By Chloe Fox
John Simm’s latest television role is as a Civil War mercenary in The Devil’s Whore. When it comes to pursuing his own career, money is the last thing on his mind.
There is something engagingly paradoxical about John Simm. An everyman with a rare talent, he has starred in arguably the best British television dramas of the past decade: Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes, Paul Abbott’s State of Play, and more recently Life on Mars. In each one, he makes us feel simultaneously that we know him and yet somehow never will. In many ways Simm, 38, is impossible to define: he is classically trained but with a modern touch; a diehard Manchester United fan with a passion for classical ballet; one of the very finest actors of his generation who has yet to win a single award.
‘I don’t like awards ceremonies and I don’t agree with them,’ he announces, finger banging defiantly on the table of the club in Soho, London, where we have met for lunch. ‘But put me in a position when I’m up against other actors and I want to win it. Because the thing with me is I want the best. And why not? I’m obsessed with the Beatles because they are the best. If I’m working, and have to be away from my family, which breaks my heart into a million pieces, then I want to be doing the best possible show, written by the best possible writer, and giving the best performance that I possibly can.’ Then, mid-rant, Simm – whose surprisingly gentle voice carries more than a hint of his Northern roots – stops himself, pauses for thought and smiles. ‘Oh no, I’ve gone off on one, haven’t I?’
As an interviewee, Simm is the best possible company: candid, funny, naughty, polite, arrogant, self-deprecating, kind, interested, interesting. Watching him talk is no different to watching him act. Simultaneously still and brimming with nervous energy, he draws you in, makes you think, and leaves you wondering what it is that makes him tick.
‘There is something behind John’s eyes that is irresistible,’ says the director Marc Munden, who has worked with Simm twice: on Miranda (with Christina Ricci), his only – and best forgotten – foray into big-budget romantic comedy; and on the forthcoming Channel 4 drama The Devil’s Whore. ‘He is like a virtuoso pianist – he has that ability not just to feel things very deeply, but to translate those feelings into something very readable.’
The Devil’s Whore, written by Peter Flannery (Our Friends in the North), is a four-parter set in the English Civil War. The story centres on the life and loves of the fictitious aristocrat Angelica Fanshawe (played by Andrea Riseborough), but is woven in with fact, and brings to life the intellectual and military battle that took place between Cromwell’s puritanical New Model Army and the Royalists, which culminated in the execution of Charles I in 1649. It is an epic blend of large-scale battles, intimate love scenes and intriguing characters. Simm’s Edward Sexby is the most fascinating. A hard-hearted mercenary who kills for pleasure, he is ultimately redeemed by his (largely) unrequited love for Angelica. As ever, Simm manages to convey the morality behind the menace.
Munden’s first instinct had been to offer Simm the part of John Lilburne, a freedom-fighting Leveller. But Simm had other ideas. ‘He rang me up and said, “I want to play Sexby.” Sexby is basically a very dark, very damaged soul. There’s something in John that can find all that sort of stuff if he needs to; he’s naturally drawn to the dark side.’
‘Oh, he’s a horrible, nasty piece of work – a really feral, stubborn bastard,’ Simm says of Sexby. ‘The minute I read the script, I was bowled over by it and by him. It’s a hell of a part and I’m really, really honoured that they gave it to me. I had to fight for it though. I had to audition – which was something I hadn’t done for ages – and I won it, which was really great.’
The Devil’s Whore couldn’t have come along at a better time for Simm. ‘I was starting to feel jaded,’ he confesses. The problems began during the filming of Life on Mars, a sort of Sweeney-meets-Back-to-the-Future in which a car crash leaves his modern-day character trapped in 1973. Six months spent in Manchester away from his wife, the actress Kate Magowan, and their son, Ryan, then five, began to take its toll. Acting wasn’t even really feeling like acting any more. ‘It was becoming a job, like working in a shop,’ Simm says. ‘It didn’t feel like a challenge and I thrive off challenge.’
Then came the unprecedented success of the show – it had an estimated audience of seven million. The fan mail started piling up, some of it pretty weird. ‘Sci-fi fans are like a whole new level of fan,’ Simm says. When he starred as the Master in four episodes of Doctor Who at the beginning of last year, their attention increased.
‘After that, it all started getting a bit much,’ Simm says. Never comfortable with the fame game, he started to feel overwhelmed. ‘It was horribly narcissistic. Letter after letter saying, “You’re great, you’re great, you’re great” and then signing pictures of yourself, and suddenly it all got a bit like, “Oh f***ing hell, enough!” I just had to stop.’
The furthest Simm felt he could get away from his television alter-egos was a small theatre so, almost exactly a decade after his only previous theatre role – in Simon Bent’s Goldhawk Road – he returned to the Bush Theatre in west London to star in Elling, Bent’s play about two Norwegian mental patients trying to re-assimilate themselves into society. Bent describes Simm as ‘the sharpest, most versatile actor’ he has ever worked with. Critics were equally high in their praise with Charles Spencer, writing in The Daily Telegraph, describing his performance as ‘a tour de force’.
For Simm, the experience was bittersweet. ‘I just wanted to disappear for a bit, but it didn’t end up working out that way.’ Busloads of fans came to the Bush, and then to the Trafalgar Studios, where the play transferred last summer. They all wanted to sit in the front row; sometimes they even tried to talk to him while he was on stage.
