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Made in Dagenham - Daniel Mays interview

Daniel Mays in Made in Dagenham

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DANIEL Mays talks about playing a husband and father struggling to cope with his wife’s role in the Ford motor strike of 1968 in Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham.

He also talks about working with Sally Hawkins, forthcoming roles in the BBC’s Outcasts and Doctor Who, as well as Steven Spielberg’s Tintin, and why he is delighted with the way his career is shaping up at the moment.

Q. What appealed to you about playing the character of Eddie in Made in Dagenham?
Daniel Mays: He’s kind of an uncomplicated character in way. I’ve played a lot of difficult parts in past, so I found Eddie really refreshing. He’s basically this loving husband and father. But the great thing about what Eddie and a lot of the other characters in the film have in common is that they are these normal working class people who all of a sudden find themselves dealing with these extraordinary circumstances.

But the centre of Eddie’s world is his wife and kids and all of a sudden Rita, his wife, is the spearhead of this dispute, and he suddenly finds himself becoming emasculated and having to do the cooking, the cleaning and picking the kids up from school. So, hopefully he goes on just as big an emotional journey as Rita and that provides some fantastic scenes between the two of them. Obviously, he also loses his job once the dispute deepens, so that adds to the drama as well. I’m always drawn to ordinary people dealing with extraordinary situations, so this was no exception.

Q. The sequence between yourself and Rita on the beach is actually quite tear-jerking…
Daniel Mays: Yes, it’s a great moment when he goes down to Eastbourne… Nigel [Cole, the director] and I spoke a lot about that moment, just beforehand, when he walks in and sees his wife up there up there, on stage, in front of all those union men. Sally [Hawkins] does that speech so phenomenally well… but it’s a light-bulb moment for Eddie, to see his wife up there. It’s the moment he realises what they’ve been fighting for. And then there’s a lovely reconciliation scene on the beach.

But Eddie has really been caught between a rock and a hard place up until then. In the beginning, he thinks the dispute will be over quickly, that the women will just walk out for the one day. He also sees himself as the bread winner and the one who has to put the food on the table, so he’s quietly angry about the position he’s been put in and what the other men are thinking about him. So, that was a great way to bring his journey to an end.

Q. He’s also a metaphor for the changing attitudes of the time, because there is that part of him – as you say – that sees himself as the breadwinner, but there is that side to him that sees Rita as an equal in the family, even if he struggles to verbally admit it…
Daniel Mays: For a guy to pick up the kids and do the cooking… I mean he’s completely useless at it… but back in 1968 doing those things were not really a man’s place. So, that lends itself to some comedic moments in the kitchen, but it’s also a lesson learned for him and the audience – to see how attitudes have changed since then.

Q. How much did you know about the story before getting the role?
Daniel Mays: I didn’t know anything about the strike of ‘68. I grew up in Essex and, indeed, some of my dad’s friends worked at the [Ford] plant. I was talking to Bob Hoskins and he remembers it, but said that it was only on page 5 of the newspaper as a small article, when it should have been front page news. So, it’s great to be a part of this film and to be getting the story the recognition it deserves, especially having grown up in Essex.

I think the quality and beauty of the film is the fact that as well as being entertaining, and boasting some great performances from a largely female cast, it shines a light on a really important moment for women’s liberation in this country. It was a massive step forward for them. So, the fact we have the opportunity to put it up there on the big screen is very enlightening for people. It’s an empowering film as it’s about never giving up and always fighting for what you believe in.

Q. Did you speak to any of your dad’s friends by way of research?
Daniel Mays: I did, I spoke to one of dad’s friends who told me it was a way of life for them. It was the biggest factory in Europe, where there were 55,000 men in comparison to the 187 women… so it was a huge part of everybody’s lives. So, it is quite surprising that people don’t know about the story, even in Essex.

Q. And did you get to meet any of the women themselves?
Daniel Mays: Not until the premiere last week, which was fantastic. I love the fact they were there because what they did marked a wonderful achievement and that’s what the film is basically about – it’s a celebration of that achievement.

