9 Nov 2012
Everyday is on Channel 4, Nov 15 (9pm)
John Simm talks about his new role in Michael Winterbottom’s brilliant film Everyday, and why he thinks people don’t notice him.
The screenwriter Paul Abbott once told John Simm that he would never be considered a big star because, on screen, he is chronically unshowy. It was meant as a compliment. “Bit double-edged though, innit?” Simm frowns. “He said it doesn’t seem like I’m trying very hard. Like I’m not acting. So people don’t notice me and think, ‘Oh, we should give him loads of plaudits’.” A Manchester United fan, he reaches for an appropriate analogy: he is the quiet, disciplined, unselfish midfielder of the team. “Nicky Butt!” he decides with a glee that fades into wistful resignation. “Sometimes I’d rather be Paul Scholes.”
We are in the kitchen of Simm’s Edwardian home, drinking lots of tea, watching the drizzle set in over Muswell Hill, North London. He didn’t have to do the school run this morning so is still a little groggy from a lie-in, and curses when the family cats get under his feet. From interviews he has given, he says, it is possible that we have come to regard him as something of a grump, someone cynical about the acting profession and the manoeuvrings required to get ahead within it. “I could be a bit mouthy back then,” the 42-year-old explains a little sheepishly.
He has talked often about the time he went over to Hollywood after the success he enjoyed here in 2003 with the political thriller State of Play (written by Abbott), only to fly straight home when it became apparent that networking and sycophancy would be the prerequisite skills. Over the years he’s also angsted a little about being famous, about being recognised on the street. He wishes he hadn’t: “It doesn’t come across well. It looks like I’m moaning. I’m not. It just took me a while to get used to.”
Today, in Britain at least, we are well used to Simm. Since his breakthrough role as the gambler Danny Kavanagh in Jimmy McGovern’s brilliant Nineties drama The Lakes, he has excelled in the portrayal of flawed or compromised men often caught up in situations spiralling beyond their control. His two Bafta nominations came for Life on Mars (in which he played a modern police detective transported back to 1973) and Exile (in which he was a disgraced journalist having to contend with his father’s Alzheimer’s while attempting to uncover his own past). If it’s moral ambivalence you’re after, Simm is your man.
His latest role fits the pattern. In Michael Winterbottom’s Everydayhe plays Ian, a man serving jail time while his wife (Shirley Henderson) and four young children continue with their lives in rural Norfolk. The film is a remarkable project, filmed in real time over a five-year period. We see his children slowly grow, Simm’s face subtly age as the seasons pass, all shot in an intimate documentary style (albeit with a Michael Nyman score). The result is moving, tender and raw, a warts-and-all study of childhood, family, loneliness and love. The kids are particularly captivating: the fact that they are not actors but actual siblings from Norfolk — Shaun, Robert, Stephanie and Katrina Kirk — only adds to the sense that you are watching something skirting a line between fact and fiction. Their performances were unscripted and their real-life family home was used as their home in the film. When they sing in school assembly, they really are singing in their school assembly.
And it is the children’s vivid freedom, tearing around the playground or yomping through woodland, that contrasts with Simm’s dull, stuffy captivity. Christmasses — four of them — are a particular focus of the film, the seasonal touch only adding to an already high lump-in-throat factor. The whole endeavour is quietly brilliant, easily one of the best British films of the past few years.
Still, the experience of actually getting the thing made was bizarre, Simm says. “I’d come back from six months filming something abroad and get this call from Michael saying I had to come and spend two weeks at a prison in Norwich. I’d think, ‘You’re kidding me! I’d forgotten all about that,’ ” he says, as if it were a parents’ evening he’d overloo ked. “It was like me and Shirley were having this weird affair for five years. Meeting and pretending we were married and kissing these strange kids.”
In real life, Simm is married to the actor Kate Magowan. They appeared together in 2002 in 24 Hour Party People, also directed by Winterbottom, a fellow Lancastrian with whom Simm had previously worked on Wonderland — like Everyday, a work of social realism. “I always joke with [Winterbottom] that whenever he does his big-budget American films he never rings me. But when he does ones where you have to get changed in the car park and bring your own lunch, it’s always … ‘Right, where’s John?’ ”
He says that during filming of Everyday Winterbottom wouldn’t tell him what was going to happen next or, when he was in prison, what storylines his “family” was acting out. “I was actually kind of worried that not much seemed to be going on,” he says, explaining that, for the first few years of filming, he was mostly just in cells or prison visiting rooms. “But what a fool am I to doubt Michael Winterbottom. Plus it got a bit easier when I went on day release and could spend more time with Shirley and the kids.”
He says that he did a bit of improvisational work with some of the other inmates. Scary blokes? “Not really. It was mostly guys who were about to be released. ”
He talks about ambition. Over the past few years he’s seen the careers of a number of former co-stars suddenly “go stratospheric. “Simon Pegg … James McAvoy … [Michael] Fassbender … they’ve all gone ‘whoosh!’,” he says, making sharp skyrocketing motions with his hand. He raises his mug to them all. There was a time when he’d have been seriously jealous — “there’s a period in your twenties when you think you’re going to take on the world. You’re thinking, ‘Why aren’t I Gary Oldman yet?’ ”. Even today, he’ll sometimes see a particular piece of casting and think, “For f**** sake. How did they get that? How come he’s a multi multi multimillionaire? But it’s all relative. I can’t really be envious of anyone.”
He says he wouldn’t mind doing a bit more comedy before too long. He’s also done a spot of Pinter and a bit of Chekhov in the past and would like to give them another crack if the chance comes up. He’s getting older but, because he’s a man, he knows that this isn’t going to restrict the roles he can play. If anything he reckons there will be more out there for him. You can sort of see it. And that’s the good thing about Simm: while he may not be showy enough for Hollywood, as an actor, he still backs himself completely. No false thesp modesty here. “It’s like when people describe me as a ‘TV actor’,” he grimaces. “What the hell does that mean? If I’d been onEmmerdale for 45 years, well, yeah, maybe.”
He remembers a review of his Hamlet at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield which — sin of sins — suggested that he “hadn’t done his job properly”. It still sticks in his throat. “If I could have found the reviewer I would’ve smacked him in the face. Cheeky f***er.”
It’s a spiky interlude in a cheerful, thoughtful morning. The next day he will e-mail to say that he hopes it didn’t seem as though he was moaning too much. Not at all. He’s a good bloke, talented too. He might not be flashy and might not get the plaudits he deserves, but onscreen, I think we all notice him a lot more than he imagines. And how often can you say that about an actor?
Everyday is on Channel 4, Nov 15 (9pm)
With great appreciation & thanks to Peter Popper, non-subscribers can also read this repost of the full article at The Railway Arms.