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Vera - David Leon interview

David Leon in Vera

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DAVID Leon talks exclusively to IndieLondon about his role alongside Brenda Blethyn in new ITV crime drama Vera and why he believes it is trying to offer something different in terms of relationships and atmosphere.

He also discusses his career to date, including co-writing and directing the Tribeca winning short film, Man & Boy, dropping out of drama school to shoot Alexander with Oliver Stone and his passion for Newcastle FC.

Q. I really enjoyed Vera
David Leon: That’s great. I think it’s very atmospheric and I think Adrian Shergold, who directed the first episode, has done a great job with it. I think he’s one of the best directors working in TV. He recently did Mad Dogs for Sky1 and he has a really great eye.

Q. What appealed to you about the character of Sergeant Joe Ashworth?
David Leon: I think Joe is a great character. But I found the piece as a whole was very interesting. I think it’s a non-formulaic way of telling a story within a genre that is well-known and liked. And what I also loved about the piece is that each episode is a self-contained two-hour drama, so it was essentially like making four films in a row, and as an actor that’s a fantastic opportunity. It also showed a great commitment in terms of the production values, which made it a joy to be a part of.

And then there’s the chance to work alongside Brenda Blethyn, who is someone I’ve admired for a very long time. I loved her work in Mike Leigh’s films and so on and so forth, so that really was a great opportunity too. But I’d also worked with Adrian [Shergold] before [on Clapham Junction], so when I knew he would be directing, I also knew that it would be a high quality, classy drama, and so that was the final stamp of approval I needed.

Q. One of the show’s strengths is the relationship between you and Brenda, which as well as being slightly more unconventional also assumes a mother-son dynamic – Joe is something of a surrogate son to her…
David Leon: That’s right, and the mother-son dynamic is something that was there from the beginning, right from the first time we met. We had a really nice kind of banter between the two of us and a sense of mutual respect, which I think makes for great chemistry. I hope that comes across on screen. But the dynamic between the characters is really interesting. She gives him a hard time, but he also gives her a hard time, but it’s clear they respect each other. They’re methods are different but equally effective and I think they both recognise that as well.

Q. In the first episode, we also see Joe may be struggling to cope with the dual responsibility of work and fatherhood. He becomes a father for the third time. Is that something that will be developed?
David Leon: Yes, the relationship with his family and his wife is developed as the series moves forward and it has a lot of subtext. But that’s another part of why I loved Joe. He was a bit of a bad boy come good. He’d had brushes with the law in the past but was given an opportunity to make himself better and wanted to make the most of being on the right side of things. He’s also a good, solid, well rounded father… a young married father. He has a strong moral code, despite being flawed in lots of other ways, and I thought getting the chance to show someone who is struggling with that work-life balance was a good chance to portray someone and something we can all relate to.

Q. I gather you also enjoyed dissecting your scenes with Brenda and sometimes going off-script to flesh out the characters?
David Leon: Yes, we were always trying to improvise scenes in rehearsals and all of the directors we worked with on this were good in that respect. Brenda and I both approached it in the same way… we’d constantly be questioning what a character was doing in the scene and why they were doing it but I think that makes for a stronger piece as a whole. No matter how good the writing is on scripts, there is always room for some improvement and I believe that process, when actors take a script and really explore it, thereby taking it to another level, can be very rewarding. We were given a lot of freedom with this and that’s very satisfying as an actor.

David Leon in Vera

Q. Another thing that struck me about Vera was the production values. We’re so used to the North being portrayed as grim, and yet this has a beauty to it – something almost Wallander-esque about it…
David Leon: That’s very interesting that you picked up on that because Wallander was a very big inspiration for the piece. It was a fantastic series and I really enjoyed it… and it was groundbreaking for its time. So, the challenge was how to achieve what Wallander had achieved but also take it to another level. Hopefully, we’ve done that through the dynamic between the characters, which is a little different, as well as the character of Vera herself, who is also quite different by the general standard of leading lady that you’re presented with quite often.
With regards to the area itself [Northumberland and Newcastle], it is a beautiful part of the world.

Having grown up in Newcastle, I was aware of the coastline, but I hadn’t been back there for a huge amount of time, so it was a real eye-opener. And the way it’s been shot fills me with a great deal of pride really, because it is very atmospheric. The area looks as beautiful in the winter as it does in the summer… but it’s not somewhere a great many people tend to venture to, which is kind of sad, but also fantastic because it means the beaches are that beautiful and unspoiled. I think this show certainly demonstrates the beauty of the area.

