27 Sep 2019
John Simm: ‘I don’t feel anything when I film any more’
From his Life on Mars cop to Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, Simm does a fine line in the troubled and conflicted. Next up? Macbeth
John Simm doesn’t do any of that superstition nonsense. It’s not the Scottish Play – he’s in Macbeth, and he’s going to shout it from the theatre rooftop. Actually, we are in the cafe of the theatre – the Chichester Festival theatre – outside on the terrace in the late summer sunshine, drinking cappuccinos.
Almond milk for Simm, he doesn’t do dairy. Is that a fashion thing? “No, it’s because it’s weird if you think about it. Why drink bovine breast milk? We don’t even drink human breast milk. It’s not for us, it’s for baby cows.” Hmmm, my bovine breast milk froth is suddenly looking less appealing.
He’s not veggie though. “I go through periods. It started when we filmed an episode of Life on Mars in an abattoir. That turned my stomach for quite a while, the smell and the screams had a horrible effect on me, but I have to admit it didn’t change me completely. I’m in and out.”
He’s happy enough – well, with a fair few doubts to be fair – to stick his own dagger into human flesh. The king’s. Macbeth, that’s why we’re here. This one is directed by Paul Miller, who did Hamlet with Simm at the Crucible in Sheffield nearly a decade ago. “We’ve got a three-play plan,” says Simm. “Lear next, then we’re out.”
Lear might have to wait at least another 10 years, but now – aged 49 – is about the right time for Macbeth. And he’s loving it. “He’s difficult to get a handle on, such a contradiction. He’s this incredible warrior that everyone talks about, looks up to and respects at the beginning. Then he goes completely to pieces when he has to kill a sleeping king. Then it gets really interesting, he gets the bloodlust, he turns into a tyrant, it’s a fantastic part to play.”
Simm is something of a specialist at troubled and conflicted, from Raskolnikov in Tony Marchant’s TV Crime and Punishment, to Sam Tyler in Life on Mars, to, more recently, the Labour MP in David Hare’s Collateral. Does he dig his Macbeth from his own tortured soul, I wonder? “No! He is an absolute bloodythirsty tyrant!”
What about the ambition? “No! I don’t see any of me, thank God, but I do think he is a fucking brilliant character, this guy who turns into an absolute monster and then is completely isolated when she dies … I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen.” Oops, spoiler alert.
Presumably, he and his wife (the actor Kate Magowan) have a similar sort of relationship as Macbeth and Lady M (who is played at Chichester by Dervla Kirwan)? “Only in the fact that he worships her, and she is the glue that holds everything together.”
She – Lady Simm – did read the part when he was learning his lines at home, he says. No, she doesn’t sleepwalk; is she ambitious though, for him? “I guess so, yeah, on my behalf, and about certain injustices.” And he tells me that it was her who persuaded him to keep up his public Instagram account, for the fans. See, there you go: do your Insta, now kill the monarch, that’s not such a giant leap is it?
There are other parallels between Macbeth and what’s going on outside the theatre, aren’t there? “I can’t think of anything specific,” he laughs. “I mean it’s a play about power, and corruption and lies, a tyrant, political intrigue … yeah, there’s a lot of relevance right now, it’s a tale for the ages.”
He mentions a recent political cartoon by Seamus Jennings that had the prime minister drowning in excrement and pulling parliament down with him, with a modified Macbeth quote: “I am in BREXIT stepped in so far that, should I wade more, returning were as tedious as go o’er …”
“But I’m not going to play him like Boris Johnson, it would be a mistake,” says Simm. I don’t know; in Chichester, with a Conservative majority of over 22,000, it might work.
I ask Simm for his favourite lines, and he’s got so many. “He’s a general of the battlefield, yet he’s lyrical like Hamlet is lyrical: ‘Ere the bat hath flown, His cloistered flight, ere to black Hecate’s summons, The shard-borne beetle with his drowsy hums, Hath rung night’s yawning peal.’ You know, he’s off on one.” And Simm is off on one, too: “You know like: ‘And pity, like a naked newborn babe, Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed Upon the sightless couriers of the air … ’ I mean it’s beautiful language.” Then someone Simm knows walks past and he calls out: “Hi Paul, alright?”
