Joseph Gilgun: ‘I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. My behaviour was terrible’

This is England's Joseph Gilgun knows what it is to be young, bored and poor. He tells The Big Issue about bringing these stories to his latest comedy, and how depression has stalked his life and work

“We have fallen on hard times, the working classes.” Joseph Gilgun is becoming a great actor. The star of This Is England, Pride and Misfits went global with the success of AMC series Preacher, which airs on Amazon Prime in the UK. With great ability comes great power in the television industry, so now he is able to bring his own stories to the screen, starting with new comedy Brassic, a depiction of what it is to be young, gifted and skint – written by Danny Brocklehurst based on Gilgun’s youthful misadventures in Chorley, Lancashire.

It is a timely look at life under austerity in a post-industrial town for young people abandoned by people in power. Gilgun is a natural storyteller. It is easy to see how his life could inspire a TV series.

“These places are struggling,” says Gilgun. “They have a proud past as ex-mill towns. But there isn’t an awful lot there if you are working class. Brassic is a commentary on what is, for a lot of young men, a way of life. Which is getting by whatever way you can.”

This is a world Gilgun knows well. “These places have been abandoned. You have kids smashing stuff up every night. They are bored. It is pissing down, they have nowhere to go, fuck it, let’s smash a bus stop or draw a cock on the wall.

“I knew a bunch of lads who were misbehaving but they were amazing MCs. You have ornamental roundabouts that cost god knows what, but you can’t put a recording studio in a youth club?”

Ironically, it was old Etonian Dominic West – who guest stars as the self-involved doctor charged with helping Gilgun’s alter-ego, Vinnie, deal with his bipolar disorder – that motivated Gilgun to share his stories of hijinks and hardship.

“Dominic is the most charming bastard. Bloody gorgeous, fabulously posh and sweet. I was telling him about my shenanigans and he said: ‘You really have to do something with these stories, Joseph. It is ridiculous that you are just telling a posh fool on a balcony.’”

Cut to a few years later and this chaotic comic caper, featuring such hits as the convoluted theft of a Shetland pony, arrives on Sky One.

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“Vinnie is the lad I could have turned out to be,” says Gilgun. “I remember being a plasterer, doing odd jobs wherever I could and getting by just like Vinnie and the gang. And look at my life now. I feel so lucky.”

Attending Oldham Theatre Workshop as a child changed the direction of travel for Gilgun. “I was a bad lad,” he says. “I couldn’t read. I couldn’t write. My behaviour was terrible.

“My poor mum and dad didn’t know what to do with me. At Oldham I met this man David Johnson and he sorted me out. It was about respect, and I had very little when I first met him. He drilled that shit into me, dude.”

He joined Coronation Street aged eight and stayed for three years. He almost drifted out of acting before winning his defining role, as charismatic Woody in This Is England.

“I learnt an awful lot from Shane Meadows,” says Gilgun. “You need to know that if you think of an idea while you are filming the scene, it doesn’t matter whether it is scripted, make sure you get it said. That’s what we went for on Brassic.”

We are in a hotel in central London. Gilgun was upgraded to a two-storey apartment with a grand piano when he asked for a room with a balcony. It feels odd, we agree, for The Big Issue to be interviewing the 35-year-old about depictions of working-class life here.

“It feels like bad irony,” Gilgun says. “Surely you have to be a cocaine dealer to live somewhere like this. I only asked for a balcony so I could have a cheeky spliff at night.”

Gilgun has, he says, been struggling. Telling people how he is really doing, rather than offering a polite response to enquiries, is typical. Only once does he check himself: “Donna, how much shit will I get in if I talk about Tom Cruise?” he hollers. “A lot,” comes the response from his publicist in the adjoining room. Gilgun offers no bullshit.

“If you are someone who is prone to getting lost, it is a good idea to let people know that you are wandering off,” he explains.

You do have to fake it till you make it with depression sometimes

“Because some people get so lost you can’t find them. At the age I am at… it can be the end of people. Talking about your feelings is not something everyone can do. Especially men. I am bipolar. I suffer with chronic depression, which can go on for a long time. And being absolutely frank with you, I have been on a down since Christmas.”

Brexit isn’t helping. “Our generation are made to feel politics is complicated and beyond our realm to comprehend. We feel so defeated by it.”

Shooting the final series of Preacher in Australia this year was a struggle. “It was the first time I didn’t feel ready to go. I was going downhill,” he says.

“But there is an element of powering through. I hate this, but you do have to fake it till you make it with depression sometimes. Work is the most important thing in my life. I don’t know if that is healthy. I really love my job, I still feel fucking sad. I am still dragging that old horse around with me. But it has never affected my work. I don’t want to end up where I was.”

Where he was, in his mid-twenties after the initial high of This Is England’s success wore off, was hiding beneath a table in a shared dressing room towards the end of his stint in Emmerdale, sleeping all day, taking solace in drink and drugs, and losing patches of hair due to stress.

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“That is when I realised I had a serious problem,” he says. “It wasn’t just that Joseph is a fucking drama queen.”

A return to his This Is England gang for three Channel 4 series was important. He has nothing but love, he says, for Meadows and co-stars Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham and Thomas Turgoose. But therapy also helped. As did the old friends he constantly namechecks.

“When I get chronically depressed, I tell people in the hope they might have a magic wand,” says Gilgun. “Having dealt with depression for as long as I have, I am still looking for that magic wand.

“I want people to see what it is to suffer with prolonged sadness and bouts of extreme joy and creativity. I want people to see how vulnerable I am, the ups, the downs, the highs and the fucking lows, the worst parts of me. If you can still like me after all that, then maybe I deserve it, you know?”

All episodes of Brassic will be available on August 22 on Sky One and Now TV