11 September 2010
Why is John Simm so often cast as a chippy bugger? “Am I?” he asks. “Define chippy.” Well, there’s the brooding journalist Cal McCaffrey in TV drama State Of Play who feels he’s up against the world, and the displaced detective inspector Sam Tyler in Life On Mars, thrown back into the 1970s and misunderstood by all. Then there’s the vengeful Master in Doctor Who – you don’t get much more chippy than him. And now he’s playing the ultimate chippy bugger – Hamlet.
“Angst,” he says. “They are the best parts… Maybe it’s my face.” He’s right about the face – it’s strong, handsome even, but not smooth or comforting. He’s too wiry to be eye candy.
We meet in a pub in Highgate, north London. By the time I get there, Simm is sitting in the garden nursing a pint. He’s dressed smart-casual – Ben Sherman shirt, Ray-Ban shades, pale blue jacket, jeans – and merges into the crowd. Simm is only two days into rehearsals and admits he’s terrified. But that’s the way he wants it. The thing is, he says, he’s done so much television that he was too comfortable and he wanted to give himself a jolt. “I was dying, really. I was a bit numb to it all – that excitement, that frisson had gone.”
He seems to get bored easily, I say. He smiles. “Yeah. I don’t like to hang around too long.” His first significant part was in the Jimmy McGovern TV drama The Lakes, but even back then he almost did a runner. “I didn’t want to do two series and I was vindicated because I talked to Jimmy about five years later and he apologised for the second series. I don’t like doing too many. Life On Mars, I thought two was enough. I could feel a backlash. I’ve got a good sense for that.” He looks as if he’s biting his nails as he talks. No, he says, a worse habit – he bites his fingers.
Simm is 40, and says if he didn’t play Hamlet now he never would. The great thing, he says, is that it’s open to any number of interpretations, but – and this is classic Simm – even as he says it he’s preparing for the snipers. “People say, ‘We’ve seen this one, that one, we don’t want another, we’re sick of it’, and you think, ‘Well, it’s one of the greatest plays ever written.’ ” Time for another pint. Bitter, of course.
This is his first professional Shakespeare production, and he knows there are bound to be comparisons. As well as your Oliviers and Branaghs, his Doctor Who nemesis David Tennant gave a dashing, dippy prince. After Hamlet, he is filming a new Paul Abbott work with Pete Postlethwaite. He’ll have his drinking cut out there, I say – Postlethwaite enjoys a Guinness or 10. “I’ll be up for the drinking with Pete. I’ll have either made a right twat of myself or it will just be a relief that it’s over.”
Simm was born in 1970, which makes it easy for him to divide his life into decades. His childhood was poor but happy, he says. He grew up in Nelson, a town near Burnley known in recent times as fertile territory for the BNP. “You do come across casual racism up there and I can’t really deal with it, whether it’s someone in the family or friends of the family. It jars, it’s shocking.”
His mother and father divorced when he was 13, and got back together five years later and remarried. In between times, he lived with his mum and gigged with his father. His dad was a musician – Simm is a talented guitarist – and they’d play local clubs together, knocking out old songs by the Everly Brothers, the Beatles and the Shadows. Even as a young lad, he was responsible for any tricky stuff involving the tremolo. “My dad calls it the wank arm. ‘Wank the arm,’ he’d say. I was like, ‘Don’t say that, it’s a tremolo. Just say push the tremolo.’ ” He looks embarrassed just recalling it. But they were great days, he says. “We were good friends, it was lovely.”
He left school at 16 and headed for Blackpool, where he attended a musical theatre school. After Nelson, Blackpool felt like the centre of the universe – full of young kids with energy and ambition. In the past, he has said it was all drinking and shagging. I remind him, and he looks embarrassed again. He’s not quite as laddish as he once was. “Is that what I said? Well, it wasn’t all shagging. I think I lost my viriginity!” At Blackpool, he realised he wanted to focus on straight acting and won a place at drama school in London.
And his 20s? Ah, fantastic, he says. He was now working regularly, and clubbing constantly. Did he drink or drug his way through the 90s? “Not drink. No, some drink.” What was his drug of choice? He sips his bitter thoughtfully. “I’ve got to be careful here because it might ruin my family insurance policy! I did most things, but I didn’t inject anything. Luckily, I’ve got a phobia of needles.”
Was he a nice or horrible stoner? “I was a loved-up raver. Smoking a lot. Just having a great time. Great bunch of friends. Lovely time to be young, the New Labour thing, that false dawn. Oasis and all that. That night they got in, unbelievable. You could even overlook that shit song by D:Ream.”
By then Simm had his own band, Magic Alex. They released an album, Dated & Sexist, and supported Echo & the Bunnymen on tour. “One day I went to Old Trafford in the afternoon and United won, then we played Manchester Apollo that night – it was one of the best days of my life.”
