John Simm has conquered the greatest stage role ever written – how will he top it? Nick Ahad finds out as Simm returns to the scene of his triumph.
A vast number of previous interviews suggest John Simm can be, and there’s really no other way of putting this, a bit of a “prickly” interviewee.
In fact, just days after our interview he reveals to a national newspaper the reason he might come off as a little cold to journalists is because he is not comfortable being himself in front of a crowd – although he’s fine “playing someone else”.
When he comes through the door of Sheffield Theatre’s restaurant, a cap pulled low over his eyes, a determined gait as he approaches the table, there’s nothing to suggest he’s in the mood for proving those who consider him prickly, wrong. There’s already been a warning that his time is very limited, he looks annoyed and he’s not even been asked a question yet.
An hour, a pint of bitter and a plate of fish and chips later, it’s easy to see why people think he’s “difficult” – and equally easy to see why he doesn’t deserve the reputation.
He’s just a private sort who happens to do something very public to earn a living.
“I’ve just finished filming a third series of Mad Dogs – the wife wants a new kitchen. Make that your article’s tagline – no, don’t put that, she’ll kill me,” he laughs.
Once he’s relaxed – and had at least half the pint of bitter – the subject of his “reputation” gets raised.
“I don’t know mate, it just doesn’t come naturally to me,” says Simm when the question is asked. “I’m like the opposite of David Tennant. I suppose I am the opposite, literally – I’m the Master he’s the Doctor – but in real life I mean, he’s brilliant with people and great at it. Such a lovely man. I just want to do the work and p*** off. I would do that, but that’s not the world we live in and the fact is they, the fans, are the reason you do it because otherwise you’d be in an empty room talking to yourself.”
There you have it. A man who wants to be left alone, who knows that’s not the deal when you earn your crust in the public eye, and yet self aware enough to be able to laugh at himself and even poke a little fun at his reputation.
Simm is in Sheffield to appear in the Harold Pinter play Betrayal, opening at the Crucible tonight. It marks his first return to the city – and the Crucible –since his critically lauded portrayal of Hamlet in 2010.
Back then an intense Simm was focused, determined – and nervous beyond words.
“It was without a shadow of a doubt the most incredible experience of my professional life,” he says. “It feels like a dream sometimes. It was exhausting and terrifying. I’ve never been so terrified in all my life, it was ridiculous.
“Before the premiere I was so nervous it was almost funny. I can look back and think ‘how can a human being get this nervous about anything?’. Now I can see the funny side of it.”
At the time, it was less amusing. He had to have his “back clicked” after every show and on the days there was a matinee he says: “I was 40 at the time and I honestly don’t how that happened. I lost about two stone from sweating. In the play you go through hell and back – and then you have to do a sword fight. But what a play and what a part.”
Since the life-changing experience of playing Hamlet, Simm has avoided watching any other performances because he wants “to keep mine in my head for as long as I can”. He also had a bit of a challenge to face as an actor.
To borrow a quote from a famous film, there comes a point in every young man’s life when he quite reasonably says to himself, “I shall never play The Dane,” – except Simm did.
“Yes, everything is easy once you’ve done Hamlet, but that’s a worrying headspace to be in because you can end up thinking that you can do anything. And there’s the other problem where you think ‘everything I ever do now will never be as good, or as big or as fulfilling as that’.”
He’s solved the second problem by choosing to come back to the theatre to perform in one of the great modern plays, Pinter’s Betrayal.
First performed in 1978, it was turned into a film in 1983 starring Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley. The play tells the story of a seven- year affair, not in a linear fashion, but beginning at the end before working its way to the start of the infidelity.
“It’s fantastic writing. To stand on that special stage and to do it with two of my best mates Nick (Bagnall, the director) and Colin Tierney is going to be amazing,” he says.
“That’s all I’ve ever tried to do really – I love writers and I’m in a very, very lucky position where I can say yes or no and I’m attracted by really good writing. Television wise I’ve worked with Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern, these great writers. It’s all about the work.”
So far, Simm has been joined for lunch by director Bagnall. When Bagnall nips outside to smoke a cigarette there is a slight, almost imperceptible change. So far we have been three blokes chatting over lunch, suddenly Simm is in an interview situation and there is a threat his answers may become more monosyllabic.
Is it true he is Yorkshire born?
“I was born in Yorkshire, but I don’t really talk about it, because I don’t know anything about it. It just says on my passport that I was born in Leeds,” he says. So that means, even under the old rules, he could play cricket for Yorkshire. “My dad used to say that, but I’m not from Yorkshire.”
He’s just finished filming a new series of Mad Dogs, the successful Bafta nominated drama series made by Sky and filmed in South Africa. With a cast featuring John Simm, Marc Warren, Max Beesley and Philip Glenister, all playing old friends and shot in glorious sunshine, it must be good fun to film.
“I’m a 42-year-old father-of-two and I’m away from home for three months, so it’s not that much of a laugh. I don’t go out and get into trouble – can’t afford to – so it’s pretty difficult, especially if there’s a day off.”
His answers are definitely a little less forthcoming, less jovial, when he’s on his own. Fortunately Bagnall returns and we’re back to banter.
Simm’s career really started when he was cast in The Lakes. He went on to TV series State of Play – later turned into a movie with Russell Crowe in the role Simm had played and then he starred in Life on Mars, the detective series in which his character, Sam Tyler, slips into a coma and wakes up in the past. He also played The Master to David Tennant’s Doctor Who.
Having also conquered Hamlet, there seems to be just one credit notable by its absence on his CV. He’s yet to crack America – despite State of Play and Life on Mars being adapted in the States.
Does the industry see him as a solely TV or theatre actor?
“I neither know, nor care,” is Simm’s unequivocal answer.
“I don’t really care what people think. I don’t read things people write, I don’t play the game and that’s probably why it’s been a bit of a disadvantage and probably why I’ve not worked in America.
“I had a look there after State of Play, met people, did the thing – and I got a job. I didn’t take it though. The money was the same as it was here and I had to sign for five years and I didn’t want to do that.
“I’ve said it a million times, but if they invite me over, I will gladly go and make stuff over there. I’ve nothing against them – things just didn’t pan out like that.
“I’m not bothered.”
It might sound like sour grapes except for one fact. When he was in Life on Mars, he admits, he not only got stale – he got bored.
“I was in every single scene. I was away from my family for a total of 12 months – six months on each series – and I got home for a day and a half each week. When you’re in every scene, you don’t get time to prepare.
“When the red light went on, the cameras started recording and I didn’t feel a thing. I’m really proud of the show and I made a mistake – I should have done a third series, but I just couldn’t take it. I’d gone completely flat.
“It’s why I did, just to get that buzz back. It’s what I was trained for – I’m classically trained – I’ve definitely got the buzz back for the job.”
Just not, perhaps, for talking about it.
Betrayal, Sheffield Crucible, to June 9. 0114 2496000.
JOHN SIMM: AN ACTOR’s LIFE
John Simm was born in Leeds in 1970s, but grew up in Nelson, Lancashire.
He attended Blackpool Drama College before studying at London’s Drama Centre.
His breakthrough role came in 1995 in Cracker. He then received a Best Actor Award at the Valencia Film Festival for his feature film debut role in the coming-of-age drama Boston Kickout.
In 1997, he was cast in The Lakes, then a lead in British movie Human Traffic.
In 2002, he played journalist Cal in State of Play and in 2006 was nominated for a Bafta for his role as Sam Tyler in Life on Mars.
His next screen role is in Michael Winterbottom’s real-time prison drama Seven Days.