On the big screen, actor Craig Fairbrass is perhaps best known for his integral part within the Rise of the Footsoldier franchise. In recent years though, he has tackled even more brutal, complex portrayals that transcend his hard man persona. I was lucky enough to chat with him about his latest film A Violent Man, a prison drama written and directed by Ross McCall…
In A Violent Man, there are long sequences where the director Ross McCall ramps up tension without any dialogue. As an actor, how do you go about contributing to the tone and atmosphere with a very minimalist script?
Well, you obviously have an overall perception of the story. I’m quite intuitive when it comes to things like that. I knew what the mood of the scenes were, I knew what we were trying to portray, and how to move the story forward but to still make it interesting. With a look, you can say 1000 lines, so it was that type of thing. I think the energy of the opening sets up Steve Mackelson as the type of man he is. He’s not a man of a lot of words. As the film moves on and things are irritating him, he has to get his point across.
The use of violence is horrific in the best possible way with this subject matter – it reminded me of David Mackenzie’s Starred Up. As someone who’s been in a lot of violent movies, what do you think it is about this one in particular from an actor’s point of view that makes these scenes so impactful?
I just think it was shot very stylishly, and it wasn’t your normal type of film. The violence wasn’t in your face. It was very visceral, real, and quick. I would say most of the time in life, that’s how violence is. It’s over in a blink of an eye, you know. He could’ve done it like these big American fighting films that we’ve seen 1000 times, but it was a Chop Suey sort of film with the big crunch, and I think it worked. It really did.
With Steve Mackelson, he seems to be quite content with the fact that he’ll be in prison for the rest of his life. The way the script tackles the idea of redemption feels a little different to most prison films. Did you find that to be unusual when getting inside his head and exploring that side of his psyche?
Yeah, definitely. You can’t get away from the fact that Mackelson is a tortured soul. He’s in turmoil. Deep down, I think he is seeking redemption. He’s trying to make things right, questioning the things that he did, and trying to make sense of it all. There are some beautiful scenes that show how he always was a violent kid. It was always in him, and he can’t work it out. The courts can’t work it out, mum and dad can’t work it out. It’s just that you have these people in society that have got this thing inside them. It was interesting to do because it’s a heavy-duty role. It was the most natural step for me, after Muscle and Villain because I was looking for something even heavier than them. When I first read this, I was like ‘My God, this, this is incredible’ but the violence was actually the thing that sort of put me off a little bit. In the opening scene of the original draft, he snaps the knife on the guy’s skull and gets covered in blood – it was just so horrific, so part of me was reluctant about it because of what’s going on in society at the moment, you know, with the knife crime issues. It was all a bit much, but Ross reassured me that it wouldn’t be gratuitous, and that a lot of it would be left to the imagination.
There’s mention of how Muscle, Villain, and now A Violent Man are almost an unofficial trilogy in your portrayals of these types of individuals. I’ve coined these trio of movies are your ‘Fairbrenaissance’…after Muscle did you make a conscious effort to take on more nuanced roles or did the opportunities come about quite organically?
To be honest with you, it was a little bit of both. A few people got in touch with me and said they thought I was an underrated actor. I’ve heard that so many times and I was trying to explain to him that you only have so much control over your future what you do as an actor, because it’s a very subjective business. You’re always a choice and very rarely do you get the chance to do what you want to do.
Gerard (Johnson, the director of Muscle) felt that I stood out in the Rise of the Footsoldier films. He’d been writing a film and had me in mind, and I was a massive fan of his stuff because it has a lot of depth. When I went in and got the script, it was one of those roles that you’d just kill to play. It let me really show my emotional range as an actor because Terry was such a lunatic…so to answer your question, I did. And after the reviews that I got for that role, people started taking me seriously as an actor, which led to Bart (Ruspoli, producer) bringing me in for Villain – a gangster film but where this guy goes on a massive emotional journey. It was an actor’s piece. I was so ready and couldn’t wait to get my teeth into that.
I really enjoyed Villain. I actually spoke with Philip Barantini quite recently about his latest film, which is also great!
Yeah, Philip’s a lovely guy. He’s very good. We got on so well on that film and he helped me a lot too. We had some really great scenes and when you come away from it and they say cut, you know you’re going home in the evening with a feeling in your heart and your gut that it worked. That’s such a great feeling.
