Interview: Stephen Graham, actor

Stephen Graham in one of his harder roles as John Godden in Awaydays
Stephen Graham in one of his harder roles as John Godden in Awaydays
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His characters are often sociopaths, but Stephen Graham hopes that drama can again be a uniting force for class struggle and social change

WHILE it’s a gargantuan cliché to observe that actors known for playing violent roles are actually gentle souls – and not raging psychopaths, as you’d automatically presume – it really is unavoidable when dealing with Stephen Graham.

Famed for brutish yet nuanced performance in works as diverse as British director Shane Meadows’ This Is England and as Al Capone in Martin Scorsese’s HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the 38-year-old actor is thankfully far less imposing in real life. Softly spoken, warm and sincere, he’s so far divorced from his on-screen personae that one comes away from an encounter with him feeling even more admiration for his talent.

But in his latest television project, the sweet-natured comedy drama Lapland, he is for once playing a character closer in spirit to his own personality and background.

“It’s really nice actually to play a nice father of two who’s a happily married man, rather than the sociopaths that I normally play,” he says. “It’s a lovely story about a family whose father died the year before, and it’s coming up to Christmas; obviously, anyone who’s been through that kind of thing where you lose a close family member, Christmas is always a really difficult time. You don’t want to be sat round the dinner table with that empty seat there. So we decide to go to Lapland, this family from Liverpool. It’s basically their adventures and their trials and tribulations, like National Lampoon’s but a Scouse version.”

Graham was born in Kirkby, near Liverpool, coincidentally also the home town of celebrated playwright Alan Bleasdale and his frequent collaborator, actor Andrew Schofield, both of whom proved a major influence on the budding young actor. Rather than the usual American method idols, Graham found further inspiration from the likes of his Lapland co-star Sue Johnston (“A beautiful woman and the consummate professional”), Robert Carlyle, and the great television writer Jimmy McGovern, for whom he starred in a memorable episode of The Street, as a downward-spiralling alcoholic.

Sadly The Street is no more, a victim of cuts at its Manchester base, leaving one less venue for the kind of standalone social-realist dramas once so common on British television. Unsurprisingly, this is an endangered area close to Graham’s heart and working-class roots.

“I remember watching Play for Today with my Mum and Dad when I was young. It was an event, a TV show was an event, and the amount of people who have come up and spoke to me about that [episode of The Street] has been unbelievable. It’s such a shame, such an absolute shame, they way we pull the plug on stuff like that, but we’ll gladly fund ‘Celebrity Come Whatever’. What’s our voice as a nation if we’re going to fund things like that? How’s somebody going to get the opportunity to make another Boys From the Blackstuff or The Street? They’d rather fund ‘Celebrity Come and Clean the Bath With Me’. I hate it, I can’t stand it, I think it’s mind-numbing television.”

But if the likes of McGovern, Bleasdale and their kitchen-sink descendants are becoming increasingly sidelined, are we in danger of losing these state-of-the-nation broadsides altogether?

“We need it,” urges Graham, his hackles clearly rising. “The Everyman needs a voice. All the stuff that’s happening at the moment, the strikes and all of that, I think it would be a great time for someone to write a drama about what we’re going through. It’s the same thing that happened in Boys From the Blackstuff, there’s no jobs out there, things are being cut left, right and centre. Maybe it’s my socialist upbringing, but I think we should all stand together, because that’s the only way we’re going to get things done.

“Look at the French, they did it and it worked. We’re too apathetic in this country, everyone’s got their Sky box, they close the door and then they don’t have to worry about everybody else. But that’s not my view, that’s not the way I’ve been brought up. Writers, directors, and me as an actor, we have a moral ground where we should be portraying what’s happening in society today. That’s the reason why I wanted to become an actor. I watched Kes and it made me realise I could be an actor, and look what that film says, politically, socially, spiritually; that’s what I’d like to be a part of.”

Although set in the early 1980s, This Is England undoubtedly tapped into contemporary fears about the increasing prominence of racist organisations throughout Europe, and in Graham’s thuggish skinhead Combo – the role that put him on the map – presented a frighteningly convincing portrait of the kind of confused, troubled and angry white men who populate the BNP.

Does he find it exhausting being in the headspace of a character like that, especially considering his mixed-race heritage? “This is going to sound quite sadistic, but no. I love that challenge. I love making that character convincing. Obviously I never take it home, I don’t smash the telly up and bash the wife and kids.”

Working with Meadows, who builds characters with his actors while encouraging improvisation, is obviously something of a dream for Graham. “The best analogy I can think of is to me I’m like a kite, and he just flies the kite. You’ve got so much freedom in what you can do, but we still have the structure of where we want to go within the scene. He’s such a beautiful director to work with, and you can never get it wrong, you can always play with things, and he just makes you feel so relaxed and comfortable on set. You can go anywhere. If he said, ‘Now a spaceship lands and a load of Martians jump out,’ you’d believe it, you’d go, ‘OK, where are we with the spaceship?’”

With the third series of Boardwalk Empire due to start filming in March of next year, Graham finds his time increasingly divided between Hollywood and home, although he’s adamant that he’ll never settle in the US permanently.

“I love America,” he says, “and I thank HBO and everybody for giving me this opportunity I’ve had, but I like to go there, work and come home, because I’ve got a lovely family, two beautiful kids and a gorgeous missus, and we’ve got a nice little house in Leicestershire. I love my home comforts; I could never get crumpets and Typhoo tea in America, I couldn’t pop up to the Co-Op to get what I want.”

• Lapland airs on Christmas Eve at 10pm on BBC1.