Stephen Graham and Shane Meadows are clowning around. They know a camera is capturing their every move but are so lost in the moment that it is forgotten. It’s a very Shane Meadows way to do a photoshoot.
Stephen demonstrates his football prowess, Shane gets his pal in a headlock, click, click, click. Stephen tells a story with such passion his arms shoot up to the ceiling, Shane shakes his head in mock despair, click, click, click.
Their friendship goes back to the film This Is England in 2006. They’ve since worked on three spin-off series for Channel 4 – written (with Jack Thorne) and directed by Meadows, and starring Graham as racist skinhead Combo who finds some redemption.
Their latest collaboration, The Virtues, explores abuse, the care system, destructive alcoholism. Few programmes will match its intensity this year. When Meadows explains the genesis of the story, it’s little wonder he surrounded himself with trusted cast and crew.
“I had repressed memory syndrome from something that had happened to me as a nine-year-old kid,” says Meadows.
“I didn’t discover it until I was 40 and seeing a psychologist. It is powerful to realise that things can happen in childhood that are so traumatic you completely block them out. When you have suffered with anxiety and depression through your life and think this is maybe the cause, it is difficult not to be angry. Initially my response was to smack someone really quite hard across the jaw. But I had this outlet to do something more cathartic.”
It is a very tender situation. Shane is laying himself bare there
Graham has never been busier – starring in the recent series of Line of Duty as undercover copper John Corbett and joining one of the greatest casts ever assembled: De Niro, Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. But the Virtues was a priority.
“We all have an obligation to play it with integrity and honesty and as much truth as we can,” says the actor, whose eyes brim with tears during our interview. “It is 100 per cent care. It is a very tender situation. Shane is laying himself bare there.”
We spoke to actor and director separately – but their words weave a picture of a friendship and collaboration for the ages…
Once upon a time in the East Midlands
Shane Meadows: I first saw Stephen in Snatch. I remember thinking ‘flip, he has a proper throwback film star’s face.’ You can see life in there. You either get strong silent types or people who can show the frailties of the human condition – but Stephen’s eyes can be the most frightening or the most vulnerable. They are like pools of water when he lets you in.
Stephen Graham: My brother, our Aston, came to see me with a copy of Empire magazine. There was a tiny article that said Shane was directing a film about skinheads set in the 1980s. I had seen A Room For Romeo Brass, which I loved. I had seen Dead Man’s Shoes, which was magnificent. I thought I would be great in that – like Tim Roth in Made in Britain. I called my lovely agent Jane and she said: “funnily enough they have just phoned.”
SM: I was talking with Paddy Considine about how I was struggling to cast Combo. He said, weirdly, he had met this actor Stephen Graham on the train. And it turned out he lived 10-15 minutes away from my house.
SG: We met at this little café. I was buzzing. I got my Fred Perry t-shirt on – let’s show him I’ve got the look – and we sat down, chatted, and it felt right straight away.
SM: We met in Burton-on-Trent. From the very first time you speak to him about a role he looks you in the eyes and says, “I will give you everything”. I got the measure of what a special actor and person he was.
“I imagine it is like playing for Jürgen Klopp”
SM: For This Is England, Stephen wrote Combo’s whole backstory, the relationship between his mother and father, growing up in and out of care – it was incredibly complex and fully formed.
SG: I love the process Shane works with. We spend a long time doing workshops. By the time we get anywhere near filming you have this knowledge of the life you are about to play – their favourite music, dreams, aspirations. You build the character with Shane.
SM: The trust is enormous. It goes both ways. Because actors are fairly exposed. They play a scene many times over and try to be realistic but their best work, their finest hour might get left on the cutting room floor. If they give me that extra 10 per cent, actors trust I am going to put their best performance on screen.
SG: The script is there but it is like a skeleton. [The Virtues co-writer] Jack Thorne is amazing. Some stuff just jumps and sticks in your head. But Shane is not regimented. You are allowed to play with the script, let it take on its own energy. There is no right or wrong. You don’t feel you are having to please or appease. I imagine it is like playing for Jürgen Klopp. It’s that good!
“We came up through the same club scene”
SG: It is love. I love the man. If I was ever in a situation and needed to reach out to somebody, he would be on the end of a phone. He does amazingly complex, emotive stories of people hitting rock bottom, but he is also one of the funniest fuckers I have ever met.
SM: We are big football fans, although Stephen’s team is Liverpool, who are doing a lot better than Notts County. There is a lot more of the friendship than working relationship. We are the same school year. Me and Stephen have the same references.
SG: He just goes, ‘It’s fucking Bungle’ or ‘Oh no, Zippy’, and I’m gone. I’m in bits.
SM: We grew up in the late ‘80s together but separately. We came up through the same club scene. I used to go to Mansfield to a lot of open field raves. Stephen probably went to all the top places while I was hanging out with a bunch of farmers! You’ll have to ask him.
SG: Nah, I was the same as Shane, going to crap raves and our local pub in Kirkby. I had trouble getting in because I looked dead young.
