Interview / Print / Stage / Theatre

John Simm: ‘I am not comfortable being myself in front of a crowd’

The Observer | Culture
Kate Kellaway
19 May 2012

The actor talks about the genius of Pinter, the joys of GarageBand and the consolations of middle age

'Lively': John Simm in rehearsal for Betrayal.

‘Lively’: John Simm in rehearsal for Betrayal. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer

Infidelity is a bracing subject on a weekday morning over coffee and pain au chocolat but John Simm has been thinking about it all week. He is about to open in Harold Pinter‘s Betrayal at Sheffield Crucible. Happily married to the actor Kate Magowan and with two young children, he recognises that this chamber piece exploring betrayal at every level is a cautionary tale: “It is a play that would take any thought of that [he does not need to be more precise] right out of your mind.”

Simm is best known for his role in the BBC series Life on Mars and has starred in Human TrafficExile and State of Play as well as playing the Master – Doctor Who’s worst enemy – and has been nominated for Bafta and Olivier awards. He is a lively-featured, laddish 41-year-old: engaged and engaging. He shows me the arresting words (he has scribbled them at the back of his script) that Samuel Beckett sent Pinter in a letter when asked to comment on Betrayal‘s ending (it depends upon the wisdom of hindsight – the action is played in reverse chronological order through the devastating seven-year affair): “That first last look in the shadows with all those in the light to come. A curtain of curtains.”

Simm admires good writing, revels in the great roles and calls Pinter a genius. Playing Hamlet two years ago (also a Crucible production) “changed me as an actor and as a person”. What he hates – he might sympathise with Hamlet’s introverted moments – is attention. “I am not comfortable being myself in front of a crowd but can be someone else at the drop of a hat.” He was born in Leeds and, aged 12, played guitar and sang – Elvis, Beach Boys, Beatles – alongside his dad in working men’s clubs in the north-west. His dad egged him on to smile and “move around like the Shadows”, but he preferred not to catch anyone’s eye.

Music continued to be a passion: he was in a band, Magic Alex, and released an album: Dated and Sexist. Tempting providence? He laughs: the band split in 2005. Now he plays “the GarageBand app on my iPad”. If he hadn’t become an actor he would have joined the navy, been a DJ or, perhaps, a journalist.

One good thing about being middle-aged, he says, is that there is no pressure to be cool: “You can wear what you want, say what you like.” He is a Man United supporter who, in the past, would be “depressed for days” when they lost. Now he takes it on the chin. It is to do with becoming a parent, he reckons. No time for tears.

He is back from three months in South Africa shooting the third series of Sky 1’s Mad Dogs (with its own take on midlife). Now he is catching up as a dad. He turned up breathless this morning having literally done the school run. Now it is time to sprint upstairs to the rehearsal room where director Nick Bagnall and Ruth Gemmell – who plays the other woman – are waiting for him.

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