“It feels like a weird kind of therapy,” says David Dawson of his craft. “It’s quite cathartic. You get to be in other people’s shoes and explore other people’s rhythms and get to live lives that aren’t yours.”
He certainly wears those shoes well and plays one hell of a rhythm. For the last 15 years, Dawson has been British acting’s best-kept secret. Plenty of people have tried to share him: from the theatre critics who have breathlessly rhapsodised his various stage performances down the years to the casting director who crowned him as a coldly calculating King Alfred in blockbuster TV series The Last Kingdom.
Now Dawson is taking his talents to the big screen, starring opposite Harry Styles and Emma Corrin in the romantic drama My Policeman. While the film is getting plenty of media coverage due to the involvement of Styles, Dawson has remained largely on its periphery, due to the involvement of Styles. His relatively low profile won’t bother him in the slightest – quite the opposite – but nevertheless we shall give the man his flowers, as they say.
We meet in a Hampstead pub and retire to the garden with lemonades. Dawson is from the North: not London but proper north, Widnes, and even though he migrated south as a teenager his accent carries more than a trace of his hometown. Good thing, too, as he’s moving up to Manchester to be closer to his family. He comes across as a very wholesome creature, does Dawson, despite his Gothic sensibilities and attire. On this beautiful sunny afternoon, he’s dressed predominantly in black and looks like the frontman of a noughties indie band or a particularly elegant vampire. He’d make a fantastic Batman villain.
He played one, back in the day. “When I was about three or four, I would just raid my mum and dad’s clothes. I would spend the day as the Joker; I would spend the next as Captain Hook. I was very serious about my characterisation and story. I think I knew early on that acting was the career I wanted to go into.”
Is it coincidental that the two characters Dawson cites here are two of pop culture’s most celebrated rogues? Maybe not: as he later explains, “I love the darker side of life, the darker side of human behaviour. I’m fascinated by it.” Where did that darkness come from? “Oooh, I dunno. All the movies I loved when I was little? I was obsessed with things like Clockwork Orange, Natural Born Killers. Even comedies like Death Becomes Her and Clue. Things that have a bit of warped edge. Maybe that’s just part of who I am.”
His first role? “A very serious Joseph” in the school nativity. He joined a Widnes drama club whose director, Jen Heyes, later set up her own theatre company and invited a teenage Dawson to tour with them. He started writing plays, and sent letters to some of his favourite actors asking for their support. Julie Walters and Barbara Windsor were among those who helped fund the 18-year-old Dawson’s London debut at the Tower Theatre in Islington.
“I’m not sure how good it was!” says Dawson of the play. “I was obsessed with theatre of cruelty and surrealism at the time. It was called the Boy in the Bed. It was about this bedridden boy who’s obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, but he’s not really bedridden and he’s abusing his carer.” (Re. the previous sentence: at the comma, I was preparing to ask whether the play was biographical. By the full stop I most definitely wasn’t.)
(Years later, Dawson and Waters worked together in the Hollow Crown series. "I got to thank her for her generosity and support all those years before in giving me money to fund my play. A special moment as she’s always been a legend to me. I then sang a song to her from Victoria Wood’s As Seen On TV series that she had performed in a sketch. It was called ‘The Chippy Song’. She looked at me like I was insane. She’d completely forgotten about it but we had a laugh.")
He moved to London and spent a year working as a silver service waiter and butler while preparing for drama school – “carry about 25 flutes and all that,” as he puts it. “I worked for Sotheby’s, Princess Anne, Posh and Becks. You got to learn about the city through work. That was cool.”
Touring the country, staging a play, graduating from Rada – when did Dawson feel like a proper actor? He ponders the question. “Maybe when you get paid for your first job.” What was his? “I think it was Doc Martin. The episode was based on Deliverance – I was this boy who lived in the hills. The mum had died so the dad dressed as the mum. That was my first gig.”
More gigs followed. He played Coronation Street creator Tony Warren on The Road to Coronation Street; an upper-class sadist in three episodes of Luther; a newspaper reporter in three seasons of Ripper Street. In 2015, he landed the big one: King Alfred the Great in the BBC adaptation of The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwall’s stupendously successful series of novels depicting the struggle between the beleaguered Anglo-Saxons (yay!) and the occupying Danes (boo!).
