Actor Phil Daniels: ‘You’re judged on how you speak in this class-obsessed country’
Best known for ‘geezer’ roles on screen, Phil Daniels is a veteran stage actor, recently seen in the West End and Chichester. He tells Nick Smurthwaite why his latest part, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, makes a refreshing change
While for many, Phil Daniels’ name conjures up Jimmy the mod in Quadrophenia or the chirpy protagonist of Blur’s Parklife, his four-decade career on the stage has rarely been predictable, spanning soap opera to Shakespearean tragedy. He has always attempted to reject, he says, being pigeonholed.
Often, Daniels has turned to the theatre to avoid yet another offer of a cheeky Cockney geezer and stretch his range. He is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe, as well as the West End.
Daniels returns to the stage this month for another challenging part – or perhaps that should be two parts. He’ll be taking on the dual role of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a new version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel adapted by David Edgar.
In a break from rehearsals at the Union Chapel in Islington, Daniels says he accepted the role as “it was different from anything I’ve done before”. He explains: “It was mooted by the producer Jenny King three years ago when I was playing Thenardier. She thought it would be a good fit.”
Director Kate Saxon has kept the play in its traditional Victorian London, although one of Edgar’s innovations is to make Jekyll’s accent educated Edinburgh, while Hyde’s is working-class Glasgow.
With the help of voice coach Charmian Hoare, Daniels – whose own London accent was immortalised by Parklife – says he has enjoyed mastering the different accents from north of the border.
“You get a bit fed up with just playing Londoners,” he says. “I’ve sometimes felt a bit typecast as geezers. I’m not complaining because I’ve had some great jobs over the years, but it’s true to say you are judged on how you speak and where you were born in this country. It is different in America – they’re not such a class-obsessed country.”
Q&A: Phil Daniels
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked in the chemist’s John Bell and Croydon, sweeping up. I left after a week.
What was your first professional theatre job? I played one of the spirits in Falstaff the Opera for the BBC when I was about 12. Sir Geraint Evans played Falstaff. I used the £16 I was paid to open a Post Office account.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? You have to fight a little harder if you’re a working-class actor.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Anna Scher and her partner Charles Verrall, who told me I was better than I thought I was.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Make an effort, learn the lines, or else don’t do it. Nerves are a good thing. Don’t be scared to fail. Lastly, don’t take any shit from the people auditioning you.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? Probably a musician. Definitely something artistic.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No coffee before the show, and a half-hour catnap in between the matinee and the evening performance.
Growing up in King’s Cross, Daniels started going to after-school drama classes in Islington led by primary school teacher Anna Scher.
“I’d only gone along with a mate to see what it was like and Anna got us to join in. I found that I enjoyed it,” he says. “We did improvisations and it was a good way to find out about yourself, acting out little things in your life. I was there at the same time as Kathy Burke, Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Gary Kemp, so I think the standard was quite high.
“Directors looking for young actors used to turn up and watch us from the back of the class. We were a good alternative to middle-class drama school kids.”
Scher also acted as their agent and at 16 Daniels was cast in the play Class Enemy at London’s Royal Court, set in a south London comprehensive school.
Roles in Scum and Quadrophenia followed, as well as the lead in Breaking Glass in 1980. The exposure that came with starring in a series of films did not affect him much, he says. “It wasn’t like I’d landed the lead in Chariots of Fire. These were low-budget films that didn’t make much of a stir at the time. I remember getting the bus to the premiere of Quadrophenia, that’s how glamorous it was.”
At 22, he turned his back on film and went off to play the Fool in King Lear in Exeter, the role he would reprise at Chichester Festival Theatre last year opposite Ian McKellen. “I think I knew even then that I wanted to extend my range as an actor.”
He has not always had a smooth relationship with the theatre. “When I was very young I thought it was all a bit luvvie and weird, but I’ve come to enjoy the fact that you’re doing the whole play and once you’re up on stage, you’re on your own with the rest of the actors. I’ve also grown to love the tradition of theatre, the fact that we’ve been doing it for centuries.
“The thing that drives you barmy about filming is the ‘Hurry up and wait’ thing where you’re told to be ready to shoot a scene, then you sit around doing nothing for hours. That doesn’t happen in theatre. It’s all very structured and I prefer that way of working. I also love getting a big laugh from a live audience – that’s the best feeling in the world.”
Did he mind getting stuck with those Cockney geezer roles? “A little bit. I sometimes felt a bit frowned upon being a white, working-class London actor. In This House I was cast as chief whip of the Labour Party, while Malcolm Sinclair was chief whip of the Tories – that’s the way casting works in this country,” he says. “You do get a bit fed up with playing the same kind of people, which is why it’s great to be Jekyll and Hyde.”
Is it a story that resonates with him? “Yes, of course. We’ve all known people who switch from being lovely to being an absolute arsehole. David Edgar asked, ‘What is it that turns one person into two people?’ He has made it more of a psychological drama, and introduced more female characters into the mix. There are a lot of lines to learn but I’m not afraid of working hard.”
He has learned not to be so self-critical as he has got older. “There is no point in beating yourself up. There are enough people out there to do that for you. I never got to the point where I wanted to quit.”
“When I was in EastEnders for two years [as Kevin Wicks] it was good money but my heart wasn’t really in it. I went into it thinking it was going to be something else. But I enjoyed the people and the company. It was funny being recognised in the lower-end supermarkets. Though not in M&S of course.”
Not surprisingly for someone who started out playing in bands, Daniels has appeared in a number of stage musicals, including The Beggar’s Opera, Carousel and Les Mis, not to mention performing in front of 120,000 at Glastonbury in 2009, with Damon Albarn. “I think [musical performance] helped to develop my acting voice. Without much training I’ve acquired a voice that can be heard at the back of the gallery.”
Is he proactive about generating acting work for himself? “No, I’m quite lazy. I’m a golfer so I don’t mind having time off. I support Chelsea, I run, I do things. I’m not desperate to be in a big American movie. My daughter has just had a little boy, Freddie, so I’m enjoying being a grandfather for the first time. Life is good.”
CV: Phil Daniels
Born: 1958, London
Training: Anna Scher Theatre School, London
Landmark productions: King Lear, Exeter Northcott Theatre (1980), A Clockwork Orange,
Royal Shakespeare Company (1990), Les Miserables, Queen’s Theatre (2015), This House, National Theatre (2012); Garrick Theatre, London (2016
Agent: Emptage Hallett
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde opens at the Rose Theatre, Kingston on February 14 ahead of a three-month UK tour