McConaughey had his McConaissance and with this trio of films, I think you’ve had your Fairbrenaissance. Do you think you had something to prove to anyone that might’ve had you written off?
Massively. If I decided to not act anymore, or went on to do something different, I’d be very, very happy with my little legacy. I’ve been very fortunate to do three movies that I’m so proud of, and that have given me a chance to actually act; to move people or scare them or to make it as real as possible, or just to make people think!
Not many actors would get to go back to the same role time and time again, yet you’ve now played Pat Tate in four Rise of the Footsoldier films! It must be a strange experience to take a real-life notorious figure and almost carve him over these films into your cinema version of Pat Tate – how has that process been, to revisit him again and again?
I read a couple of books on him when we did the original Rise of the Footsoldier but, you know, as an actor, I’ve always absorbed the material, learnt the lines, and then try to put my own spin on it. I’ve always tried to play him in a way that I just felt I could make it real. It was years later when I was approached to do the third one, the Pat Tate story. There was more acting involved in that, you know, and I ended up winning a little award for it. There was a touch more depth and he wasn’t just this one-dimensional character going around beating everyone up. I’ve always been able to go into that Pat Tate mode. It’s just a character I see very clearly…and enjoy doing! Helps me get that stress out!
Most of your films are very dark and intense so I can imagine the shoots to be quite gruelling. What do you like to do between takes or in the downtime to unwind?
I’ve never approached it like that, and people hate me for saying it but I’m not that type of actor. I can always joke in between takes or have a cup of tea and a talk about golf or fishing. I’ve always been a pretty good pretender and I’ve always approached acting like that. I know, some people do it differently and I respect that but for me, I’ve always just tried to make it real and as believable as possible. There are certain little techniques and tricks that you learned over the years, and that confidence comes with age.
Aside from acting in film and television, I know you’ve branched out into video games, theatre and have written and produced films too. Do you think you’ll ever follow in the footsteps of directors you’ve worked with recently and move into directing?
Listen, I think I could make an amazing movie. My problem is I’ve got no patience so it’s bad enough just being an actor. You just need so much patience. I think you need to be a certain type to do it. There are loads of things I’ve worked on where I’ve called shots and had input on this and that. It has crossed my mind but not at the moment. The acting is just coming together, and that’s taken forever!
I was first aware of your work, like many, when you appeared as Dan Sullivan in EastEnders, and I can’t believe it’s been 20 years since you left Albert Square. The programme is well known for bringing back characters years later and Dan is one of the few that got the better of Phil Mitchell and left unscathed. Have you been asked to go back, and do you think you ever will?
That’s a funny thing because there’s always been little bits of talk about that over the years. They were killing everybody else off at the time but said to me ‘you’re too valuable’ (laughs) but I was very aggressive about what I wanted to do while I was at EastEnders, and it was a blessing. I’ve done so many films around the world since leaving, and always think that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for each thing I’d done previously. I know that a huge percentage of actors leave that show and you never see him again so when I came out, it was tough, and I had to regroup and do what I do best. I wouldn’t change anything for where I am now. Mike Reid, bless his soul, said to me, ‘there might come a time when you get that call to go back!’ I had a great time there and met some lovely people. I think it really helped with the acting too because it’s so intense. You’re doing it day in, day out and you have to get better!
So, you’d never say never to a return to Albert Square?
I don’t even think about it at the moment because I’m only concentrating on what’s going on now. I’ve just agreed to do quite a big TV job on one of the big streaming platforms. I’m really excited about it and feels like another new beginning for me in my career.
If you could star alongside any actor or actress from past or present, who would it be?
Well, my favourite actors are Mads Mikkelsen, Woody Harrelson, and Matthew McConaughey. Those are the guys I really like now, and also Mel Gibson or Vince Vaughn in the S. Craig Zahler films. Those are the type of films I love and those are the actors I love. They’ve got that depth!
And what’s next for you on the big screen?
I’ve just done a little role in Roland Manookian’s film. It’s called The Sun Also Rises and has a fantastic little script about domestic violence, so I was lucky enough that he offered me a part in it. It’s another heavy-duty drama!
The next film I’m doing is quite a big revenge film. I like that kind of stuff! I’ve always been looking for my Get Carter!