Actor David Morrissey: ‘I have to choose roles that challenge me – really frighten me’
In his four-decade stage and screen career, David Morrissey has played everyone from Mark Antony and Gordon Brown to a hangman and the villainous governor in a zombie drama. Now about to appear at London’s Royal Court, he tells Tim Bano about choosing and preparing for a role – and his twin passions for politics and Liverpool FC
A long while back, there was a period when David Morrissey began to question whether a career as an actor was worth anything. “At the time I was in a bit of a place.” He laughs a bit awkwardly. “And I was wondering about the value of what I was doing. But I have no doubt about the value of what we do now.”
“TV’s most underrated leading man”, as a Sunday Telegraph critic once described him, grew up in a working-class suburb of Liverpool. His dad was a cobbler, his mum worked for Littlewoods. He hated school, failed his 11-plus and dropped out at 16. What saved him, he reckons, was Kes.
Watching Ken Loach’s seminal film about a boy and his pet kestrel made him want to be an actor, and he found an outlet for that desire at the Everyman Youth Theatre: “I was pretty much bitten and I wasn’t going to be put off.”
What enrages Morrissey now is the fact that access to the arts for young people is increasingly restricted, particularly in state education. The arts are a fundamental part of the human experience, he argues, which is why he works with children in state education and in schools for excluded children.
“I think that idea of good citizens being academically well educated is so limiting because the arts by nature make you empathetic. They ask you what it’s like to be someone else or to think in terms of other people. And that’s a big quality that I feel is lacking in our society. What drama, music, art, all those creative aspects of education can deliver – I think that is being eroded in our society. And now I see the value of art and the creative arts massively. I have no doubt about the worth of what we do.”
‘The arts by nature make you empathetic – that’s a big quality that I feel is lacking in our society’
After a few years at the Everyman, where he came across Willy Russell, Morrissey auditioned for One Summer, a television drama Russell had written about two kids from Liverpool who run away to Wales. Although it was almost 40 years ago, One Summer remains the role Morrissey is most recognised for – particularly in Liverpool. “And it’s not just people of my generation,” he says. “Young people are still watching it too.”
Since then, Morrissey’s credits on TV, film and on stage have been non-stop. His choice of roles is always surprising, and has astonishingly few critical flops (though it’s best to draw a veil over Basic Instinct 2 – the reception was so bad it set his career in America back by years and made him seriously consider quitting acting altogether).
The breadth of roles Morrissey has tackled is astonishing. He’s as convincing playing real people such as Gordon Brown in Peter Morgan’s Channel 4 drama The Deal – for which he gained two stone – as he is in sillier roles like the villainous Governor in zombie drama The Walking Dead.
He has been described, variously, as a leading man, an everyman, a character actor and a chameleon – even the ways people define him seem to defy definition. He certainly gets critics’ juices flowing as they find endless ways of describing his blend of intensity and sensitivity. That unpredictability feeds into our conversation: at points he is animated and expansive, but those moments are matched by periods of quiet and caution.
We meet as he has just finished the first run-through of The End of History, a new play at London’s Royal Court. It is written by Jack Thorne and directed by John Tiffany, the team behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and he looks a bit knackered. The cast members are dispersing, some heading off to the pub, while we are led into a little room stuffed with costumes on rails.
At 6ft 3in, Morrissey is way too tall for the primary school plastic chair in the room. Twisting and squirming to get comfortable, eventually he slides right down until he’s almost horizontal.
Q&A David Morrissey
What was your first non-theatre job?
Bar and restaurant work.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Appearing in Nigel Williams’ WCPC at Liverpool Playhouse in 1986.
What is your next job?
The End of History at London’s Royal Court and The Singapore Grip on ITV.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To remember to enjoy it.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
When I did One Summer, the lead adult actor was James Hazeldine, who is sadly no longer with us. He became my mentor. I would phone him up and run things past him when things weren’t going great. I still miss him very much.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t take it personally when it doesn’t happen. There are so many reasons a job doesn’t happen and it’s very rarely about the fact that you’re not talented enough.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I would have been involved in the arts world in some way – in theatre’s technical side or something.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, not really.
Preparing for a role
Morrissey is well known for the meticulous background research and reading that goes into preparing for his roles. In order to play a chef in the 2000 film Some Voices, he shadowed the head chef of a Kensington restaurant and chopped veg for two hours a day. He shadowed prison officers when he played a prison officer, arcade owners when played an arcade owner, and Peter Mandelson when he played an MP in the superb thriller State of Play.
His head is rarely out of a book, plenty for pleasure, but often in preparation for a part: Austen, Dickens, biographies of Alberts Speer and Pierrepoint, novels by China Miéville and David Nicholls. If he’s starring in an adaptation of a book, it’s usually because he has already read it and is a fan. If he isn’t familiar with the source material, he laps it up.
