By John Preston
24 Dec 2009
John Simm, an actor so affable he lives in fear of offending every fan he meets, is tight-lipped on whether he actually bumps off David Tennant’s Doctor Who this Christmas. But he certainly had fun trying
In the night before we meet, John Simm had caught the Tube home after the curtain came down on Speaking in Tongues, the West End show he’s been starring in for the past three months. He has been doing this throughout the run. He pulls his cap down over his face, sticks his nose in a book and no one ever bothers him. Until last night, that is.
‘This woman came and sat next to me,’ he says. ‘I realised she’d followed me from the theatre. It turned out she’d come from Vienna and she had been to see the show four times. She just sat there staring at me. I had to jump out of the train at Euston and try to lose her, but she jumped out too. I lost her in the end, but it was just ridiculous. And unnerving, you know.’
This would have been unnerving for anyone – but probably more so for Simm than most. He’s always had an ambivalent attitude towards fame; fully aware that he’s in a profession where success is judged in terms of public recognition, but still not liking it much. Or at all.
‘I find it a hard part of the job, but I try to do my best with it. Sometimes, though, like last night, there’s a line that gets crossed.’
We’re sitting in his dressing room at the Duke of Yorks Theatre. It’s a gloomy windowless box that Simm has tried to cheer up – not altogether successfully – by hanging a Manchester United scarf above his dressing room mirror, along with some photos of the Beatles.
The book he was trying to read on the Tube last night – John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath – is open beside a jug of rather tired-looking flowers.
He’s a small, wiry man, light on his feet and with features that can easily scrunch up into a look of anger, even disgust. No doubt this has contributed to the fact that people who don’t know him often assume he’s a stroppy sod.
In fact, he’s friendly, bright and engagingly open about himself – although he admits he can be difficult at times. ‘I think I can be closed in. I can close this outer shell, cut myself off and be quite cold. I can cut other people off if I need to. I don’t think I’m angry, though… Maybe my wife would disagree.’
The chances of Simm using public transport for a while seem remote: he’s appearing once again as the Doctor’s arch-adversary, the Master, in the Doctor Who Christmas special, and already fans have started queuing outside the stage door with photos for him to sign.
His reappearance is quite a surprise, given that the Master died two years ago – in David Tennant’s arms. Not that one should ever underestimate the regenerative powers of a Time Lord, of course. Even so, something odd has happened to the Master during his rebirthing process: he’s ended up with snowy-white hair.
‘Ah, that was kind of my idea,’ Simm says. ‘Although I started to regret it almost as soon as I’d had it done. My original idea was that something had gone wrong in the process and it damages him. So I thought the shock of what happens might have turned his hair white.’
Simm first heard that he was going to be regenerated while he was making a film in Cardiff earlier this year. Doctor Who mastermind Russell T Davies called and asked if they could meet in a hotel after filming had finished for the day.
‘It was very late at night and very covert. Which was exactly what happened when I was asked to play the Master first time round – only then I was up in Manchester filming Life on Mars. So I already knew that something special was likely to come out of these late-night meetings with Russell. He said they wanted to bring him back and explained what was going to happen. I agreed straightaway; it was lovely to play him again,’ he says.
Simm is the seventh actor to play the Master – Professor Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes, as the original writers conceived it – and while previous Masters have usually signalled their evil intent by heavy frowns and black beards, Simm has brought something very different to the role.
He’s both more playful than his predecessors – with a fondness for the Teletubbies – and also much more deranged. Far from diminishing his malevolence, it actually makes him more threatening.
Unsurprisingly, he’s keeping quiet about just what happens in the Christmas Special, although its title – ‘The End of Time’ – offers a clue. But given it is to be Tennant’s last time playing the Doctor, it will be very strange indeed if anyone but the Master bumps him off.
What does surprise Simm – given that we live in a society that finds it almost impossible to keep a secret for longer than five seconds – is how little information has leaked out about it.
After all, the Christmas Special was shot back in March and while the cast are asked – implored – not to say anything, you might have expected someone to have blabbed. However, it wasn’t until late July that the first few details began to emerge.
‘It’s extraordinary and I really don’t know how they do it,’ he says. ‘But I’ve noticed that a lot of the photos I’m being asked to sign are from the new show. I’ve got no idea how people have got hold of them. I hadn’t even seen them myself – they’re not from the trailer, nor are they on the internet.’
When he was first asked to play the Master, one of Simm’s reasons for accepting was to please – and impress – his six-year-old son, Ryan. Two years on, Ryan, far from being impressed, is thoroughly blasé about the whole thing.
‘He’s quite used to it now. In fact his mum [actress Kate Magowan] was in an episode of Primeval recently, so God knows what he thinks of us. But he’s a quiet boy, you know. He’s like I was; he doesn’t like attention.’
Isn’t that a very odd thing for an actor to say?
‘Mmm, I know. I’m not very good with compliments either. I always go bright red. And I get embarrassed for other people too. I can’t watch shows like The X Factor, for instance. I just squirm for the people involved, for the way they’re being used. It’s the cruellest, most ridiculous show on television. It’s ruined music, ruined everything.’
It can’t be easy then appearing onstage every night with the audience just a few feet away, scrutinising every expression he makes. ‘I’m all right when I have a character to hide behind,’ he says. ‘It’s in real life, that I can’t bear it. But to some extent I’m used to it, of course. After all, it’s what I grew up doing.’
