Joe Gilgun on depicting his own mental health condition in Brassic
Joe Gilgun sure is very honest, as you will see in this astounding interview in which the actor tells us about depicting his own bipolar disorder on screen in the inspired series Brassic. Warning: contains an incredible amount of superb swearing.
We are pleased to report that Joe Gilgun is every bit as Joe Gilgun as you’d wish. The man we all know and love from This Is England, Misfits, and Preacher was talking to The Book of Man over Zoom and being just as broad, potty-mouthed, stoned and brutally honest as you’d imagine – and then some. We were talking because Joe’s Sky One show Brassic is returning for a second series this week. If you haven’t seen it yet, well, you need to catch up now. Forget Normal People, this is the series to take your through the final stretch of lockdown, some dream mash-up of Trainspotting, Mean Streets, Shameless and Last of the Summer Wine. It’s a show Joe put together with former Shameless writer Danny Brocklehurst and tells the story of Vinnie, a small-town chancer with a gang of mates who fall foul of local gangsters and continually have to extricate themselves from all kind of messes. It is hilarious and inspired, and the show wins another level of admiration for its depiction of mental health. Vinnie has bipolar disorder, as does Joe in real life. In making the decision to put his own condition on screen through his character, Joe depicts this mental health condition in a real and human way which is incredibly refreshing.
Here then is our interview with Joe; it is quite something…he may just be the greatest living Englishman.
Have you been socialising with mates during lockdown?
I haven’t. Do you know what? I’m not massively social. I was on Facetime with my PA because I was running out of weed, and he was in the middle of a quiz he was doing with his mates . I said, ‘What kind of middle class twat are you man doing a fucking quiz? Point me in the direction of your mates because they’re all twats too.”
But he’s not a twat, he’s a human being who likes his mates. I’m not massively social so in all truth the whole thing’s not been that much of a change to my life.
So you’re coping with it OK?
Well I’ve struggled with it today. I was a bit of a nobhead to every single person I care about. I tend to do that. When I have a meltdown – and I have one about once a month – I rant and rave at someone. This a thing that a lot of people don’t realise with mental health and which I wanted to be clear about in the show: when you get depressed or anxious you’re not necessarily like, ‘oh woe is me.’ You can be irritable, and everyone can get it in the neck.
I’m on these new pills as well. I think I could do with upping the dose. So this morning was a bit of a struggle. I can be hard work for the people I care about, and I’ve always been that way. Even when I was young. I’m just lucky to have them.
Mental health in Brassic is brilliantly depicted – it feels real, not too preachy, is wrapped up in humanity and humour. Was that the intention of the show from the start or when did that become part of it?
Initially the show was never going to be about mental health. I think it was possibly [producer] David Livingstone, who said we should. They knew I had bipolar and they’d seen me suffer with it. It’s difficult to hide when it gets bad. So he said, ‘why not give Vinnie bipolar?’ But initially I didn’t want to play him, I wanted someone else to do it. I was agoraphobic at the time, I was struggling to get out of the house and do simple tasks. I was frightened of everyone, constantly nervous and in fear. So I was writing it with someone else in mind to do it because I just didn’t think I could. Then it got to a stage where David was like, ‘You’re going to have to play him, because it’s you. It’s just you.’ We ended up writing about everything, the medicine I took, about my dad being an alcoholic, I drew from everything. Everything I am, all my worst fears, the shame I feel for this mental illness. I just thought ‘Fuck it, let’s put it all on the TV and see what happens.’ It was terrifying.
Right up to the wire, even up to the month before filming I doubted my ability. I remember, I rang everyone individually, and said, ‘Honestly you must tell me, are we 100% sure that I’m the right choice for this?’ They were like, ‘What you fucking talking about you mad cunt?’
Honestly dude, for me it was so real. I’m going to fuck this up and let everybody down. And fortunately I didn’t. It was quite life changing. It’s been a massive deal.
Did it take a while to get your confidence back on the set?
In all truth I’m not a very confident bloke. I’m just good at committing. I’ll throw everything, all of myself into it. People are like, ‘God you must be really confident, the way you chat about yourself.’ I’m not, I’m shitting myself, I’m frightened. I’m entertaining you because I don’t want you to get me.
I end up dominating every social environment I’m in not because I think the sun shines out of my arse but because I’m frightened. There’s a lion in the room. But as a result this feeling of inadequacy within myself, it’s given me a fucking career. So thank god I do hate myself, do you know what I mean? It’s not a bad industry to be a fuck up in!
I can draw from a lot. This guy said to me, [posh voice] ‘You have this amazing emotional depth.’ I was like, I’m not a poet bruv. My heart’s broken all the time. I’m constantly fraught…I don’t fucking know, I’m just troubled, that’s it.
Does the show give you some kind of therapy, or is that a cliché?
I think the only therapy I can draw from it is if I can show everyone that I’m a fuck up and they still like me, then maybe it’s worth loving myself.
If the nation goes, ‘Oh we still love you dude,’ then maybe I’m going to have to start thinking that maybe I’m not the world’s biggest cunt. But I just can’t do it.
That’s why people do love your work though, you put it all out there. It’s great for men to watch the things you and your characters do, as men tend to avoid dealing with a lot of those issues…
In all truth dude. I’m just going to say it: I really struggle not being honest. People who can’t fess up to who and what they are drive me fucking mad, and there’s tons of them everywhere. All over the fucking place.