But when it came to preparing for The End of History, charting a family’s leftist ideals over three decades from 1997, very little of that background research was necessary. “I lived through a lot of it, so I understand it. You’re really just using your memory of what it was like to go through that time yourself.”
He and Lesley Sharp play David and Sal, a politically active Old Labour couple who have repeatedly seen their dreams of socialism fail to come to fruition. Despite their own activism, their kids have different political leanings, a situation that creates tension.
As well as sharing a name, the character of David matches up to Morrissey’s own views quite squarely. “I was around those marches, I was there during the miners’ strike when there was lots of political activism going on. It’s in our DNA.”
Morrissey has always been politically vocal. Although he still identifies with the Labour Party, those allegiances have squirmed slightly as left-wing politics have changed. “I have issues with the party’s stance towards Europe. Big time. I don’t feel they tackled anti-Semitism at all, and I thought that was a disgrace. Really I was very disappointed and let down by it and angry about it. So there’s two big things that are shit. But then there’s a lot of other stuff that I’m really in favour of. And I’d still rather live in a Jeremy Corbyn world than a Boris Johnson world.”
So the research for this play has been more about familiarising himself with the timeline of Labour politics – when Clause 4 was abolished, when inheritance tax came in, when various New Labour policies were enacted. Besides, he explains, all that method stuff isn’t actually necessary. He’s played parts where the research he’s done has been minimal, “but that’s usually because someone has said something to me like: ‘Can you start on Monday?’ It’s not essential for me to do all that research. I just like it. It’s something that I enjoy.”
‘I have issues with the Labour Party’s stance towards Europe – but I’d rather live in a Jeremy Corbyn world than a Boris Johnson world’
How much of it does he think actually ends up on stage or screen? “I would hope very little. Because you don’t want to see someone’s research. You don’t want to see all the books they’ve read. You just want to be in the character. For me it’s just about exercising my energy. I like it. I like to read around a subject. I like to not take things for granted. I guess that’s the way I work.”
The lights in the costume store suddenly switch off with a loud click. Morrissey barely raises an eyebrow, and instead slinks further down into his chair. We carry on talking in darkness.
Besides some cracking TV roles – the wonderfully odd The City and the City, based on Miéville’s science fiction detective story, Jez Butterworth’s off-the-wall Roman period drama Britannia, the second series of Harry and Jack Williams’ harrowing drama The Missing – Morrissey has returned to the stage with more regularity in recent years.
Back to the theatre
Morrissey was reluctant to take on too much stage work when his kids were younger as he didn’t want to be away from them for long periods, and since the turn of the century his only theatre role was in Neil LaBute play In a Dark Dark House at the Almeida in 2008 and Macbeth at the Everyman in 2011.
Then came Hangmen at London’s Royal Court in 2015, followed by its West End transfer in 2016; Nicholas Hytner’s promenade Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre in 2018 and now The End of History. And if we’re entering Morrissey’s ‘stage age’, who’s complaining?
But he says none of it is planned. There’s never been a goal. “I was never at a point where I took anything, even as a young actor. Not through arrogance but just because I knew I wouldn’t be any good in anything I didn’t like.” Although he has admitted that, among the endless advert voice-overs he’s done, he does regret doing one for McDonald’s.
So his rule for choosing roles is, first, whether he likes it and, second, whether it’s going to challenge him. Looking at his endless list of credits no one could accuse Morrissey of seeking an easy ride. Nazis, murderers, politicians, villains, detectives, nobles, normal blokes – there really is nothing that unites his CV except the strength of his performances.
“I have to choose things that I know will challenge me. I mean really frighten me. I’m still in that place where, if I read something and it doesn’t shake me up, I’m slightly like: ‘Well, do I need to do this?’ It’s a good thing to feel. It means you’re on your toes, you’re challenged, you’re living off your wits and you have to back yourself.”
What he worries about least these days is the finished product, and the reception to it by critics and audiences. “That’s sort of slightly not my concern. Where it ends up is not my responsibility. Somebody else takes that and they do whatever they want. I used to get very frustrated about that. Now I think: ‘Okay, I’ve done this today, how do I feel in the car going home? How do I feel about the day?’ And in the theatre I think: ‘This bit didn’t work, this beat needs more.’ ”
“It’s not that I don’t care about the audience, of course I care about them, but I’m not so much doing it for them. I’m sort of selfishly doing it for me and my fellow actors. It’s like thinking about your destination when you’re on the journey. You have to really be in the middle of it and enjoying it here, rather than thinking about whether they’re going to like it.”
That must be especially true of film and TV, I suggest, in which the actor has so little control over the end result, but is it different in theatre? After all, the audience is right there – the instant reaction is right there every night. “The interesting word that I want to just flag is ‘control’. I’m not trying to control something. I’m more trying to discover. To play. The main thing is play. I want to play.”
