Daniel Mays on Temple, the acting game and moonwalking
Daniel Mays is one of the nation's favourite actors and a lovely bloke. He talks to us about the new series of 'Temple' and navigating the acting game...
Interviewing Daniel Mays is everything you’d want it to be – this gem of an actor, who’s lit up everything from Line of Duty to Doctor Who to White Lines, has always managed to make even the most desperate of characters immensely likeable. And that down-to-earth charm carries through in conversation – he’s a bloke who doesn’t take himself too seriously but also clearly has a work ethic and a love of acting which has made him one of the top stars in the country. Daniel is currently on a roll, even for him, with the hit ITV show Des, the brilliant ‘watch it now if you haven’t seen it’ Code 404 with Stephen Graham, and Temple, the Sky remake of Norwegian dram Valkyrien, which we’re here to mostly talk about. Temple puts Daniel opposite Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten, and Mark Strong as the rogue surgeon running a secret surgery underneath Temple tube station, helping wounded criminals and trying to cure his wife from, well, death. Yes, it’s really quite a mad yet completely brilliant show, twisted and dark, and also immense fun, particularly thanks to Daniel’s performance as Lee Simmons, the kind of Igor to Strong’s Frankenstein. We talked to Daniel about the show, managing the strains of being an actor and the ‘truth’ about his play for James Bond…
How has coming out of lockdown been for you?
I was enjoying very much being at home with the family, much more than ever. But Code 404 was literally one of the first shows to come back. And then we went straight on to Temple. It was weird coming back; because you had seven months out of work, it felt like your first job again, we were all ring rusty. Ultimately the whole process is to get you to deliver the goods again, and all of that it is about COVID testing and social distancing, but the burden of all of this comes down on the crew. Even now like I’ve just finished something where the crew have to wear masks all day long, which is just horrible. But the biggest challenge of all of these things is to make sure that the actual production that you’re working on doesn’t look like it’s been shot during COVID. Having seen Code 404 season two and Temple as well, that’s not the case and it’s just testament to everyone’s hard work. I mean, weirdly, when we were shooting Temple, it was the second full on lockdown. And we had to rewrite the end of that show, because there was a whole sequence where Lee, my character, was going to bring the Tube to standstill. That couldn’t happen because we basically weren’t allowed to go in certain buildings. But the reverse of that is there were certain areas and buildings and locations which we were allowed to have access to. So for instance, we shot in Bar Italia in Soho – you’d never usually get to shoot in that location because it’s open 24 hours a day, and it’s always packed. It was swings and roundabouts.
We’re talking mainly about Temple today, which is quite bonkers. How is it filming that one? It seems like good fun.
It certainly is. When I got set the first season and you read the premise, it’s completely out there, bonkers as you said, but I think we were blessed that we have the great Mark Strong as our lead actor. And there’s a whole ensemble of fantastic talent in there around him. With Temple it was always a question of tone in terms of how you play it. What I love about the show is it you can’t categorise it. It’s a medical drama, but it’s not. It’s a thriller. It’s got a love story at the heart of it. And it’s funny as well, I mean, that’s the great thing about it. But you have play all of those elements completely, truthfully, and allow the scenarios in which the characters find themselves to bring the comedy and the thriller aspects – you just have to revel in that, and it’s a joy to perform. I think it’s so brilliantly written. The first season very much ended on this gargantuan cliffhanger in which his wife opens her eyes, so Beth was a new character there were new additions to the cast. And I will say the whole second season grows – it’s not so much in the bunker underground, it’s much more above ground, there’s this great expanse to it. All the storylines go off on a tangent and it’s just as thrilling if not more so, than the first season.
What kind of guy is Lee and how did you approach him for this season?
Well, it was such a climactic ending for the first season, but at the beginning of season two he’s been instructed by Daniel to strip the bunker. Seal it up, let’s never go back to this place ever again, cut all our ties with it. But then Lee does the polar opposite to that and becomes a bit like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, he can’t leave the bunker, he seals himself in there. And something happens at the beginning of the second season which forces Daniel to come back down. Mark’s character is completely playing God in season one, he’s taking people’s kidneys, his sense of morality oversteps the line and then some, and I think what happens in season two is we investigate the fallout of the actions that he’s taken in season one. That’s what gives it much more drama and jeopardy, the stakes are raised even more this time round. With Lee, it becomes apparent that the two of them have to start working together again, and then Lee has to conquer his agoraphobia and has to get out above ground. He’s a brilliant character to play, so eccentric, and quick tempered. I didn’t know anything about prepping or survivalists or anything like that, so the great thing was investigating that world. How that plays into him as a person was really interesting.
