12 Nov 2008
I find some aspects of stardom quite strange, admits Doctor Who star John Simm
JOHN SIMM has been here, there and everywhere over the last couple of years and he is on the move again for his latest TV project, the hard-hitting historical drama The Devil’s Whore.
After a spell as The Master in Dr Who, back to the 70s to play comatosed cop Sam Tyler in Life On Mars and to the 1880s to play Vincent Van Gogh in Channel 4’s The Yellow House, his latest journey is a little more complicated.
He is going back in time again – to England in the 17th Century – but is also switching continents, filming Channel 4’s The Devil’s Whore in the verdant countryside of South Africa.
“It is a little weird, I grant you,” grins John, who plays swordsman-for-hire Edward Sexby in the four-part drama.
“This is a story set against the background of The English Civil War, located in Hyde Park and Oxfordshire and yet – for reasons of logistics and finance – is being filmed on the other side of the world. But maybe nothing should surprise me, after the last couple of years I’ve had.”
Since 2006 John has been transformed from an actor with a fine reputation to a household name, courtesy of those key roles in Life On Mars and Dr Who.
And while having no regrets about involving himself in either project, it’s clear that the label ‘star’ sits heavily on his shoulders.
“It’s not what I came into this business to be, it’s never what I aspired to be,” says John, relaxing between scenes on the set of The Devil’s Whore near Cape Town.
“I’m okay with most aspects of recognition. I accept that kids are going to want my autograph when they see me in the street and clock me from Dr Who and I’m more than happy to oblige. But there are some parts of ‘stardom’ which I find strange. For example, when I’d finished Life On Mars and Dr Who I felt the need to disappear for a while, to step away from the spotlight.
“So I did a play, Elling, in London, and every night I came out of the theatre there’d be this same guy there, asking for my autograph.
“I can understand somebody wanting me to sign my name for them once, but 19 times? Very strange.
“And I never realised what impact playing The Master was going to have on my seven-year-old son, Ryan. I’d take him to school in the morning and I’d feel like the Pied Piper with this huge gaggle of kids around me in playground. ”
Ryan is proud of the fact that his dad’s been in Dr Who – one of the reasons I wanted to be in the programme, in the first place, is because he’s such a fan of the show – but he was a bit freaked out by all the attention and I’m sorry it happened that way.
“Though I’m not, by the way,” adds John, hastily, “ruling out a return to Dr Who in the future.
“It’s too exciting a show to be a part offor me to do that.”
According to bookmakers William Hill, John is joint fifth favourite at 8-1, with Glasgow’s very own Robert Carlyle, to be the new Dr Who, now that David Tennant, has announced he is quitting the role.
Those might be considered remarkably short odds for a man who has already appeared in the sci-fi drama as a different character but they could be slashed even further when John is seen in The Devil’s Whore. His character, Edward Sexby, does bear some remarkable similarities to the good doctor.
They are both brave, loyal, intelligent, fast-talking loners but with a weakness for a particular woman. In Dr Who’s case it was Billie Piper’s character Rose Tyler and in Sexby’s case it is Angelica Fanshawe, the Devil’s Whore of the title.
Sexby even has an 18th Century version of a sonic screwdriver, a flashing blade which gets him out of trouble when the going gets tough. Which it frequently does, for a mercenary soldier.
“Although I would liken him more to Han Solo from Star Wars, or Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter than I would to Dr Who,” grins John.
“Sexby is a fighter for hire so there’s a heartlessness to him, in the throes of war. But there is also, clearly, a beating heart beneath that tough exterior, hence his love for the noblewoman Angelica Fanshawe and his determination to protect her as she gets caught up in the English Civil War.”
John’s own heart beats strong and true for actress Kate Magowan, his wife of four years and mother to his children Ryan, and Molly, 21 months.
One of the downsides of filming Life On Mars in Manchester, he says, was being apart from his family in London for lengthy periods of times.
“I’d get Sundays off and there were times when I felt like a day-release prisoner, allowed to spend just a few hours with my family,” he recalls.
You can therefore imagine his joy at having Kate and the kids around him in South Africa, for at least part of the time he was filming The Devil’s Whore.
“I’m not entirely sure what Molly made of my appearance when she came on set for the first time,” admits John, still dressed as the battle-scarred Sexby.
“Two hours in make-up, every morning, transforms me into this fighting man, complete with blood-red scars across my face, a thick beard, a metal gauntlet for one of Sexby’s hands lost in battle and an awful lot of attitude.
“No wonder Molly looked a bit uncertain when she first saw me made up.
“She came over to me and rested her head on my shoulder, just to make sure it was her daddy, not some madman!
“I think Sexby’s crowning glory is the bit that’s missing from one of his eyebrows, the legacy of one of his many sword fights.
“I’d had a bit shaved out of my eyebrows, to prepare me for the part, when I went to present an award at the BAFTAs in London.
I’m quite sure people were sitting there in the audience thinking: ‘What on Earth does he look like?
Is John Simm suffering some kind of mid-life crisis? Is that why he’s shaving bits out of his eyebrows? “I can assure them I wasn’t – and I’m not – but I could understand why they might think that!”
John seems like the least likely kind of person to suffer a mid-life crisis.
He appears happy in his skin and unquestionably happy with a career that’s been British-based rather than Hollywood.
His work is known in America.
Movies such as 24 Hour Party People and TV dramas such as State Of Play have done well out there and he was approached, along with Philip Glenister, to reprise the roles of Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt in an American version of Life On Mars.
But John, like Philip, turned that opportunity down and he is not about to up sticks and try his luck in Tinseltown any time soon.
“I’m certainly not prepared to go there, butter people up, go to movie premieres and parties just to get my face known,” says John, who was born in Yorkshire but raised in Nelson, Lancashire.
“And the idea of auditioning with another 4000 actors in Hollywood for a particular part just fills me with horror.
“They know my work and they know where I am if they want to employ me.”
The Devil’s Whore begins on Channel 4 on November 19.
(Thanks to wibble, Administrator at The Railway Arms for the article link)