David Morrissey is tall and rather more fashion forward than I was expecting in a blue checked suit, denim shirt buttoned to the neck and oxblood Dr Martens complete with yellow stitching. As he folds himself onto a sofa that’s too small for him and adds milk to his coffee, he seems a little bit shy. He starts with the pleasantries – where have I come from today? Of course, he expects that I’ve come from Scotland, but in fact my journey has only been from south west London.
“I’ve just come from north London,” he says, almost visibly relaxing as he speaks. He lives in Hampstead with his wife, the writer Esther Freud, and their three kids, but they’re just back from the house they have in Suffolk where they spend the summers. He’s finding the change of pace from country to city a bit of a shock. London with its dirty heat, omnipresent roadworks and cacophony of noise is grating on his nerves. “Every time I hear an alarm or something I jump,” he says, pulling a hand through his hair. “Even turning into this road, it was like, ‘oh no, roadworks.’” He grimaces, then stirs his coffee. “I’ll get used to it.”
I don’t feel the need to be coy. I think Morrissey is a brilliant actor. A powerhouse of emotional repression and moral conflict, from his debut in Willy Russell’s Liverpool-set One Summer, to the magnificent State of Play, via The Deal (in which he played Gordon Brown, a perfect tormented subject for Morrissey’s brand of psychological insight) to recent appearances in David Nicholl’s The 7.39 and this week’s BBC1 drama The Driver, he is a compelling screen presence, full of brooding tension but also sweetness that is so unexpected it can be shocking. He is, at 50, a major star on the small screen.
There have been forays into film (The Other Boleyn Girl, Basic Instinct 2, The Reaping) but they’ve never showcased Morrissey in the way that telly does. As I sit across from him, his knees jutting upwards from the low seat, it strikes me that maybe, physically, he’s just too big. That old adage about movie stars being tiny is true and there’s something about those restricted proportions that lend themselves to being blown up on to the big screen. For Morrissey, it’s the small screen that frames him best.
Written by Danny Brocklehurst, The Driver is a typical – and I mean that in the most complimentary way – Morrissey drama. If you’ve seen the trailer then in those few short moments conveyed by way of furrowed brows, family strife and split-second, life-changing choices, you know it’s a drama about an ordinary life turned upside down. A happy ending is probably unlikely, but a few hours of satisfying drama are guaranteed.
“It was always about making it a domestic drama about a family and the pressures and disruptions they face,” Morrissey says. “And the temptations around my character, Vince, as a working man. He’s a taxi driver, he’s got two teenage children but the son is elsewhere, we don’t know where. The wife isn’t talking about it but my character is desperate to talk about it.” Vince is, he says, struggling emotionally as well as financially. His relationship with his wife is stale, they’ve been married a long time. “He picks up this guy who’s an old friend of his and he says he’ll put some work his way. Vince sort of knows what it is but he doesn’t ask any questions.” There’s an airport run to pick up a bag, then as he’s driving back, the police pull him over. While they’re walking towards his car, he makes a split second decision and puts his foot to the floor. He gets away, it’s exciting, no one gets hurt, and he loves it. That’s the feeling he’s been missing. It gives him back his mojo. But then it sort of goes wrong. He’s lost his moral character through the deal he’s done.”
Morrissey has known Danny Brocklehurst for years, although they hadn’t worked together. They met through Paul Abbott with whom Morrissey made Clocking Off and State of Play. “Danny was always around,” he says. “We got on really well and socialised, especially when we were up filming in Manchester. When I was forming my own production company [with the writer Mark Billingham], he was one of the first writers I met with and he pitched me a couple of ideas and this was one of them. I really liked it.”
They started to work on it but then there was a sizeable interruption in the form of massively successful post-apocalyptic zombie horror drama, The Walking Dead. After having shied away from US TV dramas in the past – having to sign on for seven years never felt right for a man with a family based in London who likes the peripatetic life of an actor – Morrissey accepted the role of The Governor in the award-winning American drama which stars Andrew Lincoln (still known as Egg from This Life in my house). Lincoln is Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy who awakens from a coma to discover the world is now dominated by flesh-eating zombies. Now on to its fifth season, the show has millions of fans and is critically acclaimed too. It’s clear it’s had a major impact on Morrissey. He is animated about the quality of the production – the writing, the make-up, the way the whole thing is run. He even likes the fanbase who seek him out on Twitter. “It’s a whole new genre for me,” he says, “but inside this big rollercoaster ride it’s all about great character complexity.”
A glance through Morrissey’s back catalogue makes it fairly easy to work out what interests him. “Where’s the complexity, where’s the struggle?” is how he puts it. “Why do I want to watch these characters – what’s the drama inside them? It might be about a moral dilemma or it might be about survival. It might about the small choices they make or the big decisions in their life. Conflict – that’s where great drama is, so that’s what I’m always looking for.”
He gets sent a lot of drama, partly, one assumes, because he’s a hugely respected actor, but also because of his interest in producing. Much of it, though, is the usual crime stuff, centred around missing kids, dead kids or serial killers. That’s not the kind of darkness he’s after; it’s life rather than death that fascinates Morrissey. Take The 7.39, the two-part drama written by David Nicholls in which Morrissey starred with Sheridan Smith as a bored commuter who breaks the monotony of his morning commute when he falls in love with a fellow passenger. “I found it really troubling,” Morrissey says, a description which I learn is his highest form of praise. “I found it very moving, very upsetting. I just thought it was a very uncomfortable piece, there’d be a lot of uncomfortable sofas when people were watching it.” He looks really quite pleased with himself. “It didn’t have a bogeyman, it was about real people going through something that lots of people go through.” He says that going to the school gates after it had been on, and the feedback he got from friends, both positive and negative, proved what he’d hoped for. “Some people hated me in it, they thought I was predatory. Other people thought it was just a mid-life crisis. There was a lot of debate.” He smiles. The Driver explores similar terrain – ordinary people in crisis, what do they do? How do they survive?
