At 16 I was very small for my age. It was a real shame for me because I thought that when I grew up I was going to be really muscular and well-built. Then I grew about a foot in a year but I didn’t get any wider. I was a six-foot beanpole with that curtains hairstyle that everyone had in the late ’90s. So that was really disappointing.
I had loads of interests, mostly sporty, when I was 16. But none of them competed with my main one – I was obsessive about girls. I had this great ability to chat to any girl, make them laugh – and we’d be getting on brilliantly and she’d say, ‘Oh, you’re such a good listener! Well, you know your mate Paul…’. I was the small funny guy who made girls laugh, then they’d ask if I could set them up with my taller, better-looking mates. That would happen all the fucking time. It was devastating. No one ever fancied me.
I loved playing football so much when I was 16. If there was five minutes before the bell I’d leg it to the playground to see if there was anyone kicking a ball around. I could happily play for five hours at a time. Did it hit me one day that I was never going to play for my country? No, not really. I’m only 37 and I still feel there’s a glimmer of a chance. To this day I’ll watch someone like Harry Kane and think, yeah, when I grow up… Like I’m a boy watching men. Then I realise – these players are literally 20 years younger than me. That totally boils my mind. I keep waiting for this grown-up wisdom to settle on my shoulders but I’m beginning to realise it’s never going to happen.
The week I started medical school was the week they showed the first Royle Family episode. I’d been getting about one job a year through the agency my local drama group set up but I never ever thought I’d do acting as a career. I’d already taken my exams when I did my audition for Caroline [Aherne]and Craig [Cash] – I thought I was shit – then by the time I got home they’d phoned to say they wanted me. I now know that was the day that my life changed but I had no idea at the time. My agent started getting a few calls a week, then three or four calls every day, saying ‘Who is this kid?’ I wasn’t sure what to do. I was becoming a doctor, which was what I’d always wanted – but can you imagine how much fun it would be being an actor all the time? I decided to take the gamble and after four weeks at medical school I dropped out.
I was the small funny guy who made girls laugh, then they’d ask if I could set them up with my taller, better-looking mates
My mum was padding around on the landing while I read the script for The Royle Family in my bedroom and when I finished she said, I didn’t hear you laughing much. And I said, well it’s weird – it’s hilarious but there’s no jokes. I remember sitting round the table at the read-through. I did wonder if people were going to get this comedy show with no jokes, people doing nothing, with Bobby and Sheila Grant from Brookside starring in it. And then… maybe I’m making this up but I remember when Ricky Tomlinson started reading I was overcome with this thought – God, this could be something really special.
Antony Royle was a sloucher. I’ve always been a bit of a sloucher myself but with Antony my chin was almost buried into my chest. It just felt right. Another thing I was quite proud of – a scene with Antony finishing off making the tea. It occurred to me it might be funny, to show how used he was to doing this, if he had six cups lined up like they were in a production line, and he was just dropping in the sugar, pouring the milk. To have that little idea, and for those guys to put it in the final cut, you just thought, wow, how lucky I am.
At 16 I was probably better with adults than I was with my own peers. I think the reason – well, my mates might say it was because I was a dickhead. But I think looking back it’s because it’s not cool as a teenager to be chatty and ebullient. Teenagers like to be aloof and chilled. I was excitable, mischievous. I used to walk away from encounters with adults and they’d be saying, what a confident young man! They were probably also saying, his poor parents, it must be exhausting. And all my mates were saying, for God’s sake, shut up.
I’ve always been a bit of a sloucher – but with Antony Royle my chin was almost buried into my chest
The thing that would excite my teenage self most about his future – I hate to be so blunt about it – but once I was on TV suddenly there were girls everywhere. I’d probably say to younger Ralf – mate, don’t get carried away. But as well as that; watching The Usual Suspects when I was a teenager, then working with Kevin Spacey in 2006 [for the film Telstar]. Playing football with Zidane. Being onstage with my boyhood hero Ryan Giggs at his testimonial doing Rapper’s Delight, which Ryan knows all the words to. I mean, walking onstage with the rest of the guys from The Royle Family to get a Bafta. Insane. Yet at the time it just felt like, yeah, we’ve made this brilliant show, so now we’ll win a Bafta. We’ll just nip down to London and pick it up. It seemed quite normal at the time. And actually, I wish it hadn’t. I wish I had realised how astonishing it all was. I’d say to my younger self – mate, this doesn’t happen all the time. Savour it. You should be walking around starry-eyed, unable to take it in.
If I could go back, I’d love to talk more with my grandfather. He died when I was 14, and I didn’t see him much any more because when you’re 14 you’re busy doing other things. I feel like he was an extremely – I was going to say a simple soul but that’s not right. He was fiercely intelligent but just a big, gentle, kind man who fixed your bike, took you on walks, tickled you. A friend who was just always there in a very understated way. I loved him of course but when I look back I see this quiet steadiness I realise I didn’t notice at the time.
I wish I had realised how astonishing it all was. I’d say to my younger self – mate, this doesn’t happen all the time
I would like to be a dad. I had a practice run with my brother, who was 10 years younger than me. I remember thinking, when my mum told me she was pregnant, how nice that he’s being born now, when I can appreciate him, ’cause I’m a grown up. At 10 years old. I think I’m very good with kids, hanging out with them. But… I don’t have any. That I know of, ha ha ha. It’s never quite worked out yet, finding the right person to settle down with. I would very much like it but I’m starting to have this creeping feeling that, oh, it might never happen.
Ralf Little stars in Ugly Lies the Bone, which runs at the National Theatre until June 6; nationaltheatre.org.uk
The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.