When I was 16, I was at boarding school in the Midlands, close to my grandparents. My folks had just moved back from the Far East. We’d moved there when I was nine.
I was secretly plotting to audition for drama school. I didn’t tell my mates or teachers. I did about 18 plays at school, to the detriment of my exams. I felt happy making people laugh. I have always been quite shy – at my sixth birthday party I hid from my friends. But there was something tremendously releasing in being able to say someone else’s words.
I look back at my younger self affectionately. I was never one of the lads but I was a fairly sunny individual. I wish I had worried less about what people thought of me. I would get paroxysms of anxiety, but actually people don’t really care. It takes a while to learn it is not a good idea to drink five million glasses of white wine and smoke yourself to death to feel less nervous.
I would tell my younger self he should stop smoking. He wouldn’t have listened, though. You feel invincible at that age. I really smoked a lot. When I stopped properly in my early 30s it was so hard.
I really smoked a lot. When I stopped properly in my early 30s it was so hard
My shyness manifested in aloofness. I auditioned for Manchester Poly and afterwards this lovely lady pulled me to one side and gave me a mini bollocking: “You should become an actor but you can’t come in with this attitude.” I was shocked. My nerves turned into seeming rude. At RADA, when casting directors and agents would come for the final showpiece, the first years used to pour the wine. I was on the drinks station and was very rude to Anthony Hopkins because I was crippled with nerves.
I am amazed by how callous I was about relationships in my teens.. I think you have a natural selfishness at that age, that is part of being a teenager. But it is fascinating and horrifying looking back.
I was obsessed with Jim Morrison. He was so fucking cool and sexy. There was terrible music snobbery at school and if you listened to the wrong band you were slagged off quite openly. I am now listening back to a lot of music I liked then – the Sundays, Smiths, Cure, Pixies. I play them to my kids in the car when I take them to school. My 14-year-old heard A Forest by the Cure, and he was like, “What is this? This is cool.” I felt pleased about that – good parenting.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Daniel Day Lewis were big heroes. I auditioned for De Niro once, which was a peculiar experience. Never meet your heroes, they might turn out to be weirdos. It is nicer to imagine them in your head and admire their work.
I would remind my younger self of the wonderful phrase “this too must pass”. The bad stuff will pass, but so will the good stuff. It is about trying to be present, enjoy things as much as possible, because it is all fleeting and transient.
My younger self would have enjoyed knowing I would be Tom Quinn in Spooks. I never imagined I would do film or TV, let alone play a spy. All I wanted to do was work in the theatre. On tour with Cheek By Jowl theatre company a few years out of drama school, travelling the world doing a show – to be an actor, making people laugh, was exactly what I’d always wanted.
I didn’t think I was good-looking or sexy enough
You would never get turned away from drama school if you didn’t have money. I was one of only three in my year who went to independent schools. It was not all public schoolboys. To single out actors, like Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch is nonsense because it is really fucking hard to be successful in this business. That is not to say drama funding doesn’t need to be looked at – it is a serious situation if there are barriers to people coming through.
I worried too much about playing Mr Darcy. [in 2005] I didn’t think I was good-looking or sexy enough. It probably bled into the character, because Mr Darcy is also cripplingly shy. I would tell my younger self to be less fussy, take a punt sometimes. Because six months down the line, the film can bear little relation to the script you read. It is out of your hands. You are just a cog in a process, and that is a lovely thing.
How lucky I am to be able to go from Mr Darcy to something like Secret Life on Channel 4, playing a recently released paedophile trying not to reoffend. I didn’t think I would do another TV series after Spooks. But Ripper Street came up and you long for the security every now and again, especially with three kids. I thought, “Here we go, another tortured policeman.” But it has been such a pleasure.
Michael Gambon made a big impression on me. He played my dad in BBC Two drama Perfect Strangers in 2001. He was a hero since my teenage years, so it was like a dream. We were doing a night shoot at Claridge’s, and I remember standing outside with him, smoking and chatting all night long. I was in heaven!
My wife Keeley [Hawes] is flying at the moment, she’s up for a Bafta. It is so exciting – about fucking time! Trying to keep our careers going and focus on our family is tricky, but that is part of the fun. How do we make this work? Will we traumatise the children if we are not there for a few weeks? But when one of us is working away, the other is usually at home.
Turning 40 felt like a relief. I adore my wife and my kids are just hilarious and fascinating and infuriating, but in all the right ways. So I am very happy now. And my younger self doesn’t feel that far away.