Daniel Mays is one of the finest British actors working today. He’s known for bringing humanity, as well as realness, depth and integrity, to any character, whether playing gay rights campaigner Peter Wildeblood in Against The Law, Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in ITV’s Mrs Biggs, the devil in the form of a police complaints officer in BBC One’s Ashes to Ashes or Vera Drake’s son in Mike Leigh’s Oscar-nominated 2004 classic.
But the latest role in a long and increasingly impressive catalogue has made more impact on him than most. In Mother’s Day, a new BBC Two factual drama based on the aftermath of the IRA Warrington bombings, Mays plays Colin Parry.
Parry was the father of 12-year-old Tim, who died along with three-year-old Johnathan Ball following the attack on Bridge Street in 1993. Screenwriter Nick Leather (Murdered For Being Different) focuses on the response of Colin and Wendy Parry (played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and Dublin mother Susan McHugh (played by Vicky McClure) to the tragedy – and how these ordinary people thrust into extraordinary events helped bring about the peace process.
McHugh, compelled by her outrage at the senseless loss of young lives, set about organising the biggest rally for peace in two decades, engaging with communities across Ireland in an attempt to bring about a cessation of violence.
Colin’s furious determination to keep his boy on everyone’s minds, to “tell the world what a cracker he is”, contrasts with Wendy’s quiet strength and dignity.
The pain in Mays’ eyes, as we watch Colin clinging to the hope that some good can come out of the tragedy, that a campaign for peace can keep his son alive, if only in memory and name, is impossible to turn away from.
For Mays, the way the Parry family fought hate with love is an inspiration.
What they have done since that fateful day is to make sure Tim did not die in vain
“They are an amazing example of the power of humanity. The way they didn’t descend into anger, bitterness and resentment was incredible,” he says.
“From that unimaginable horror, and that is how they describe it, they have opened a Peace Centre and tried with all their might to get some good out of pure evil.
“More than any other role, I felt the level of pressure and responsibility to get it right. Playing someone who is living and breathing, you want to get as close as you possibly can; not imitating them but finding the essence of them. But it was clear that what they have done since that fateful day is to make sure Tim did not die in vain.
“They went to Ireland, made a Panorama documentary, wrote their book, opened the Peace Centre and set up their charity [the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Peace Foundation].”
Mays did not meet the Parry family before playing Colin. Instead, he relied on footage from the time and the studiously researched script. He had, though, received Colin’s blessing before embarking on the project. And when Mays travelled back to his home in London from a recent film screening in Edinburgh, the pair finally met.
“I said I would visit the Peace Centre once we had finished, and I did that last week,” says Mays, when he sits down with The Big Issue in London.
“It was quite a moment to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and sit down with him and Wendy. I felt like I knew them both so well. They were lovely, so down-to-earth, just exceptional to me.
“And it was amazing to see the Peace Centre. After the Manchester bomb last year they are treating more than 500 people affected by it. It is the only Peace Centre of its kind in the whole of Europe.”
In person, Mays is affable and unstarry. His enthusiasm for his work, and excitement at the hot streak he finds himself on, is infectious. He can, he says, usually snap out of the characters he is playing quickly and easily during filming. Mother’s Day was different.
“I think we have treated the subject with as much compassion, commitment and respect as we possibly could,” he says. “But it was hard. There is no getting away from that.
“My biggest concern was whether I would be able to get to that emotional place where I could start to imagine just a smidgen of what they must have gone through. And it wasn’t lost on me that I have a 12-year-old son. So I found it particularly upsetting, actually. I had to go to some difficult places, I really did. And I’m not normally like that.”
My nan had a great singing voice, but that was about it
Mother’s Day arrives on screen amid the best spell of Mays’ career. It has taken a while. He graduated from Rada in 2000, having caught the acting bug at a young age. He would jump on the Central Line each day after switching from his Essex comprehensive to the Italia Conti stage school during his third year.
For Mays, who was captain of the local Loughton Boys football team, choosing to follow his dreams of performing came as a surprise.
“My nan had a great singing voice, but that was about it,” he says. “I was the first one, so there is something quite scary about that.