Simm says hello to a lot of people passing. He seems relaxed, chatty, happy, in the Sussex sunshine, with his Shakespeare, his kingly grey beard and his almond cappuccino. I’ve read interviews in which he’s come over as a bit prickly. “I’m really not,” he protests. Perhaps he’s mellowed with age? “Like a fine wine,” he says, in a saying-a-cliche kind of voice. “I think you should get wiser and more comfortable with yourself, who you are and what you think about things.”
He knows he’s going to be getting different parts. No more Sam Tylers (Life of Mars 12 years ago now is the one that catapulted Simm into the national consciousness, though he’d done plenty of meaty stuff before: Cracker, The Lakes, State of Play). “That’s fine because people – and characters – get more interesting as they get older. You’ve just got to embrace the fact the world turns.”
He’s been on stage a lot recently; there’s been a whole lot of Pinter between Hamlet and Macbeth. “I love doing theatre, I prefer it, I don’t feel anything when I film any more.”
Life on Mars is partly to blame. “Being in every scene it was virtually impossible to learn the lines on time, I couldn’t really prepare properly, it was all shot out of sequence and it’s confusing enough as it is … I mean I loved every second of it, don’t get me wrong, and I am for ever grateful for it, but it made me kind of numb.”
He doesn’t get nervous any more when filming, knows it can be redone if it goes wrong. “It sounds contrived, but when you go on stage … I’m sure in the next couple of weeks I’ll be looking at myself in the mirror before going on stage and I’ll be going why the fuck do you do this to yourself? Remember this feeling, it’s awful. It’s also a frisson of excitement.”
What’s he watching on TV at the moment? Football, the news, Succession, of course. “Yeah, I’d be in that if they rang me,” he says of Jesse Armstrong’s brilliant black comedy. And he’s recently seen the whole of Game of Thrones because he’s in the prequel.
The news has been “such a shower of shit for so long I’m completely numb to it now, I can’t engage with it any more – the word, the word, the B-word. But, you know, all things must pass, hopefully we won’t be killed in a nuclear war. The climate thing is awful, but I’m not going to preach, I’m just an actor.”
And the football? “Oh fuck” (Simm supports Manchester United). More shit. He says he doesn’t want to talk about that either, then does at length. It was never going to be the same after Ferguson (he’s very Shakespearean), how can you follow that, it’s going to take a long time, if they finish in the top six he’d be happy. Really? “No, of course I wouldn’t be, because from my 20s to my 40s we ruled the world.”
He doesn’t get to go so much any more, but when he talks about United he becomes more from that part of the world. Actually, he was born in Leeds, but he grew up around the north-west. He’s been in London pretty much his entire adult life. Laughter still rhymes with Bafta though. None of the latter yet (two nominations), plenty of the former. He doesn’t seem too bothered, or about not having broken into Hollywood. “I really mustn’t grumble,” he says.
The kids support United, out of loyalty to their dad more than anything else. His son, 18, hasn’t shown any signs of following his father on to the stage, never did school plays. He does play the guitar as Simm still does, even if his band doesn’t really exist (he’s brought his “travel guitar” down to Chichester with him). His daughter showed an early interest in acting, and played his and Billie Piper’s daughter in Collateral, but seems to have gone off it. “But then she’s 12, she can do what she wants. She’s into being a schoolgirl.”
He misses them when he’s down in Chichester. His son came to see his Hamlet, aged 10. “It was a really moving experience, seeing him in the audience.” And his daughter’s coming to Macbeth (“a good first one, exciting, dark, not too long”). He’s dead excited about that. Plus his wife Kate. “The spur to prick the sides of my intent,” he laughs. There you go, I knew it.
Right, time for technical rehearsals. It’s not too late to make it super-relevant, channel a bit of Macbojo into the role? “I’ll drop in on the wig department,” he says. “See what we can do … ”
Macbeth runs at the Festival theatre, Chichester, until 26 October.