Phil Davis: "The best acting is reacting"

Actor Phil Davis, aged 58, on his East End upbringing, getting emotional with his father, and why his looks are an asset

I was quite a sociable 16-year-old, but a bit strange
. I desperately wanted to be an actor, but in the east London estate I grew up in people thought that was a bit odd, that I had delusions of grandeur and I would grow out of it. So that made me a bit of a melancholy teenager. I’d decided at primary school that I wanted to act, before I’d ever seen a play. I was often asked to read out aloud in class and something just happened to me when I did it. It was liberating. I was far more comfortable pretending to be other people than pretending to be myself.

A big moment for me when I was 16 was getting into the National Youth Theatre. I had to audition for that and they didn’t take everybody. Then I managed to get a job with [legendary theatre director] Joan Littlewood. Most of the kids who auditioned for her were from stage schools; they knew the whole tits and teeth way of presenting themselves. I was slouching at the back and I think I was probably closer to the real thing, what she was looking for. There was a big sense of euphoria when she took me on. I really felt like I belonged somewhere.

I’ve had a slow, gradual dawning just how fantastic my parents were when I was growing up. They never took me aside to tell me to get a proper job. They never gave me a hard time when I wasn’t great at school. But I think they were baffled by the actor thing, and scared: they didn’t want me to be disappointed. My dad, especially, was suspicious. But I did quite a successful play when I was 23 called Gotcha and my dad came to see it. Afterwards he said, “Okay, you can call yourself an actor now.” That’s when he accepted that it was all right. It was quite an emotional moment really, a big thing to hear.

When I look at my old work, I’d like myself to be more still. I’m always twitching and moving about. My advice to my younger self would be, ‘Stop it, slow down, just stand, trust it.’ The best acting is actually reacting. When I was 16, my dream was a job in a theatre, but when I actually got to do TV and film, I immediately felt more comfortable. I could minimise everything, I didn’t have to demonstrate and shout. That really suited my style – I was never a very theatrical actor.

I’ve never had one spectacular success. It’s been an incremental, gradual recognition. That’s much easier to deal with. Obviously, there have been disappointments and times I’ve thought, ‘Hurry up, I want bigger parts.’ I screen-tested for the main part in Quadrophenia and didn’t get it. That was tough at the time. But I did get a great part, and Phil Daniels was great in the lead, so... what the hell. Every year there’s at least one part I really fancy that goes to someone else. But you get used to that. On the whole, I’m about as famous as I want to be. People smile at me in the street.

Getting older hasn’t been any hindrance to my acting. I was never crumpet, I never got the girl, so getting older wasn’t a problem the way it might have been if I’d been tremendously good-looking. In some ways it’s broadened the parts I can do. I started off doing a lot of cockney wideboy stuff; now I play a much bigger range. Ageing is far easier for men in this industry than it is for women.

I think having children made me a better actor. It opened up bits of me that I could use, parts of me I didn’t know existed. It was a revelation to me what a rich experience being a father could be.

ID, Phil Davis’ film about football hooliganism, is out in Blu-ray for the first time on May 14

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