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"I’m never gonna play Mr Darcy!" | Stephen Graham in conversation with Jodie Comer

Stephen Graham has appeared in some of the greatest films and TV shows of the 21st century. He sits down with his friend, co-star and fellow Scouser Jodie Comer to discuss his remarkable career

Stephen Graham

When Jodie Comer won her BAFTA for Killing Eve in 2019, the Liverpudlian actress made sure to shout out a very special person in her acceptance speech.

“I want to take this moment to thank Stephen Graham,” said Comer from the podium. “If I didn’t owe you a pint before then, I do now. Thank you for the generosity you showed me all those years ago.”

The pair’s friendship dates back to 2012 police procedural Good Cop. The seasoned Graham was so impressed by the talent of a teenage Comer that he arranged a meeting with his agent, who signed her on the spot. Nine years, one BAFTA and presumably a fair few pints later, the rest is history.

Thus Stephen Graham. He’s not merely one of the finest actors in the business, a stalwart of big screens and small whose presence elevates everything from Hollywood blockbuster (Pirates of the Caribbean; the upcoming Venom sequel) to hardboiled British drama (Snatch; This Is England) to TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic: his Al Capone dominated Boardwalk Empire, while British critics struggled for superlatives when reviewing his recent performances in the likes of Line of Duty, Time and Help.

Over the past three decades, the 48-year-old Scouse lad who never attended drama school has constructed a body of work that ranks alongside the very best actors of his generation. This is a man who refers to Scorsese as ‘Marty’, emblematic of a 20-years-and-counting association with America’s greatest living director that spans 2002’s Gangs of New York (Graham appeared opposite Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio) right the way up to 2019’s The Irishman (er, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro).

Indeed, as Graham tells our interviewer, Scorsese handpicked him to play history’s most notorious gangster in Boardwalk Empire.

“He said to me after we did Gangs of New York, ‘I’ll work with you again one day’, and I was like, ‘Don’t say that – cos now I’m gonna be waiting!’ And finally he did… When I went over there and I did something in America and it was successful in America, then people over here went, ‘Oh, he’s alright, isn’t he?’”

Our interviewer? Glad you asked. That would be Graham’s friend and fellow Scouser – BAFTA-winning actress Jodie Comer. Well, we couldn’t just ask anyone, could we?

Square Mile front cover of Stephen Graham
Square Mile front cover of Stephen Graham

How did you get into acting? You have been a huge mentor for me in my introduction into the world and I wondered if there was someone who had done the same for you?

It’s a lovely little story in itself. For me, it’s through Andrew [Drew] Schofield who lived across the road from my nana’s house. I’d see Drew in the mornings – he and his wife Angela were always riding their bikes around – but he was also on the telly in this programme called Scully. So I got to see this lovely fella, who I knew because I was mates with his nephew as well – and then he’d be on the telly every Tuesday or whatever it was.

Scully was a great series, it was a brilliant series, it was about a young lad who wanted to be a footballer. It had Graham Souness in it, Kenny Daglish – you know how big football is in Liverpool. As in all major cities.

So to see Drew on the telly and see him in my local community gave me that belief that it was attainable. Then I did a play and he came and watched it. He said to my mum and dad that I had a lot of talent, ‘maybe you should think about sending him to the Edinburgh Youth Theatre’.

A few years passed and we applied to the Edinburgh Youth Theatre. That’s where I got the hump for acting. Drama school wasn’t for me.

Were your family surprised by this bug for acting or had they always seen something in you?

Yeah, yeah. Very similar to yourself in many ways. There were loads of us grandkids. There were loads of us!

Were you the favourite? Obviously!

I wouldn’t say that! Me and my mum lived with my nana for a while, I used to literally walk round the corner to go to school. In those big family situations there’s vying for attention, isn’t there? My thing was I used to do silly voices, stuff like that.

But the best way for me to be able to stay up and watch Starsky & Hutch and Match of the Day was to make nana a jam butty and a cup of tea.

Aw! You can’t beat a jam butty!

Nana used to have these big thick doorstopper jam butties. I used to bring her them and she’d go, ‘go on lad, sit down. D’ya want to watch Starsky & Hutch?’ I have these lovely memories – sitting in the chair with her, sitting on the floor by her feet. I’ve got an image of legs with tights on, fluffy slippers. We watched all kinds of things like Parkinson, black and white films, musicals. She was a big part of my love for film, subconsciously.

I’d do silly voices like Margaret Thatcher, Idi Amin, people off the telly. Make her laugh and make the rest of them laugh. That was my little thing.

I was with the youth theatre. It was a way of getting out of school! It was a lot of fun. We did a musical play at the Liverpool Philharmonic. I had to walk right up the aisle onto the stage. As I walk up, I’m singing this song – I think I was about 12 – I remember seeing my nana and the smile on me nana and me ma’s and me pop’s face! All those Sunday afternoons that we watched all them films together – that little moment was just amazing.

Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine
Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine

Yeah, and seeing her reaction watching you. I think it’s interesting because you know when you said you initially went to drama school and you were like, ‘nah that’s not for me’. I used to have a really hard time saying no to things – one because I was really young, but if I read a script I was like, I don’t like this, but I feel like I can’t say no, I have to audition for this.

Have you always had quite a strong sense of self in a way of knowing what you want, what you don’t want, or do you feel that kind of developed with the more work you did?

That’s a very interesting question.

Thank you, Stephen!

Yeah it is something that has developed. Because we may have a rough idea of what it is we wanna do or where we possibly see ourselves but I think, not just for being young but also that working class mentality – we’ve spoken about it many a time. That imposter syndrome.

There’s that niche of, ‘OK, I’ve been offered this little role, it’s Scouse, it’s a lad who comes and robs the school.’ And you’re like, ‘OK, yeah, yeah!’ just because you want to be doing it. You want the experience, you want the work. There’s no kind of social or political ideas of what it is that we’re actually doing.

In the beginning stages, if we were painters and decorators and someone went ‘right, I need this house painted’,we wouldn’t go, ‘ooh, I don’t really like that house. That’s not a very nice house, we’re not going to paint it.’ We might think that at first but we want to gain that experience, do you know what I mean?

It’s a very difficult position to be in because it’s a catch-22. You want the work but then there are certain roles where you’re like,‘oh I don’t really know if that’s right for me.’

But sometimes that role turns out to be something that you go in there and you smash the shit out of that role! Once it’s on-screen, people are only talking about that particular bit that you did in it!

I’ve been doing this for… how old am I now, 47 or 48? [Calls to wife Hannah Walters.] Hannah, am I 47 or 48? I’m 48, aren’t I? [Receives confirmation.] Yeah, I’m 48.

Thank god for Hannah! We’d all be lost!

We’d all be lost if I didn’t have Hannah! I’d be well lost! I’d have been lost a long time ago! But yeah, I’ve been doing paid work for over 35 years. It’s that longevity of this career that over the past 10, 15 years I’ve become more selective in what I do.

Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine
Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine

Yeah, I think that’s what’s so gorgeous now as well: you’re now stepping into another stage of your career with your production company with Hannah, which is called Matriarch.

I guess that’s another phase of you being in a comfortable position and wanting to take a new kind of control. And bring stories to the forefront that you feel passionate about…

Exactly! You’re bang on. And also create opportunities. It’s hard work and talent that got us into this position but sometimes talent doesn’t always win out. I feel very blessed and very fortunate to be in my position. I would like to create opportunities for other people who may not necessarily get that chance.

One of the main reasons for us setting up a production company was trying to give voices for stories that I don’t feel have the opportunity at times. I know within the industry we are moving forward, and there’s a lot of things being said about creating a bigger, more diverse pond, ethnicity wise, but I also think it should be class-wise as well.

I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about where I’m from in any way shape or form, not at all. I’m very proud of where I come from, I’m very proud of the way I was raised as a man. That’s created the essence of what is me, really. I do feel that young working class boys and girls, men and women, may not necessarily get those opportunities because those stories aren’t being told.

However, I feel there’s another shift now because of Black Lives Matter and things like that. People saying, ‘wait a minute – there’s not many black faces on television…’

Or behind camera…

Or behind the camera, massively. Not many Asian faces on telly. Now I feel like that movement has come to the forefront and there are positive pushes for that. And I also feel that hopefully that will lead to other opportunities for people who wouldn’t necessarily have them opportunities.

People who wouldn’t necessarily have gone to drama school can still have that chance to be given the opportunity to live the dream that they’ve always wanted to do.

Stephen Graham shot by Lee Malone
Stephen Graham shot by Lee Malone
Stephen Graham shot by Lee Malone
Stephen Graham

Definitely. I love you and respect you for many, many reasons but one of them is your integrity and the choices that you make. Having worked with you for a really juicy amount of time on Help and having the first experience of working on a project that is tackling subject matter that is very real for a lot of people, it’s uncomfortable, it has to be handled with care and respect.

A lot of your projects do that and I was wondering is that something you always naturally gravitate towards? There’s definitely a quality about doing something like that that is incomparable, really. Was there an influence there from working with Shane Meadows? Was there an influence from Shane that you feel maybe trickled through in your life?

Definitely. For me it was always films like Kes – Ken Loach films that I grew up on, Alan Parker films that I grew up on. Films that had a huge amount of social realism that was saying something, that had a voice, socially and politically, but also resonated with me, where I was from and what I was about.

Primarily it came from This Is England. From me being given that opportunity by Shane to do that role in This Is England. I couldn’t get a job after that for about eight to nine months. Once that was released I just could not get a job. It was impossible.

That’s just crazy, considering your work on that film.