While statues and legend depict Alfred as a great warrior king (and a lousy baker), both novel and TV series offer a far more nuanced figure, devoted to his religion and books, more Machiavelli than Maximus Decimus Meridius. (Unlike Uhtred, the show’s swaggering protagonist, Dawson’s Alfred would last about 30 seconds in the Coliseum.) It’s a dream of a role for any actor – and Dawson was desperate to land it.
“It’s quite rare that you read a script and think, ‘no matter what, I’ve gotta play this. I think I know who this is and I want it to be mine.’ So yeah, I was determined.”
His determination paid off, and for three seasons his Alfred was among TV’s most compelling characters. “That was one of the most special jobs to be a part of,” recalls Dawson. “To play a character for 25 hours of screen time and for an audience to go on that journey with them. And the writing is so complicated. What I love about The Last Kingdom is that an audience never really knows who to love or loathe. They’re conflicted all the time.”
That audience has grown significantly in recent years. Firstly, the show was picked up by Netflix for season three onwards. Then Game of Thrones ended and fans discovered The Last Kingdom a more than adequate replacement. (Albeit without the confusing magic and an author who finished the book series.) Then lockdown happened (let’s not dwell on it), and people around the world, now best friends with their TVs, decided to escape to ninth-century Wessex and found it considerably more exciting than another Zoom quiz.
“It’s lovely,” says Dawson of the show’s rise in popularity. “It’s been something that’s grown in momentum, the awareness of it.”
Do people now shout “Alfred!” at him in the street? “I had someone in Euston once say, ‘stop being such a bastard to Uhtred!’” He giggles. “I can understand why they said that.”
At the start of the year, I interviewed another Last Kingdom alumni: Eliza Butterworth who played the formidable Aelswith, Alfred’s queen. Butterworth herself isn’t formidable but one of the most gregarious people I’ve ever interviewed.
She had the following to say about Dawson: “I’d only had a little bit of film experience, so I’d just watch him like a hawk. See the way he would embody King Alfred: his physicality, his voice, his attitude. Everything just completely changed. He morphed into a totally different person. I honestly owe a lot of my screen acting skills to David Dawson because he taught me everything I know. Whether he knows it or not!”
“That’s incredibly kind,” says Dawson quietly once I have read him the extract. “That’s incredibly kind.”
Dawson and Butterworth remain close friends. Indeed, after our interview he’s off to find her a present ahead of her birthday party that evening. It’s been a busy day for Dawson: before our interview he went to pick up worming tablets for his dog, Dodger. “Showbiz,” he quips with a wry smile.
See what I mean about wholesome?
Sitting opposite Dawson is an interesting experience in itself. He’s one of those perpetual shifters: always crossing his legs, brushing back his hair, fiddling with one of his rings. I should stress that the impression isn’t one of impatience or boredom, more a sense of nervous energy – emphasis on both noun and adjective. Like many of us, I doubt talking about himself to strangers is his happy place, but his answers are invariably thoughtful, measured, interspersed with laughter. He radiates gentleness and decency, and if you’re going to radiate things, you could do much worse than those.
Would I identify Dawson as an actor, a brilliant one, if I didn’t already know his trade? Hard to be sure. The obvious answer is no, of course not: of the many qualities required to excel on stage, you would assume shyness to rank low on the list. And yet there’s something about Dawson that suggests he couldn’t be anything else. Maybe it’s the sense of watchfulness, or even the inability to sit still – as though all his past characters are still contained within him, struggling to get out.
Funnily enough, I watched one of his very first professional jobs out of drama school, playing conscientious objector Frank Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer way back in 2007. “That’s one of my favourite theatres in the world, that,” says Dawson of the Old Vic. “It’s a special place. John Osborne’s just an amazing writer, isn’t he? The angry young man. And I got to come out of the orchestra pit playing a piano.”
I fear the specifics of Dawson’s performance are lost to me – I was only 15 at the time. However, it’s a safe assumption that he was very, very good indeed. The man is a rare theatrical talent. Don’t take my word for it. Check out some of his reviews over the years.
This is Lyn Gardner on Romeo and Juliet in 2008: “David Dawson… is that rare thing: a Romeo worth dying for. Dawson speaks the verse as if he is making it up, and his Romeo is a mix of floppy-haired insouciance and intelligent self-awareness. You keep glimpsing the man he might have become had death not outrun him.”
This is Michael Billington on the Duchess of Malfi in 2014: “It is David Dawson as Ferdinand who really steals the show. From the start there is something clearly amiss with this tense, edgy, lank-locked Duke… The image of this production I shall retain is of Dawson’s pale, pinched features glimpsed by a flickering candle as he vows to go hunt the badger by moonlight.”
