Daniel Mays: Some of the greatest art is created in dire circumstances

Top actor Daniel Mays was on a hot streak before lockdown hit. He tells The Big Issue that not being able to work has been like losing a limb but that taking his foot off the pedal has probably been good for him

Daniel Mays is one of the busiest and best actors in Britain. For almost two decades, since his early work for Mike Leigh in All Or Nothing and Vera Drake, Mays has been a mainstay of the big and small screen. Before lockdown, he had never been busier.

In recent months we have seen him in Sam Mendes’s First World War masterpiece 1917, in underground medical thriller Temple, as the father of the antichrist in Good Omens, with his old pal Stephen Graham in robocop comedy Code 404, and, most recently, as a drug-addled hedonist in White Lines on Netflix.

So how is the busiest actor in Britain coping with lockdown?

We’re knee deep in homeschooling. And you get the sense we have to adapt for the long term. We also had some drama when my wife broke her leg on Mother’s Day. We were three hours in A&E in Barnet, surrounded by Coronavirus, having not wanting to be around anyone at all.

She’s on the mend now, but that first week I was looking after Lou, homeschooling my seven year old, and my son was taking mock exams in the attic. I didn’t know if I was coming or going.

Have you had time to think about work?

When you’re on your first day of a week of homeschooling you think, what am I actually doing? When am I gonna go back to work? It’s fucking scary.

Daniel Mays with The Big Issue
Daniel Mays with his favourite magazine

Did you have many jobs cancelled?

I had a really busy run of jobs just before lockdown. The last thing I did was Des, the Dennis Nilsen drama for ITV with David Tennant. Before that, I’d finished White Lines and Code 404 and Temple, so it was a ridiculous run of jobs. I’d said I wasn’t going to do any work for a while anyway.

Taking my foot off the pedal has been good because life has been hectic. What’s been weird is not worrying about playing a character at the moment, so I’ve had to look at myself more. And a lot of the time, myself is a person that’s been neglected because I’m always on the go. So it is a moment of self-reflection.

You were on a hot streak…

If this had happened last year, I don’t know what I’d have done. White Lines was a six-month job, Temple was a long one, and Code 404 was so much fun with Stephen Graham. We had a scream. We had both done such serious roles, it was nice to have a gear change and muck around on set.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

There are often years of work even before filming begins – do you worry some projects will now just get dropped?

Absolutely. Thankfully, the Dennis Nilsen drama wasn’t affected – but I know Luke Neal, the writer had been working on it for about six years. That’s how long jobs can take to come to the screen. If we were still filming when Coronavirus hit, it would have been heartbreaking.

Does talking about these great jobs leave you itching to get back to work?

I thrive on work. It’s part of my makeup, that work ethic – it’s been instilled in me from my parents. My dad’s an electrician and is still grafting now. So I’ve desperately missed it.

As much as it’s great to have some downtime, without your profession there, when it’s taken away, it’s been like losing a limb.

It’s the collaborative ethos that you get on a set – going to work everyday and being creative. We were meant to start Temple at the end of April. Weirdly, because it has a small cast and is filmed in a vast underground bunker, you could socially distance in that space.

Do you think storytelling will change?

Writers will have to adapt their scripts to be filmed within social distancing constraints. So maybe stuff will get commissioned with smaller casts. Maybe frontline heroes and those stories of people’s plight will also be on the agenda, which is a really admirable thing.

But I’m going to miss big budget blockbusters, because if they are no longer made it’ll be a different landscape.

The arts are always there to lift us in times of great depression

Have you been talking to other people in the business?

I’ve had Zoom drinks with the cast of Des and a pub quiz with one of the producers from White Lines. He is now adapting all the storylines for series two of Gangs of London, because there’s lots of gratuitous fights in it. If you’ve got lots of fights or lots of intimate scenes, how do you shoot those scenes?

What will this period mean for the cultural industries?

It’s reminding us how important culture can be. It’s getting us through this lockdown. There are no theatres open and I read Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National, saying if we don’t get government help, by the end of the year theatres could collapse. The cultural landscape without the National Theatre is utterly unthinkable.

The arts are always there to lift us in times of great depression, so while theatres and cinemas have been closed, television takes on a much deeper significance. One would hope there’s a wealth of new scripts that will be waiting because all these writers have been coming up with ideas. There’s always a creative burst – some of the greatest pieces of art are created in dire circumstances, aren’t they?”

And you put yourself up as a raffle prize for The Big Issue…

I was so happy to jump aboard. I said it could be an acting lesson, a conversation – whatever the winner wants to do… within reason! If you can lend a hand to anyone in dire need at the moment you have to do it. And The Big Issue has been the lifeblood of our high streets for so long. When vendors could not sell the magazine it must have been incredibly challenging – because the relationships they build with customers must be so important, as well as being able to earn a living. So it was my absolute honour to be a raffle prize…

White Lines is available now on Netflix

Image: Dave Willis