Journalists rarely end the evening dancing with their interviewee but Daniel Mays doesn’t offer me much of a choice. “Come on, Max!” he grins, dragging me into the middle of the circle. Cheered on by a crowd of strangers, everyone clapping and hollering, I manfully give them my best David Brent. On my peripheral, Mays is jiving away with the consummate ease of someone who does this every night of the week.
You join us at the triumphant climax of Guys and Dolls, where the musical erupts into an outright party, audience and performers congregating in the centre of the stage in a joyous celebratory mass. Since debuting at the Bridge Theatre in April, Sir Nicholas Hytner’s production has become hotter than a pair of loaded dice, bringing the house down with such regularity they should really hand out hard hats at the door.
Mays is downtrodden gambler Nathan Detroit, one of the four protagonists. He took a brief hiatus over summer to film a BBC series, returning to the role a few days before our interview. “I feel like I’ve been run over by a train,” he says when I ask how the comeback is going. The smile on his face makes it clear that the train can keep coming back for more. Mays is having the time of his life up there.
It is a wonderful thing, the face of Daniel Mays. A beautiful rubbery conduit of emotion. You recognise it, I’m sure. Over the past 20 years, Mays has become almost omnipresent on our screens, a character actor of such skill and versatility that his national treasure status is already halfway minted. (How are such things ratified? Do Joanna Lumley and Timothy Spall chuck you in the back of a van and drive you to a secret ceremony presided over by David Attenborough? Give it a few years and we can ask Mays.)
Look, I’m writing an article about him – I have to be nice. Ignore me; consider the resumé: if a man is known by the company he keeps, an actor might be measured by the creatives who work with them. That list for Mays is prodigious, a roll call of legends across film, TV, and stage. Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes, Mike Leigh, Jimmy McGovern, Jed Mercurio, Jez Butterworth, Hytner and I’m sure I’ve missed a few out. The man could host one hell of a dinner party. Imagine charades after a few cocktails.
While we’re dropping names, it was Michael Douglas who convinced Mays to do Guys and Dolls. The pair were filming an upcoming miniseries about Benjamin Franklin. (Douglas is Big Ben, Mays the double agent Edward Bancroft.) On set in Paris, killing time between scenes with Douglas, the conversation turned to that actors’ staple: ‘What’s the next job?’
Mays started telling Douglas about the email he’d received while on holiday, the one which read: Nicholas Hytner, Bridge Theatre, Nathan Detroit. “Are you doing it?” asked Douglas. (And here I should mention the actors are still in their period costumes; imagine getting career advice from Michael Douglas while you’re both rocking a powdered wig and frock coat.)
Mays said he wasn’t sure; four months was a real commitment, he hadn’t done a musical since stage school…. Douglas cut him off. “You’re fucking doing it, baby. You’re doing it!” Within half an hour, the whole set knew. Whenever Mays came out to film a scene, someone started playing ‘The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game In New York)’. His destiny was sealed. It was probably sealed from the moment he told his wife Louise on holiday and she’d had the same reaction as Douglas: ‘Danny, you’re doing it.’
And so he did it, and he enjoyed himself so much that he extended his tenure and will keep doing it until next February. “This whole thing was a complete leap into the dark,” Mays says, but he landed on his feet and performed a backflip for good measure. He realised the show was a winner in the open dress rehearsal; he can even pinpoint the exact song. Cedric Neal as Nicely-Nicely Johnson belted out ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ and although the theatre was only half full, its roof went flying into the Thames.
“You’ll see the choreography, it’s so intricate,” says Mays. “Weeks and weeks and weeks you spend on it. And then you finally deliver to an audience and they respond in that manner. There’s a synergy of performance and audience and you just think, ‘God, it’s all been worthwhile.’”
Fittingly, I interview Mays in the auditorium, sat side-by-side as the stage prepares to transform into 1930s New York City. Street signs descend from the ceiling, steam hisses through grates and various blocks of floor rise and fall like a geology programme watched in fast forward. Bunny Christie’s set design and its hydraulic platforms might be the star of the show.
“Bunny should walk away with an award for design,” says Mays with characteristic generosity; the man never wastes an opportunity to rhapsodise about colleagues past or present, from Franklin’s brilliant young actor Noah Jupe to his “wonderful” mate Stephen Graham to the “absolutely extraordinary” cast of Guys and Dolls. He’s not remotely luvvie; I more get the impression of someone whose default setting is to praise others rather than aggrandise himself.
