John Simm Uncut The Perfect Everyman By Alison Jane Reid
John Simm Copyright BBC Worldwide
Here is is! My long-awaited feature profile and interview with leading British Actor John Simm. Please support me as a journalist and founder of Ethical Hedonist Magazine, an inspiringly different magazine . Everything I do is about authenticity. Support me and I my iconic journalism, and I promise to continue to write wonderful interviews on your acting heroes.
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From the moment I first saw John Simm play the investigative journalist Cal McCaffrey In State of Play – with a crusading brilliance and all too familiar zeal – I was hooked. If he can play a fearless reporter with such gritty realism, he can take on everyman.
Now John Simm’s renaissance reign as one of Britain’s finest actors has entered an eerily stylish new chapter. With Intruders for BBC America – he offers up a love letter to American audiences, as he inhabits that most particular and iconic archetypes, the ex LAPD policeman turned writer, on the trail of a secret society, whose members take up residence in other people’s bodies in a quest for immortality!
The Quiet American
While the series feels weirdly dislocated at times, maybe deliberately so, the revelation is JS playing an American citizen. He’s good. No, make that peerlessly introspective! The accent pasts muster and Simm’s Jack Whelan could be about to embark on a journey as exciting as anything Mulder or Skulley got up to in the X Files. Intruders does look good; the sci-fi horror glossily juxtaposed with the most ghostly beautiful locations. As a backdrop, America suits Simm, and he delivers a beautifully nuanced performance, hinting at a fascinating back-story. As Jack stands outside a bookstore and gazes intently at a display of his own novel, alongside a proud photo of his of his old life in uniform, the audience is treated to its first tantalizing clue that life can be anything but predictable.
John Simm and Mira Sorvino as Jack and Amy Whelan in BBC America’s Intruders Copyright BBC Worldwide.
I think it is only fair to add that the happy birthday scene with Mira Sorvino as his wife should carry a warning – look away if you don’t want to see the birth of a heartthrob. Never mind the plot and a rather nasty scene with a child’s pet cat. That intimate cake-licking moment in that achingly stylish kitchen must surely lead to a little global warming on both side of the Atlantic. Wow! JS finally gets to play sexy! Sorvino and Simm look good together. Finally, with a dash of stubble and timelessly sartorial wardrobe, our man gets to play the hero, husband and lover – and about time too. Watching him convey the stuff of love, life and death is a treat. This is what Simm does so very well. Intruders might just be the series that could transform Britain’s favourite actor into a bon fide international star and America’s new crush.
If his freewheeling travelling schedule is anything to go by, 2014 is certainly shaping up to be a stellar year for Simm. “I’ve been on a workathon all year,” he tells me. “I’ve been back and forth to LA, Derbyshire, Manchester and London since February.” Maybe now is the time one of our most versatile British acting treasures will follow such luminaries as – James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor, Clive Owen and Colin Firth – into a vibrant, duel career across the pond. Let’s hope that he does it his way, and that he never stops playing time travelling policemen, misfits, salt of the earth farmers or ordinary human beings with such compelling realism.
Reader, they say you should never interview your acting heroes. I make an exception for Simm. When we meet in a discreetly urbane London hotel, the character from the small screen becomes flesh and blood and the man rather than the actor steps out from behind the mask. I can tell you that he is modest, open, patient, completely and utterly passionate about his work, chivalrous and gentlemanly about my not so clean biker boots! And he dislikes going to the dentist! Dressed in a midnight blue army sweater, jeans and DMs (you can take the boy out of Manchester) – what really shines is his absolute passion and forensic dedication to the roles he plays. That is why he isn’t just a good actor; he is a great actor.
The Thinking Woman’s Pin-up
During a twenty-year career, he has quietly assumed the mantle of 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 very grim tales of murder and dysfunction in Cracker and The Lakes or as a kind of modern Lancelot in the harrowingly unforgettable Sex Traffic.
It was a most magnificent beginning, a preface to an unfolding, multi-faceted career, which would see Simm go on to play some of our most beloved modern heroes (and villains too), none more so than the right on, time travelling policeman, Sam Tyler, in a television series of such brilliance who could ever improve on the idea of being catapulted back to 1973? – To a world of Bowie, bellbottoms, car chases and outmoded chauvinism of the first degree? With immortal lines such as Sam nemesis, Gene Hunt declaring, ‘ Don’t walk into my kingdom and act like the king of the jungle’. No wonder you, the reader have just voted for Sam as your favourite JS role of all time in our reader pole.
