Daniel Mays is only 28, but has already forged an exciting career. He is part of Mike Leigh’s family of actors, starring in two of the director’s films, he appears in the multi-award nominated Atonement and, most noticeably, he has built a reputation for bringing controversial characters to the stage, most memorably in the Royal Court’s Motortown. Now he is back at the Court appearing as the adult in child/teacher relationship drama Scarborough. Matthew Amer met the Royal Court’s most consistent young performer to discuss his new project.
“I relish the fact that people think of me as a Royal Court actor,” says Mays when we meet at the Jerwood Space, where he has just begun rehearsals. “My reputation that I have with everybody at the Court is just so priceless to me.” Scarborough is the sixth production that Mays has appeared in at the Sloane Square venue, where he has worked under two different artistic directors and forged his reputation for bringing eccentric, controversial, even psychotic characters to the stage.
He describes his speciality as “young men on the brink”; characters such as Danny in Motortown, who came back from war but couldn’t readjust to a changed world, and Patsy in The Winterling, a wannabe hoodlum full of nervous energy primed to explode. “I enjoy the investigation of trying to make people like that as human as possible and as rounded as possible,” Mays explains. “It’s not just about me going on stage and playing psychopaths or people who do horrific things, it’s asking deeper questions as to why in life do people do the things that they do. It’s because of where they’re from and their background and who their influences are. My job as an actor is to make it as three-dimensional as possible.”
"If the audience has made any judgments in the first act they’ll re-evaluate how they feel about it watching our version"
His latest ne’er-do-well strays away from psychotic tendencies, but is no less controversial. Mays is currently playing a 29-year-old teacher in a relationship with his 15-year-old student in Fiona Evans’s Scarborough, a piece that was originally seen at the Edinburgh Festival. After its Scottish success the Royal Court decided to bring it to London, but with one alteration. At the festival it was a one act play with a female teacher and male student on a weekend trip to the coastal resort. For London, a second act has been added with the genders swapped, but most of the text untouched.
“Morally it’s quite a testing piece,” say Mays, “because a young guy of 15 with an older woman is seen as ‘go on lad, get in there’, yet when it’s the other way round it’s a completely different situation altogether. If the audience has made any judgments in the first act they’ll re-evaluate how they feel about it watching our version.”
In the same way that Mike Bartlett’s My Child saw the Downstairs theatre transformed into an oversized tube carriage, designer Jo Newberry has transformed the Upstairs theatre into the bedroom of a B&B for Scarborough, turning an already intimate venue into a space where the audience is on top of the actors, sharing their room and complicit in their illicit affair. It is a set design that complements Mays’s view of quality theatre: “Good pieces of drama are always those things that you have a fly on the wall feeling about, and certainly this has that voyeuristic view. It’s just two people away for a weekend in a Scarborough B&B. You see them break up and make love. I just imagine it to be incredibly powerful in that space up there at the Royal Court; very intimate.”
Mays, I should confirm, does not portray any signs of psychotic tendencies. There is nothing thrown around while we talk, no random acts of violence, not even a raised voice. I wouldn’t even describe him as eccentric. He is a normal guy, born and raised in Essex. He is also very confident and chats away over a cup of coffee as though we have known each other for years.
"The Daily Mail called it ‘depraved snuff theatre’. They used it to sell the play"
His confidence has been a distinct advantage for this project. Where before he has been among the younger, less experienced members of a cast, in this case he is very much the elder actor, performing alongside 16-year-old Rebecca Ryan, known best for her role as Debbie in Shameless. His outgoing nature has helped to build an understanding with the young actress, but in a play about inappropriate relationships there are undoubtedly bridges to cross for a 28-year-old actor working with a teenage co-star. “On the one hand we’ve got to play the characters,” he says, cautiously, “but on the other hand I’ve got to be incredibly aware of her age and the sensibilities towards that. I’ve got to take her slowly through it and sort of protect her, in a way, but she’s just a brilliant young actress.” I get the feeling that as the relationship develops – this is only their third day of rehearsals – Mays will assume a big brotherly role; he has that air of cool, casual caring about him.
Mays, though he undoubtedly enjoys his work, takes it very seriously and isn’t ashamed to admit it. He jokes about the fact that he had two roles written for him in plays staged during the Royal Court’s 50th anniversary season – “they were calling it the Danny Mays season” – but is aware of just how important his relationship with the theatre has been.
