Culture

Daniel Mays: 'Becoming a dad made me a better person and a better actor, it galvanised me'

From boisterous class clown to toting one of the most varied acting CVs in the country, Daniel Mays' greatest role so far is as a father

Daniel Mays

Image: PR supplied

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.  

Daniel (left) and his younger brother Rya
Daniel (left) and his younger brother Ryan. Image: Courtesy of Daniel Mays

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. 

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.

My mum and dad really had to scrimp and save so I could go to stage school. My mum even worked in a box factory to get that extra money. It’s incredible, the sacrifices my mum made. I have total respect and appreciation for them and I feel I owe them, I want to honour their sacrifice. They’ve always come to the plays that I’ve been in, and to screenings. My own son was in Matilda in the West End as a 10, 11-year-old. And that, without question, was the proudest day of my life. He worked so hard on that, and it was his first thing and man, I wept, I whooped, I was dancing and singing in the aisles. It was an amazing feeling, I just felt beyond proud that he’d got there and done something like that.  

I’d love to sit my 16-year-old self down and say, look, you’re going to end up doing this as a profession. You won’t have to do any other job aside from that, and you’ll be able to pay your mortgage, and support your family. You’ll have two kids of your own, and you’ll be married to an incredible woman. You’ll work all around the world. You’ll go to LA and Puerto Rico, South Africa, Dublin, Australia. When you look at it like that, I feel overjoyed. Because nowadays, with social media and this very competitive job, we all seem to be constantly comparing ourselves to other actors; why didn’t I get that role, why are they a little bit higher up than me? But I’ve definitely taken stock now and gone, you know what, your life isn’t half empty, it’s full. 

Playing Sid in Mike Leigh’s award-winning Vera Drake
Playing Sid in Mike Leigh’s award-winning Vera Drake. Image: Fine Line/courtesy Everett Collection

If I really wanted to impress the teenage me I’d tell him I worked with Steven Spielberg [in The Adventures of Tintin], one of the best directors that’s ever lived. And what an honour and a privilege it was to be educated by someone like Mike Leigh [All or Nothing, Vera Drake] so early on in my career. Line of Duty was a massive moment for me too. But as I get older, the roles that really speak to me are characters I never imagined I could even begin to play.  

I played a character called Peter Wildeblood in a one-off drama for the BBC called Against the Law. He was a gay journalist for the Daily Mail back in the ’50s who got imprisoned for being homosexual. I very nearly didn’t do it because of all the intimate scenes. I thought, this is such a mountain for me to climb. Then my wife said, why haven’t you said yes to this? And I said I was a bit scared. She said, those are the things you should be doing, the things that really scare you. And it actually became one of the most artistically rewarding things I’ve ever been part of. My mum and dad came to the early screening of it and I was like, I wonder what they’re going to make of this. Then the house lights came up at the end and I saw my dad in utter bits, crying his eyes out. He said, I just didn’t recognise my son up there. It was the most transformative character and performance you’ve ever delivered. Those are the golden moments in an actor’s career that you really want to hold on to.  

Daniel Mays with daughter Dixie
Daniel Mays with daughter Dixie. Image: Courtesy of Daniel Mays

I’d tell my younger self there’s no perfect time to become a dad. The first time it happened it was not on the cards, let’s just put it that way. It was a kind of, oh my god moment. I was all at sea with what was going on, because it wasn’t in the game plan at all. Looking back now, it wasn’t a curse in any way.

It was an absolute blessing to me, because it forced me to become responsible. It actually made me a better person and a better actor, it galvanised me. Now I know it was the best thing that ever happened to me. And here I am now, sitting here, married with 2.4 children and a little white dog at my feet. You know what I mean? It’s that song, you know? What is it? How did I get here? [Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime] This beautiful life that we make for ourselves. 

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older brother Jonny, Daniel, and eldest brother Paul in the fishing photo taken by their dad
(Left to right) older brother Jonny, Daniel, and eldest brother Paul in the fishing photo taken by their dad

If I could re-live one moment in my life it would be a day on one of those huge family and friends holidays. It was just in a shitty old campsite in Lanteglos down in Cornwall. I’ve got this great photograph of us all en masse in this campsite. A lot of my mum and dad’s friends have passed on now. Jean and little Terry and all those sorts of people. And others are getting older now and their health is fading. I’d love to go back to that holiday when everyone’s in good health and good spirits, and everyone’s having a drink and a party and a great time.

My dad took me and my brother fishing, and I’ve got this photo on my fridge of my brothers holding up mackerels and I’ve got this massive red fish, it’s called a snapper or something, that I remember my dad catching then giving to me to hold up. That holiday was just pure joy from beginning to end. When you’re that young, you don’t know about pressures in life that are coming. The older you get, the more anxieties you get, the more stress and financial worries you have. But when you’re young you can have just pure, unadulterated freedom, surrounded by all your loved ones. You’re just completely and utterly free and fearless. Yeah, I’d go back to that in a heartbeat. 

Daniel Mays stars in Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre, London SE1 from March 3.

Interview Jane Graham

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