The second time I talk to Daniel Mays he is trying on his trunks. The 39-year-old actor is preparing to rehearse for Swimming for Men, a comedy in which he’ll appear alongside Rob Brydon. “It’s not announced yet,” he says. “Rob is actually the lead. It’s definitely one without all the heavy stuff.”
I’ve called to double-check his upcoming work schedule; there’s an awful lot of it, mostly the “heavy stuff ” he mentions. In July, he’ll be seen playing homosexual journalist Peter Wildeblood in Against the Law, a BBC drama set in the 1950s when sexual activity between men was still illegal. On Thursdays, he has two shows clashing at 9pm. Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla, which began two weeks ago, sees Mays opposite Idris Elba as a 1970s policeman fighting to crush an evolving black power movement. He also has a major part alongside Romola Garai in Channel 4’s Born to Kill, as a troubled police detective coming home to Wales to look after his elderly mother.
Born to Kill, which started last week, is a strange and intense psychological thriller, and features Mays at his disturbed best – the kind of role that the Essex-born, working-class actor has become known for. He delivers often unsettling performances – think of him as the released murderer in 2012’s Public Enemies opposite Anna Friel – that provide most things he touches with an uneasy edge.
The first time I talk to Daniel Mays we are in a London club and our conversation is dominated by one of those roles: May’s mesmerising appearance as police sergeant Danny Waldron, the conflicted and murderous leader of an armed response unit in Line of Duty last year. In particular the extended scene when Waldron is questioned over the fatal shooting of a suspect. His performance was so good that in future years when people ask what was really great on the telly in 2016, the answer will simply be Daniel Mays.
“The way it resonated with people and the feedback from that opening hour was overwhelming,” he says. “Talking to someone who thinks, like you do, the interrogation scene was stand-out, that’s incredibly gratifying. I appreciate it.”
Did he know himself, at the time, that something special was happening? “I think we did. It was a monumental day, a marathon day. We felt completely in the bubble, me and Adrian Dunbar [Superintendent Ted Hastings], Craig Parkinson [DI Matthew “Dot” Cottan] and Martin Compston [DS Steve Arnott]. Without question, it was the largest thing I’ve had to tackle and it felt incredibly concentrated. I had a huge mountain to climb that day. We went out to a five-star hotel in Belfast afterwards. I ordered a very expensive bottle of red wine and we had a jolly good drink.”
And then, before the hangover could kick in, they killed him off. Waldron arrived in episode one and then left, dead, by the end of the same episode. “It was bittersweet because it had bags of potential,” Mays says of Waldron’s demise. “You could have taken him in any direction, but I can’t grumble about the impact it achieved. The audience were repulsed by him at the beginning, to be such a cold-hearted executioner, yet all of a sudden, this thing opens up and you see that he suffered from abuse and he had this unbearable trauma that he carried around with him from his childhood.”
Line of Duty
His own childhood, in Buckhurst Hill in the East London-Essex borders, was happy. The son of an electrician and a bank teller, Mays had three brothers. “Two older and one younger. Imagine, four boys in the house, and we’re all sports-mad and boisterous. You had to fight to be noticed and to be heard – that was the thing that made me an actor.”
He was captain of Sunday league football team Loughton Boys, with “my heart set on being the next Paul Gascoigne”, but aged 13 Mays went to the Italia Conti stage school in London. He was there at the same time as Louise Redknapp, and Abz from Five. “I had a glorious time there, joyous actually.” Many Londoners from ordinary backgrounds have used Italia Conti as a route to entertainment careers, but then Mays did something different – he got into Rada. “It was poles apart,” he says. “Conti was ‘tits and teeth’ and Rada was very much Stanislavski technique, internalising characters and coming from the inside out.”
He came out of that experience still recognisably a creature of the Essex-London borders. “In Rada back in the day they would endeavour to posh you up, make you speak RP so when you went out into the industry, you’d get more work that way. I know actors today that have done that, but that sort of thing never sat well with me. I’m Danny and I talk like I’ve always spoken and I wouldn’t want to change it. Everyone knows me as London Danny – ‘He’s a bit like this and a bit like that.’”
When he left drama school, Mays says job opportunities were nonexistent. “I couldn’t get arrested.” His career looked to be over before it had really begun. “It’s such a vulnerable moment in your life. All that paranoia and fear was going through me and then bang, four episodes in EastEnders. I was Kat Slater’s ex-boyfriend pinning myself to the gate like a suffragette and jumping on top of the taxi and stuff. I was just thankful. I’ll never forget it.”