So let it be noted that Mays makes a brilliant Nathan Detroit, playing him as a loveable underdog, a decent man who hasn’t quite got round to growing up. “He’s not the cool suave one,” says Mays. “He’s street smart but he’s chaotic and all over the place as well. He’s sort of coming away at the seams.” Casting Mays as Nathan was such a surefire winner, even Sky Masterson would hesitate to bet against its success. Still, I’m a little surprised he wasn’t required to do a vocal test – how did Hytner know he could sing?
“Well, here’s the thing,” says Mays, and duly shares an interesting piece of trivia about Nathan Detroit, the central role in one of the world’s most famous musicals – he doesn’t have any solo numbers. He barely has any songs at all. There’s ‘Oldest Established…’, an ensemble piece, and ‘Sue Me’, a duet with his fiancée Miss Adelaide in which she does all the heavy lifting. That’s your lot.
The original Nathan, still considered the definitive, was a Russian-American Jew named Sam Levene. Although the musical is based on two short stories by Damon Runyon, the role of Nathan (a minor figure in the stories) was specifically written for Levene. However, there was one problem: Levene was basically tone deaf. He couldn’t hit a note if it was stood in front of him. Rather than recast the role, composer Frank Loesser redistributed the songs intended for Nathan and worked ‘Sue Me’ around Levene’s vocal limitations. Hence why Hytner told Mays over Zoom: “I don’t really care if you can’t sing or not.”
Shop the look: coat by Walker Slater; shirt by Walker Slater; trousers by Hawes & Curtis; shoes by Crockett & Jones
The story continues. Levene was passed over for the 1955 film in favour of Frank Sinatra, a recasting that impressed nobody – least of all Sinatra, who wanted to play Sky Masterston. “And when you see the film, you realise that’s exactly how he played Nathan,” notes Mays. Instead Marlon Brando got Sky and Sinatra got an additional song, ‘Adelaide’.
Yet Sinatra’s vocal prowess only exacerbated the imbalance created by his presence; a role that May describes as “not the cool suave one” being played by arguably the coolest, suavest man in history. The film’s director Joseph L Mankiewicz later said the only person who could have been more miscast as Nathan than Sinatra was Laurence Olivier.
“Don’t expect a Frank Sinatra impression, whatever you do,” grins Mays, who purposely didn’t watch the film. A better comparison would be Bob Hoskins, the star of a rapturously received 1982 National Theatre production that smashed box office records. Mays looked up some footage on YouTube, although not much: “I didn’t want anything to colour my interpretation.”
There were no trips to the races, either. “I’m not a gambler,” says Mays. “The only thing I ever gamble on is the Grand National. I did win the Grand National two years on the trot.” (Fair play if that’s an intentional pun.) Alas, his horse for the hat-trick fell at the first fence.
Jez Butterworth apparently loves a flutter; when Mays did the revival of Mojo in 2013, its celebrated playwright would interrupt rehearsals to offer betting tips. “Everybody, stop what you’re doing! I’ve got a surefire bet. My mate owns this race horse…”
His dad was an electrician, his mother a bank cashier. “It was a loving and boisterous upbringing,” says Mays. “I was one of four boys in a relatively small house in Essex. It was great fun, but you had to shout to be heard.” Both elder brothers were brilliant sportsmen; Mays found his niche as the extrovert, the class clown always doing impressions. “Middle-child syndrome,” he calls it.
What he describes as “the lightbulb moment” occurred at a Michael Jackson concert of all places. His mum took him to see the Bad tour in 1988. Danny was transfixed. “I just couldn’t quite believe it. All these people had congregated together. I’d never been in a crowd like that before.” He attended dance school, stage school; Italia Conti, RADA. The latter was initially daunting.
“I sort of went into my shell when I first got to RADA,” admits Mays. “It was the polar opposite to jazz hands, tits and teeth from Italia Conti.” Eventually he gave himself a pep talk and a boot up the proverbial. “You’re not going to make any impression here if you don’t get rid of this imposter syndrome and kick on. And that’s exactly what I did.”
He has spent the 23 years since his graduation quietly building a remarkable body of work across stage, TV and film. Which of his numerous roles does he most cherish? I request a top three. “That’s really hard,” says Mays. “You’d have to say Line of Duty.” He only appeared in one episode of the cop drama but it was a standout, featuring a 12-minute interrogation scene that earned Mays a BAFTA nomination. “The whole day was spent on that one scene. We all went out and got completely slaughtered in Belfast after Adrian Dunbar bought me a very expensive bottle of red wine at the Merchant Hotel.”
