“I don’t have a goal for success, I just want to lead a very full life,” says Shaun Evans, during our interview. “Success is a funny, silly thing.”
A funny, silly thing it may be, but if that’s Evans’ goal, he’s achieved it: an actor on stage and screens both large and small for more than 20 years, he’s also a photographer, a director, a writer, and more, contributing to several photography books.
We speak as Evans finishes up post-production on Endeavour, in which he plays a young Inspector Morse, and as Vigil, the highly anticipated BBC drama airs.
In Vigil, Evans plays Glover, a submarine’s coxswain with a seemingly friendly disposition that hides a darker truth. If you haven’t started watching Vigil already, it’s a must – with cliffhangers and tension galore.
Here, Evans tells us about his love of film photography, why he’ll never play the ukulele, and about his upcoming role as a far-right extremist in a play called The Manor.
First things first: do you like submarines?
I couldn't think of anything worse. I’ve never been on one, but I did speak to a couple of submariners before I started the job just to see what it was like. But no, it would not be my bag at all.
I get a little bit claustrophobic and I like the freedom to be able to walk and get some fresh air and get a cup of coffee, and the idea of being stuck in a place for a prolonged period of time is just my idea of hell. And there would be no plants!
You had us fooled… Tell us about Glover, your character in Vigil.
Glover’s role is between the officers and the guys aboard the submarine, the crew. When DCI Silva gets flown on, he gets put in charge of looking after her and being as accommodating as possible – to her, on the one hand, but also to his own job. He's trying to be protective towards whatever's happened on the submarine prior to her arrival and prior to the death as well.
But then, as the story develops you realize that actually he's got his own personal reasons for trying to keep her… not quite under tabs, but just keep an eye on her in the guise of trying to be friendly with her.
I thought Tom and the other writers did a great job of stringing that out so that each part and each character is intriguing in their own way – they've got their own little thing going on, you know?
What did you enjoy most about filming the project?
There's loads of things. At a time when so many things were stopping and we were being forced to stay indoors, to have a legitimate reason to leave the house and go and do your work, which you love – I felt doubly blessed.
Apart from that, I really enjoy being in Scotland, and meeting all new actors who I've not met before. Both the more established ones and the young fresher ones – I thought they were just terrific, enthusiastic and really up for it. It feels very much like an ensemble, especially in this case because we were all teammates on a submarine.
I love Scotland, and because of Covid, it ended up being a much longer stint than I would have expected so I got to really see it. Each weekend I would go out and take my car, so each weekend I'd go out and explore new places. I loved Glasgow, it reminded me of Liverpool, which is where I’m from.
What did you make of Liverpool losing its UNESCO heritage status?
It was so disappointing and not a big surprise. Some of the fucking hideous buildings that they threw up on the waterfront, which was beautiful.
You would think that there would be some rules that would mean that you're not sticking up these awful buildings that are only going to be there for thirty years next to this extraordinary Victorian and Georgian architecture.
What’s been your most formative role?
I don’t actually know if I have one – I feel luckier to have worked so much over the past 20 years. And to have done all different kinds of things, some better known than others, from TV, to directing, to producing. I feel really lucky that I've managed to stay in the game.
Each thing that I'm doing at the moment always feels the most challenging and interesting and intriguing, for better or for worse.
With acting, it goes from being very intense to knocking off and you're given the opportunity to settle and think, that was interesting.
What’s your favourite thing about your job?
You're learning about a situation and you’re also learning to be more sympathetic to things that perhaps you wouldn't have been sympathetic to on the surface.
For example, I'm about to do a play at The National called The Manor, where my character is the leader of a far right extremist group. My hope is that it'll be really interesting, but I'm intrigued to grapple with that world and grapple with finding something sympathetic about that person. I haven’t started prepping for it yet, but I’m really interested in who this character might be. I don't know anyone like that; it's a world that kind of scares me, that idea of extremism.
I'm quite a harmonious person. I would always try and reach out to people that would be more of my inclination, and to be inclusive. So I'm intrigued and slightly scared by that world of separation.
