Line of Duty’s Daniel Mays: why I love to play the bad cop

The actor says he was terrified by having to follow in Keeley Hawes' footsteps, but couldn't help be drawn to the dodgy coppers in Line of Duty series three

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When Daniel Mays got the call for Line of Duty he was terrified. “The lines for the audition were a long interrogation scene – pages and pages of cop speak,” he explains. “I got the script Friday, didn’t understand a word of it and they said, ‘Learn it by Monday.’ Brilliant. And I thought how great [stars of the first two series] Lennie James and Keeley Hawes were and I didn’t get a lot of sleep.”

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Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio’s meticulous procedural about controversial police anti-corruption unit AC-12 has a different corrupt cop each season. Keeley Hawes’s stint as depressed and criminally compromised DI Lindsay Denton was BBC2’s most-watched show of 2014. Lennie James’s debut as hero cop DCI Tony Gates in 2012 was BBC2’s best-performing drama for ten years. You can understand the pressure. Mays knew the size of Responder Patrol shoes he was stepping into – but he didn’t ever have any doubts.

“I love the show – and talking to the existing cast members, Vicky McClure and Craig Parkinson, they were unanimous that Jed seemed to have raised the bar again.” He leans back in his high wooden chair, sipping tap water. “This one is so much more high-octane, action-packed and edge-of-the-seat than the others. It’s a different show.”

The sights, in this case, have been raised quite literally. Mays plays the head of an armed response unit under suspicion of corruption – who seems, alternately, the nastiest piece of work on screen for some time and a hugely damaged, needy man-child. The problem with unpicking too much about the character, Mays explains, is that there are so many more shocking spoilers just in the opening episode than previous series.

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“As with all Jed’s shows, it’s based in serious social issues that are raging right now.” He leans forward for emphasis. “I mean we’re talking about someone that’s carrying round a huge amount of untouched pain, which made him join the police force and cover himself in armoured plating.”

For Mays, the armour plating was real. He and his squad had to play their scenes in full police-issue body armour. They even received gun-training, which, he admits, got quite competitive. “I’d say I was probably the best,” he grins. “Although really it was Will Mellor. We fired Glocks and Uzis and even a Magnum. It’s weirdly empowering actually firing something with that amount of force. You’re aware of the damage and the pain you could possibly inflict.”

Shooting with tasers, guns and armour on the streets of Belfast – Line of Duty has filmed in the city for the past two series – meant the cast and crew needed certain sensitivities when Mays and his team were wandering around in costume. “We were made aware of that,” he nods carefully.

“Certain things we needed to do and certain streets we wanted to film in we just had to have an awareness, you know. Obviously there is some volatility even now and tensions can run high. You just had to have your thinking cap on and be as vigilant as possible.”

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But the long haul in Belfast helped, he points out, to keep him from bringing the darkness of the role home to his kids – ten-year-old son, Mylo, and three-year-old daughter, Dixie, with his partner, make-up artist Louise Burton. “I could really lock myself away and immerse myself into the very dark heart of this character and not worry about the effect on them,” he gives a small smile.

Family is hugely important to him – the second of four kids with an electrician dad, who grew up on the border of Essex and East London and discovered performance when his mum took him to a Michael Jackson concert in 1988. Out in Belfast, though, he found the cast regulars were a most welcoming alternative family.

“It helped that I actually shared a flat in Crouch End with Craig for just over a year,” he gives a mischievous smile. “You know when the guy wakes up in the Yellow Pages ad and his parents house is trashed? We had that flat-warming. It was just insane – gate-crashers coming along, Dominic Cooper and James Corden and all that turning up… It was a rented apartment with a cream carpet…” he shakes his head in mock despair. “It was insanity. Why did we do that?”

He was just starting out at the time – having graduated from Rada in 2000. “Rada gives huge grants and funding to people from working-class backgrounds to be able to enrol, which is the only reason I could go,” he explains. This is a point he takes very seriously indeed.

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“We’re awash with the Downton Abbey effect – which is all great and I actually loved War and Peace. All those shows definitely have a place, but there are a lot of public school actors and writers about at the moment. That’s why I think writers like Jed and Tony Marchant and the worlds that they’re depicting are vital for the BBC and for British drama.

“I know Julie Walters brought to the table the lack of the underclass going to drama school, but there also needs to be more be writers like Jimmy McGovern and Jed to bring stories about people from poorer backgrounds to the table for people to experience.”

Certainly, Mays has never struggled for good work from good writers. As well as roles in Red Riding and Dad’s Army, he’s played the most corrupt cop of all time as the Devil himself in Ashes to Ashes, Ronnie Biggs in Mrs Biggs and a sadly unsung and unrecommissioned Channel 4 sitcom called Plus One, where he played a man whose ex-girlfriend was marrying Duncan from Blue and he needed a date for the wedding. As a result, people recognise him – but they’re not sure exactly where from.

“Back in 2013 I was in Mojo with Rupert Grint, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Coyle – I was the man without a franchise,” he laughs. “I nipped out to Pret à Manger for lunch with Rupert on day one, he had his hoodie up, but people kept coming up to him demanding he kiss them on the lips. It was like we were in the Beatles and I was Ringo.”

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He’s not looking for that kind of adulation, he insists. He had a shot at US TV last year but the pilot didn’t make it to a full series. Next up he’s just finished playing another cop with Bill Nighy in Limehouse Golem, the Peter Ackroyd novel. “I suppose I do play a lot of cops,” he rubs his chin thoughtfully. “But never the nice ones. I just hope no one takes it personally if I get pulled over for speeding…”