He had the chance to be signed, but by then he was making headway as an actor. “I’d done Cracker and The Lakes, and it was like, ‘You’ve got to pack that in and go round the country in a little white van playing toilets.’ I thought, ‘Sod that – if I stop now, I’m an idiot, because this is what I do. I’ve been to drama school, trained. If I throw all that away just to be in a band, it would be ridiculous.’ ”
Simm had a career plan. By 26, he reckoned, he’d be a major movie star taking the world by storm. Things didn’t quite work out like that – but they could have. After State Of Play he was invited to LA by American producers to discuss remaking it into a big-budget Hollywood movie. They told him he was huge. So Simm, who was now married to the actor Kate Magowan and a father, phoned to pass on the news. “I rang Kate and said, ‘I think I’ve taken America, we’ve got to move the family over.'” He grins. “And we did, and we were there for a couple of months and I was queueing up with 400 people in a room, thinking, ‘I’ve got to audition for this part with 400 other people.’ I couldn’t be arsed. They make you feel like a million dollars, then you realise they say it to everybody. Very important people would say, ‘My God, I’m such a fan. I love State Of Play – we’re going to remake it with Brad Pitt in your part. How d’you feel about that – Brad Pitt in your part? And I’m like, ‘Well done, what d’you want me to do? Dance a jig, that’s great for you! Excellent.’ ” In the end, they remade it with Russell Crowe.
“They remake everything I do, so they know who I am. They remade Life On Mars, too, so they’ve watched stuff I’ve done, and I’m not going over there begging.” Chippy? Just a bit.
And then there are the Baftas. Or, rather, lack of them. “It’s going to sound bollocks this, but sometimes I do feel underappreciated. I was the lead in State Of Play, and two actors got nominated for Baftas and I wasn’t even one of them. David [Morrissey] and Bill [Nighy], who are both brilliant, were nominated and I was… ‘That’s outrageous.’ ” Perhaps he doesn’t get so much recognition because he’s an unshowy actor. “Maybe. Maybe it is because I don’t play the showy part,” he says, almost to himself.
Simm can also be fabulously grumpy – especially when it comes to fans and privacy. Time for another beer. He tells me how he doesn’t know whether he’s recognised much because he always walks with his head down, shades and cap on, just in case. But there was the time he appeared in the play Speaking In Tongues with Ian Hart, and he came in for fan abuse. In the interval, Simm had called his ill mother and, when one of the audience asked where he was, Hart told her he was taking a nap. “So this woman wrote to me, and she said she’d driven down from Sheffield, ‘We waited for you, and your co-star came out and said you were having a kip. Having a kip! My husband’s a farmer, he works 50 hours a day and he doesn’t have a kip. We’re stood in the rain, who the bloody ‘ell d’you think you are?’ It was unbelievable. And it was just when I’d had some bad news about my mum, who’s got cancer, and I was so angry I thought, ‘You don’t know me, you have no idea about my life.’ But they think it’s all right to write hate mail or go on the open sewer that is public forums and diss you.”
Some people feel they have a claim on you when you are in the public eye or they have paid money to watch you, I say. “Yes, but it doesn’t say in my job remit, ‘Go and meet the audience’, does it? It doesn’t say I’ve got to invite them into my dressing room and have a meal with them after, does it? I mean, I do my job and then I can go home, can’t I? I got very, very angry. Wrote a letter. Then one of my fellow actors, Lucy Cohu, said, ‘That’s terrible, where’s the letter?’ She went, ‘D’you mind?’ and she picked it up and ripped it in half. And she was right.”
But for all Simm’s grumpiness, it is enthusiasm that wins out in the end – for work, music, friends, family. He was content as a kid, loved his clubbing years, but now he’s happier than ever. “I was lamenting the 1990s for quite a few years into the noughties, then I realised the noughties were nearly over and that they’ve been much better than the 90s. I’ve got married, had two kids. I much prefer being older, don’t you?”
Does he think he’s changed? Well, he says, Kate tells him he has no ambition these days. “I often see these people fly past me, like James McAvoy. State Of Play was his first job and he’s brilliant. Voom! Supernova!! It’s happening to Benedict Cumberbatch now, and they’re suddenly huge, working with Steven Spielberg, and you think, ‘How the hell does that happen?’ Kate says, ‘Well, you don’t play the game,’ because I won’t go to parties or premieres or any of that shit, because I can’t be arsed laughing at some producer’s gags just to get a job.”
Does she say that disapprovingly or proudly? He’s not quite sure. “I’m halfway a twat and halfway ambitious. There was a time when I wanted to be Brad Pitt. I’d have loved to have been in Star Wars, but I was in Human Traffic not Trainspotting. So that’s the way my life has gone.”
But actually, he says, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He wants to see his kids (his son is nine, his daughter three) grow up, doesn’t want to miss all their landmarks. “All that separation. It’s physically painful. It used to be great working away from home on location, but I miss the kids. So I think that dictates a lot of decisions I make now.”
Anyway, he says, he knew what it was like to have nothing when he was growing up, and he’s doing just fine now. And if the work’s no good, even if it is close to home, he’s not interested. “I’ve turned down massive pay cheques.” What’s the biggest? “Well, I can’t really name things because it’s not fair on the people… not Hollywood films, maybe third series of hit shows they want to carry on. I can’t do shit for money. Getting fucked for money – surely that’s the definition of a prostitute. Hehe!” The films he’s interested in tend to be small-scale and challenging – after making Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People with Michael Winterbottom, he’s now working with him again on a film about a prisoner, shot in real time over five years.
Imagine if you’d gone to the States and become Ewan McGregor, I say. He grimaces. “It would have been unbearable… but at least I’d have had enough money to build a big moat around my castle.”