In 21st century cinema, British acting talent doesn’t come much more talented than Stephen Graham, the Liverpudlian known mostly for his hard-man roles across film and television, both in home-grown projects and in the US. His breakthrough role was in Guy Ritchie’s ensemble black comedy Snatch in which he starred alongside Jason Statham and Brad Pitt. Two years later, he was in the States working with Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.
Since then, he has been perhaps most associated with playing sociopathic skinhead Combo in Shane Meadows’ This Is England and portraying the notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone in HBO series Boardwalk Empire. His other notable credits include Public Enemies, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Pirates of the Caribbean.
His latest part sees him play reclusive security guard Robert in Michael Lennox’s directorial debut A Patch of Fog which is screening at the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Instead of following the rules and prosecuting, he blackmails the thief in return for friendship. I caught up with Stephen Graham to discuss the new film as well as his impressive back-catalogue of work.
We’re introduced in Edinburgh’s Caledonian hotel and as he orders a water with honey, he switches chairs a couple of times to get comfortable, apologising for looking like a ‘right goldilocks’. He’s far from that, and after I ruffle through my notes and hit record, this is what happened…
So with Robert, you’ve done a brilliant job in taking a very flawed, mixed-up character and making the audience sympathise with him as well. What were your initial thoughts on the character when you first read the script?
“When I read the script, I found him really intriguing! He’s someone who leads a lonely existence, but who is very fastidious and really good at his job because he believes the right thing should be done. You know the type of person that we’ve all come across all the time – I hope you don’t mind me saying but you know that jobs-worth type of person…like a ticket inspector…or all across the board – I’m not just picking out ticket inspectors but that type of person that could let something go but doesn’t because they’re very anal about their job. It was really interesting to find out what happens to that type of person when they’re at home – to see what’s in their mind, especially someone who leads a life of solitude”.
Robert has a short temper, like many of your characters in the past. Are you drawn to the type of characters that have a slow build up of anger but can blow their fuse suddenly?
“Yeah, characters that can just *snaps fingers* go, yeah! I always find flawed characters really interesting to play, but for me, for him (Robert)…he’s like one of those kids who would play at school and would be a bit shy to get stuck in. As a kid he couldn’t express any anger and would be getting punched and kicked and would never fight back. Now he’s older he’s still very oppressed in that respect but when you see the screws coming loose, it’s like he’s saying ‘F*CK OFF!’, you know what I mean? It’s a build up from everything in his past and he’s like ‘you can f*cking have it!’ to that kid who used to smack him about. You would think he’s the kind of man that wouldn’t really lose his temper, but his little jenga tower is slowly getting taken apart and he’s on the edge!”
Like you’ve said I think deep down Robert wants to do the right thing, unlike many of your characters from the past. Some have been villainous in a mischievous way but some are a lot darker. Would you ever want a break from these intense roles to play an out-and-out good guy or family man?
“Yeah, yeah! Of course I would but it always depends on the character. I’d love to play a family man with two kids but, you know, there’s not much drama with just a family man.” It was interesting to see you play the other side to Al Capone, when we see him with his little boy, contrasting with the darker material…“That’s the paradoxical element of the psychopath, or the sociopath. With Al Capone, when he closes the front door and goes inside the house, he’s a really caring, loving father and a really good husband.” I loved those scenes…“Thank you! Yeah, they were good to play with little Sonny. He used to sit on set and eat little lychees when we were filming those days. He was great, and it was great to play that intimacy between Al Capone and his little lad. I love to play characters with that duality when you’re not sure what you’re going to get!
Going back to this guy (Robert) though, we’ve all had those moments when we have to put a front on within society unless we can truly become comfortable within ourselves, but there’s lots of different masks we can wear. Robert was interesting to play because people think he’s a bit harsh at work, but when he goes home he’s got no one. He’s got that fear, and anger, and bitterness at the world that can project itself in certain little ways but he’s never had a friend before…”
In terms of the scale of the project with A Patch of Fog being a relatively small project, how does it compare with big productions you’ve been involved in. Does the experience of making a film change?
“I understand the question and it’s one I get asked a lot, so I can see where you’re coming from…but for me, what I try and get across, is that there is no comparison. When I’m on a set, be it a low-budget film like this with a first-time director or be it Boardwalk Empire – the first episode which was the biggest television pilot ever directed by Martin Scorsese. To me there’s no difference because I still go with my integrity and my commitment and passion to the project. I’m very blessed and very lucky to be around people with the same integrity.
Obviously the one difference is the financial aspect. The American projects I’ve been a part of have huge budgets whereas Michael and our producers for this (A Patch of Fog) didn’t have that, but we still had the same integrity and the intent to make the best piece that we could make. Michael came to the film with a great creative process in mind and didn’t have an ego, which I think is very important in our job in order to let the creativity flourish.”
I want now to talk a little about accents. Obviously Robert is a scouser so you didn’t need to work on that for A Patch of Fog but in other projects, how do you go about getting accents as spot on as you do?