I think some people forgot that I was an actor and that I’d done other stuff before.

That was what I was going to say! Is there a presumption that people make of you? What is the presumption that people had made of you from the parts that you play? I guess they did try to put you in a box. They tried to, but you broke out!

In a little way! In a little way for a bit it was like, ‘OK, so I’m a tough, rough, Liverpool, heartbroken, strong character.’ And to me, that’s the best role to play! I’m not Mr Darcy! I’m never gonna play Mr Darcy!

Well, there’s nuance there.

There really is. I think what happened then is that writers or directors doing that kind of work have knocked on my door and asked, ‘would you be interested in this?’ Which was great for me! And it wasn’t really until I went over to New York and I did Boardwalk Empire, when Martin Scorsese reached out to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking of you for this part.’

He said to me after we did Gangs of New York, ‘I’ll work with you again one day’, and I was like, ‘don’t say that – cos now I’m gonna be waiting!’ And finally he did. He made that call. That was another experience.

What happened there – which you’ll be aware of – is when I went over there and I did something in America and it was successful in America, then people over here went, ‘oh, he’s alright, isn’t he?’

Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine
Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine
Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine

‘Oh, he can do that as well?’ Yeah, they’ve gotta see it to believe it!

 I’d have never been given that opportunity by anyone here to play that role, I don’t think. It’s Scorsese thinking outside the box. In his eyes, he didn’t take a chance.

In people’s eyes over here it would’ve been, ‘should we take that chance? Can he do that? Will he be OK with the accent?’ All that kinda stuff. With Marty saying that, he took my career to a different level again.

I love ‘Marty’, by the way! I love that you’re on ‘Marty’ terms! You have worked with some incredible directors and I really, truly believe in speaking things into existence. I was wondering if there is an actor, a director, a writer – someone who you are itching to work with?

Stephen Knight. As a writer I love working with him, but as a director I love Stephen Knight, I think he’s fantastic. And a director who I will work with – it’s gonna happen, it has to – is Steve McQueen.

That’s a mighty pairing…

I absolutely love his stuff. I think he’s so honest, so true and he has such a voice, so relevant. Both his films, television and his documentaries are so powerful.

I love his visual eye, I love the way he tells a story because he’s coming from a perspective. He’s a true artist. You know he’s won a Turner Prize. He’s an artist. Let’s see what happens.

Obviously we worked together onHelp at the start of the year. You do work with a lot of heavy material. When I’ve heard actors kind of wallow – ‘oh God, I go home and it’s so difficult to switch off and it’s just terrible!’ – I do a little eye roll, like, ‘oh shut up.’

However, I had my own realisation in the past year that it’s very silly of me not to acknowledge that when I’m doing this kind of stuff, I become less accessible to the people who are closest to me. Just maybe having a conversation and my mum going, ‘Jodie, can you be present or give me something?’

Do you have any little rituals that you do to step out of things? I know that you have your little rituals to get into character, you really find a centre of the character and the walk and all those little details that you do. So I wondered when you come to your characters, do you look at other people’s performances as a reference or is that not good for you?

I don’t look at anyone else as reference. For anything in that sense. I do find music a big help, though.

Stephen Graham for Square Mile magazine

Me too.

Sometimes I’ll have a little playlist that I’ll never share with anyone else. I’ll have a little playlist of certain tunes that can take me into a character. It doesn’t have to be specific to the story or the time or the era.

It’s the feeling.

Yeah. It’s the feeling that comes from listening to certain types of music that can put me in the mood for something. Get me in the headspace of that character.

You know about the shoes situation? Finding the shoes and the right walk. When we’re away working, we’re in a hotel room. For me, that’s a good thing. I never switch off from my family – never, never, never. Now I make sure when I’m on set, I’m ready to go, bang – smash it, enjoy it, be a part of it! But for my own mental sanity, I compartmentalise the work and put it away.

I’ve got a newfound love for acting. It’s very zen-like, Buddhist-like, because it’s more in the moment and we’re always talking about being in the moment, being present. Some of the scenes we did in Help, I couldn’t tell you what was going on. We were so in the moment of what we were doing!

It’s so true! There’s a sequence where I’m telling you to wash your hands and the whole thing is improvised. When I watched it back, I was like, ‘wow!’

There’s a bit in that where you hadn’t done it on the other takes but you got a little bit pissed off! I don’t know how that happened because we were so in the moment of doing what we were doing. I think that was the take we ended up using because the reactions were so pure and so truthful – but then we’d go to lunch and have a chat.

What I have found over these last few years is the absolute gratitude for the job I have and the opportunities to be able to work with people like yourself.

I feel so much gratitude for every job I do. It’s a fucking beautiful thing that I’m part of. 

Help is available now on All 4. Venom: Let There Be Carnage will be in cinemas from 15 October. Boiling Point will be released in UK and Irish cinemas by Vertigo on 19 November.

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