It was when he was starring in Vassily Sigarev’s Ladybird at the Royal Court in 2004 that Simon Stephens was so taken by his performance that he approached Mays in the bar after the show and told him he wanted to write a part for him. The pair shared ideas and the result was Motortown. “I can remember reading it,” Mays reminisces. “I was just totally overwhelmed. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever read. Emotionally it just knocked me for six. My gut reaction to it was amazing. I was so overwhelmed, I thought ‘Am I going to be able to do that? Am I going to be able to take this play on my shoulders and run with it and lead a company?’ That lasted for about a minute and I was like ‘Bring it on!’”
The piece, a reaction to the war and anti-war movement written around the time of the July 2005 London bombings, dealt with a soldier returning to a changed world and featured graphic scenes of torture. It received mixed responses. “You could hear the seats snapping up and I was like ‘f***ing hell, people are leaving, people are actually leaving the theatre. Is that bad? No, that’s great; they feel so appalled by it…’ That’s the power theatre can have. I remember the Daily Mail called it ‘depraved snuff theatre’. They used it on the blackboard outside the Court to sell the play.”
His time in the play written by the man he describes as “one of, if not the greatest contemporary British writer working at the moment” was his “single most exhilarating acting experience”. That performance was followed in the same season by a stint as Patsy in Jez Butterworth’s play The Winterling.
"If you’re worth your salt as an actor you have to do theatre"
In all normal situations, Mays is an actor who works hard to build a convincing backstory for his character, creating a life history to explain who they are and why they act as they do. With The Winterling, however, from the second he read the script, the part of fast-talking wide-boy Patsy was very clear in his mind. “That’s not to say I didn’t give it as much thought and attention, or focus,” he is quick to point out, “but, without sounding too pretentious, it fit like a glove; I could see the black hat, the leather jacket and everything straight away.”
Though his former teachers at RADA may now be cursing Mays’s performance opposite Roger Lloyd Pack, Jerome Flynn and Robert Glenister, as they have since been inundated with Patsy’s speeches at auditions – “I think they’re all Patsyed out at the moment” – it led to his casting in this year’s big British film hit Atonement, in which Mays plays Tommy Nettle. His twitchy, livewire performance on the Royal Court stage highlighted his comic abilities and saw him charged with lifting the spirits of cinema audiences by Atonement director Joe Wright, of whom Mays has nothing but praise: “I would call him an absolutely complete director; he has the ability to work one on one with an actor, but also he allows you into the vision of what he sees the whole film to be as well.”
Mays is not an actor to just turn up and do a job. Time and time again during our interview he talks of forging relationships with directors, building links with companies and creating a network of people who know how you work and are only too happy to involve you in future projects. Among this network is auteur Mike Leigh, a director that many actors dream of working with their whole career, but who Mays first worked with on All Or Nothing only a year out of drama school, and returned to work with more recently on Vera Drake.
“It instilled in me such a respect of the work,” he says of his time with Leigh, “of the importance of preparation and commitment to building up a believable character. For me, as a young actor, it’s been a benchmark to test myself upon ever since.”
Mays is more of a thinker than he lets on. Maybe it is the accent, the cheeky smile or the swiftness of chat, but what you expect is a jack-the-lad. What you get is an actor who has thought about his art and who really takes time to learn from those around him. Though he has four films due for release in 2008, theatre will always remain at the centre of his work both for technique and career advancement: “If you do a show, if you’re in a play, people come and see it. If you’ve got a good agent, which I have, they’ll get all the casting agents to come along. The 50th anniversary was an amazing showcase for me; I do comedy, I do serious. All these people come in and I got an enormous amount of work from that because you’re on stage, you’re sustaining a character for a length of time. I think if you’re worth your salt as an actor, at all, you have to do theatre because it’s an actor’s medium, you’re asked to sustain it for that period. I don’t understand people that don’t want to do it.”
Whether he will ever leave the controversial roles behind for something less contentious is another matter. He would like to do classical work, but as of yet it has not come his way. In fact, the next time people will probably see him, he will be playing a “drug dealing father of three who sends his kids out peddling drugs on their BMX bikes” in Abi Morgan’s BBC drama White Girl. “I think that should be a quite controversial and hard-hitting piece,” he smiles. “That’s me all over. Controversial and hard-hitting? Get Danny Mays in it.”
Scarborough runs at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs until 15 March.