Sunday, September 12, 2010

Interview with Daniel Mays - April 20th, 2009

Promoting: Shifty
Venue: Metrodome offices
Interview type: One-on-one

ViewLondon (VL): What's the film about and who do you play?

Daniel Mays (DM): The film is ultimately about friendship and I play Chris, who returns to Essex, his old stamping ground to meet up with his best friend, Shifty, the lead character, played by a brilliant actor, Riz Ahmed. My character's been away in Manchester for four years, trying to rebuild his life and start again. And he returns to Essex, he meets up with Shifty to basically discover his old mate has kind of fallen ever deeper into the murky world of crack cocaine dealing – he's become the most prolific dealer in the area. And the story charts 24 hours of them reconnecting with each other. Chris shadows his mate and then you get introduced to all the various clients and customers within the area. And due to the sort of unpredictable life that Shifty's leading, things quickly spiral out of control. I think ultimately, it becomes what we've described as a battle for Shifty's soul. And Shifty has to sort of face up to this, you know, he has to face some home truths and some stark choices of this dangerous future that he's heading towards. But then equally, alongside of that, Chris has to basically face up to the demons of why he left in the first place. So I mean, you know, it's ultimately a kind of buddy movie – it's about friendship, but for me, there's a lot of deeper issues about wasted potential and the wrong choices that we make in life. And for my character especially, it's about seeking that redemption in some way and having closure on the terrible incident that he's haunted by, four years previously.

VL: What attracted you to the part and at what point did you get involved?

DM: My agent phoned me and she basically said, 'It's good news and bad news.' She went, 'The good news is you've been offered the lead in a new British film, which is fantastic'. I was, like, 'Great', I said, 'What's the bad news?', she said, 'Well, you're not going to get paid, it's going to be shot in three weeks'. So I said, 'What's the budget?' and she went, 'A hundred grand', so I was like [draws in breath]. I always look at the stuff that comes my way though and when I read it, you know, I come from Essex, I grew up in Buckhurst Hill in Essex and my godfather lives there too, so obviously I knew that area and when I read the script it was a combination of the sort of brilliance of the script, plus – I knew it was based on [director] Eran's own experiences - but it was clear that thte way he'd written these characters, they were just incredibly defined, they were believable people to me; I sort of recognised a lot of the characters in the script. And it did, it offered up an amazing acting opportunity, actually, to take on a lead part and to kind of flesh this guy out and bring him to life and it was the prospect of playing someone who on the surface of things is a really sympathetic character - he's likeable, he's friendly, he's funny, he's kind of like your average Joe and yet, the challenge behind it was how does the guilt affect this person's life? Because he makes out that he's got the life of Riley in Manchester – he's got a mortgage, he's in recruitment and yet when you strip away the surface of things he's kind of in meltdown, he can't hold down a relationship, I imagined that he couldn't sleep at night. And I just thought it really tapped into somebody I hadn't really played before.

But yeah, it was the potential of the script but also it was meeting them as people. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to get involved with something so low budget if I didn't feel confident in the people that were making it. And Eran sat down and he told me his dreams about his first feature, he told me about the Microbudget Scheme, which I thought was really impressive and Ben Pugh and Rory were great producers, their professionalism was outstanding. I mean, any film, regardless of budget, if it's run badly, can be a horrendous experience, but they were at the top of their game, as was everyone on the crew. So I think it was a combination of the script, the prospect of playing the character and the opportunities that threw up and of course them as people – it was sort of too good to turn down.

VL: So were you cast first or was Riz already aboard when you came on?

DM: Well, Eran had made a music video with Riz – he does his MC-ing and has his whole music career as well – I think they made The 9-11 Blues together and I think Riz was always ... I think we were both his first choices, actually, so yeah, he got what he wanted, you know?

VL: What was it like, working with Riz?

DM: It was great working with him. First and foremost, I think he's a phenomenal actor. He brings a lot of quality to the table and I really enjoyed working with him – I got on with him as a person and I think that because we both got on really well, that that has kind of coloured the sort of performances that we've given in the film. It's that thing of like, you know, you've got to try and have chemistry with someone, you can't force that, do you know what I mean? You've either got chemistry or you haven't, you know. And he just underplayed it really well. I think he's got a really great career ahead of him.

VL: Did you know each other beforehand at all?

DM: No, I just met him on day one, in the first meeting.

VL: Was there a rehearsal period?

DM: We had the opportunity to do like a week and a half of rehearsal. In actual fact, we were involved in a lot of the casting process as well, like we read with Jay Simpson, who played Trevor and we had sort of creative input on the early stages of the film. And that's the great thing about this whole experience, actually - that you wouldn't get on a big budget film, like some of the stuff that I've done – is that you had a really collaborative effort on this and you're kind of involved in the whole process of, you know, if you're not happy with a line or whatever. We really rehearsed it like we were in a play in that first week, because it was imperative that we knew exactly what we had to do, we couldn't make shit up on the day, you couldn't pick two days up at the end of filming, we were doing sort of eight to ten pages a day. So it was clear to me that we needed to be fully prepared and we did that in that first week. And that was great for us, to build the relationships up in the characters and the backstory and the history, but also to sort of really get on as people as well.

