After wrapping up his celebrated performance as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire last year, Stephen Graham returns in 2015 as Combo in This Is England '90, the final installment of Shane Meadows' critically acclaimed drama set in the British Midlands.
As such, he occupys the unique position of having played (arguably) the most interesting characters in two of the finest TV dramas to be released either side of the Atlantic in recent years.
To mark the release of his latest film Hyena, we spoke with 41-year-old about the so-called 'golden age' of TV, how he prepares for his roles and what it's like being one of Britain's most recognisable actors.
How was wrapping up Boardwalk Empire last year?
It was great. They're a lovely bunch of people, an absolutely fantastic crew. After five or six years you get close, know what I mean? Some of the people I worked with on the show have become very close, dear friends, like Michael Pitt. It's a huge chunk of your life. For that to end has been a little bit of a shock to the system, to be honest with you.
A lot is made of this being a golden era of American TV drama. Could you see such influential shows being made in Britain?
Yeah, of course, as long as we stop making fucking celebrity bollocks! I don't want to sound disrespectful or nothing, but you got a load of fucking has-beens and wannabes who fucking dance their feet off for entertainment on a Saturday night. Now I understand that it's entertainment, don't get me wrong, but if you're gonna take the money from drama and put it into bullshit, in my eyes, we will lose our way.
There's so many great, young, talented writers and directors out there, but where are they gonna be given their opportunity if all we're making is cheap shit telly? It's dead easy to get a bunch of wannabes who work in a bar or whatever, who want to be famous, want to be celebrities, and stick a camera in front of them. It costs virtually nothing to make and you're getting loads of viewers, but at the end of the day, to me, it's mind-numbing bullshit, whereas television that makes us think and comes into our living rooms and gives us an opinion and makes us have a discussion about it is few and far between. Sorry, I got on my soapbox there a little bit didn't I? Haha.
No worries. This is England is the exception to all this, of course…
Yeah, it stands on its own in my eyes. Before I began filming my storyline Shane [Meadows, the director] sat me down I watched the first few episodes and I was blown away by it. To me it was a master class in acting. We're watched these young people grow up for the past 10 years, watched their characters develop and progress – it's beautiful. He had me laughing my head off one minute, then I was in tears the next. Television that can make you do that is what we used to watch television for.
So what can you tell us about how Combo and your role in This Is England '90?
He's a completely different person. Obviously he's been institutionalised for lots of his life, but I think he's reached an age now where he has assessed things and wants to make a change. And you know it's based on somebody who I know very close – my uncle, who's been in prison.
In what way?
The psychological and emotional aspect of the character, mainly, but even down to the physicality. He got life in prison, my uncle. I hadn't seen him for a while, so I went to see him in prison where he's been for 17 or 18 years. To hear the way he talks and see the transformation he's been through… I tried to use the essence of that for Combo.
Steve Bucemi and Stephen Graham, co-stars in Boardwalk Empire
Is he your best work to date?
Combo? Definitely, yes. I've grown up through playing that role. Although a lot of people thought Shane had just found me on the street [laughs]. I couldn't get no work for 8 months after that film cos people thought that's what I was really like! Casting directors were thinking 'do we really wanna bring this nasty skinhead into our room?' But Marty [Scorsese] saw This Is England [the 2006 film, on which the TV series was based] after I did Gangs of New York, and he wrote me a letter about it. So yeah, that's been the standout role for me, personally.
What did the letter from Martin Scorsese say?
Oh just, you know, 'what a great performance, fantastic, keep it up'. It was lovely. Then he asked me to play Al Capone!
Tell me about Hyena. It's another independent British film. Is that what you're most attracted to?
For me it's about the script and the director. It doesn't matter if it's a big blockbuster or if it's a small independent film. Hyena was really great to work on, I think it's a fantastic ensemble cast. I saw Gerard [Johnson]'s first film, Tony: Portrait of a London Serial Killer… and I just thought 'wow,' he's a fantastic director. When I heard he had wrote this character for me, half of me thought it was a bit of a backhanded compliment, cos basically he's a twat [laughs]. But no, it was great.
How famous are you Stephen?
You know, people ask for photos sometimes. As long as they approach me in a nice way I don't mind, cos at the end of the day they pay my wages. But I suppose that's why I love living where we live, in this little village in Ibstock – I'll go to the Co-op or walk the kids to school and no-one bothers me.
Have you ever found yourself in a very 'Hollywood' situation?
When me and [wife] Hannah went to the premiere for Pirates of the Caribbean – the last one that was out – and we were in the posh hotel and everything and my Mum and Dad and auntie and uncle had come. We got put in this really fancy car, and then we got out – I think it was at Westfield Shopping Centre or something to be honest with you – and there was the red carpet and thousands of people screaming. I just remember looking at Hannah and grabbing hold of her hand and thinking 'fucking hell, this is a bit weird isn't it?'
When I went to the SAGAs [Screen Actor's Guild Awards – Graham won for Boardwalk Empire in 2011 and was nominated again in 2014 and 2015] was another one. It's weird them things a little bit, cos it's not really me, it's all a little bit too much. I always feel like I'm gonna get asked to leave, do you know what I mean? I always feel as if someone's gonna go 'sorry mate, you got in the back door, your name's not on this list, lad, can you leave now please?'
So what's next?
Well we've just finished This is England, then I'm off to Australia for a while to do the next installment of Pirates of the Caribbean. Then there's a good few scripts that I've been looking at which hopefully come off later in the year. But yeah, you know, the future's looking alright.
Hyena is released in cinemas on 6th March