How is working with Mark, do you have time to improvise together?
I mean, we tweaked lines every now and again, but the whole thing is so well written, and so dependent on all of those story beats working in order to make the overall arc of the show work, that you can’t really tamper with it that much. But I had the best time working with Mark, we did a scene together years back in a movie called Welcome to the Punch where he killed me in the Ministry of Sound. But this is me and him working closely together. It’s a brilliant double act – they’re poles apart as characters, but somehow they’re co-dependent on one another, because he has the access to the space in the bunker. I mean, how lucky am I to get to work with someone as great as Mark? He’s just an absolute pro, and I think in terms of his talent, when you’re working with him, he’s such a minimal actor, sometimes you think he’s not doing much. And then when the whole thing’s cut together, and you see up there on the screen that everything was going on behind his eyes. I’ve always said that Mark is exceptional about combining the inner emotions of his character without doing too much. And his character in Temple goes on an absolute rollercoaster this time around. Everyone does.
Do you spend much time with Mark and the other actors working on the chemistry? Or does it just happen as you’re doing it?
Invariably, you don’t get much time to rehearse in these TV shows, you’ll do a read through, maybe you’ll have an afternoon rehearsal, to sit down and talk about character. I’ve been doing acting for 20 years, and I think the key thing with chemistry, or even playing a character in general is, obviously learn your lines and know what they are, but don’t set anything in stone. You have to be able to adapt in the moment, like how are you going to be able to react to the location that you’re in, how you’re going to react to how Mark’s saying his lines, and how he wants to do it. It’s about being loose, trusting your instincts and finding the chemistry that way.
Do you look for certain characters? Everyone you play seems to have a certain vulnerability to them…
I think it’s something that has naturally come my way. I always remember when I was at RADA, I was just about to graduate and my principal, Nick Barter said to me, “Don’t worry, Danny, I guarantee you’ll be cast as young men on the edge.” I didn’t know whether to take it as a compliment or not. He was absolutely right, I seem to play a lot of men who in turmoil, that seem to be in a constant meltdown all the time. You could definitely say that about Lee Simmons. No, it’s great. In a way you can’t pick and choose, it’s such a lottery being an actor, isn’t it? It’s difficult to sort of give yourself a game plan when you’re expendable at the best of times.
And how do you manage that from a mental point of view?
It’s a bit of a minefield when you start going into the mental health of actors. You have to get used to the word ‘no’, that’s part and parcel of the game really, and it can be incredibly difficult. And mentally draining when you perceive yourself to be really good and talented and have a whole host of things to offer, but you keep getting rejected. Your pride can take a battering. You just have to have resilience and staying power, and not take it personally – which is really hard to do. I lose out on things even now that I really want and think, ‘why couldn’t I have done it?’ If you’ve stayed in it long enough, you slowly get used to how the game works. But I mean, I love actors, I think they’re the most hardworking, creative people really. I hate that image of ‘Luvvie’ actors, because my experience of actors is they’re incredibly resilient.
Is there anyone who you worked with who made a big impression in your early days?
Yeah. I went for a run in Highgate woods a couple of days ago, and I bumped into the brilliant Jim Carter and his wife Imelda Staunton. I worked with Imelda in Vera Drake, years back now. I played her son in that movie, and she was absolutely incredible to work alongside. When she was in the scenes, when she was in character, the performance she gave was absolutely stellar. She was playing this backstreet abortionist, and she was carrying that whole film and yet, she did it with such humour and such grace and outside of the scenes, she was a bundle of fun and everybody warmed to her. I’m so happy that she’s playing the Queen in The Crown. She always used to say to me, “Danny, I’m just a jobbing actor.” She could do musicals, she was at the National and Vera Drake really put her up on that pedestal, and she’s just going from strength to strength. I looked at that from afar and thought, “That’s how you do it.” But I’ve worked with so many amazing actors over the years. I remember doing the remake of Dad’s Army, and there was Bill Nighy, Tom Courtney and Michael Gambon, and Toby Jones and Bill Paterson and you look at those guys, and at the longevity of their careers. Because not only are they talented, but they’re just decent good people who work really hard, you know? It’s not rocket science: learn your lines, don’t bump into the furniture and be nice to everyone. If you stick to those rules, hopefully you’ll be alright.
