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Daniel Mays: 'I had a burning desire to be noticed'

Daniel Mays is one of the best actors in the country but he's still working to pay off his parents’ sacrifice to get him into stage school

Daniel Mays as 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

Top actor Daniel Mays, whose credits range from Vera Drake to Line of Duty, says he strives for success to repay the sacrifices his parents made to get him through stage school.

Speaking to The Big Issue for our Letter To My Younger Self feature, Mays recalled the extra job his mum took on to help him follow his dream.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

But working in showbusiness was not an obvious career choice for Mays. In a wide-ranging interview, the 44-year-old actor talks about his working-class upbringing far as one of four sports-mad brothers.

“All my brothers were brilliant sportsmen,” said Mays. “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.

“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.”

It worked. Even before enrolling at the famous Italia Conti stage school, Mays was already wowing audiences.

“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,” recalled Mays.

“I went around afterwards with my hat and they were all throwing money in. 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.”

Early roles in Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing and Vera Drake established Mays as one of our most authentic acting talents. He’s worked consistently ever since, most recently with David Tennant in ITV’s Des, opposite Hayley Squires and Zawe Ashton in Lucy Kirkwood’s Maryland on BBC2, with Stephen Graham in Sky’s Code 404, with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton in Inside No9 and in Netflix film Your Christmas or Mine?.

“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,” said Mays. “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.”

Now, Mays is set to defy expectations once again. The actor, best known for roles in gritty British dramas, is taking to the West End stage in classic musical Guys & Dolls.

“I play Nathan Detroit, the role played in the past by people like Frank Sinatra, Nathan Lane and the late great Bob Hoskins. So I had these massive shoes to fill. But I’m just trying to have as much fun as I can and make it entertaining and funny and moving.

“I haven’t done a musical for over 20 years, so it’s reawakened my love for it in a way. And I think actually Guys and Dolls is probably in the top three best musicals of all time. It’s so brilliantly written. The songs are all absolute showstoppers.”

Having been the first person from his family to go into showbusiness, it looks like Mays’ son, Mylo, might be following in his father’s footsteps. And Mays was delighted to be cast as the proud father looking on.

“My own son was in Matilda in the West End as a 10, 11-year-old,” said Mays. “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.”

Read more from Daniel Mays in the full Letter To My Younger Self interview in The Big Issue from February 20.

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

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