He also cites his role as gay Canadian journalist Peter Wildeblood in BBC docudrama Against the Law. “It’s a character and a role which you just never associate me with. It was the polar opposite of what I’d played to that point.” He nearly turned down the role; instead, “of all the things I’ve done, it was the most rewarding and gratifying from an artistic point of view.”
And a third? “It’s difficult. You could put the Mike Leigh projects. You could put Ronnie Biggs. [Mays was nominated for a National Television Award for playing the train robber in ITV drama Mrs Biggs.] You could put Ashes to Ashes – Jim Keats was a hugely enjoyable role. My most enjoyable role was White Lines though – and it has nothing to do with the fact that it was shot in Ibiza and Madrid. That whole shoot was a raucous and a wild adventure.”
White Lines was the last major project for Laurence Fox. Did the pair talk politics? “Laurence always talks politics,” says Mays with a trace of affection. “Here’s the thing. I got on like an absolute house on fire with Laurence on White Lines. We got on brilliantly. And I’m sort of sad he’s not acting anymore because I know how much he loved it.
“He trained to be an actor. That’s who he is. If someone came around me and said, you couldn’t do this job anymore, I’d just be crestfallen. I wouldn’t know how to deal with it. So my heart goes out in many respects.” Does he still speak with Fox? “We haven’t spoken for a while, no.” Does he have any political affiliation of his own? “Well, it ain’t the Tories, I know that!”
He’s done several projects with Mike Leigh and Jimmy McGovern. “The jobs that I find fulfilment from are the politically led pieces of work,” says Mays. “Anything that has a commentary about the world in which we live, and can enlighten people’s minds. The drama has to be entertaining. But if it teaches us something and is a state of the nation piece, you’re killing two birds with one stone.”
What would Mays claim to be his biggest strength as an actor? “It’s not my left ankle, that’s for sure,” he sighs, rubbing the offending joint. He doesn’t know what’s happened but it hurts something rotten – he positively limps upstairs when our interview concludes. Don’t ask me how he spends the next three hours dancing: a combination of adrenaline and pain killers would be my guess. “I dunno. I would probably say that my strength is my versatility.”
No arguments here: any actor favoured by both Mike Leigh and Steven Spielberg must be fairly adaptable. A few years ago, I interviewed Kevin Bacon – “Jesus, what an actor,” says Mays – and he offered a remarkably candid assessment of his on-screen persona: “I’m not the guy; I’m the other guy.” Might a similar epitaph be applied to Mays? (Aside from the fact that he’s currently playing one of the most celebrated ‘guys’ in pop culture.)
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He cites the famous Stanislavski quote in his reply: “There are no small roles, only small actors.” “That’s so true. Because if you do your work and you are meticulous in your preparation and there’s good people around and you feel like there’s something to offer in the park, then you can make a mark. Maybe I’m the British Kevin Bacon. I’d take that all day long! Because a lot of the time you’re not front and centre. You are slightly out of focus in the back of the shot, but you get the more interesting parts. There’s no question.”
Presumably it also helps with career longevity? “Yeah. I think the goal is to get to a place where hopefully the work that you’re creating is of such a high standard that the money people can’t help but put you in the lead role. Then you’re in the groove. Someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Gary Oldman. When you are leading a film, but at your heart you’re a character actor. That’s when the real magic happens. My favourite actor of all time is Robert De Niro. It always will be.”
Have they met? “Never met him, never worked with him,” says Mays ruefully. He once shared a room with his idol at the premiere of Righteous Kill, De Niro’s second on-screen collaboration with Al Pacino. “It’s not Heat, it’s the shit one.” His great friend Stephen Graham worked with both legends on The Irishman. “Steve kept sending me pictures of him on set with Pacino on the WhatsApp. He was living our dream for all of us.”
We’ve been talking for an hour and Mays needs to get some food down him – you can’t bring down the house on an empty stomach. He still takes me onto the stage and shows off the fake pretzels in their carts – real ones are sold during the show.
When you go – and you really should go – keep an eye on your fellow audience members: there’s almost always a famous face or two in attendance. Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Kurt Russell. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones of course. Our night had Graham Norton and Danny Boyle, the latter eschewing seats for the standing area around the stage. (Standing area is the way.)
Boyle is one of the few British directors whom Mays hasn’t yet worked with. Give him time. Mays will always be in demand. He’s a guy worth making a song and dance over.
Guys and Dolls is playing at the Bridge Theatre.