“ Life On Mars was just the most fantastic double act with Phil (Glenister) – he’s like my screen husband!” says John with great affection. “ In Life on Mars we felt like we were in Starsky and Hutch or The Professionals. We thought we were invincible. 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.”
Phil and I Joke We Should Get Divorced
He jokes that he and Glenister, who are best mates in real life, really should get divorced on screen, before the audience gets sick of them for having too much fun. “ Since Mad Dogs finished, we’ve considered taking up golf, but then I really would get divorced, because we would go missing for hours!”
If the measure of a great actor is that they can play the roles that capture the collective imagination, just as easily as the more taxing, intellectual roles, then Simm is the man. Interesting, his portrait of Raskolnikov was almost as popular as Sam Tyler in our poll.
Joh Simm and Mira Sorvino as Jack and Amy Whelan in Intruders. Copyright BBC Worldwide
So what makes Simm tick? In no particular order, I can tell you that his favourite activities are reading, sleeping and playing guitar. At the current count, he owns seven guitars and he recently discovered the garage app on I Tunes, which he can plug in and play along to. Music is a huge passion in his life, particularly The Beatles. ” The Beatles are an ever, shape-shifting thing in my life. I can listen to them for hours or days, and then leave them alone for months and then rediscover the pleasures of The White Album or Revolver.” Until his mid thirties a founding member and guitarist in the band Magic Alex, a tribute to The Beatles sound engineer of the same name. When I ask him which Beatle he would like to play, if the opportunity ever came along, he laughs, hesitates for a nano second and then says “Lennon, of course! – but I don’t look anything like him.”
Interestingly, when he is preparing for a role, he listens to classical music not pop or rock. “I love Beethoven. I can’t listen to pop when I need to focus; the spoken voice gets in the way – Beethoven is just perfect.”
Oh and try and tear Simm away from his beloved books and you will be in trouble. He always has a huge book on the go. Recently, it was Richard Burton and John Lennon’s diaries… and when he started reading East of Eden he just couldn’t put it down.” I stayed up all night, I just had to find out what happens!” To that you can add a passion for Dickens and Dostoyevsky, for what he calls their “extraordinary humanity.”
He could play guitar by the time he was eleven and he would often accompany his father on stage, playing working men’s clubs, around Manchester and the northeast. This was inspite of feelings of shyness in childhood, which he says drew him to acting in the first place.
“Acting lets you wear a mask and play other people, and I am comfortable with that,” he explains. After studying classical acting at The Drama Centre in London, and immersing himself in the Manchester music scene, Jimmy McGovern took a chance on the unknown actor, casting him first in Cracker, and then as the lead in The Lakes after Simm cheekily asked him for the role at the audition.
I Never Wanted a Role So Badly, As I did The Lakes
“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.”
Simm proved he had imagination, talent and bravery to take on the great roles, and often the most uncomfortable ones too, going on to play the characters we simply can’t forget from The Master in Doctor Who to the painter Vincent Van Gogh in The Yellow House, another favourite role. Characters that refuse to fade from the collective imagination.
Even now, State of Play still ranks as one of the finest, thrilling, edge of the seat political thrillers of the past twenty-five years. It also ignited the careers of his peers James McAvoy, David Morrissey, Phil Glenister and Marc Warren. Simm fizzed on screen with a youthful, counter culture bravado and charisma. He was cute rather than leading man handsome, but all you see on screen is the character, not the actor. That is talent. It was his innate acting ability that marked him out as one to watch, and I couldn’t wait to see what he would do next.
The Golden Age from Human Traffic to Life On Mars
John tells me that this was like a golden age in his career, when the great roles just kept on coming. ““ The chunk of time between Human Traffic and Life on Mars was a very exciting time for me. 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.”
When he crashed into our collective consciousness in The Lakes, as hapless Danny, in a gallery of grotesques; he represented the youthful optimism of rave culture and a breezy new social order that wasn’t about privilege; it was about opportunity. It was a return to a new true grit and realism that stretches back to films like A Taste of Honey and Look Back in Anger. John is part of the brilliant fraternity of nineties actors that simply didn’t seem to feel the need or desire to defect to Hollywood, they were having a ball back home.
These Days Simm Looks Less Like a Pop Star and More Like a Man Who Has Lived
Today, such is his stature and extraordinary back catalogue; no one can match him in terms of gravitas or audience loyalty. That makes him a very bankable star. Then there is the twinkling appeal of maturity. Just think of George Clooney. He was almost too beautiful in his ER days. Today, Simm looks less like a pop star and more like a man who has lived; a man who could take on a epic role and command sufficient presence and charisma to appeal to American audiences too.