Simm had known what it was to perform to a roomful of strangers by the age of nine. His father, Ron, a welder, was a talented musician who spotted his son’s singing potential. At weekends and holidays, their double act – Us2 – would tour the club circuit around their home town of Nelson, near Burnley, singing Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley songs. ‘I would just stare at the floor,’ Simm remembers. A shy, quiet child, he was not an obvious performer, but a trip to the cinema to see Rebel Without a Cause determined his future. In 1986, aged 16, he left home for Blackpool to take a three-year course in musical theatre – more as an excuse to get out of his small town than anything else – and from there, he headed to London, where he spent a further three years at the Drama Centre.
Determined to hang on to his Northern-ness and keen to find an outlet for his love of music, Simm -a self-confessed party animal – formed a band called Magic Alex (named after the Beatles’ electrician). Reminiscent of the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, Magic Alex – for which Simm wrote the music and played guitar – soon gained a certain credibility, touring with Echo & the Bunnymen in the early 1990s. ‘There are loads of amazing things that have happened to me that are nothing to do with acting,’ says Simm who, shortly after the release of 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 homage to the Manchester music scene of the 1980s and 90s, sang on stage at Finsbury Park, London with New Order. Magic Alex, however, broke up later that year.
Simm graduated from drama school in 1992, and in 1994 he landed the role that put him on the television map: a boy who murders his landlady in Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker. Since then, his hit rate has been high. In 1997 he played the lead in McGovern’s The Lakes. His portrayal of Danny Kavanagh, a brooding, flawed drifter whose arrival in a small village reaps havoc was universally acclaimed by the television critics.
After starring in two of the most-talked about British films of the late 1990s – Justin Kerrigan’s Human Traffic and Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland – Simm was lured back into television by Paul Abbott to star in his new drama series State of Play in 2003. ‘I’ve worked with John four or five times now,’ Abbott says, ‘and every time my admiration and awe increase. When John acts, he truly becomes the person he is playing and, to this day, I don’t know how he does it. He doesn’t act from his heart, he acts from his spleen. It just comes out of him like oil.’ Even now, Abbott says, he always writes with Simm in mind, even on projects that he knows he won’t be in.
It was in State of Play, in which Simm played Cal McCaffrey, a newspaper reporter who uncovers government corruption, that he really became part of the national consciousness. ‘We had the whole country on tenterhooks for six weeks,’ Simm says proudly. ‘You just wouldn’t have been able to do that with a film.’
If anyone is qualified to engage in the film versus television debate, it is John Simm. ‘Deep down, I know that good telly – and I do believe we do it well here – is much, much better than film, because you have that time to build a story up and up until it reaches breaking point. I am obsessed by good writing; it is that, more than anything, that draws me to a project, and you don’t get better than the writers I’ve worked with. As a rule, the film scripts I get sent are such shit that you’d have to pay me twice the ludicrous sums they are offering in the first place to be in them.’
That said, there is a little part of Simm that can’t fight the feeling that what he has achieved is somehow second best. ‘When I started out, I wanted it all,’ he says quietly. ‘I wanted to be Gary Oldman or Robert De Niro. And I think that’s the biggest problem I have. Because I’m not. And there’s always that nagging thing at the back of my head. I wanted to be the best and I’m not. I’m kind of half way. Famous enough to be bothered by taxi drivers, but not famous enough to build a huge mansion for me and my family with a moat around it so that no one can get in.’
Those who know Simm say that, despite his self-deprecating default mode, he has always been the master of his own destiny. ‘More than anyone I know, John isn’t in it for the money,’ says his Life on Mars co-star Philip Glenister. ‘John would always rather be in badly paid telly than highly paid movies because he is an actor of faultless integrity.’
‘He’s as strong as anyone I know,’ Abbott concurs. ‘I’ve seen him be really skint and turn down big-budget crap time after time.’
Simm knows that he wasn’t born to be a matinee idol, nor would he have wanted to be. ‘Would I have wanted to be the romantic lead? Loads of money, really boring parts? Nah. I’d rather be Iago than Romeo. I enjoyed playing Raskolnikov [in Tony Marchant’s 2002 adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for the BBC] more than I would have enjoyed playing Romeo. I love characters, you see, and as I’m getting older, I’m getting more and more of that, so it can’t be all bad.’
In more ways than one, working on The Devil’s Whore restored Simm’s creative energy. First, it introduced him to a world he has rarely been invited into: period drama. ‘Wigs and swords and scars and battles. Brilliant!’ he grins. ‘I really want to be doing Dickens and Shakespeare but no one ever asks me.’ Second, it took him to South Africa (‘can you believe it’s cheaper to re-create England there than it is to film in England?’) for three months.
But however creatively satisfying, The Devil’s Whore was emotionally tough. ‘Acting is really a single man’s job. I just missed my family so much that it physically hurt,’ he says. ‘John found it hard being away for so long,’ Munden recalls. ‘He got terribly homesick and went home every opportunity he had, sometimes only for a long weekend.’
‘I feel like the luckiest man in the world,’ Simm says of his wife and children (Molly was born at the beginning of last year). Since getting home from South Africa, Simm has made a decision to stay put for a while. He is adamant that nothing but the greatest part imaginable will tempt him away from home for the time being. ‘I just want to disappear into family life for a bit because they are all that matters. They keep me grounded.’
Not long ago, his son, Ryan, was asked to a Doctor Who themed birthday party. ‘?”Who are you going to go as?” I asked him, thinking I knew what the answer would be. But he just looked at me blankly. “I’m going to go as Captain Jack, Dad,” he said. I couldn’t believe it. “Why are you going as Captain Jack, Ryan?” I said. He looked at me like I was such an idiot. “Because I like him the best, Dad,” he said.’ The very thought of it makes John Simm laugh until he almost cries. ‘How bloody brilliant is that?’
- ‘The Devil’s Whore’ is on Channel 4 from November 19