“A lot of the time, when I look at my characters, I realise I don’t have to like them. They can make decisions which I condemn them for but I do have to empathise. I do have to think what I’d do in his shoes with his character type. I like flawed characters, people who are driven by character traits that aren’t attractive – fear, vanity, greed.”
Acting was all that Morrissey ever wanted to do. Academically he didn’t excel, sports weren’t his thing either. Acting, though, always felt right. “I changed schools a lot when I was younger. I did The Wizard of Oz at one of them, I was the scarecrow. I must have been about ten; really young. It was a new school but the feedback was great. I liked it. It felt good. There was a security in it, a vanity too, but security really. Other kids were good at football or good academically and I knew I’d found the feeling that I liked.”
Then he failed his 11 plus and went to a secondary modern school and they didn’t do drama. He didn’t protest or question it or demand special classes. He was a working class kid (his dad was a cobbler, his mum worked for Littlewoods) in Liverpool. He couldn’t explain to anyone that he’d found his vocation and really it would be helpful if he was encouraged and supported. But by the age of 14 he was, he says, really unhappy. So he made a decision that, in a way, changed his life. He wrote to the BBC. “I didn’t have any name to address it to or anything like that, I just sent it to The BBC.” The woman on whose desk it landed must have somehow sensed the sincerity of the teenager who’d written because she wrote back. “She thanked me for my letter. She told me about agents, she told me about the Stage newspaper, she told me to find my local theatre. It was a proper letter.” Even at 14, Morrissey knew what he’d received was a lifeline. He went straight to his local newsagent and ordered the Stage from a bemused newsagent who had never heard of it.
“Anybody I met I’d say, ‘Hi, I’m David Morrissey and I want to be an actor’.” Some people rolled their eyes but others took him seriously and they’d ask him what he was working on, or whether he was involved down at The Everyman, Liverpool’s theatre, which was a home for those interested in political theatre and new writing. “That’s how I got information,” he says. Eventually, he found his way to the youth theatre. “That was my tribe. I was 14.”
Morrissey speaks quietly, there’s no drama, no playing to the crowd, as in me, but his passion for acting – and I know that’s a tricky word, dripping with the mediocrity of a million overblown CVs – is palpable. He loves it. Every aspect of it.
“A lot of the time when I get a script that I like there’s an element of fear,” he says. “My body usually tells me that I should be doing it. A case in point would be The Walking Dead or Blackpool.” The Peter Bowker-penned comedy drama saw Morrissey play an arcade owner in the eponymous seaside town alongside Sarah Parish and David Tennant and included Dennis Potter-esque song and dance routines. “When I first read that I thought it was great but I couldn’t see myself doing it. It didn’t feel like me. So I had to jump into it.”
That is the edge along which Morrissey picks a path – taking jobs, time after time, that scare the bejesus out of him. There was once a moment, a few years ago, when by coincidence, he knew what he’d be working on for the next 18 months. There was a TV project, then a theatre piece, then another job for after that. “I was sitting with Esther and we both just knew we didn’t like it. We hated it.”
Setting up his production company was a way to keep things as busy as he likes them to be, which is pretty much 24/7. He thrives on the thrill of it. The ideas, the energy, the challenge.
Earlier in his career, some of the fear of acting was quelled by research. Morrissey has a reputation for mining the lives of the characters he plays. Policemen would tell him that stations on crime dramas were always too clean and paperwork wasn’t given the air time it deserved if the drama was to be realistic. “I’d tell them I could fix the first, but there wasn’t much I could do about the second because people will just switch off. I’d always ask them – ‘how entertaining do you find the paperwork?’” He smiles.
He talks about phoning people up and persuading people to sit down with him to talk about their lives. It’s about following leads, he says, just like a journalist. But surely it’s changed as he’s become better known? “My access has changed,” he says. “Sometimes if I’m playing a politician, they are willing to meet me because they know who I am.” I laugh, but he politely sidesteps the opportunity to make a crack about political egos. Morrissey famously shadowed Peter Mandelson when he was preparing for his role as the MP Stephen Collins in State of Play. “People have always been willing. If you do the legwork, people will talk to you.”
But the research he does isn’t just about talking to people who do the job he must pretend to do. He is, he says, “a geek”. As well as the emotional struggles he knows what they wear and eat, the kind of soft furnishings they have, in which supermarket they choose to do their shopping. He knows what music they listen to. He makes a playlist for each character and another that helps him stay in the mood that’s right for that role. Surely, with all this detail, these characters must end up hanging about a bit even when the job’s finished, little clues like a certain scent on a shirt, or a ticket stub found in a pocket?
“There are traces, but only little things,” he says, “like hair colour. Or some costume that I might have bought at the end of filming when I thought it looked great and then I get it home and it’s like ‘this is a taxi driver’s coat, what am I doing?’”
• The Driver starts on Tuesday at 9pm, on BBC 1.