9 September 2018
Nothing stops for filming in Hong Kong. As we slalom our way through the crowds of people crammed into the exceptionally busy fish market at Lau Fau Shan, it’s a struggle to keep up with the cameras capturing a scene for the new ITV thriller Strangers. In it, John Simm plays a British professor whose life is turned upside when his wife (Dervla Kirwan) dies in a car crash in the Chinese territory.
Limbo-dancing as we go, we are doing our best to follow a trolley being wheeled through the labyrinthine corridors of the market. The air is thick with pungent aromas from stalls displaying unfamiliar fish. Lying on the trolley is a (prosthetic) corpse wrapped in a tarpaulin and trussed up with rope. As the dead body weaves through the throng, no one bats an eyelid. They’re far too busy to take a second glance. Outside, we look on as Simm, in pursuit of answers, leaps out of a taxi that looks like it has been driven here straight from losing a demolition derby. He dashes from the vehicle into the fish market.
It is all very discombobulating. The perfect setting, then, forStrangers, which has been exec-produced by the creators of The Missing, Harry and Jack Williams. Simm’s devastated Jonah has to overcome his fear of flying to travel to Hong Kong to identify his wife Megan’s body. There he uncovers a string of dark secrets that reveal she was leading a double life. Meanwhile, the authorities who are purporting to help him turn out to be far from trustworthy. The deeper he delves, the more dazed and confused he feels.
Nobody does dazed and confused better than Simm – think of the look of perpetual bafflement on his face when his modern day detective Sam Tyler was confronted by 1970s copper Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) in Life on Mars. Between scenes in the Happy Seafood restaurant in Lau Fau Shan, Simm has the same magnetic energy he displays on screen.
“I’ve got form when it comes to wandering around looking confused in a city I don’t seem to recognise,” he laughs. “Maybe that’s why they cast me!”
Hong Kong, the 48-year-old says, “is an intense place to shoot. It’s so busy. We are all out of our comfort zone here. Walking down the street with a camera following you feels very edgy and exciting.
“We had one afternoon filming on the street here, when it was like Oxford Street on New Year’s Eve. I thought London was busy and polluted. But when I go back from Hong Kong to London, I think, ‘Deep breaths. It’s so lovely to be somewhere so empty and unpolluted!’”
He underlines that “the Hong Kong setting only adds to Jonah’s sense of disorientation, and it really helps me with the character. He’s completely bewildered and discombobulated by Hong Kong. He feels very ill at ease. The whole drama has an unsettling quality, and the setting enhances that. The music is great, too. It’s jarring and emphasises the sense that Jonah is out of his comfort zone.”
When Jonah arrives in Hong Kong, he says, “it’s like landing on the moon. In fact, it could be Mars! But it’s not as mad as Mars. I know because I’ve been there! It’s full of Ford Cortinas and dodgy coppers. Actually, they do have that in common; there are a lot of dodgy coppers in Strangers, too, but not so many Cortinas!”
Jonah’s sense of perplexity is merely exacerbated by what he unearths about Megan. “There is a line in Strangers where a reporter says to Jonah, ‘You think you know someone…’, and Jonah replies, ‘Tell me about it!’ His whole life has been a lie,” Simm says. “Nothing is quite as it seems in this drama, and that’s brilliant for the audience.”
After leading roles in dramas such as State of Play, The Lakes, Crime and Punishment, Exile, Prey, Mad Dogs and The Village, Strangers is the latest opportunity for Simm to play a troubled hero. What draws him to these men in turmoil?
“To me, they are always the most interesting characters to play,” he reflects. “There are so many layers to them. You’re the eyes of the audience. You’re trying to get people on your side and make this character remarkable, even if he’s not. It’s about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.” But after this, Simm admits, “I want to say no to troubled characters for a while and wait for some comedy!”
It’s not a genre that we particularly associate with him, although he has appeared in the sitcoms Toast of London and Spaced, but Simm has always tried to ring the changes. For instance, in 2007 he tapped into a whole new audience by bringing a rare glee to The Master in Doctor Who, then reprised the role last year. “It’s great fun playing The Master,” he says. “He is the nearest thing I’ve done to comedy for a while. He wants to destroy humankind, but he’s having terrific fun doing it.”
Simm has also interspersed his TV career with many acclaimed stage performances. He was a well-regarded Hamlet in 2010, and three years ago he appeared as Lenny in Jamie Lloyd’s much-admired 50th anniversary production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.
He recalls, however, how the experience was interrupted by personal tragedy. “Halfway through the run, my dad died. When someone dies, it leaves a big hole in your soul, never to be replaced. It is as life-changing as birth.
“But I only missed four performances of The Homecoming. My dad put me on the stage. I could hear his voice telling me, ‘Get back on stage. It’s your part.’ He used to say that to me all the time – ‘The show must go on.’ It was very tough, but ultimately it was cathartic pretending to be someone else for two-and-a-half hours every night.”
Simm, who has two children with his wife, actress Kate Magowan, is also a talented musician, having played lead guitar at Ian McCulloch’s solo live shows, including a night at Wembley Arena supporting Coldplay. He grew up playing working men’s clubs in the North with his father, but ultimately chose acting as a career path. He has worked consistently for two decades.
This year alone, he has already starred in both the ITV drama Trauma (written by the creator of Doctor Foster and Press) and the David Hare thriller Collateral for BBC One. He laughs that “I’ve been on TV the whole time since I was 27. Perhaps I should stay away for three years and give everybody a break, including myself!”
To that end, Simm will be returning to the stage later this year to perform in two Pinter one-act plays, Party Time and Celebration, at the Pinter Theatre. They will be part of a season, which goes under the umbrella title of Pinter at the Pinter and also features Danny Dyer, Martin Freeman, Tamsin Greig, Rupert Graves, Keith Allen and Gary Kemp.
Simm is really looking forward to the prospect. “The only problem,” he says, “is that it’s all over Christmas and the New Year, so I can’t indulge. I might have one cheeky eggnog on Christmas Day, but then I’ll have to lock it in the drinks cabinet!”
Strangers begins Monday September 10 on ITV