Why? Because when he inhabits a character the process and the commitment is absolute. He can do stubborn, introspective, unknowable, daring, generous and uncomfortably brilliant – the consummate everyman. From jailbird-husband to coma policeman – romantic swordsman to humanitarian – party animal to outcast journalist – it is impossible to pigeonhole Simm apart from one thing – a god given ability and appetite to disappear into the lives of other people. Now the shyness he talks about in childhood begins to make sense.
Prey – A Mesmerizing Portrait of a Fugitive
In Prey, Simm is the only actor you see on the screen. The other characters appear almost one dimensional, mere flim flam to the sweat, fear and anger of Simm’s mesmerizing portrait of a fugitive. At times, the atmosphere is so intimate, so tense, it is as if we can hear his heartbeat, as he jumps off bridges and crashes through streams – a wreck of man, propelled onwards by his shining, righteous innocence, and a reckless determination to remain free until he can hunt down the killers of his wife and child; so far, so Simm.
John is a dream for any writer or director, because he cares passionately about the craft of great writing and collaborating closely with gifted directors like Paul Abbott and Michael Winterbottom. “Michael is like the revolution, he says in a heartbeat, “I would work with him all the time if I could.”
Actor John Simm Portrait Copyright Jason Joyce/Alison Jane Reid All Rights Reserved
JS as his fans affectionately calls him isn’t just a great actor; he is one of the finest actors to come out of the nineties, and it will be interesting to see if America gets him. Let’s just say that there was point where Hollywood opened the door, but JS wasn’t shaken or stirred enough to give up the pleasure of the school run or performing his beloved Pinter in the West End.
If he had, he probably wouldn’t have gone on play the Master in Doctor Who, he wouldn’t have played the washed up hack Tom Ronstadt in Exile, or revealed his ghastly, snarling, spitting; lank haired, brutal brilliance as Raskolnikov in one of the starkest, most atmospheric and faithful adaptations of Crime and Punishment ever.
Playing Raskolnikov was a Gift
“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 limpest. 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 is to the Beatles.”
What really comes across during my interview with John is the satisfaction, dedication and passion he brings to his roles. In The Devil’s Whore, John really had to fight for the role of Edward Sexby, playing against type to deliver one of his most surprising, fearless and emotionally raw performances. Sexby is a romantic hero, but not as we know it.
The Devil’s Whore – A Boy’s Own Adventure!
John says “He’s a soldier of fortune, he falls in love, he 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.”
A Love So Great it Would Make a Bishop Kick in a Stained Glass Window
If you haven’t seen The Devil’s Whore, you must watch it. It is one of John’s finest and most rounded, remarkable portraits of a man transformed by the power of love, beauty and the desire to be free. When we first meet Sexby, he is a mercenary and a cold-hearted butcher. His brutality makes him ugly and utterly repellant as a man. His life exists in a kind of hell played out in the mud and blood of the battlefield. Then, he falls for Andrea Riseborough’s emancipated Cavalier goddess, and slowly, a remarkable change takes place. Sexby’s heart of stone becomes one of stoic, sweet devotion. He goes from cruel, murderous fiend to devoted lover and protector, and Simm conveys this transformation with such exquisite subtlety, such heartbreaking acts of devotion, that it is a great portrait of self sacrifice and love – a love so great that it would make a bishop want to kick in a stained glass window! So, eat your heart out Mr Darcy!
The truth is that Simm is too much of a salt of the earth Manchester rebel, too much of a serious artist not to take risks. He lives to shine a light on every area of the human condition. And we are the winners, because for Simm the need to flex his creative muscle will always come first. It is as important to him as breathing and sleeping and listening to his beloved Beatles or Beethoven.
There is a very poignant scene in Life On Mars, where Simm’s character Sam is utterly dejected and he goes into the local bar. ‘ I am losing it,Nelson,’ he says. Tony Marshall’s publican says, ‘ You are where you are, you have to make the best of it’.With a little borrowed artistic licence from David Bowie and his Ziggie Stardust – ‘Life On Mars – It’s the freakiest Show On Earth’ – no one could ever say that John Simm has ever not made the very best of art and life.
So where in the universe will all this talent, passion and daring take the fantastic Mr Simm next?
More updates from Alison Jane and the man himself on Intruders and Code of Killer, hopefully next week! When time and filming allows. It was supposed to happen on Friday. John was called back to the set – so please be patient.
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John Simm talks to Alison Jane Reid Portrait Copyright Jason Joyce/Alison Jane Reid
Copyright Alison Jane Reid October 2014 All Rights Reserved