“There was ballet and tap and jazz and singing and improvisation. Everything started to open up. I still have friends from back home, but my horizons were broadening. And by the time I got to drama school, half the people there had been to university. Or were from America. Or Eton. People from different worlds. It was incredible.”
Did he ever feel like an imposter?
“Oh God, fuck, yes, I felt that all the time. It was never lost on me every time I walked through the front door at Rada that these people could all talk the talk, philosophise about the texts and talk the cows home about what this or that meant.
“It got to a point where I was like, ‘You are really getting lost here, Danny’. I have never talked about this before, but I remember doing Shakespeare sonnets with [voice coach] Bardy Thomas, where I just felt so intimidated by it that I wouldn’t say anything.”
Mays recalls gritting his teeth and vowing to “strip the walls of all this knowledge”, coming to the realisation that many of the people talking the talk “weren’t actually that good”.
I owe everything to Mike Leigh in terms of putting my name on the map and teaching me about the craft of acting
In his final year, he was paired with an acting mentor in Rada’s first buddy scheme. Step forward Timothy Spall, in many ways the actor his career is beginning to resemble the most, with heavyweight television alongside the full range of British film (the bleak dramas to lightweight comedies) plus character roles in Hollywood movies.
They were co-stars within two years of becoming buddies.
“We were in a Mike Leigh film called All Or Nothing [in 2002]. I owe everything to Mike Leigh in terms of putting my name on the map and teaching me about the craft of acting,” says Mays.
“Then Vera Drake was such a commercial success, with a wonderful performance from Imelda Staunton, that it got lots of attention and Oscar nominations. Loads of people saw it. It was after that the door opened and things started to happen.”
Mays talks passionately about the need for new uncompromising storytellers to follow in Leigh’s footsteps. This month he stars in Tom Beard’s hard-hitting new British film Two For Joy, alongside Samantha Morton and Billie Piper.
“Tom Beard is such an exciting filmmaker in that he wants to tell stories about an underclass, ordinary people, the working class that are struggling to find their place in the world,” says Mays.
“Because you do need them in the film landscape – otherwise we do seem to be awash with the Benedicts and the Toms.”
After Vera Drake, Mays continued to build his profile slowly, with a debut lead role in BBC Three’s mind-bending mystery romp Funland.
“It has always felt like a gradual progression. Some actors leave drama school and seem to be instantaneously Hollywood stars. I mean, maybe that’s all the pretty boys? But I perceive myself as a character actor more than anything else. I am happy to stay in that camp.”
He pinpoints a few highlights. Winning a Best Supporting Actor Bafta nomination in 2017 for Line of Duty.
“I felt it was the best first episode of anything I had ever done,” he grins.
“Such an amazing character, that amazing interrogation scene – then I turned the page and he was no more! But I had such a ball.”
Looking ahead, Mays remains one of the hardest-working actors in the business. He has just finished filming series two of comedy Porters on Dave, recently signed up to star with Mark Strong in new Sky thriller Temple and in 2019 he will also be part of the huge ensemble cast in Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.
But he’s keeping an eye on some of his peers who are setting up production companies and telling the stories they really care about.
Everyone looks to the big American shows
“I really admire Benedict [Cumberbatch], Idris [Elba], all those people who are going down that route of creating your own destiny,” says Mays.
“Maybe I need to focus on that and forge something myself. And I would be lying if I didn’t say I had one eye on Hollywood. But you never know where you will end up, so there is something about leaving yourself open and receptive to whatever comes your way.
“Everyone looks to the big American shows they have such a through line with the character that is really appealing. But it is such an unpredictable business.”
The right job, though, and the Mays family – he married his long-term partner Louise on August 25, inviting ten of his Essex pals to the premiere of Swimming With Men (which sadly sank without a trace, due to the hot summer and the World Cup) in Edinburgh this year for the stag night – could be on the move.
“I have just worked with Stephen Graham, who was in Boardwalk Empire,” he says.
“And if one of those comes along I would bite their hand off. So let’s get that in The Big Issue and make it happen.”
Mother’s Day airs on BBC Two on Monday September 3