Stephen Graham: “I’ve made a conscious decision to play more Scouse roles to show young actors that it’s possible”

The Liverpudlian star discusses the fickleness of the acting industry, gambling between takes and why Julie Walters is "funny as f***"

Stephen Graham in Save Me (Sky, EH)

Stephen Graham is explaining the rules of a game called “F*** it bucket” and trying to convince me that it isn’t disgusting: “Trust me”.

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He can be trusted: the game is perfectly innocent and essentially involves throwing a tennis ball onto a slanty roof so that it rolls along and lands in a bucket at the other end.

It was games like this that the cast played to entertain themselves between takes on the set of Graham’s new movie, Walk Like a Panther. The film, which follows a group of retired wrestlers who reunite for one last fight, also stars Dave Johns, Jason Flemyng and Jill Halfpenny, to name a few. Graham says the ensemble formed a “gambling syndicate” while filming to bet on these games, and admits that sometimes acting feels like it’s “not a job, no way”.

It might not sound like Graham is working hard, but the 44-year-old actor is one of the most versatile and prolific in the country. From stints on Coronation Street, Boardwalk Empire, Taboo and Little Boy Blue to movie roles in Snatch, Gangs of New York, This is England and Public Enemies, he’s been busy, playing plenty of thugs and psychopaths – but also heroes, too.

Stephen Graham and Adam Fogerty in Snatch (Sky, EH)
Stephen Graham and Adam Fogerty in Snatch (Sky)

He’s also worked with some of the industry’s most decorated names, from Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro to Julie Walters. Reminiscing about his time with Walters when filming the 2017 movie Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Graham describes the actress as “so beautiful” and “funny as f***”.

When I say I get the impression Walters is quite mischievous, Graham guffaws. “Oh! Not half! Completely. Even just sitting in the make-up chair, some of the stuff she comes out with just has you in stitches.”

Anything he can share? “Nothing that’s clean. She’s very crude in a lovely way.”

When we speak, Graham is in Baton Rouge in Louisiana, learning lines for Greyhound, a World War Two movie written by and starring Tom Hanks. He is currently appearing in the thriller Save Me on Sky Atlantic, written by his friend Lennie James – “Uncle Lennie” as Graham calls him. And he’s just wrapped filming for a “really heavy piece” directed by This is England director Shane Meadows, called The Virtues.

Boardwalk Empire (Sky, EH)
Boardwalk Empire (Sky)

It all began with Graham’s first ever acting role as the scrappy adventurer Jim Hawkins in his school’s performance of Treasure Island, aged 11. “I remember being on our little stage in school and just thinking, ‘Wow, I really like this, this is fun,’” he says.

“And I got out of lessons as well, which was doubly great, d’you know what I mean?”

Graham grew up in Kirkby, a town just outside Liverpool: after his school debut he went to the city’s Everyman Youth Theatre, the old stomping ground of Bill Nighy, Julie Walters, Jonathan Pryce, David Morrissey, Cathy Tyson and numerous members of the McGann acting dynasty.

He says that the support from his parents – a paediatric nurse and a social worker – was, and still is, “absolutely immense”. Whether it was financial help and getting ferried to and from the Everyman and London’s National Youth Theatre, or always being encouraged to “dream high”, they always had his back. “I wouldn’t be sitting in this fancy hotel going to do a film for Tom Hanks if it wasn’t for me mum and dad,” he says.

Stephen Graham and Lennie James in Save Me (Sky, EH)
Stephen Graham and Lennie James in Save Me (Sky)

Family is clearly at the very centre of Graham’s world. He’s the father of two children, Grace and Alfie, who he calls two “crackers”. When I ask him which role he is most proud of, he says, “Being a good father and a good husband. My role in life.”

Despite being one of the most sought after actors today, working life hasn’t always been so peachy. Graham describes himself as being a bit of a “scally” when he was young, turning up to castings in tracksuit, trainers and cap. Having spent three years living in Liverpool, I don’t need a translation: a scally is “a roguish self-assured young person, typically a man, who is boisterous, disruptive, or irresponsible”. The term reminds me of a tequila bar I used to walk past in town that bore the sign “NO SHELLSUITS” on the door.

Purely because of the way he looked, Graham recalls, he was rejected from countless acting jobs. He says that aspiring young actors need to have “skin like a rhino” to deal with the knock backs. The rejection from producers and directors, he says, can be “nothing to do with your ability or your talent, that’s their plain stupid f***ing bone idle ignorance. A lot of it is aesthetically based.”

His message to his 16-year-old self would be: “Don’t give up. Just keep going. No matter what. You’re going to feel like you want to just sack it all in, but don’t. Kick doors in, man. Sometimes you have to make your own luck, you have to make your own breaks.”

The knock backs have had an effect on Graham, however: “I still, even today, find myself apologising for my profession. I feel embarrassed and I don’t know why.

“Maybe it’s because of where I’m from – I’m slowly getting over it and I’m nearly 45, but I always had this feeling that some day someone’s going to get me collared, I’m going to get found out, and they’ll go, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.’”

Now, as an established actor, Graham says he sees the fickleness of the industry. He has worked with producers and directors who dismissed him as a young actor but are now tripping over themselves for a chance to work with him. When this happens, he thinks, “Oh, now you like me do you? Now someone else has realised I’ve got a bit of talent.”

Even so, Graham says nothing: “You just be nice and smile because I suppose in some ways they’re only doing their job”.

Stephen Graham in Little Boy Blue (ITV, EH)
Stephen Graham in Little Boy Blue (ITV)

Appearances aside, on the debate around whether there are enough regional accents in TV and film, Graham says that there need to be more storytellers from different backgrounds making material. “If those stories aren’t being written and aren’t being given the opportunity to be told, then how do we find them? Where are these writers?”

However, Graham isn’t just waiting for others to do the work: he’s adopted a strategy he hopes will encourage aspiring actors from a similar background to him to pursue their ambitions. While at the beginning of his career, he played Geordies, Cockneys, Americans, anything to avoid being “pigeonholed” as a Scouse actor, now he does the opposite, choosing parts where he can deliver lines in his own accent.

“I’ve made a conscious decision to play more Scouse roles to show young actors that it is possible,” he says.

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“Hopefully they see that I’m a representation of where they’re from; I’m exactly the same as them. I come from the same area as them and I’m achieving something, so it is possible.”