Daniel Mays was born and raised in Essex, the third of four boys. A performer from an early age, he attended the Italia Conti school, before studying at RADA. His first screen role was as a pilot in Pearl Harbor, but his big break came in 2002, when Mike Leigh cast him in All or Nothing and Vera Drake. We’ve seen him in a wide range of TV, film and theatre roles, including Line of Duty, Ashes to Ashes, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. In 2020, he became a Big Issue Brand Ambassador.
In his Letter To My Younger Self, he describes how fatherhood took him by surprise, but has turned out to be his greatest role yet.
I was always quite extroverted, I wanted to be the centre of attention. At 16 I was probably fairly obnoxious and loud. I think all of that extrovert stuff is a veneer though, isn’t it, to hide insecurity. I wouldn’t say I was over-confident with girls. I had a lot of friendships with girls, but I was very self-conscious about my looks.
At 16 I was already at the Italia Conti stage school. I was very fortunate in that I knew I wanted to perform from a very young age. I’m one of four boys – I have two older brothers and one younger – so I had that classic middle child syndrome thing. All my brothers were brilliant sportsmen. I played a lot of sport, but I was never as good as my two older brothers. So I fell into trying to do something else, which turned out to be performing. At secondary school I was the class clown. When I was in second year I auditioned for stage school and got accepted, but I was so nervous, I didn’t take the offer up. I couldn’t quite envision myself coming out of normal school and putting on a blue uniform and getting on a train and going all the way up to the Barbican. But it was an itch I continued to scratch and I didn’t let it go. I auditioned again in my third year and this time I took up the offer. I loved it so much there.
The crazy thing about me is that no one in my immediate family had any inkling of wanting to do anything like acting. My dad’s an electrician, my mum was a bank cashier. My brothers are a cricket groundsman, a salesman, and a money broker in Canary Wharf. But I had a burning desire to be noticed. It was always really loving in our house, but loud and raucous too. My mum and dad had a huge array of friends, they were really gregarious. We would go on family holidays down to Cornwall, and there’d be a whole pack of us. The four Mays brothers, my best friend Matthew Farr – he was one of four boys. The Gibsons had four boys and a girl. So there was a lot of testosterone flying about, and lots of laughter and friendship.
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I remember all the families went en masse to Center Parcs, and one night we were all in someone’s chalet. All the men were playing roulette on a makeshift roulette table, so I got my tape recorder and did my Michael Jackson routine for the mums. I went around afterwards with my hat and they were all throwing money in it and all the men threw notes from the roulette table. I was always entertaining people. And now I’ve done it for so long I don’t know how to do anything else. So I’m sort of stuck with it. But it’s been really good to me, so I can’t complain.