And Susannah Clapp on The Dazzle the following year: “David Dawson is a revelation. As the watchful brother, he gives one of the best performances I have seen on the stage this year… I am not surprised he can so fleetly register as sardonic, woeful, manipulative. I am amazed that he can do so while seeming to be so still and watchful. He does not so much act as transmit.”
Dawson claims not to read reviews – a claim which I fully believe – and I don’t recite the ones quoted above to him because I fear the poor man might spontaneously combust with embarrassment. But does he have any techniques or rituals to help his stage performances scale such thrilling heights?
OK, I’m letting myself off here: the question wasn’t phrased anywhere near so eloquently. It wasn’t quite, “David Dawson, why are you so good at acting?” but it wasn’t that far off.
Understandably, Dawson looks a little stumped. “Gosh. I don’t know.”
Does he go method? Stay in character backstage? He seems far too balanced a human to go method… “I go quiet. I think when you’re on a set, or doing a play, you want to soak in what – aw no, I don’t like saying things like this!” An apologetic smile. “I don’t really know. I don’t know.”
In fairness, it’s an absolute shitter of a question. “It’s an absolute shitter of an answer!” We laugh. He thinks. “Maybe just a quiet place,” he says. “A quiet place.”
Filming My Policeman might have been a little too quiet: Covid protocols forced Dawson to work in a bubble alongside Styles and Corrin. “We went to the Toronto Film Festival last weekend and that was the first time we’d hung out with the rest of the cast.”
The film is mostly set in Brighton in the 1950s. Dawson plays a museum curator who becomes embroiled in a clandestine love affair with Styles’s married policeman (Corrin is the wife). His first meeting with Styles occurred over Zoom. Was that weird?
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve worked with some wonderful people who you know of their career before. So yeah, I suppose initially you think, how weird is this to be on a Zoom call with this very famous musician? – but he makes it very easy to get rid of that mindset. He’s a good Northern lad and he’s incredibly down to Earth. He made the process very easy. And a lot of fun as well.”
Restrictions limited any opportunities for group nights out, although Styles invited Dawson to the debut performance of Harry’s House at the Brixton Academy in May. “He got me a ticket when he launched his album. That was amazing to go and see the showman, the musician.” Go backstage? “Got to see him backstage, yeah. That was really special.”
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Last June, Dawson recorded a short video for Pride Lives’ Stonewall Day. “It’s so important that we look back before we truly move forward,” he said, addressing the camera directly. “It’s good to remember all of the incredible people and sacrifices that have been made over the years to advance the LGTBQ community that I’m so proud to be a part of.”
My Policeman must have been a powerful experience for him? “Yes it was, actually,” he replies. “Yeah. Researching into this period of time when to be someone like me would be incredibly difficult. And to play somebody who not only finds joy and survives through that time but thrives. Has found a way of creating a respectable persona so that he can change his ambitions. And you also get to explore the real man in private. The vulnerability of the man, the man who just wants to find love like anybody else in the world.”
Towards the end of our conversation, I lob him what I think is a softball – tell the reader why they should go and see My Policeman… “Oh wow,” says Dawson, sounding a tad overwhelmed. Silence, followed by a smile and a despairing, “Oh, I’m shit at things like this!”
I can’t help noting that for an actor, Dawson seems quite – well, would he call himself an extrovert or introvert?
“I think you know,” he says. “It’s interesting that, actually. For many years, I felt like I was letting myself down by not being more extroverted. Especially when it comes to schmoozing and stuff like that. Industry stuff. I’m just no good at it. I never have been. It’s actually something that I’m quite proud of now. I’m just living a quiet life.”
Dickhead that I am, I quote Hamlet: “To thine own self be true” as Polonius tells his son Laertes, shortly before getting stabbed while hiding behind a curtain.
“That’s a beautiful quote,” says Dawson, and points at my dictaphone. “Get that in!”
So I have no doubt that Dawson will stay true to himself in the years ahead. Keep venturing into the darkness, professionally at least. “I always said when I first left drama school, as long as it scares me and as long as it’s a real challenge then I don’t really mind. But I’ve not been on the stage for a few years so I’m craving that a bit now.”
Do yourself a favour. Secure a ticket to his comeback show and watch the man transmit.
My Policeman is released on 21 October