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This Is England - Stephen Graham interview

Stephen Graham in This Is England

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEPHEN Graham, who has appeared in films such as Gangs of New York and Snatch talks about some of the joys of working with Shane Meadows on This Is England.

He also discusses his relationship with the film’s young star, Tommo, and why presenting a skinhead unlike any other that’s been seen before was so important to him…

Q. What appealed to you about This Is England?
Stephen Graham: Just the fact that it meant working with Shane Meadows. I’ve always been a big admirer. When I was asked to go and meet him I was very, very nervous – even more nervous than when I met [Martin] Scorsese. But I guess you never think you’ll work with Scorsese.

But we met in a cafe and chatted loads about the project. I saw a 60-page breakdown of the story and then went for a workshop. I also looked into skinheads in the 80s and the National Front. The workshop was really good. I’m mixed race myself, so I thought I might not get the job. But Shane assured me otherwise and we spent a whole week doing intense workshops and building a biography for my character.

Q. Is it true that a lot of the script was improvised?
Stephen Graham: All of it was but Shane shoots chronologically. You go in a linear journey but anything can happen. It means you’re constantly on your toes. We’d sometimes shoot for 10 minutes but then Shane spends a year in the editing suite and the script is created I suppose.

Q. How exhilarating is that as an actor?
Stephen Graham: Unbelievably so. It’s my dream as an actor to work like that. In fact, it’s every actor’s dream to let loose, create havoc and let go. It’s controlled improv, though, like Ken Loach. But it’s such a joy to do. Shane’s a lovely fella and a brilliant director. Working with him was everything I hoped it would be and more. He has a wicked sense of humour.

Q. Did that prove a good release on a film like this once you’d stopped filming?
Stephen Graham: I was recently asked if I stayed in character and I laughed – not out of disrespect or anything. But you can’t ever stay in character when you’re playing someone like that, you’d go crazy in the head. We had a right laugh when we were finished. Shane told loads of jokes and he’s a great storyteller. It was important for little Tommo [Thomas Turgoose] as well.

Q. Did you ever find yourself becoming a bit of a father figue to Tommo in real-life as well? Did he look to you as the more experienced actor?
Stephen Graham: I just made him feel comfortable. But I guess it’s like working with someone like Robert De Niro or something, if he wasn’t believing it he wasn’t having it. He kept you on your toes. I had to go with the story wherever he went and keep up with him. I know it sounds like a cliche, but we were like a big family. Tommo stayed at mine and at Shane’s. He’s such a lovely kid.

Q. I gather he needed a lot of convincing at one stage to continue making the film?
Stephen Graham: I guess he was a bit of a bad lad at the time and was going to a special centre one afternoon a week. Then suddenly he was on this regime, working from 7am to 7pm. At first he didn’t want to be doing it. Then Shane had a good chat with him. I think his performance is on a par with one of the best young performances I’ve ever seen, in Kes. It’s that powerful.

Q. I guess his fearlessness comes from the brashness of youth?
Stephen Graham: Of course, he’s a really clued up little lad. When he was asked to audition he said he’d only go if Shane gave him a fiver. He was a little minx at times. But sadly, little Tommo’s mum died at the end of year, so the film is dedicated to her.

Q. What do you think when you see yourself playing this type of character on-screen? Does it ever frighten you?
Stephen Graham: Not especially. But I’m my own worst critic when I watch myself. With this part, though, I was pleasantly surprised by my own performance.

Q. Was it ever a challenge to find the right balance in Combo – to make him scary without becoming a cliche – and to show a sensitive side as well?
Stephen Graham: We wanted to create this skinhead you’d never really seen before. Not just a violent skinhead. We wanted the audience to feel sorry for him in many respects. We wanted to show the heart and soul of him. He’s a product of society. His back story was that he’d been in and out of borstal. He couldn’t find love. And he couldn’t quite get over being rejected again. That final scene with Milky is not just about hatred. It’s about jealousy as well. He could have had that family and life. He could have had what Milky had. He was thinking: “Why me again?

Q. Do you think the film contains a lot of parallels with events today, especially politically?
Stephen Graham: Yeah, the loss of hope. I suppose, it could be perceived as a bleak film by some people but to me it has a happy ending. Little Shaun finds his own way and needs to be there for his mother and become his own man. He isn’t going to be fooled by people again.

Q. What are you doing next?
Stephen Graham: I’ve just finished a film with Helen Mirren called Inkheart. It also stars Andy Serkis, Jim Broadbent and Jamie Foreman and is directed by Iain Softley. It’s a child fantasy film that’s going to be really nice film to watch with the family.

Q. Has the acclaim surrounding your performance in This Is England helped to raise your profile? Or is it too early to tell?
Stephen Graham: I hope it’ll make it easier to get more work.

Read our review of This Is England