David Morrissey: Return of the working-class hero

He has hit the big time, but has he sold out? Not a chance

David Morrissey is one of those actors who brings atmosphere to productions. Put simply, he could brood for Britain. He did precisely that as Gordon Brown in The Deal and won awards for it. He gave great “surly cop” in Thorne and Red Riding; he was strong and silent in Sense and Sensibility, sweaty and sinister in Our Mutual Friend. Most recently, he frightened the bejesus out of the US as the despotic Governor in The Walking Dead.

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When we meet at Broadcasting House, the rangy figure with sharply razored sideburns is a lot less forbidding than his screen persona. Lighter, somehow, on his feet, livelier and, weirdly, more handsome. Is it a trick of the light or a change of direction? We’re here to talk about his latest project. A heart-warming comedy, perhaps, set in some sunny suburb where children say the funniest things?

Not a bit of it. The Driver is a three-part thriller about a cab driver in crisis in Manchester. “I play Vince, a man who has always done everything right,” says Morrissey. “He has paid his taxes, but he doesn’t feel he’s been rewarded for that. He loves his family, but those relationships have broken down. So he makes a morally dubious decision and it acts on him like a drug. He makes more bad decisions because of it. And by the time he realises he’s made a wrong turning, it’s too late.” 

If Morrissey’s own body language is anything to go by, The Driver is edge-of-the-seat stuff. “Conflict and moral choice,” he says, with relish. “Conflict and the moral choices that people make are what we like to see in all our stories, really. And it’s been like that through the ages. It’s what drama is for.” 

The Liverpool-born actor is famous for the exhaustive research he brings to his roles. He shadowed MPs for his part in political thriller State of Play and boned up on Hitler Youth to play a Nazi in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Spending time with Manchester’s cab drivers, he explains, was key to fixing the “emotional core” of Vince.

“What was interesting is that all the cabbies loved their work. They loved interacting with the general public – which I thought they’d hate – and most of the guys liked being their own boss. They liked knowing where they were going, knowing their city – there was a freedom to it, and that was interesting to me, because it meant that my character feeling trapped was coming from somewhere else. But it also meant the driving was really important – that whole idea of man and machine as one.”

It’s an unbeatable pitch for a car chase. Morrissey, who is also the drama’s executive producer, stopped short of stunt-driving, but he’s thrilled with the white-knuckle immediacy of Vince’s hairier manoeuvres. “I’m in the car with the camera, speeding towards a wall, and then there’s a handbrake- turn and I’m speeding towards another car. I have the wheel and the pedals, but they don’t actually work; the car’s being driven by someone else sitting above me. But it really looks and feels like you’re in there with the driver.”

When it came to casting Vince’s best friend, it was a particular pleasure for Morrissey to bring in Ian Hart (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Backbeat). “I’ve known Ian since I was a kid,” he says. “We’ve tried many times to work together, but then he’d always ring me up at the 11th hour and say, ‘I’ve got to go and work with Dustin Hoffman’, or Will Smith or whatever. But this time that call didn’t come. And it was just a joy to work with him.

The whole ‘back story’ [in The Driver] of how we banter and play off against one another – that didn’t need embedding, because it was just there, it’s the way we’ve always been when we get together.” 

The partnership dates back to 1983, when Hart and Morrissey found fame as teenage runaways in Willy Russell’s hit TV series One Summer. Morrissey speaks of this time as if he still can’t quite believe his luck. “Television,” he says, with something like reverence, “was my education. And television changed my life.”

Growing up in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash, where his father was a shoe-repair man and his mother worked for Littlewoods, Morrissey was a boy in search of a dream: “I wasn’t that good at football and school wasn’t doing it for me. I wasn’t academic.” Then he saw Ken Loach’s iconic rites-of-passage film Kes, and suddenly the world was full of questions.

“The school was just like my school. The people were very familiar to me. It upset me, it troubled me. And when the credits rolled, it was unresolved. I’d been used to watching Hollywood musicals or TV shows where, at the end, the coppers catch the bad guys or the lovers come together. But Kes was different. It left me with a load of stuff I had to deal with. So I walked out into the world in a different way. I started looking at people and thinking, ‘What’s his story?’ Later I learnt it’s one thing finding a story, but it’s how you engage with it that counts.”

School drama productions fed the teenage Morrissey’s new curiosity, but it was the youth drama course at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre that set him on course to Rada and a professional career. He remains passionate about the transformative power of drama and founded his own charity, the Creative Arts Schools Trust (CAST), after a United Nations-sponsored visit to Lebanon. 

“I was asked if I would do a workshop for Palestinian refugee kids in Beirut. At first I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy. Really, it’s not my thing’, but he convinced me. And halfway through the trip, when the kids in Shatila camp said things like ‘When are you coming back?’ or ‘My friend really wants to do this next time’, I realised that I couldn’t just parachute in then go. 

“These kids – most of them won’t go on to be actors, but they will have an idea of being able to express themselves. There was a little boy in Lebanon who wanted to sing a song and his teacher said, ‘Where did that come from? He’s the kid who’s always at the back of the class and never says anything.’ And finding that kind of confidence filters into other things. It’s the most important thing a child can have.” 

A lifelong socialist, Morrissey is no less concerned about the future of the creative arts in the UK. These days, he points out, young actors need more than a good break and a following wind to make a career. “There’s an economic exclusion of working-class people happening now. I got lucky, but if I was starting out now, it would be a lot harder, because my parents could never have supported me through that ‘Is it going to happen?’ period. I was able to go to drama school with a grant. I was able to do stuff at the Everyman and work there at the same time. 

“Too often now, people come into the profession subsidised by their parents and they’re not being paid. We’re creating an intern culture – it’s happening in journalism and politics as well – and we have to be very careful because the fight is not going to be there for people from more disadvantaged backgrounds. It worries me that in the arts, which is essentially a very rich community, we’re not offering more support. Television is doing very well for itself, but the trickledown effect isn’t working.”

Married to the novelist Esther Freud, great- granddaughter of Sigmund (“She gets me on the couch every now and then”), and with three children, Morrissey doesn’t take success for granted. His real motivation, he has said, is “fear of unemployment”. And, following his hugely successful run in The Walking Dead, he is puzzled by the notion that when an actor works in the US, he’s turning his back on Britain.

“I love working in America, but I live here. One doesn’t belie the other. I grew up in a city where men went off to work and didn’t come back for six months. It was a seafaring town. Where’s the difference?”

Morrissey shoots his expensive cuffs, lays one long leg across the other and answers his own question. “When I go away for six months, my wife and children can come out and visit me. There an element of luxury. There is no hardship.” He sounds like a man used to giving himself a good talking-to. “Come on,” he says, almost crossly, gesturing round him at the shiny, busy people in the BBC hive, “this is a very privileged world to be in.” It’s the first flash he’s shown of Morrissey the brooding antihero. And it’s thrilling to have him back.

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The Driver is on BBC1 tonight at 9.00pm