Are you still learning stuff, though, as you go along?
Totally, yeah. You always have to leave yourself in a place of still trying to learn. I mean, I haven’t done a play in five years. And then we did The Dumb Waiter recently at The Old Vic and first of all, it just re-iterated to me how much I’ve missed being on stage. But to not do a play for five years, you feel like you’ve got to find those theatre acting muscles again. That was just a really good learning curve again. It’s a short play it’s only 45 minutes to an hour long, but it was a fantastic workout. I felt like I was really learning stuff again about stamina and diction and how important vocal power is in a theatre. But the same applies to TV and film work as well. I mean, there’s always parts I still want to play. I haven’t done any classical theatre as such, so that’s a box I need to tick. You’ve always got to learn. That’s how you keep it fresh.
What are the roles that you would love to play?
I definitely want to tackle some Shakespeare. I did a Macbeth speech for The Guardian years ago now, for the 500th anniversary of Shakespeare, and they just asked actors if they wanted to do a soliloquy. Weirdly, I did the dagger speech at RADA and I somehow had all of those lines still in my head. I’d really love to do a full production of some stage. And the American thing I haven’t really talked as well. I’d like to get a lucrative, big money American show! Who wouldn’t? But we’ll see what happens.
When you’re not acting what do you do in your spare time, and to look after yourself?
Fitness. I go to a personal trainer, we do three sessions a week for half an hour, a burn out with weights and in terms of cardio, I really get into my running, around Highgate Woods. The kids keep me busy, taking them everywhere, and what they’re doing. In terms of physical well-being that totally ties in with a positive mental health attitude, I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. They help one another. Now things are opening up after lockdown, I’m enjoying going to the theatre, and catching up with people.
Is there a lot more work out there for you at the minute, and more variety with the streaming services?
From my experience, it’s literally gone through the roof. It’s kind of frightening, really. It’s wonderful for actors and crew and technicians and directors, because there is just so much more content. I’ve just finished a Christmas film for Amazon, which that was just a wonderful new script from Tom Parry with Asa Butterfield and a great ensemble cast, so we finished that and I thought, ‘Great, it’ll be out for Christmas.’ But they were like, ‘No Danny, there’s not a slot for it, it’s for 2022 Christmas.’ Wow, ok. Then I did an Inside No.9, which has been around forever. So yeah, Netflix, Amazon, Apple are upping their game, and it’s wonderful that there’s opportunities and more work. The hard thing is how do you make sure that the product that you’re in, punches through the ceiling? It’s a much more competitive market. I’ve just literally started watching Succession, which is wonderful, and seems to be the show at the moment.
How do you judge how well a show’s done?
I was talking to the producer of the Amazon film about this the other day, and he said, ‘You just know, Danny.’ I questioned him and said, ‘How do you make sure your show punches through? And he said, ‘if it’s good enough, people will definitely watch it. It will just go into the zeitgeist.’ You can promote stuff until the cows come home, but ultimately it’s always word of mouth that gets your show seen. We did Des recently for ITV and the audience figures for that were just astronomical. It was one of their most watched dramas in years. But then you do something for Sky, and if you get a million viewers for Sky, then they’re really happy with that. Because ratings are probably not what their most important element is, they’re all about subscriptions. So it depends what the channel is really.
Didn’t you put yourself forward for James Bond?
Well we were shooting the Amazon film at Pinewood on the James Bond stage. I walked out just to get a breath of fresh air, and I looked up and there was the big 007 sign. I took a photograph of it and put it on Instagram, with the Martini emoji, and it just exploded.
Never in a billion years am I going to get to play James Bond. I wouldn’t mind having a crack at one of the baddies, or you know, someone that he works with at MI5. I think they’ve already had their Daniel for Bond, they don’t need Danny Mays.
What’s a skill you’ve got that no-one knows about?
Michael Jackson dancing as a kid. That’s the whole thing that made me become a performer in the first place. Before anything I was really into dancing. I came back from a friend’s wedding in Portugal over the weekend and I definitely started throwing some shapes.
Can you do the moonwalk?
I can do all that. The sideways moonwalk, robotics, I can do it all. You ply me with enough wine and I’ll do it.
Temple season 2 starts on SkyMax and Now TV on 28th October.
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