By Ian Soutar
09 September 2010
PLAYING Hamlet is surely something most actors dream of – “the ultimate part for a young actor”, according to actor and director Samuel West.
In the case of John Simm, preparing to open as the Prince of Denmark at the Crucible next week, it was more a joint ambition with director Paul Miller.
“It was something we have talked about a lot,” he says. “We said if there was one Shakespeare we were going to do, that was it. We both loved the play.”
Simm made his professional stage debut in Goldhawk Road at the Bush Theatre, directed by Miller, back in 1996 and they worked together again on Elling in 2007.
“We talked about Hamlet and then the opportunity arose,” says Simm. “You’re 40 years of age and you get offered the chance of the best Shakespearean role, what are you going to say?”
Presumably the actor was not short of offers for television – more lucrative than coming to a regional theatre for a couple of months.
“I have the luxury of being in the enviable position where I don’t have to take roles for money,” he says, “although my wife might be happier. No, she’s of the same mind as me. I want quality control not quantity of money.”
It was the challenge of the role above all that appealed. “People say that he plays you, you don’t play him. I didn’t understand what they meant by that. I thought he’s the Prince of Denmark, I’m not the Prince of Denmark but now we are well into it I understand what they mean.
“You have to use yourself and be yourself in everything and that’s why different actors get asked to play it, To see what Hamlet looks like with your face and how it fits in this angry, mad role.
“As an actor, he constantly surprises you. I haven’t really got a grip and we open in a week or so. I probably won’t until the end of the run.” Simm is engagingly self-deprecating at times.
“Things happen to Hamlet, he reacts to things. He reacts to all this exciting drama going on around him.
“It’s a question of just being yourself and being in the moment, that’s how you play him. It’s an incredible journey to come on,” he concludes.
The play, of course, has many famous lines that an actor might approach with trepidation – such as To Be or Not to Be.
“All these huge golden speeches, I know there will be people in the audience moving their mouths so I will have to take care not to look,” he laughs.
“It was a funny moment the other day when in rehearsal we came to the gravedigging scene and there I was saying, ‘Alas poor Yorick’.”
But the reality, he says, is that the language is powerful, however familiar. “The words are brilliant and when spoken clearly they are very truthful. There’s a rhythm that’s beautiful to speak.”
Simm, who reluctantly owns to having been born in Leeds but crossed the Pennines after a few years and grew up in the North West, had a classical theatre training.
“Then I had to learn to be a screen actor and that overtook my life.”
No more so than with Life on Mars which Simm quit after two series, resisting pressure to continue. “With me the story had come to an end and that was it,” he says.
“Of course they wanted more and with science fiction you can always do that.” The sequel, Ashes to Ashes, went on without him for a number of series, so everyone was happy.
For his part Simm felt relieved to be out of non-stop working since his character, Sam Tyler, was in virtually every scene.
“Life on Mars was exciting at first but there came a point where I wondered what I was doing there. I lost all feeling. I became Sam Tyler,” he explains.
“I found myself really not feeling anything any more and I thought what can I do about it? The answer was to give myself a kick up the arse and take myself out of the comfort zone.”
That meant returning to the stage, first with Elling in London with his old friend, Paul Miller. “With theatre, I know I am alive – and that’s something in itself.”
There is no doubt Life on Mars has transformed Simm’s career. He had done plenty of television before Life On Mars, notably The Lakes, of course, but also Clocking Off, State of Play and Sex Traffic, along with independent movies such as Human Traffic, 24 Hour Party People and Wonderland, but it was the BBC’s time-shift cop series that made his name with mainstream audiences.
“Before then it was pretty much all under the radar stuff and I remember the Life on Mars producers saying, ‘We want your audience and you need ours’.”
When the run of Hamlet ends on October 23, Simm will no doubt return to the screen.
He has joined up again with Philip Glenister to make Mad Dogs, also reuniting him with Marc Warren from State of Play.
A drama about four ex-schoolmates who go on a reunion to Spain which turns sinister, it is due to screen on Sky next spring.
“I have also signed up for another under the radar TV project, Exiles, in Manchester with Pete Postlethwaite and Paul Abbott (Clocking Off, State of Play) producing,” he reports.
So there is no doubt that Simm likes working with his mates.