David Morrissey is one of those actors who is rarely off the screen yet manages to go unnoticed in the street. He talks to Sheena Hastings.
IT'S only when the slim six-foot three-inch frame of David Morrissey stands up to greet me with a broad smile crinkling his blue eyes that I realise that grin is unexpected. It throws you because the general perception of the actor is one of an intense man who plays often intensely brooding characters, wrapped up in some angst or other and often lacking in anything resembling happy-go-lucky.
Thanks to the retro specs and short back and sides, in the distance he looks like a 1960s insurance salesman who's loosened off the tie at the end of the day. In close-up, he is almost devilishly handsome, but don't tell him I said that. He doesn't play handsome on screen; the parts he inhabits are always more interesting than the matinee
He's played many a soldier, copper and detective in TV dramas and film (including Maurice Jobson in David's Peace's Red Riding, Mal Craig in the recent and acclaimed Five Days and the interrogator in Mrs Mandela), but his immense talent has also lent itself to the characters of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, the slippery MP Stephen Collins in State of Play, an award-winning turn as Gordon Brown in The Deal, a Nazi officer in Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Captain Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, the Duke of Norfolk in The Other Boleyn Girl, the feckless father in Is Anybody There? (with Michael Caine and Leslie Phillips) and Bobby Dykins in John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy.
One of the few wrong moves in his otherwise pristine career so far was as the lead in the flop Basic Instinct 2, but fans were thrilled to see him guest starring in the 2008 Dr Who Christmas Special.
Now 46, Morrissey, who's married to the writer Esther Freud and lives with her and their three children in Hampstead, has found a balance between acting and occasionally directing. He's at the Showroom Workstation in Sheffield to meet local schoolchildren and for a special screening of The Water Horse – a film in which he stars – and his recent second feature directing outing Don't Worry About Me.
The latter is a beautifully made love letter to his home city of Liverpool, where he was the youngest of four children of a cobbler father and a mother who worked for Littlewoods. The family crammed into a back-to-back in the Kensington neighbourhood before moving a bit further out to a new estate in Knotty Ash.
Like so many actors of his age, the Ken Loach film Kes switched on a light in his head about wanting to act. Not keen on study or sport, he had the support of a great drama teacher who encouraged him to join Liverpool's Everyman Youth Theatre. At 19 he was cast alongside Ian Hart – still his best mate – in Willy Russell's One Summer, the story of two Scouse lads who run away to Wales. That was followed by RADA and spells at Liverpool Playhouse, Stratford East, The National, the RSC, and a run of 20 more years where he has worked pretty solidly, mostly on screen.
His parents took some convincing that he was doing the right thing. "When it was just a couple of evenings a week at the Everyman, they were very open to it. When I explained that I was going to try for drama school and make a go of it as a career, they were seriously worried. It's a good job it worked out, because there was no plan B."
He says that for a few years he distanced himself from Liverpool professionally, worried that he would become typecast as the Scouser. Age, and the fact that he doesn't need to prove that particular point these days, have drawn him back home more and more.
Don't Worry About Me was made on the shoestring budget of 100,000, and is a boy-meets-girl tale of a rather ne'er do well London lad and a straight-talking Scouse girl with a strong work ethic.
They meet by chance and discover each other, both good and bad, in the space of a day's sightseeing. While the pair banter, the camera lingers lovingly across the Merseyside landscape. Morrissey has a deft and painterly touch as a director, has the confidence to take his time and avoid complicated dialogue, and proudly portrays fellow Scousers as a close-knit lot who won't take any nonsense from outsiders.
The fact that he enjoyed the experience is indisputable, but he says he's not looking for a permanent move to the other side of the camera. Nor would he like to direct himself acting. The toil involved in finding funding for films is possibly a deterrent from full-time directing.
"I've been trying for a few years to get another project off the ground which needs about 4m to make," he says. "I couldn't get that kind of money from backers, so I worked out how much I would need to do something smaller scale, with investment from friends and contacts. The figure I came up with was 100,000, so I started looking around for the kind of script that could be filmed within that budget.
"I eventually found a story called The Pool (later renamed Don't Worry About Me) written by actors/writers James Brough and Helen Elizabeth. They agreed the project so long as they could be in it. The final version was co-written by the three of us."
The film was made by his own production company, Tubedale Films, and shot over three weeks.
Morrissey says directing has made him a much less self-centred actor. "I did used to think things revolved around me, it's true. But acting is actually a highly collaborative process, and I've always enjoyed meeting writers, finding out where their ideas came from and how they see their characters. A frustration has always been that actors come into the process late and leave early – although I often have a tendency to hang around long after I'm needed, just to see how
everything works. A director is there from start to finish, and that is the basic appeal."
The streak of control freakery essential to being a director has to be there, he says. "People like to think it's a democratic process, but it's not; it's a dictatorship. As an actor I like working with strong directors, and as an actor you're a 'freak' with the control taken away. Directing gives you a real appreciation of the difficulties of other people's jobs."
Another manifestation of the need to control is the famously thorough research and preparation he undertakes for each role. Late offers, leaving little time for the homework, are a bit unsettling, he finds. In the run-up to the filming of the fictional State of Play he spent
time with politicians including Fabian Hamilton and shadowed Peter Mandelson. "He was great, really helpful."
When it came to playing the very real Gordon Brown, no help was forthcoming from MPs, but he immersed himself in biographies and travelled to the former PM's constituency in Kirkaldy to talk to locals. His performance in The Deal earned him acclaim, including plaudits from some of Brown's closest henchmen. "Would I play him again? Maybe, if the story was right..."
David Morrissey has bought the rights to a series of thriller novels by Mark Billingham, and has already starred in Sky TV's Sleepyhead, playing DI Thorne. In between filming the forthcoming film Blitz and Murder on the Orient Express (for Christmas Day TV), he has established an educational charity.
CAST – the Creative Arts Schools Trust – was set up after he travelled to Palestinian camps in Beirut and saw the lack of drama facilities there for children in their makeshift schools. He put together a group of creative people to go and spend a week leading workshops. Courses for teachers have followed, and similar creative education workshops for children around the world are being set up.
"I wasn't interested in school – something I now regret – so all of my education and people skills have happened through drama. It's such a potent tool for exploring the world, and yes, sometimes escaping your world."
Morrissey can pop out for a pint of milk unrecognised and is happy not to buy into the cult of celebrity, yet he is one of the UK's most prolific actors.
"Maybe people don't remember my face because they don't know much about me as me, and they seem to accept me as all sorts of other people. It helps that they don't read about my private life or see my mug much in magazines. I'm happy with that."
Don't Worry About Me is now out on DVD
For information about CAST, go to http://davidmorrissey