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Shifty - Daniel Mays interview

Daniel Mays in Shifty

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DANIEL Mays – an actor who has consistently stood out with memorable supporting roles in films such as Vera Drake and Atonement, as well as TV’s Red Riding – talks about stepping up to leading man status in acclaimed urban drama Shifty, coping with the pressure of a £100,000 budget and tackling the many layers of a character like Chris.

He also talks about the forthcoming remake of The Firm for director Nick Love and other future projects…

Q. You must be really optimistic about Shifty because the reviews so far have been great…
Daniel Mays: Yeah, we’re all kind of buzzing. We’re really over the moon with it. But I’m slightly nervous as well. I think more than anything I just pray that the film gets an audience. It’s like the final hurdle. We’ve all worked so hard for no money and everything else. We shot it for £100,000 in three weeks… in a way, for me, all that sort of stuff is irrelevant now. It’s a film and I think it’s a really accomplished piece of work. But it needs to get an audience. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s got something for everyone in a way.

Q. Going in to a project like this, did you have to think long and hard given the budget size?
Daniel Mays: I was apprehensive. There were people around me that were advising me not to do it because there was no distribution deal in place and the prospect of actually technically achieving something like that, in that amount of time, was incredibly difficult and quite daunting. But when I sat down with Eran [Creevy, the director] and Ben Pugh [the producer] it wasn’t like they were completely inexperienced. They had worked up throughout the industry as runners. They’d worked on big, big features like Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Wimbledon and all these big films. So, they kind of instilled a level of confidence in me. I thought it was achievable.

We begged, borrowed and stole, asked for favours and were based in Elstree Studios abd the locations were no more than 10 minutes away from the unit base. But I must admit when I turned up on day one and saw such a small crew and the production designer was wading into a load of sewage to retrieve the mobile phone I’d just thrown in as part of the scene, I was like: “Shit, what have we got here?” But I was blown away by the time I sat down and watched it at the first screening. I thought it really stands up. It’s funny, moving and very gripping.

Q. A lot of the time with films like this – and Shifty has been compared to Adulthood – they get the mix wrong and end up appealing to the very people they’re seeking to show up. Shifty doesn’t fall into that trap….
Daniel Mays: Yeah, those films are great and obviously they did great business, but whereas they look at a huge variety of subjects, such as teenage pregnancy and gun crime and all that sort of stuff, Shifty purely cuts everything down and looks at two characters and their friendship. There are sub-plots but ultimately that’s what the film is about. It’s specifically about the break-up of a friendship and the healing of two best friends that haven’t seen each other for four years. From an acting point of view there were so many layers to it that we were able to get our teeth into. It is an urban thriller and it is of that genre, but it has a real sensitivity and heart to it, like a Shane Meadows, or a Ken Loach or a Mike Leigh film has. For me, it’s a real accomplishment.

Q. Do you think it helps that Eran [Creevy] has lived the life he portrays in his screenplay as well? As this was part-based on real events he witnessed when growing up?
Daniel Mays: Yeah, yeah. That was something that appealed to me in the script. It was abundantly clear that he knew these characters inside and out. His gift and talent was his ability to put it down on paper. The dialogue and text that we were talking to each other seemed really refreshing and funny and quirky. I think that level of wit and humour runs throughout the film the whole time. It really, really saves it going down that kitchen sink, social realism type of route like a lot of films like that do. It gets so depressing. This feels like a breath of fresh air, to me, and it feels like these characters are really believable.

Again, one of the appeals was the fact that Chris, my character, was a normal guy dealing with this extraordinary back-story and this incident that’s happened to him. He’s haunted by his past and the way he was living his life. To play a character like that was really challenging because you have to ask those questions, such as: “How does this incident affect his everyday life?” On the surface, he’s funny, sympathetic and an average Joe. He makes out he’s fine – he has a mortgage and is in recruitment, but when you really look at him he’s a guy who can’t sleep at night, and who can’t hold down a relationship. Shifty is the only guy in the world he can share that with and open up to. Those sort of deep rooted themes of redemption and friendship and wasted potential really run parallel with the banter and humour that’s in the film.

*Q. How long did you get to bond with your co-star Riz Ahmed beforehand? *
Daniel Mays: We had an initial meeting and had a couple of days then. We were also involved in a lot of the casting of the other characters. We read with Jay Simpson, who played Trevor, and then we had a week before we actually started to shoot. That was a really beneficial time. We really worked our socks off breaking the scenes down into beats, working on the character relationships and just building up a back-story and a history for those characters. The power of the script wasn’t just what was written. What great drama has is the stuff that’s not said… the stuff that happens in between the lines.