Simm was brought up in various places around the North West – including Nelson near Burnley where he went to school. He and his two younger sisters lived in a council house with an outside lavatory. But while there was very little money around, he says he never had any sense of deprivation.
‘Actually, I had a great childhood. I played outside and all that. Looking back, it was quite grim, I suppose, but I certainly didn’t have a bad time. And all the other kids were in the same boat.’
When he was 13, his parents divorced and Simm and his sisters lived with their mother. Then, after five years, his parents got back together and subsequently remarried. While they were apart, did Simm, as the only boy, feel an extra sense of responsibility?
‘I did, yeah, and I don’t think I reacted very well. I was great mates with my dad and I probably blamed my mother for what happened in a terrible kind of way.’
By the time his parents split, Simm and his father had already teamed up to form a double act: they’d play guitars and sing old Elvis Presley, Beach Boys and Beatles songs in working men’s clubs around the North West – hence the photos on his dressing room wall. This started when he was 12 and carried on until he was 18.
‘At first, when I was a kid, it was all right. I just used to get up and sing Elvis songs. But later on, I became much more self-conscious, all these people staring at me, you know… Nothing to hide behind. Maybe that’s what made me so shy, because I was myself on stage and I find that really hard. I used to stare at the floor a lot and my dad was constantly telling me to smile.’
Were you good? ‘I think we were pretty good actually. Unfortunately, there aren’t any recordings of us singing.’
However hard Simm found it, the experience of being up on stage presumably influenced his decision to become an actor. ‘I guess so. I was also in a school play and I got bitten by the bug, if that’s not too much of a cliché. When I started acting, I just enjoyed it. I found it quite easy and I got a good reaction.
‘I remember thinking: “I can obviously do this.” I’ve always had confidence in my abilities in that way. And, of course, it gave me this mask to hide behind. That was much more suited to my character.’
He went to drama school in London when he was 18. When he left he’d already got an agent and had offers of work. Within five years, he was starring in Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes and since then he’s never really stopped: Human Traffic, Clocking Off, Never Never, 24-Hour Party People, Crime and Punishment, the original television version of State of Play, Life on Mars.
Consistently, he has chosen intelligent, meaty roles – ones in which he’s often exuded a smouldering sense of frustration and been stretched taut by various forms of internal tension. Perhaps this has led to his being considered awkward. However, there may, he concedes, be other reasons too.
‘When I was younger, I was a bit mouthy, so that probably didn’t help. I’m not a people person. I’m not sociable. I have been and I can be, but not as a general rule.’
Do you have close friends? ‘Yeah, I do. I have very close friends. But when it comes to meeting strangers and having to chat to them, that doesn’t come easily. David – David Tennant – is brilliant at it, but I’m not. The other day this workman started shouting my name in the street. And no matter how often you hear it, if someone shouts your name in the street, it’s weird.
‘These men were repairing the road and he shouted out: “John Simm!” At first, I thought perhaps he thought he knew me and I went: “Er, hi.” He beckoned me over and put out his hand to shake. I had my little girl with me [two-year-old Molly]. I wasn’t about to pick her up and walk across this building site to shake this guy’s hand.
‘So I just sort-of waved at him. And he went: “Oh, you’re too good to shake my hand, are you?” I said: “I don’t know you mate,” but he looked disgusted and walked away. That really upset me. I just thought, you’ve really got the wrong end of the stick there. I wasn’t being horrible; I don’t even know you. For some reason, things like that seem to happen to me. I don’t mean to be rude. In fact, I try to be as polite as possible. But sometimes…’
There was a time not so long ago when Simm came close to losing his mojo as an actor. He’d turn up, do his lines and get good reviews, but it had all become a process – one which was affording him less and less satisfaction.
‘The fire had gone and so had the passion. I was getting a bit worried about it. But doing this play has given me a welly up the a—, reignited my enthusiasm. It’s gone on for too long, but then I always find three months too long. You always go through a weird period in the middle where you hit a brick wall. On the whole, though, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s made me want to do more theatre.
‘In fact,’ he says leaning forward, ‘I’m going to be doing Hamlet next year at the Crucible in Sheffield.’
Simm was first asked to play Hamlet a few years ago, but turned it down because he didn’t feel he was ready. ‘But I’m 40 now, so it’s last chance saloon. I only found out yesterday and I’ve been desperate to tell someone. I’m really looking forward to it. I mean really looking forward to it.
‘I’ve only ever seen one Hamlet in my life, and that was when I was 20. I didn’t see David Tennant’s Hamlet, or Jude Law’s, so I won’t be coming at it with any preconceptions. I’ll just try to treat it like any other job and see what happens.’
However much he might dislike being recognised, or being followed by mad Viennese women on the Tube, Simm readily admits he’d be bereft if it all suddenly went away.
‘That’s the rub, isn’t it? If it disappeared tomorrow, I’d be like Sam Tyler in Life on Mars; I’d wonder what the hell was going on. Because it’s been a part of my life for a long time now. I mean, it’s what I do and who I am. And if that’s the one thing you dislike, the one cross you have to bear, Jesus Christ, it’s not bad is it? Let’s not lose a sense of perspective. I know I’m f—ing lucky to be in the position I’m in.
‘So, this is not a moan, I promise. It’s just that you asked about it and, well, I told you.’