Daniel as the notorious train robber Ronnie Biggs
By David Hennessy
Although it was far from his first screen role, it was Daniel Mays’ performance as a heroin addict battling his demons in BBC’s Rehab that marked him out as an actor to watch out for. Since then he has appeared prominently on television in Ashes to Ashes, Outcasts and Red Riding and starred in two of last year’s hit shows, Public Enemies and Mrs Biggs. His movie credits include Pearl Harbour, Atonement, Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn and The Bank Job while he can soon be seen in the Ridley Scott produced Welcome to the Punch and Neil Jordan’s Byzantium.
Daniel, from Essex, can be seen in Trelawny of the Wells at The Donmar Warehouse from February 15 which sees him working once again with Joe Wright who directed him in Atonement: “The fact that Joe is directing it is the huge appeal for me really because obviously I worked with him a couple of years back. It’s his first ever stage play and he’s going to do something really radical with it, I think. He’s kind of a visionary. It’s kind of a Victorian comedy. It’s really good. I’m enjoying it.
“I’ve just finished a play at The Royal Court (Hero by EV Crowe). That was really heavy so I had an emotional break down every night for four weeks so this is really different. The physicality’s different and I’m just using a different part of myself really.”
His recent nomination for Outstanding Male Drama Performance at the National Television Awards for his portrayal of great trainer robber Ronnie Biggs in ITV’s Mrs Biggs, although the award went to Merlin’s Colin Morgan, is an indication that people are realising what an underrated talent Daniel has always been: “I was over the moon with it (the nomination). It was such a great project, Mrs Biggs and I was overjoyed with the nomination and the way the show was received. I don’t think I’ve ever worked on anything that got Joe Bloggs coming up to me on the street saying how much they really enjoyed it.”
Following Ronnie and Charmian Biggs’ (played by Sheridan Smith) dramatic run from the authorities after his part in the Great Train Robbery, Daniel wanted to show the real Ronnie Biggs: “It was a massive character to take on because everyone has a preconceived idea of who he is really. My image of him was a lot like everybody else’s, him lording it up in Rio. The scripts were so good by Jeff Pope, I thought it was a brilliant opportunity to tell his story but obviously from her perspective.
“The great thing about it being six hours of drama and really getting into the meat and bones of that relationship, you were really able to evolve the character as best you could. The journey you could go on: He was a petty crook to begin with but then he sort of mellowed into family life and then obviously then when he got caught and got to Rio, that’s when he hit this debauched whirlwind of a downward spiral. I think a lot of that came from the death of his eldest son in the car accident: The fact that he wasn’t able to be there for his family and be there for Charmian and grieve. I think that played heavily on his mind. It was just a case of trying to humanise him as much as possible really which I try to do with every part I take on.”
When taking on such a role, that of a real person as opposed to a fictional character, did Daniel feel a certain pressure to do Ronnie and his legend justice? “Yeah, without doubt. Whenever you’re playing with that, there is a sense of responsibility to try and get as close to him as possible. Within that, you have to absorb all the research and ITV were fantastic with documentaries and books and everything which they gave us and Charmian was a consultant on it so she was the best of form of research so we would spend hours just asking her questions but in the end it has to be an interpretation of how you think he is. It has to work for you as much as anything. I’ve no doubt there will be people that criticise it or whatever but we absorbed as much as we could and then just put it down really.”
The ultimate approval for Daniel’s performance must come from Ronnie himself. How did Mr Biggs respond? “Charmian actually had a copy of the first episode which she showed to him and he gave it the thumbs up and I was actually shopping in Brent Cross Shopping Centre and this woman come up and she said: ‘You played Ronnie Biggs. I’m a nurse in the care home, I’m seeing him tomorrow and he really enjoyed it’. So that was a bit strange.
“It was strange when the show was on because people were just shouting out ‘Ronnie Biggs’ everywhere I went, on building sites and all of that,” the actor laughs as he remembers. “I was sort of under the impression that he represents this sort of folk hero to a lot of people but equally sitting alongside that, people are critical of the way that he behaved and how he let them down in the end so it was interesting to see how he did divide people.
“I think there was somewhat of a backlash in certain quarters of the press when the first episode came out. The criticism was: ‘Why glamorise or romanticise these people’s lives?’ I was saying if there is ever a story that didn’t glamorise it or had a message of crime didn’t pay, it is this. If you stay with the series and end up at the last episode in Rio, you can see that that existence wasn’t glamorise at all. It was a kind of hell for him to live in, I think.”
One of the most eagerly awaited films of 2013 is Neil Jordan’s Byzantium which sees Daniel sharing the screen with Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton. After filming 2006’s Middletown and last year’s Treasure Island in Ireland, Daniel was pleased to return: “I’ve shot in Ireland a few times. The fantastic Irish actors and the crews are always really welcoming. I love working there. My Grandad, sadly no longer with us, was from Kerry, so I’ve got Irish blood in me."
For the full interview see the print edition of the Irish World