Interview / Print / Serial / Television

John Simm on The Devil’s Whore

Times Online
Amy Raphael
18 November 2008

John Simm on The Devil's Whore

John Simm on The Devil's Whore

 

After Life on Mars, John Simm is happy to be himself and to play the antihero in The Devil’s Whore, a new period drama

After Life on Mars won an Emmy in 2006, John Simm decided to try “the LA thing”. He met the revered director-producer J.J. Abrams, who leapt off his chair, shouting: “John Simm, no way!” The Lancashire actor was taken to meet a room of scriptwriters. “They all stood up and started clapping. I’m thinking: ‘Jesus Christ, this is unbelievable, Hollywood is mine!’ Next thing I know, I’m auditioning for one of J.J.’s television programmes. Hang on a minute, I can get TV programmes in England, without auditioning.”

Simm, 38, has a strange relationship with America: it keeps remaking programmes that he’s starred in, from Life on Mars to the forthcoming feature film of State of Play. He’s a bit grumpy about this and won’t be watching Russell Crowe as the hard-nosed reporter Cal McCaffrey. “It’s my role. I read all six episodes without taking my coat off. It took Paul Abbott six hours to tell that story; I don’t want to see the Hollywood blockbuster version.”

Perhaps Simm doesn’t need Hollywood. After all, he has become the scriptwriter’s actor in this country, working with Jimmy McGovern on The Lakes, Paul Abbott on Clocking Off and State of Play, Frank Cottrell Boyce on 24 Hour Party People and Russell T. Davies on Doctor Who. For the actor who studied the Stanislavski Method at the Drama Centre in East London, who was conscious of his more educated peers and consequently developed an obsession with literature, a superior script is all: it allows him to really feel his way into the deep, difficult characters he favours.

It should come as no surprise that Simm’s latest project, his first costume drama, casts him not as a pretty boy saviour but as a scarred antihero. The Devil’s Whore is such an ambitious project about the English Civil War that Peter Flannery, who wrote Our Friends in the North, spent a decade working on it. The illustrious cast includes Michael Fassbender and Dominic West, and there’s a terrifically camp performance from Peter Capaldi, but it’s still Simm who captivates.

“Yeah, because I look a right mess. Dodgy haircut, beard, a metal hand, a scar down one side of my face. The make-up burnt right through to my flesh; it was agony. But with every part there must be some suffering, or it’s too easy being an actor.” And the pompous expression turns into a huge grin.

The Devil’s Whore reunited Simm with his old friend West; the pair had worked on Diana & Me in 1997, a film so dire that it was later shelved. “We filmed in Sydney for a few months and had an amazing time; Dominic and I were like Batman and Robin. As is normal in this industry, I didn’t see him again for years. I bumped into him in LA and he’d been filming The Wire in Baltimore. He told me it was a nightmare, that no one would ever watch it.”

Simm forgot about this conversation until, years later, The Wire became widely regarded as one of the best television programmes yet made. He took the box set with him to South Africa, where The Devil’s Whore was filmed. “I’d be working with Dominic all day and watching him on DVD all night. I kept asking about The Wire until I realised I had to stop.” To pass the time, he borrowed Michael Fassbender’s guitar (Simm grew up playing in a band with his father and, until recently, had his own band, Magic Alex). “Michael was out on benders and I’d stay in, strumming away. That’s how old I am. It’s over.”

Well, not quite. He might be a family man, married to the actress Kate MacGowan and with two young children, but he does let slip that, while filming Skellig, a television adaptation of a children’s book, he got drunk with his co-star, Tim Roth. “Yeah, we had a few beers in the hotel bar, stayed up till 3am or 4am. He was very clear about how to approach Hollywood: ‘Don’t go over unless you’re invited.’ He’s right; they know where I am, they know what I can do.”

What Simm does best is balance his alpha-male mien with a tender, feminine side. It’s a seductive mix, both on and off screen. He also has decent comic delivery, a talent perhaps underused on screen. He spends ages, for example, talking about appearing in every scene of Life on Mars. “I thought I was going to have a breakdown at one point.” Then he pulls a face. “Christ, I can’t stand actors who complain about their jobs. Though Phil [Glenister] and I used to sit around eating too much and moaning. It was like Moany Men on Mars. Moany Fat Men on Mars.”

Simm has great affection for Life on Mars. He’d even consider doing a one-off special if the BBC were to ask him. Has the Beeb asked him to be Doctor Who? “I’m the Master. Simple as that. I don’t want to be Doctor Who. I might be the Master again… I’m not allowed to say.”

For now he’s taking it easy, hanging out at home, going to see Manchester United, reading David Foster Wallace and listening to Paul McCartney and AC/DC. While he would happily talk about books and music for hours, I remind him that as a teenager he wanted to be Tom Cruise by the time he was 27. “It was never going to happen. Obviously. I’m no longer that ambitious.”

He pauses and stifles a laugh at the cliché to follow. “And I don’t care, because I’m really happy.”

The Devil’s Whore starts on Channel 4 tomorrow at 9pm

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