Today Mays is in constant demand. “People say to me: ‘Danny, you never stop working. You’re never out of work.’” He says his work ethic comes from his parents. “Definitely from my mum and dad. He’s probably out and about in his white van as we speak putting cables through everything. I used to help him out when I was a kid. He’d take me to work, throw me in the back of his van, which was always untidy so you’d be smacked on the head by all these tools.” But like many actors who weren’t to the manor born Mays, despite recent turns in the Dad’s Army film and Rogue One, the Star Wars spin-off, still fears unemployment.
After playing Ronnie Biggs opposite Sheridan Smith in Mrs Biggs in 2012, he was out of work for six months. “It’s an absolute killer if you let those periods of time fester and you become lethargic and depressed by it,” he says. “You’ve got to keep on top of it, keep positive. That’s a very hard thing to keep on top of mentally.” Has he ever succumbed to the blues? “If I audition for something and it doesn’t come my way,” he says. “But you have to be resilient and honest. If I really wanted it, I’m a bit like a bear with a sore head for a day, but then I let it go. You’re not going to change people’s decisions. You just have to roll with it.”
Mays now lives in Crouch End, north London, only 12 miles from Buckhurst Hill but in some ways a world away, as he found out when he went back last year. “It was about a week before the European referendum and I was in the pub catching up with people I’d not seen for many, many years,” he says. “We were talking about how we’ve changed and what’s happened to everyone’s lives. Inevitably we all had a drink and the subject turned to Brexit and I was the only one fighting the Remain corner, I was passionate about it.
“When I woke up the next day in a bit of a daze, I had a sense that there was a part of me that was different from those people. I’d moved on or just changed. That’s not being disrespectful to anyone there. This is democracy and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I just had a feeling that things had shifted within myself.”
Born to Kill
Going home is also difficult for Bill, Mays’s character in Born to Kill. “He’s lost his wife and that’s created a huge void in his life,” says Mays. “I watched that amazing Rio Ferdinand documentary the other day. It was really moving and I thought it was very brave of him. What you got from Rio Ferdinand’s documentary, and what runs through Born to Kill, is the relationship between parents and their children. It’s all about Bill trying to manage and look after and love this kid.”
He says he’s increasingly drawn to parts that “talk about the world we live in, I’m more drawn to those than anything else. There will always be the script that comes along with a Cockney character, a London guy on the edge. And there’ll be a fantastic writer, plus the other actors are top drawer, the director’s unbelievable and you think, ‘Well…’ Line of Duty is case in point. But I want to use my power as an actor to talk and comment about the world that we face now. That’s the draw for me, the kind of projects I want to do.”
Against the Law, focusing on the legal and social harassment gay men faced half a century ago is one such a project. As well as the gay sex scenes, which, he admits, “asked me to completely jump out of my comfort zone,” May also transformed himself socially. His character, Peter Wildeblood, went to Radley public school and Trinity College, Oxford. “For someone from my background to play someone from a high class, to a certain degree, is giving myself more of a mountain to climb. Benedict Cumberbatch and the like don’t have that issue, do they?” There’s a slight dig there.
Does May, who says the actors he respects are Gary Oldman and Timothy Spall, resent the way plaudits are handed out to posh performers? “Those actors seem much more in vogue,” he says. “That’s the way of the world at the moment. I saw my very good friend Stephen Graham in a repeat of This Is England the other night and was just completely hit for six by his performance. He is consistently brilliant but doesn’t necessarily get the plaudits he deserves.” (Graham has just been in Taboo and Decline and Fall and stars in this week’s Little Boy Blue.)
Mays says the sex scenes almost caused him to turn down Against the Law. “I very nearly didn’t do it because of the fear factor. I was mulling it over for a long time. My wife Lou knows me better than anyone now and she said: ‘You are going to do it, aren’t you? Don’t turn it down because you’re scared of how people will perceive you. Look at people in the past who’ve taken on roles like that, like Sean Penn in Milk, or Brokeback Mountain.’
“She was completely right. I was so pleased I did it because it actually produced a really profound, important film. Where would we be in life if we didn’t challenge ourselves?”
Born to Kill is on Channel 4 and Guerrilla is on Sky Atlantic at 9pm on Thursdays