“Em…well thank you very much, that’s a lovely compliment. I appreciate that, thank you. With the accents, for me, it’s more about spending time, if I can, in the area with the people so that I can pick it up. Fortunately I tend to be quite a good mimic. I’ve always done accents and stuff when I was a kid so I’ve got a good ear for it. I like to try and immerse myself in the area and for example, with Al Capone, living in New York was a great help! There was a man on set though called Charlie who was our key grip, and he became my voice coach which was amazing. That very rarely happens! I didn’t have some fancy-pants voice coach from America coming in telling me how to talk. I just spent a lot of time with Charlie and he read through lines with me a lot and I really got to listen to his voice and basically…I’ll be completely honest…I basically ripped him off! I’ve heard your impersonation of Leo DiCaprio – it’s very good as well! “Eh? I can’t do him…I haven’t done an impersonation of Leo!” [Laughs] I saw a video where you were talking about watching a Liverpool match at his house…“Oh yeah! [Laughs] Oh yeah! I remember that. Nice one!”
Moving on from that to your work with Shane Meadows. You’re well known for playing Combo in This Is England. Do you have any plans in the pipeline to work with him again?
“Possibly! Em…yeah, there’s a possibility of a couple of things coming up…” But nothing you can talk about today…? “To be honest with you, I don’t know if he knows what it is yet. But it’s Shane. And basically I would do anything, and I WILL do anything to work with Shane again because it’s the most amazing experience ever.”
I read recently that Jack O’Connell had mentioned you in an interview saying that you’d be a brilliant Bond villain. What are your thoughts on that and do you think it’s something you would want to take on?
“First of all, I’ve just worked with Jack on a film called HHhH where I play Himmler and he plays a young Czechoslovakian who assassinated Heydrich. Jack’s said some amazingly complimentary things about me lately and, you know, I’m extremely flattered. I worked with Jack on This Is England and always knew that Jack just had that magic about him. He was just f*cking brilliant! He was young and had a little bit of attitude and that, but he listened. When you were in a scene with Jack he was amazing, man. That little sequence when we take him to the NF rally and he goes against it was such a beautiful character choice for both him and Shane to make. When he’s left on the side of the road, your heart really goes out to him. I knew and could see in Jack straight away that he had this ability and this immense talent to be able to play that duality for you to hate him and for you to really like him. He had that massive quality within him and out of all the young characters in it I see him closer to Combo in many respects. His little journey goes out over such a short time and if you look at it, that’s the kind of journey Combo went on over time. It was a beautiful microcosm within the whole microcosm of the story. He’s just shit hot!” And we never got to see Pukey again in the TV series… “No, no, and it was really unfortunate but Jack was always busy, and could never just sneak in. Shane was trying really hard to get him in and Jack wanted to…we thought we could sneak him in for a day or something on the last lot but unfortunately it didn’t happen…
Going back to your question…yeah, f*cking right I’d play a Bond villain! Why not? It’d be great. I’d love to if the offer and the script was right. I’d well smash a Bond villain. They probably wouldn’t know what to do though. They wouldn’t offer me something like that. I’d love to play a Bond villain Scouse but it’s never going to happen is it? You know what I mean? I’d f*cking rip Bond right up! But yeah, you never know. You never know what could happen. It’d be interesting and I would smash it! As you well know, I’d smash it!”
With all your past experience in gang-related TV and film, who would be your five-a-side fantasy-football-esque line-up for a director and three actors to work with on an upcoming gangster film? “Is it English or is it worldwide? Can we make it English to make things easier?” Yeah, ok!
“Ok, let’s see how obscure I can go…I’m going to have to leave a lot of people out here which will piss people off. I don’t want to offend anyone and I’ve got a lot of friends who are actors…I don’t want to offend anyone in any way, shape or form. No, I can’t do it. No. I can’t. I don’t want to upset anyone. It’s a GREAT question and I wish I could answer it, but I can’t. I’d feel bad because there’s a lot of mates who I’d want to be in it.”
Just one actor then… “Ok, me and one actor…” As brothers…“No, not brothers, can he be my Dad? Yeah! “Jim Broadbent. There you go!”
And because I know you love your football…to finish off, who’s your tip to win the Euros?
“Spain I think! After that 23 pass goal the other day. It was magnificent wasn’t it? They’re deadly at the minute so I’ve got a feeling they’ll do it…France maybe and here you never know!! If Vardy and Sturridge keep going I think we’ve (England) got a shout…if our defence doesn’t go all Welsh and get leaky on us! I didn’t mean that in offence to the Welsh but because of the term with the leek! I’d love France to win it, you know, because of everything that’s happened but I think I’ll go with Spain. Though you can never write off the Germans!” Maybe one day Scotland will qualify… “The next one maybe, you never know!”…
‘A Patch of Fog’ will be released on 8th July, and will be available on-demand from 11th July.