Q. So how did you enjoy going up against Sally Hawkins?
Daniel Mays: Sally is a good friend and we have worked together in the past – we’ve been in a couple of Mike Leigh’s together and a play at the Royal Court, but they have always been a bit fleeting in the past [in terms of the time we spent on-screen together]. So, the fact I got to play her husband really meant a great deal to me. I think she’s such a phenomenal talent. She has this natural humility and an unbelievable passion… she always strives to give a wonderful performance. And she’s going from strength to strength at the moment. I mean, ultimately you’re only as good as the actor in front of you, so this was a fantastic experience for me. What she’s done with this part has pushed the bar even more. I love that she has this inner strength but actually brings a vulnerability and fragility to the part… it’s the reason why she pulls at the audiences’ heart-strings. She doesn’t expect to be the heroine at the start, but slowly grows into her role as leader of the dispute.

Q. You seem to be as busy as ever at the moment… I mean you came into Made in Dagenham from playing the devil in Ashes To Ashes, which marks a nice change of pace for you…
Daniel Mays: Well, I always try and mix it up as much as I can and, yes, things have been very good at the moment and I seem to be busy a lot of the time. I think it was great that Ashes To Ashes came out just before Made in Dagenham. It was actually quite daunting to take on because it was such a well established show and has a huge fan-base, but the prospect of playing that character was too good to turn down.

In fact, I think he’s the most enjoyable character I’ve played to date, because he really tested the audiences’ perception of who that person was. On the one hand, he was this discipline and complaints officer, who was slightly geeky and subservient to Gene Hunt, but then slowly he got to reveal who he was and, by the final episode, could take the mask off and reveal his true self. I think that show really needed a nemesis for Gene Hunt, so it was really good to be able to provide that.

Q. You’ve also since done Outcasts for the BBC
Daniel Mays: I’ve been away for just under five months [in South Africa] doing this huge, epic new show. I think it’s going to come out in January. But it’s a really bold and different show for the BBC to put on. It’s from the same company as Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars and they’re never frightened to take risks. It’s set in 2060, on a different plant, and it follows a group of pioneers who are trying to colonise a new planet. They’ve been there for 10 years and it’s basically about them striving forward and trying not to make the same mistakes as they made on Earth, which has suffered an apocalyptic event. I’ve seen the first three episodes in a rough cut form, and I think it’s come out superbly well. It’s also got Liam Cunningham, Hermione Norris and Ashley Walters in it… although most of my scenes are with this amazing young actress called Amy Mason. I’m looking forward to seeing how people get on with it.

Q. You also did a part in The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. How was that?
Daniel Mays: I’m not entirely sure when that’s coming out but it’s in post-production now. It involved a lot of motion capture work but it was an amazing experience. Just getting to work with Steven Spielberg, I had to keep pinching myself and thinking: “Am I dreaming?” He was phenomenal to work with… I mean, arguably, you don’t get any better than him, so l lapped it up. It was a wonderful experience.

Q. How did you get on with the motion capture?
Daniel Mays: In a weird kind of way it’s a lot like doing theatre in the sense that you are in a space and literally lust playing out the scene. So, you don’t worry about where the camera is because you’re getting picked up by an array of cameras in a 360 degree radius. So, you just play the character and let them worry about all the technical side of things. I actually found it to be quite a liberating experience.

Q. You’ve obviously worked in the theatre on several occasions but have been busy with TV and film of late. Any plans to return to the stage?
Daniel Mays: I’ve not done play for well over two years. But I love doing theatre as much as I do film and TV, so it’s very important to me. I mean, it’s more the actor’s medium, isn’t it? It requires a certain level of discipline and you have to be up on that stage every night. So, I’d love to go back, but it’s got to be the right part and the right play. But at some stage, I will definitely make a return.

Q. Are the rumours about Doctor Who true?
Daniel Mays: I have literally just finished doing an episode with Matt [Smith]. I think the BBC have now come out and said that I’m in it. But I was there for two weeks and had the most fun time on it. I adored working with Matt, because he’s also such a good actor – but I can’t say too much about what I’m doing on the show [laughs].

Q. Have you got anything else on the horizon?
Daniel Mays: I think I’m going to take a little break, to be honest. I’ve got a few things on the table but it’s nice to have a bit of time to weigh things up and try and make the right choice. I’ve not stopped for so long…

Q. But it’s good to be in demand…
Daniel Mays: Definitely… I mean you never really know where your next job is coming from. But I feel very blessed to be able to do a job that I get a lot out of and that things appear to be going so well. And there are still characters I’ve not played yet and directors I want to work with, so I really want to keep growing as an actor. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

Read our review of Made in Dagenham

Read our interview with Rosamund Pike