Q. I also gather it meant you could get to see your beloved Newcastle FC play a few times while filming?
David Leon: Newcastle United have caused me a lot of pain in my life [laughs]… I guess I’m a masochist. But yes, on a serious note, it was fantastic. I’m a season ticket holder and have been for some time. I used to go up with my dad since I was eight or nine and that was a time when [Kevin] Keegan was manager and we were doing well. You had to apply for a season ticket and there was a waiting list of 10 or 20,000 people, so dad bought the tickets and I’ve continued to do so ever since. It’s been harder to get to see them, though, with work commitments and so on…

Q. I hope you didn’t miss the 4-4 draw with Arsenal!
David Leon: I was in America at the time! But I do remember watching it at something like 9am and getting to half-time and thinking about giving up. It’s lucky I didn’t! It would have been great if we’d won that game. It probably doesn’t mean as much as the 4-3 classic game against Liverpool, when we were going for the title, but it was a great game of football.

Q. I’m an Arsenal fan, I have to confess…
David Leon: Well, I have to say I have a soft spot for Arsenal, especially now that I live in London. They do play such great football and I do think Wenger is a genius. I just wish he’d dip into his cheque book now…

Q. Moving away from football and Vera, you’ve also found success as a writer and director. Your short film, Man And Boy [featuring Eddie Marsan], was received very favourably at last year’s London Film Festival… Is that something we’re going to see more of from you?
David Leon: Yes, Man & Boy did very well and I’m now working on a feature film, which is actually set in Newcastle in 1989. Damian Lewis is attached in the lead and we’re looking to start shooting in February next year. I think I’ll probably act in and direct that. It’s a big challenge, of course, but it’s something I’ve been gearing towards for the past six to eight months and will continue to do so. But I find it very exciting because you’re creating a new role within that kind of framework, where you’re responsible for something both in front of and behind the camera. It means that you’ve got to place a lot of trust in the people you work with – not just actors but the people working around you.

But I really enjoyed directing and it’s been very satisfying and rewarding, especially the reaction to Man And Boy, which has won awards around the world. In fact, it’s competing at the Tribeca Film Festival now [it has since won Leon and Marcus McSweeney best narrative short at the festival]. It’s a lot of hard work, of course, but I’ve been writing and developing with my writing partner, who I grew up with in Newcastle and who I’ve known for the best part of 20 years, so, it’s nice to see the fruits of our labour come good.

David Leon in Vera

Q. I gather you auditioned for the National Youth Theatre but passed on drama school in favour of getting the chance to be in Oliver Stone’s Alexander?
David Leon: Yes, I had the opportunity to do Alexander and I chose to take it. I’ve never been one for institutions, really. I was lucky because I could get by at school with doing the bare minimum. But I’d always prefer to be playing football and if someone told me to do something, I would often go the other way. But as you get older, you become more mature… I’m always careful about taking advice from others but the National Youth Theatre was a life saver because it kind of gave me the confidence that I might actually be able to do this as a living and that I might have the ability to do it well.

When you’re growing up in Newcastle, or a lot of places outside of London, there is this kind of Billy Elliot syndrome… it’s like people want to tell you ‘you can’t’. So, the idea of becoming an actor, or in his case a dancer, or anything that could be considered ‘outside the box’, you’ll find there are people who try to discourage you from doing it, and sometimes rightly so. But when I got to a certain age and I was able to apply to the National Youth Theatre without anyone knowing… to then get in and hear professional people tell you that you had a bit of ability and should consider doing it professionally made me feel very encouraged and excited.

Q. And how was being on a film set with the likes of Colin Farrell and Oliver Stone?
David Leon: It was great. But I’ve been very, very fortunate in that I’ve got to work with a lot of people I consider to be idols or heroes… people like Kevin Spacey, or on RocknRolla [people like] Gerard Butler and Tom Wilkinson. On that, there were also some contemporaries like Toby Kebbel and Tom Hardy, who are part of a group of friends I bump into from time to time, so it was great to be able to work with them. But just standing on a set and watching people work – like Antony Hopkins, Colin Farrell and Val Kilmer, etc [on Alexander] – you learn so much more than if you were in a classroom. And when you’re given a great opportunity like that, I’ve always felt that you have to grab it with both hands.

Q. As you get more and more busy, do you think you might find it harder to balance personal projects with being an actor for hire?
David Leon: Yeah, I think it’s really, really difficult even now. But doing something like Vera affords me the opportunity to be very focused on what I want to spend my time on. It takes an awful amount of time writing and developing a feature film, so I have to make a conscious choice and say: “OK, I’m not going to work for two months and focus on this project…” But I’ve always been of the attitude that you should make your decisions carefully because you’re only really as good as the last thing you’ve done as that stays in people’s minds. So, if I’m passionate about something I will commit to it 120 per cent.

Read our interview with Brenda Blethyn

First episode reviewed

Vera airs on ITV1 on Sunday night (May 1, 2011) from 8pm.