“I’m sure if you speak to my friends and family, they’ll assure you that I’m not a psychopathic megalomaniac who likes to kill people,” says Stephen Graham, his voice flickering between assertion and self-amusement. “But they’re the characters I like to play.”
Best known for roles including the pivotal figure of Combo in the This is England series – a very special blend of vulnerability and extreme violence – a charismatic young Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, and the eponymous character in The Arctic Monkeys’ Scummy Man video, Graham is repeatedly drawn to characters from the dark side of the tracks. This attribute even extends as far as the football drama The Damned United in which he played Billy Bremner, a man renowned for deploying the occasional reducer. Where does this attraction come from?
“Ah, I’d like to think it’s nothing to do with me as a person,” he chuckles. If you’ve followed his work in Boardwalk Empire, it’s a little odd to hear him conversing in his natural Scouse accent. “I’m a very happily married man with two beautiful children and I’ve got a lovely life. I really find these kinds of characters interesting. I like to test myself as an actor and I like to see if I can bring some bit of humanity, if it’s needed, to the character. I’m never going to play Mr Darcy, am I? But I’ll always be able to play Iago, hopefully.”
It helps too that Graham characters are layered, complex personalities rather than simply evil incarnate. Who could forget, for instance, Capone’s sensitivity when trying to teach his partially deaf son how to stand up to bullies? Or how Combo earned some redemption when he took the blame for the murder of Lol’s father?
“I try to bring an edge to them that hopefully people can…” he pauses, seeking the correct phrasing. “Not relate to them, but people can at least try to understand something about the reasons why they are who they are. Combo was someone who was a product of his society. He’s a good man, a good friend and a true human being in many respects. He had a really difficult upbringing. He went in and out of care as a kid. He was very flawed.”
“I’m sure if you speak to my friends and family, they’ll assure you that I’m not a psychopathic megalomaniac who likes to kill people.”
The upcoming This is England ’90 concludes the journey of Meadows’ young gang in an era personified by acid house, The Stone Roses, Gazza, the spread of heroin and the fading embers of Thatcher’s reign. This time around, Combo is released from prison and begins his rehabilitation.
“You know as much as me!” he laughs. “That’s the beauty of how Shane works. I don’t really know what I’m up for, or what’s going to happen. I just can’t wait to start it. We improvise certain scenes, but Shane has a rough idea of what will happen to each character. And then on the day it’s all up for grabs. It depends what direction he decides to take the character in. For me, it’s like a band getting back together, you’ve missed each other and it’s just of those dream jobs.”
Since This is England, Graham’s career has gone from strength-to-strength (Pirates of the Caribbean, Tinker Tailor Solder Spy, Public Enemies and the recent Blood, to name but a few) and it seems as if he ruminates on his multitude of blessings with every other statement. Yet immediately after This is England – and despite other roles in Gangs of New York and Snatch – Graham found acting work hard to come by and almost quit to become a youth worker. Having been sucked into the charms of acting at the age of eleven in Liverpool’s Everyman Youth Theatre (first role: Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island), encouraging young people to follow their passion is something that he feels particularly strongly about.
“I remember being on stage and just thinking, wow, this is want I want to do forever,” he says, the enthusiasm in his voice holding true almost three decades later. “Being able to go to the Everyman Youth Theatre would get me off the streets once or twice a week. Then when it came to doing a show, I’d spend the whole summer rehearsing, performing and devising a piece with all of the people from the youth theatre, It gave me a chance to meet a massive cross-section of diverse people from all different backgrounds. There were lots of things I could’ve easily gone down the wrong path but for the great guidance of my parents and my family, and the belief that they had in me.”
That belief extends to his new role as an official supporter of Films4Life, a charity which aims to improve the lives of young people through their participation with the world of film. The charity was founded by Graham’s old friend Mickey DeHara, who Graham first met when they worked together on Guy Ritchie’s second film Snatch.
“I’m a big believer in what he’s trying to do with the Films4Life charity,” affirms Graham. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for young people, and it’s great for them to develop stories from scratch and for those that want to be involved with directing or acting or camerawork or sound-work or storyboarding and the development of the project. Especially for young people who wouldn’t necessarily have that opportunity in life, who come from different diverse backgrounds. It just really resonated with me. It’s one of those things that I’m a really big believer in – to give young people the opportunity to express themselves and to find young talent.”
It’s an opportunity that extends to the behind the scenes work as much as it is to the more obviously glamorous roles. As Graham underlines, everyone on set should be respected equally, from the tea-making runner who contributes to the sense of camaraderie to the craftsman who creates an immersive world for the actors to bring their characters to life. “They all create that world. You’ve already got it slightly in your imagination but when you walk out onto the set, you really believe that you’re back in that era. The set is where you learn to put in 120% and where you learn to treat everyone exactly the same. Hopefully they’re the skills that will stand you in good stead for your career.”
Graham also plans to host a masterclass for Films4Life when his schedule allows. Although that schedule is already packed – at the time of speaking he’s working on episode seven of series four of Boardwalk Empire (“We’re starting to see the Capone family come into it a lot more and they’re slowly starting to take over Cicero which is just outside Chicago”). Further activity includes work on a new drama titled Hyena, tentative plans for the next Pirates film and his first two productions of his own.
“I’m so blessed,” he emphasises again. “I know how fortunate I am. I’ve worked really hard for what’s happening in my life right now and things are going great for me.” These are definitely not the words of a psychopathic megalomaniac.