SM: Now our families meet up – I’ve been for barbecues at his and vice versa. And my dad and Stephen became close filming The Virtues because my dad was his driver. Even when he is on the other side of the world, we keep in touch. During The Irishman he sent pictures with De Niro and Scorsese – it is kind of mindblowing.
“It no longer becomes acting… it was electric”
SM: I first talked to Stephen about the role of Joseph years ago. It was looking very unlikely we could get him because he is one of the most in-demand actors in the country. We completely lucked out.One scene with Helen [Behan] we were all scared of. We had written it, but it never really felt completely believable.
SG: For the workshop, we sat, me, Helen and Shane, and talked how it would have affected these two young souls being torn apart as children. Life is great, you live with your mum and dad, you have a lovely life. One parent passes away, you struggle on, your other parent passes away, and the rug is pulled from under you. They put you in the care system – but someone might want the eight-year-old girl and not her brother.
SM: How on earth, in one scene in a box room in Ireland, do you manage to get through 30 years of life?
SG: We rehearsed for a bit and Shane said: “Stop, leave that, it is going somewhere.” Because he doesn’t want you to shoot your load – I was trying to find a better phrase! But you don’t want to delve any further until the day you shoot. There needs to be some magic left.
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SM: On the morning we shot it, Helen had some sad news about a friend of hers and a member of my family got taken ill. The general consensus was that we should stop.
SG: I said, let’s use what we have got here and do it. Shane checked if it was what Helen wanted, and we did it. Shane said, I’m going to make this as painless as possible, set five cameras up in the room, Helen, you walk in… then something happened that has only happened to me a few times. It no longer becomes acting. I felt like I hadn’t seen her for 30 years. It was electric.
Energy is being swapped between two souls, and when you tap into that within an acting sense, you kind of have an out of body experience. [voice cracks] The emotion, just thinking about it, brings it back to me. I lost my Auntie Vera this week, cancer is a fucker, isn’t it. Mention Vera, won’t you?
“This Is England was a special time”
SG: It really is a family. To use the football analogy again, it is a team. You can’t win the league on your own. Shane has made all of our careers.
SM: The last nine years watching Vicky [McClure] fly is wonderful. And Michael Socha, Joseph Gilgun, Andrew Ellis, Andrew Shim. And Thomas Turgoose of course. Before we made This Is England, Tommo looked like a dangerous proposition. He had been expelled from school. There was no guarantee he would stick at it, but I could see myself at that age.
SG: It was a special time for us all on This Is England. But we didn’t realise how sick Tommo’s mum was. She passed after it was filmed so she never got to see the final piece but Shane showed her scenes in his Winnebago. And the tears in her eyes to see what her kid was capable of – this little kid who for years had been told he is worthless, he is going to get nowhere, he is no good for mainstream education – was mindblowing. I didn’t watch the screen, I watched her face. See, look, they can’t take that away from you can they?
SM: Stephen has a family and great kids – Tommo spends a lot of time with them. Stephen and Hannah are massively part of his life.
SG: At the wrap party, Tommo’s mum asked me and Hannah would we keep an eye on him. She said, look, people have made him promises all through his life, I’m asking you. She must have known what was coming. I remember seeing Tommo carry his mum’s coffin. He was only 14. He looked right at me and I could see his pain. We had this deep connection – and cut to 14 years later, his wedding day. Fucking hell, I am emotional today. That is a lot of growth, for two people to go on that journey together.
“I’ve got an absolute banger called This is England ’00!”
SM: Stephen works on the huge world stage – there is no bigger stage than The Irishman with De Niro and Pacino, is there? But I am so proud that between auditioning for that and filming it he was shooting The Virtues with me in tiny little houses in the middle of nowhere. A lot of people hit a status level then will never go beneath it.
SG: I would work with Shane for the rest of my life if he would have me. If he asked me to jump off a cliff, I wouldn’t ask where the safety net was. He is a master craftsman and the last of a dying breed. It is about not looking down at working class people through a microscope, it is allowing people in that situation to look up and out with a kaleidoscope.
SM: It is a dream of mine that we set up a little studio, like Ealing Studios but in the East Midlands, where we can work together. In a way we have, emotionally, because we feel we belong to each other. I have got a This Is England set at the millennium that I would like to make. I have got the story, I know what it is, but I have not sat down and written it yet but I have got an absolute banger called This Is England ’00.
SG: I reckon I’m dead. It is up to the guvnor, but I can’t see Combo coming out of that room. I think he accepted his own death. But if there is a This Is England 00, it is a possibility.
“Stephen is one of my primary colours”
SM: From my point of view, it is a lifelong relationship. It is like an artist with a collection of paints – Stephen is one of my primary colours. So, thank you Stephen for not changing, but at the same time getting better and better as an actor.
SG: I think I’ve told him I love him. But yeah, I love him. I’m not saying I’m his De Niro or Pacino, but Shane is the British Scorsese, making films and television that is poignant and truthful and honest and raw with no compromise. That was quite eloquently put wasn’t it? I’ve finished with an unscripted volley in the top corner!
The Virtues is available to watch on All4
Images: Rory Mulvey for The Big Issue