I meet men and women that I really respect. And they don’t do it either…I’ve just gone off track because I’m stoned.
I was asking about men sometimes struggling a bit to put themselves out there with their troubles…
Yeah! Who give a FUCK, dude! Like: you’re fucked. You’re FUCKED! Do you know what I mean? What difference does it make you mad twat? It’s too late. You’re already a fuck up.
I say this all the time: one of the biggest problems, right, is not knowing how to talk. How the fuck do you talk about the way you fucking feel if you’ve never really done it before? But just, like: start! It’s like the fucking gym, nobody wants to do it. I DON’T WANT TO DO IT, DUDE! I don’t want to do it! I’ve got therapy, right, I do it once a fucking week. And there’s days where it’s great and I come out of it going, ‘Oh life’s not so bad,’ and there’s other times when I’m like, ‘What is the point of even fucking getting up?’ I know when I talk to my therapist its going to break me but I have to do it. I fucking have to.
Cleaning up a mess, right, is a nightmare. When you knock your fucking Cheerios over. Or you spill your milk. That’s a big fucking mess. Now if you don’t sort it out, it’s going to get worse and worse and worse. You have to make a start. And it’s not enough to have a chat with your pal and sweep it under the carpet and feel good for a fucking day. You’ve got work to do, sort that shit out.
People talk about mental health and being a man. A fucking man in my book sorts his shit out. And you ask most women what they respect in a man, it would be that very thing. I tell you: be vulnerable. Be vulnerable. No-one’s perfect, we’re all a bunch of cunts. It’s alright.
This is the thing, my message to any man of any age who might be suffering with whatever it is, whether it’s your cunty kids or your stupid husband who won’t wash up, your fucking boss, whatever: talk about it. Fucking talk about it. Get it the fuck out. Have a rant like I’m doing now, because it feels great! Once you get into it you can’t fucking stop. It’s like the gym, once you get going you start to see them changes, which… well I don’t know what I’m talking about, if you could see my body. I look like a traveller’s dog, dude. [lifts shirts to show tattooed torso] I look in the fucking mirror and go. ‘What have I done? What have I done to my body?’ I look like a men’s room wall.
I thought you actor’s were supposed to be buff these days?
I look like SHIT bruv, I’ve got sporadic hair growing everywhere. I look like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. If Jeff Goldblum and Earthworm Jim somehow fucked each other and had a bastard child, it’d be me.
For me with mental health, you have to start making changes – and it fucking sucks because no one wants to hear it – but you do have to start ticking things off. Get yourself a list, what are you doing wrong? Are you sat on your arse just smoking dope playing Call Of Duty all fucking day? Well of course you feel like a cunt. And you should feel like a cunt because you are one. Stop doing that. It’s a big thing to tackle your mental health. And it’s about accepting you’ve got a problem.
Brassic is supernaturally good, what did you want to do with the second series?
We don’t want things to run stale but there’s also an element of ‘If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’ The danger is with having a successful first series is that you’re going to push it and fuck it up for yourself. The performances get bigger. In all truth the action got a little bigger by mistake. I think in total it took about five hours to storyline an entire season, so it comes very quickly, and accidentally it ended up being a little bit bigger.
We were actually filming the same amount of pages as Season One which we got it done on time. This year we had the same pages but the action was much much bigger, and I think that was quite a difficult thing for our producers to understand at times. It’s good fun but fuck me it is hard work.
Do you have times to improvise?
Loads. All the time. The cast and myself are always allowed to say, ‘I’m not going to say any of that shit.’ If you don’t want to say any of that shit, don’t say any of that shit, but whatever you do make it good, make it believable, otherwise we’ll pull it back to the script. Tonally when it comes to improvisations the lads really are brilliant at that. Some times there’s no point wandering off the script because its funny but there are days when we turn up and we just change fucking everything. And Danny’s so cool about it, he’s really really easy going. He said, “The ad-libbing and improvisation make me look good so I don’t give a fuck.’
Is it good to have a regular gang around you again? Especially if you’re not particularly social?
Yeah I think I have a good balance. The cast all go out drinking I tend to avoid it and be on my miserable own. My head never really rests you see so I’m always thinking about ideas and I can’t settle with people. I’m never really with them, my head’s all over the place. Eventually I start irritating myself and then I think, ‘If I’m irritated by myself what are they thinking?’ But I am lucky to have them, they are very supportive, all of them check in with me. Just letting me know they’re thinking of me. Genuinely we have turned into this dysfunctional family.
How are you finding it working back in England after working in the States so much?
At first I was terrified about going away to the States. ‘Jesus Christ can I survive? I can’t run the risk of not being able to leave my house again.’ It was a long road to recovery, years. But I thrived, I loved it, saw the world, bought legal weed got a receipt, saw things I never thought I’d see, met people I never thought I’d meet. Smoking weed with Seth Rogan in his trailer. Not even thinking of the madness of that scenario. And him actually wanting me to be there. Although I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to be here in this trailer I want to be in mine.’
What would you like people to get out of watching the show?
I just hope people have a laugh at my expense. I hope to god you can find it funny. All the shit, what the gang are up to. The lads are amazing, they worked their arses off, and Michelle [Keegan] is just phenomenal. I’m so lucky to have them and so grateful to have them involved, the crew as well. I really enjoy Brassic. Not just because I want it to be a success but for me as well, for the way I see myself. Its not healthy but it almost validates that it’s all worth it somehow.
Brassic series 2 premieres on Sky One and Now TV on May 7.
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