There are some really great moments of silence, when the characters pause. I really enjoyed the opening scenes of the film where you see them first meet up and it’s awkward and you don’t quite know what’s happening. But it’s testament to Eran’s script that he’s willing to give the audience a degree of intelligence and you have to think about what’s going on. You never really understand what the incident was that drove Chris away until near the end of the film.

Q. How does Eran compare to people like Mike Leigh and Michael Bay… both of whom you’ve worked with?
Daniel Mays: I worked with Michael Bay on Pearl Harbor, but you can’t even see me on the DVD extra thing. It’s ridiculous [laughs]. But Eran’s got a brilliant career ahead of him. He has that magic ingredient about him, like all good directors, where you’re really inspired by them as people. He really makes you want to do a great job. You want to bring your A-game to the table and do the best you possibly can.

But the fact they sat me down and told me about Film London, and the scheme they were running… whenever you take a part on, and particularly with something like Shifty, you do feel an enormous weight of responsibility. It’s their baby in a way and you have to give it everything you’ve got because it’s all on you in a way. If you don’t believe in it, then this film’s not going to work. I was really aware of that. I’ve done a lot of leads in TV and theatre, and I’ve done a lot of supporting parts in films, so this was a real opportunity to try and carry a film along with Riz.

Q. Do you think this has come at a perfect time in your career in terms of making that step up to leading man status in films?
Daniel Mays: Hopefully. I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of work that’s come out at once. And they’ve all been quite varied and different. But of all the stuff I’ve been involved with lately, and there’s been a lot of good projects [including TV’s Red Riding], I think because of how this has come out and the way that people are responding to it, I’m just so proud of it. I think I’m more proud of this than anything I’ve been involved in and I really mean that.

Q. How was working on Atonement because that was another film that really helped get you noticed? Your co-star James McAvoy has commented on how great you were in that scene with him during Dunkirk…
Daniel Mays: Really? Well, he’s got to start taking his medication [laughs]. Atonement was great. I sort of knew James socially. But all you want to do is work with good actors. Even though Atonement was a smallish part, the similarity it has with Shifty is that it took me on an emotional journey. My character in that film goes on an amazing journey in that film, actually. Essentially, that was like our own little road movie in the middle of the film, but at the beginning of that sequence he was a townie who was out of his depth in the countryside. He hated it.

But he is a character that goes on and becomes very responsible for the welfare of others. He’s there on Robbie’s death-bed when he dies. He says something like, “cheerio pal” at the end you have that sense that Nettles’ life was changed forever, like a lot of those guys who went through the experience of Dunkirk. We were fortunate in being able to talk to Dunkirk veterans in the preparation for the film.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about some of your forthcoming roles, including the remake of The Firm?
Daniel Mays: Yeah, we wrapped on The Firm at the end of last year. It’s a remake, it’s set in the ’80s, and it’s a new take on that seminal piece of work with Gary Oldman and Phil Davis. I’m aware that there’s a lot of purists out there and people who are going to say: “Why bother?” But what’s different with Nick Love’s version is that there’s a peripheral character called Dominic, who’s played by Jay Simpson from Shifty, who is now very much the lead character in the remake. So, the story is told from a different perspective and hopefully that’ll give it a refreshing and different take on things. But there’s a whole generation of people that don’t know The Firm.

It’s weird, I was going to do The Football Factory. I had a little part in that many years ago, but then Mike Leigh offered me Vera Drake. But I’d gone into rehearsals and met all the actors on The Football Factory, and had to pull out, so this felt a little bit like unfinished business.

Q. How was Nick Love to work with?
Daniel Mays: I loved working with him. He’s someone that’s got boundless enthusiasm for what he does. Hopefully, it’ll come out a really good film. I must say, I was involved a lot with the fights and the fight scenes, in particular, are going to be something that you’ve never seen before in a football film. We certainly spent a lot of time choreographing them and trying to make them as realistic as possible. It’s going to be brutal. But there’s a market for these type of films and while I have been apprehensive about doing them in the past, I thought to myself if you are going to do one, it’s a remake of the best one with a filmmaker that knows how to do it.

Q. And conversely, you’re changing genres again with Tin-Tin?
Daniel Mays: Yeah, that was all shot using motion capture. But look, I try to mix it up as best I can. I’ve had Plus One on Channel 4, which was comedic, and I’ve got an episode of Jimmy McGovern’s The Street. Hippie Hippie Shake is coming out [with Sienna Miller and Cillian Murphy].

I should also tell you about a film I’m going to shoot in June, which is in the vein of a Shifty set up. It’s a very low-budget film called Huge, written and directed by the comedian Ben Miller. It’s all about aspiring stand-up comedians and has an actor called Johnny Harris, who played the pimp character in London to Brighton. So, we’re going to shoot that in June. It’s ultra low budget but, again, the script has bags of potential like Shifty did. But I think that’ll be the last time I do a film that I don’t get paid for [laughs].

Read our review of Shifty