How do you begin to define an actor like John Simm? How do you define anyone who has played a succession of the juiciest, most coruscating roles on television and independent film over the past fifteen years, from a Roman emperor to a post punk, rock legend, a time-travelling policeman to The Prince of Denmark? The latter, a part he declares that if there was “a gun at my head, I would say that was the best role I ever had.”
Along the way he also became the thinking woman’s pinup without the slightest idea that it is so. A man whose sulky, rebel insouciance still glitters, long after he first ruthlessly crawled under our skin in Jimmy McGovern’s dark tale of social mayhem and dysfunction, in The Lakes.
The truth is there is just something ineffably cool about John Simm. He is a classically trained actor who also happens to be mad about The Beatles, learnt how to play guitar at eleven, and was in the cult band, Magic Alex.
Let me tell you that he has lovely manners too, and restless, mercurial eyes, that you could easily get lost in. With a cheeky, almost wistful, faraway look, JS talks about the buzz of playing the New Order frontman, Bernard Sumner in Michael Winterbottom’s raw, atmospheric film, Twenty Four Hour Party People. “I was part of that scene, and I would have been gutted if he hadn’t asked me.”
Of course, now he is married to the raven-haired actress, Kate Magowan; they have two kids, Ryan and Molly, and life has changed. These days he picks roles that satisfy his intellectual curiosity, just so long as they don’t interfere too much with the precious rhythm of family life, which he clearly relishes. “Of course it’s difficult,” he says. “I don’t like being away from my children, and my family. Who would? I am always trying to fit back into their lives, without them making me suffer too much,” he says smiling
What you really should know about Simm is that it everything revolves around the work and the pursuit of great writing. As if you didn’t know that already. Certainly, that slightly anal, single-minded pursuit of literary stardust has paid off. And just when you might be tempted to say, oh well, he always plays edgy characters, murderers, hedonistic party animals, jailbirds and misfits – he did play a kind of saint in Sex Traffic, an imperfectly lovely Lancelot if you will. The man can’t be pigeon holed! But in The Village – perhaps he inhabits his most uncomfortable character yet – John Middleton, a salt of the earth farmer, and a deeply flawed, wreck of a human being who makes his family pay for a terrible secret in his past. “ The good thing is that he does have a moment of redemption,” he says dangling the carrot. “He was a challenge to play. But I won’t spoil it for you – you have to see it.”
John Simm in his own words…..
“I’ve never wanted a role so badly, as I did The Lakes. I was very cheeky and very young. I remember walking out of the final recall, and then walking straight back in again, and then going straight up to the director, and saying, ‘ please, just give me this role, just trust me, please trust me, I won’t let you down… and looking him straight in the eyes’ – then thinking, ‘what have I done?’ It was an impulsive thing.
“People might be surprised to hear that I am shy. When I was in the band, Magic Alex, I hated being on stage. It’s why I decided to become an actor. Acting allows you to wear a mask, and become someone else; I’m comfortable with that.”
“I’d played a killer in Cracker, and that put me on Jimmy McGovern’s radar, but it was The Lakes that ignited my career. That was the beginning of everything for me. It was all about great writing, and an absolute highlight for me. It is very rare in television that they will take a chance on an unknown actor, and give you the main part. That was when I first go to know Max (Beesley) a bit. We both had these big leads. He was in Tom Jones, and I was playing Danny Kavanagh in The Lakes.”
“Human Traffic – now there’s a time capsule. I played Jip, who was paranoid about sex. From what I can remember, and yes, it is a bit hazy! – Me, Danny, Sean and the girls had a great time, a great time – it was a blast!”
“ The chunk of time between Human Traffic and Life on Mars was a very exciting time. This is when I played Cal McCaffrey in State of Play and Daniel Appleton in Sex Traffic. They were both exceptional pieces of writing, and both wonderful to do. I also played Caligula, which was fantastic. I had to learn to ride a horse in a week, and ride it up the Senate steps. It helped me a lot to prepare for the part of The Master, in Doctor Who. It was like a trial run.”