The other thing I like about acting is that it goes from being very intense to knocking off and you're given the opportunity to settle and think, ‘that was interesting’.
So what do you do when you knock off?
I love the freedom of being able to put a backpack on. I'm a big photography fan, so I just get a backpack, take my camera and bag full of film and go to interesting places, and then come back and process the photos in my dark room.
I like feeling like I’ve done something, even if it's the simple act of taking pictures, going to a darkroom and making prints. I can hang it on my wall, or I can give it to a friend as a gift – I'm not saying that it's like fine art, by any means, but I still need to feel like I've achieved something. That's really important to me.
What have you photographed recently?
For The Holy Water Project, I went to Lourdes in France. I was intrigued by the original story – whether you're religious or not, it's an incredible place. I was thinking about the story of the apparition that appeared to this girl and told her to dig upon the spot and then on the spot the sacred waters appeared and had curative properties, if you choose to believe that.
It reminded me of when you’ve got the idea for a book or a story or a film – the way you hold that vision in front of you. I was having a cup of coffee and was equating the two, and then suddenly decided to go to Paris, and on to Lourdes and just do it.
Film or digital?
What I love about film is that you need to just be open to whatever is whatever you find while you're there, whether the light is good or bad, or whether it's an interesting place to see or not, but it makes you really look at a place.
It’s the same with directing, because you use different parts of your brain and you have a more of an overview of the story. But in that case you need a vast amount of resources.
That’s why shooting with film is very intentional, it's not an accident – I try to make it as basic as possible: one camera, one lens, film, no flash.
But I’m archaic like that – I've got a typewriter for when I write stuff. It makes you think about what you’re doing more. It's so easy to erase shit on your computer, and likewise with digital photography, it's so easy to fucking erase it, that I think there's something about going back to basic trains you to think differently.
Do you think that you're a perfectionist?
No, I don't think I'm a perfectionist, but I can't bear laziness or doing anything half assed, you know. If someone says, "that'll do" – I'm like, "it fucking won't do".
You’re involved in a lot of projects. Is there anything that you want to do that you haven't tried yet?
I'd certainly like to put a book together of images and words. But that doesn't feel massively unachievable. The contributions, slowly and surely to lots of different little books is a way of me trying to think about that.
What about music?
Oh fucking hell, I wish I could. I've tried the ukulele. the piano. I fucking tried it all and for some reason it just won't click.
What are you most proud of?
When I was young, I had terrible terrible asthma. I was in hospital all the time on drips. I actually don't remember mostly until I was about 11 or 12, so it was more trying for my family.
When I was 20 I was just splitting up with a girl and I decided to run a fucking marathon, man. It was really brutal, but I remember thinking, ‘that was good. I never thought I'd be able to do that, and I just did’.
What has been your biggest life fail?
I don't really see things like that. I have regrets about the ending of some relationships and friendships, but I do believe that everything leads us to the next point. That's why success is such a funny, silly thing…
Perhaps one of my regrets is that I haven't been as kind as I could've been. Sometimes we can be so obsessed with our opinion, our take on things, that you fail to see the others' takes on things. Sometimes I wish my own internal voice wasn't quite so loud and that I could create time to listen and understand.
But long as you can acknowledge it, then you can try to do better next time, try to be more generous and open, and ask more questions about people.
Where do you think you'll be in five years?
I’d like to be doing the same thing I'm doing now, but to be doing it more skilfully. Oh bloody hell, I've got a ways to go. I can definitely be a better actor and director, take better pictures.
For me, I don’t think I’m constantly moving towards this huge successful goal, but the goal seems to be a life which is very full, and a life which is very, hopefully long and packed with these things where some things will be better than others, but as long as I can keep getting better at them. That's how I would term success.
Vigil is on BBC One at Sundays at 9pm through September, with episodes on BBC iPlayer
Endeavour will be returning to ITV this September
Manor will be at The National Theatre from November – more info and tickets here