David Morrissey on…
… arts in education
Schools became under pressure because they’re in a marketplace. As soon as they’re in a marketplace they have to have certain sort of grades because they’re in competition with everybody else. That means that so-called – and I hate this term but it is a term that’s used – ‘soft options’ suffer. This idea of a soft option as an easy subject is taken by people who have no idea how hard it is. When access to the arts becomes limited, young people who want to follow those careers have to start by doing a whole load of unpaid work. It becomes about the bank of mum and dad, when early-career artists are asked to work for nothing for the first two to three years. So you have to be supported, and ipso facto it becomes a middle-class profession.
… working with Sheridan Smith and Olivia Colman
I was doing a two-part drama by David Nicholls called The 7.39, with Sheridan Smith and Olivia Colman. There was one Sunday night when they were both going to the BAFTAs while I was at home having a fucking TV dinner. And they both won and on the Monday Sheridan had her award on the table, I was like: “Okay, great.”
Keeping a show fresh every night
The longer a run goes on, Morrissey says, the more a sense of play becomes important. Every night he will hear a line differently, for every performance each of the actors “brings their day” on stage with them, there’s a different energy, “and you go: ‘Okay let’s play with that for a bit, let’s have a look at that’.”
Spontaneity is key. It’s a skill he has learned from the stage, and one that has come in useful in his many TV performances. “When I’m in big movies, you get so many takes, and you think: ‘I’ve lost this.’ And then you don’t get it back really until you’re getting into take 40 or 50, because you’ve got to forget about the 10s and remint it somewhere down the line.
“Those big movies give you that time. But when you do TV or independent film, in a scene you’ll get five to seven takes. So because I’m a British actor brought up on British television, where you don’t have that time – you’re living off your toes, which I like. And I do think that’s why a lot of British actors tend to do quite well in America – we have been brought up to say: ‘Let’s go.’ You’re part of a team that is going at a pace. And it probably brings a kind of energy which is more like the liveness in a theatre.”
Sometimes finding that energy is easy. When he was playing Mark Antony in Hytner’s immersive Julius Caesar at the Bridge last year, the entire audience became the Roman rabble, and listening to Morrissey perform the ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ speech was like being at a political rally.
“What happens usually is during that speech Mark Antony will be doing it to four extras trying to be 400 guys. I actually had 400 guys. I had a live audience who, when I stood up there, were slightly like: ‘You can fuck off.’ And then as I was doing the speech I could see them go: ‘Well, hang on a minute…’ That was my job, to bring them around.”
An added treat in that production was seeing Morrissey singing in a post-punk band. Maybe a future in musical theatre beckons, I joke. He sits upright in the too-small chair. “I’d love to do that,” he exclaims. “Get that out there.” He saw Marianne Elliott’s Company twice and “thought it was fucking brilliant”.
Morrissey also decided that, since Antony is a man of the people and a bit of a rabble rouser, he should wear an FC Roma football shirt. He went off and got one printed with Mark Antony on the back. But then during the run the Italian side Roma happened to be playing his beloved team Liverpool in the Champions League quarter final. He refused to betray Liverpool. “I said I can’t wear that shirt. The stage manager was like: ‘You’ve got to, it’s part of the show.’ I just couldn’t do it.”
Nor was that the last time Liverpool’s football fate has had an impact on his acting: earlier this year, just after he landed the part in The End of History, Liverpool made it to the Champions League final. Morrissey found himself negotiating to get one of the first days of rehearsal off so he could go to the match in Madrid. “At first they said no, but I was like: ‘No. I’ve got to go.’ I think John Tiffany, for the first time in his life, was watching a football match, going: ‘I hope Liverpool win.’ ”
Three and a half decades on from his debut role in One Summer, nothing’s ever really slowed down for Morrissey. He’s just back from Malaysia shooting The Singapore Grip for ITV, an adaptation of a JG Farrell novel by Christopher Hampton. He’s produced and directed his own films. And, as ever, he’s nose deep in several novels: “I’ve just devoured Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.”
And as for the point of it all, whether that’s his work with the UNHCR Refugee Agency, or in bringing the arts to state schools, or simply pretending to be someone else, he has no doubt now of the worth of what he does. “When I was a younger actor, I felt like I had to suffer and to feel pain. It had to cost me. And I slightly forgot to enjoy it.”
Born: 1964, Liverpool
• Macbeth, Liverpool Everyman (2011)
• Hangmen, Royal Court, London (2015)
• Julius Caesar, Bridge Theatre, London (2018)
• One Summer, Channel 4 (1983)
• Framed, ITV (1992); State of Play, BBC (2003)
• The Deal, Channel 4 (2003)
• The Walking Dead, AMC (2012-15)
Awards: Royal Television Society Programme award for best actor for The Deal (2003)
Agent: Troika Talent
The End of History runs from June 27 to August 10, with press night on July 3. Details: royalcourttheatre.com
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