“ Life On Mars was just the most fantastic double act with Phil (Glenister) – he’s like my screen husband! We felt like we were in Starsky and Hutch or The Professionals. What’s not to like bursting round a corner in a Cortina? Or jumping out, and kicking doors in. It was fantastic fun, and I am so proud of what we did.”
“Playing Raskolnikov In Crime and Punishment was a gift. When I overheard the director Julian Jarrold and the writer Tony Marchant talking about doing it, I was on it like a limpet. I wanted that role. If I had to choose between Dickens and Dostoyevsky, I would probably choose the Russian. He’s one of my favourite writers. In Russia, Raskolnikov is treated like a folk hero; he’s a bit like Sherlock Holmes. You don’t know whether he is real or imaginary. In St Petersburg, you can go and see his flat. It’s just as it is described in the book. People go there on pilgrimage; it’s like Abbey Road.”
“I fought for the part of Edward Sexby, In the Devil’s Whore. He’s a soldier of fortune, falls in love, discovers he has a heart, changes allegiance; he’s a brilliant swordsman and ends up with a metal hand. What a part! It was a boy’s own adventure come to life. I was offered a different role, and I understand that they wouldn’t have immediately thought of me; but I wanted to prove I could do it. I was salivating when I read the script by Peter Flannery, and I would have been so pissed off, if I had to watch someone else play it.”
“My priorities have changed now that I am married. It’s not just about me. I’ve got a mortgage, a family, kids at school, and we live in London. Next week I go out to South Africa to film the fourth series of Mad Dogs. This is a once in a lifetime job. I am working with my best mates, in a beautiful location. The scripts are great, the characters all have terrible problems; I wouldn’t trust any of them. All the more fun for us!”
“I don’t cook. Or perhaps I should say I don’t cook as frequently as I used to. But since my wife really got into cooking, and she is such a brilliant cook, it’s pointless, so I stay out of the kitchen. I try and help the kids with their homework, if I can, especially if it’s English or history; but I am not so great at maths!”
“I’ve got seven guitars at home. When I’ve got time, I still play. I’ve discovered that garage band thing on the Ipad, which is great, you just plug it in, and you can record. The other thing I am totally obsessed by is classical music. Ever since I was eighteen, and I played Mozart in Amadeus. I love Beethoven. It’s the only thing I can have on, and do other things. With the human voice – you have to listen to it.”
“ Phil (Glenister) wants me to take up golf. But I can’t do that! I wouldn’t get away with it… we would be gone for hours! It would be ‘where have you been? Golf!!’ I would be divorced. So when I’m not working, I’m a fantastic, professional potterer. You have to be, when you spend so much time away, living in hotels and apartments. I read and catch up on DVD’s. I’ve done the box set of The Killing. Now it’s The Bridge and Richard Burton’s diaries. When my wife goes away to work, there’s always the double school run, which I can assure you is no mean feat! I used to say, ‘what do you do all day?’ And she gave me such a look. Then I did it, and the day just goes like that.”
I’m currently reading East of Eden, which I can’t put down. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. Then I have to get up and read for an hour, so I can go back to sleep again.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Number 5 – one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.
Reading and sleeping. I always like to have a few books on the go. At the moment it’s John Lennon’s Diaries.
The Best thing in life
The best thing in life – is life itself, and spending time with my family and working on a really good character.
The Village is a six part series on Sundays, BBC1 starting in April 2013.
Alison Jane Reid Copyright February 2013, All Rights Reserved. Portrait of John Simm By Jason Joyce. Copyright Jason Joyce/Alison Jane Reid. All Rights Reserved. www.jasonjoyce.com
A version of this interview appeared in The April Issue of Red Magazine www.redonline.co.uk
Download the pdf version of the interview in this month’s Red Magazine – John Simm in Red
*****A broadcast interview and in-depth profile will appear on Ethical Hedonist in April to celebrate John’s Simm leading role in The Village.