gets it: he approved the casting of the cult actor in the original Whicher, which was pegged as mainstream, primetime telly – then, when it drew more than six million viewers, the ITV boss had no hesitation in commissioning a brand-new story, with one eye on the drama turning into a series.
And I feel it. I’ve interviewed Paddy Considine several times. The first time, he was mostly friendly and welcoming, and I was transfixed by his fierce intelligence and passion.
The last time I met him was 18 months ago, on the set of another upcoming film, Honour. He plays a white supremacist bounty hunter and killer tracking down a runaway Asian girl at her family’s behest. On the Glasgow set, pummelling a bag in a boxing club, Considine looked like a man possessed.
Now, across a glass table in a shiny conference room in ITV’s London HQ, Paddy Considine and I are remembering the good times. And the bad times. Those mood swings, his unpredictability, we both now know, were partly attributable to Asperger’s syndrome. Considine was diagnosed with the condition in 2010. Groups of people stressed him out. He thought he had to stare intently at someone to make contact. This father of three, 39 now, was obsessed with stripes.
He’s in a (for him) oddly cheerful, playful mood as he tells me he’d felt like he was “closing down… for years, since I first met you. From that time onwards there was a very definite sort of slow dive. And I just couldn’t live my life. People would knock on the front door and I would literally hide under the table. I thought: this is not the way I need to live my life.”
But even knowing he had Asperger’s didn’t help. Last year, Considine sought further help. He consulted a Harley Street psychologist. “I was with him in this room, and there was a big dome of light on the ceiling. And I’m looking at him, and I’m like this all the time [Considine squints and ducks his head] and I won’t look at him, and I can’t make eye contact, because the walls are frightening and the carpet’s frightening. It’s too much. The world is too overwhelming for me to be in any more,” he winces. “And I’ve had enough.”
The specialist tested Considine and arrived at a new conclusion. Considine may show traces of Asperger’s, but he also has Irlen syndrome, a condition whereby the brain cannot properly process light and “visual information”.
“It was causing all this anger. And aggravation of my brain. And it wasn’t psychedelic and interesting and trippy, man. It was a nightmare. The light off your tape recorder,” he says, pointing to the tiny red light, “was hitting my brain and it was sending me into a frenzy every day. And my brain was telling me to shut down as a result of it. From the minute I opened my eyes, light would hit my eyes and I’d already want to go back to sleep again.”
Considine decided he had no option. “I got myself on a plane as a last ditch [move] – I went to Long Beach, California. And I met Helen Irlen. I thought, if I’ve got this thing, I’m gonna meet the pioneer.”
Psychologist and therapist Helen Irlen had “discovered” the syndrome in 1980, then developed the treatment. She looked at Considine, pronounced him a “severe” sufferer, and took him through her process.
“She dims the lights and I look at a black blanket and little by little she holds these circular, framed, coloured filtrations up to me. And as we’re doing it, we’re finding the right combination… And we get to a certain point and all of a sudden this knot I’ve had in the back of my head for years, just goes.” A snap of his fingers. “Gone.” He looks at me intently. “It was quite overwhelming, because I say to her, ‘Is this how people see the world?’ And she says, ‘Yes’. And that,” Considine smiles, “was it.”
Considine now wears special, tinted contact lenses. They arrived in the mail at his Burton home late last year, midway through The World’s End shoot with Pegg. “Simon was on it straight away,” recalls Considine with palpable gratitude. “He said, ‘We’re sending a car now to fetch ’em.’ And by the end of The World’s End, I felt like I’d come alive. I felt like, ‘I’m back’. I can act. And I am all right at it.”
This doubt over his acting skills has always been with him. But what’s remarkable is that Considine has, up until now, turned in all those remarkable performances (as well as the dramas already mentioned, readers should check out Considine in Jim Sheridan’s 2002 film In America) – but he’s done so with the equivalent of having his hands tied behind his back.
“I am proud of that,” acknowledges this brilliant, needlessly self-critical bloke, “and the people around me have seen the change. The only negative thing I’ve had was a couple of people have gone, ‘What if you lose it now?’ ” he says, meaning the on-camera intensity that was almost his trademark.
Considine shakes his head. “It’s like, dude, what am I gonna lose? Wanting to kill myself every other day of the week? Ha ha,” he laughs mirthlessly. “If they’d have said to me, ‘The only way you’re gonna feel well is if you chop both your legs off,’ I’d have done it.”
He’s still a brilliant actor,” affirms Colman. She had a close-up view of the change in her friend – the new Whicher is the first film where he’s had the benefit of the Irlen lenses for the duration of the shoot. “It hasn’t changed his performance. But character-wise…” she elaborates. “Filming can drag and gets really boring, and Paddy before would have gone, ‘Waaaargh!’ He’d have struggled to remain calm. He’s a gentle, gentle creature. But you could see the frustration sometimes. And I couldn’t see that any more on Whicher. The rage had been taken away. He feels calmer, his mind’s focused and concentrated. He described it like he was living in a Tim Burton movie all the time, people and things looming up at him…”
Mark Redhead is head of drama at Hat Trick, makers of Whicher. He executive-produced both films, and he too talks approvingly of the change in his leading man. ITV, he reports, are equally thrilled. “Peter Fincham emailed me on Good Friday evening – ‘I’ve just watched Whicher. It’s brilliant, and Paddy is absolutely extraordinary,’” recounts Redhead. “So ITV want it to succeed. And I guess they feel it sits in a tradition of Cracker and Prime Suspect – detective drama that is deeper than merely procedural.
“And look at what happened to Helen Mirren,” he continues. “Prime Suspect was actually the platform on which she built an Oscar-winning movie career. So doing this kind of television, if you’re choosing the right thing, can be a good option. And for Paddy, Whicher is his home.” British acting’s secret weapon might, at last, be ready for his close-up. And, finally, he could cope with the glare.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is on Sunday at 8:00pm on ITV