VL: Can you say a little more about Eran Creevy's directorial style?

DM: I think the great quality that Eran has – I mean this is his first feature, you know. And I loved working for him and he has that great ingredient that good directors should have, that, you know, that you want to work for them. And I was really aware that this was his baby, this was his first film and he'd written the script and this had been like three or four years in the making. So I think once you agree to make something, you've got to give everything to your director and try and do the best job you possibly can. But the great thing about his qualities as a director is he's got such an insatiable appetite for it and a bounding sort of energy. You know, he energises you on set. I know the subject matter of the film is quite dark and, you know, not depressing, but – I mean, the subject matter could be seen as depressing – but we had great banter on set and that was great, you had a bit of a spring in your step every time you went to work every day.

VL: So how did Eran, as a first time director, compare with other directors you've worked with?

DM: Well, of course, he hasn't got that luxury of having a wealth of experience to draw on. I mean I did feel, to a certain extent, I mean, I was the most experienced sort of guy in the room, you know. He had no real experience of working with actors and I've been fortunate enough to go through two films with Mike Leigh and work with Joe Wright and they're real sort of actor's directors, particularly Mike, you know, you kind of spend six months on your character. So I felt that I had a lot of experience to bring to the table and I worked a lot with him, building the scenes into beats. I've done a lot of theatre as well and that background in theatre helped with really breaking down the characters and breaking down the scenes and working on the relationships. But it's all there, I mean, that was part of the appeal of doing the job in the first place, was the fact that the script was sensational and the quality in the script is in the writing, but it's the stuff that happens underneath it, it's the subtext, it's the stuff that happens in between the silences.

VL: Do you have a favourite scene in the film?

DM:I love so many parts of the film but I think what I really enjoyed when I first sat down and watched it – because I didn't go to the cutting room, I sat down and watched it when it was all completed – was those early scenes where it's awkward, they haven't seen each other in four years, Shifty could easily slam the door in Chris's face and tell him to fuck off or whatever and as an audience, you don't know what's going on. And then you find out why their relationship is fractured in the first place. So there's this great thing of like the elephant in the room that no-one's talking about and it's that thing that gives it all those different layers that you won't normally get in some – you know, there are so many British films in this genre that are just people shooting guns at each other and it all ends in someone dying and whatever. I've mentioned Mike Leigh, but for me it had a lot of sensitivity, like he has in his films or a Ken Loach or a Shane Meadows. You know, it was the stuff going on in between the lines that as an actor I really connected to and sort of helped Eran through it. But, I mean, you know, he's an instinctively great director, I think.

VL: Was anything cut out that you hated to lose?

DM: No. Everything that was shot was put in the film – I can't think of anything that was cut. Oh, no, the only thing that we dropped, there's a bit where the music's playing too loud and Shifty breaks in and Chris remains outside on the balcony and there was just going to be a moment where – and actually, when I say it now, it sounds like something out of Little Britain – but he was going to see a really young single mum, pushing a pram. But in actual fact, it does sound a bit contrived that, now, you know, I don't think you miss it. But that's testament to [producer] Ben Pugh, his professionalism in running the whole show was great.

VL: Did the microbudget cause any concerns at all?

DM: I must admit I was quite apprehensive. I was slightly worried when I rocked up on day one because everything was stripped to its bare bones. And in actual fact, the first scene was the scene where I throw his mobile into that lake and I remember looking on the wall and there was this sign saying 'No Swimming, Do Not Enter, Toxic Sewage' or something like that and I threw this thing in and because we had no money, we only had like two phones. And so Eric, the production designer went 'No worries' and he took his shoes and socks off and his jeans and rolled them up and went wading through all this shit and I was like, 'Is this what it's going to be like?' I was kind of like 'Oh shit', you know? But he did a great job. Oh, and in another scene I really loved, the scene with the cats, we wanted to use real cats but the budget didn't stretch to real cats so they were all stuffed.

VL: What's your next project?

DM: I've wrapped on the Tintin film with Steven Spielberg, but it's so top secret that I can't say anything about that - I can't even tell you who I'm playing. But that's not out till 2011 or so. In the meantime, I'm in an episode of Jimmy McGovern's The Street, which is going to be on in October, I'm a big fan of that show, great writing again. And Hippy Hippy Shake, for Working Title, that's going to be released, and I'm also doing a tiny part in the next Nanny McPhee film, which again is something really different. But what I'm most excited about, I'm doing a film called Huge, which is written by the comedian Ben Miller (of Armstrong & Miller fame) and he's going to direct, it's his first feature – it's all about two aspiring stand-up comedians, a double-act and I'm acting with a tremendous actor called Johnny Harris, who was the pimp in London to Brighton. He's a great actor, so it's all about that, trying to make it on the circuit.

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