Stephen Graham: ‘I bought a Big Issue…and realised the vendor was my cousin’

"To this day, I always put my hand in my pocket and buy a copy – I bought a copy, he said thanks, and I thought, I know that voice. It was him."

Actor Stephen Graham, this week’s Big Issue cover star, has revealed that he was once buying a copy of the magazine when he realised the vendor was his cousin.

As well as talking about his working relationship and friendship with writer-director Shane Meadows ahead of the release of their latest collaboration, The Virtues, on Channel 4, the star of This Is England and Line of Duty explained why The Big Issue’s mission is close to his heart.

“I will never forget the moment I saw someone very close to me selling The Big Issue,” said Graham, when we met in East London.

“That was a hard-hitting moment for me personally. It was my cousin and I will never forget that image – I was in London, when I was at university and had just got off the train.

“To this day, I always put my hand in my pocket and buy a copy – I bought a copy, he said thanks, and I thought, I know that voice. It was him.”

Graham showed he has a big heart to match his big talent.

“I took him back to my ma’s, got him a bath and he stayed for a couple of nights,” he continued. “But it was a moment where you go, ‘Fucking hell’. I have always respected The Big Issue and thought that this was a fantastic magazine – but that moment made me realise how important it is and how it can give people opportunities. There but for the grace, you know what I mean?”

In this week’s Big Issue, Graham and Meadows talk about their first meeting in a café in Burton-on-Trent, after the former was recommended for the role of Combo in This Is England by Paddy Considine.

“I got my Fred Perry t-shirt on, let’s show him I’ve got half the look,” recalls the actor, while Meadows tells us: “Then he is interested in a role, he looks you in the eye and says, ‘I will give you everything.’”.

They recall building the character of Combo together, explain Meadows’ unique method for working with actors, reveal how they share cultural references having grown up in the late 80s “together but separate” going out to “crap raves” and explain how key scenes of The Virtues – which explores the impact of repressed memory syndrome, the care system and abuse – were filmed to have maximum impact and realness.

During the interviews, both men talked about the importance of opportunities. Meadows recalls an early big chance he was offered to work in the film industry.

“There was a guy called Graham Forde who gave me a break when I was 20 and had been thrown out of college after a year,” he says. “This guy took me on against the wishes of some of the other people at this little film centre in Nottingham. He showed a belief in me at a time I was at my lowest ebb. There was nothing seemingly to gain from his end, other than when he saw a spark in someone he always tried to nurture it.

“Because that happened to me at a point in my life when I appeared to be damaged goods, all through my career with actors I have gone: ‘I just have a feeling about this one’. So on paper, someone like Tommo [Thomas Turgoose, star of This Is England] looked like a very dangerous proposition – he had been expelled from school, he was at this drop-in centre two or three days a week.

“He seemed like a kid who could go off the rails, get bored halfway through the shoot and disappear, but because someone took a chance on me, when I met Tommo, I was prepared.”

It is very easy to chastise kids today… But we had youth centres before they got closed down

Graham spoke of the opportunity to learn outside of the school environment, whether at his local youth theatre or at youth centres.

“I feel that giving opportunities goes back to me being a 14-year-old kid having the opportunity to go to the Everyman Youth Theatre,” he says.

“It gives you opportunities but the environment has to be created for you to have that opportunity. It is very easy to chastise kids today. I hear it all the time. But we had youth centres before they got closed down.

“I was in there every night of the week. As soon as I came home from school – sometimes I would do my homework, I’d have my tea, watch Neighbours and bosh! I’d be on my bike and at the youth club for 6.20pm. It didn’t even open until 7pm. I’d be there until 9pm with my mates and it was a safe environment.

“It was where you learnt a lot about the structure of everything. Some kids maybe weren’t close to their mums and dads, but they had people they could talk to because these youth workers back then were amazing – working their arses off and giving themselves to the job.

“They gave people inspiration or someone to talk to. Like when a young girl goes, ‘You know what? I’m starting my period’ and is afraid to tell a teacher or her mum. This is a place you can be young and free but still learn. I loved it, but those opportunities are very rare.

“It always comes back to people having opportunities. Which is something I bang a drum about. Like The Big Issue – that gives someone an opportunity to make money for themselves.

“That’s why I have always wanted to do an article for The Big Issue. I’m not just saying that. For me, personally, this is massive…”

  • The Virtues airs on Channel 4 from 15 May, 9pm

Main image: Rory Mulvey for The Big Issue