Stephen Graham is the kind of actor who could quite easily be pigeonholed. Perhaps still best known for his role as the unhinged neo-Nazi Combo in Shane Meadows This is England in 2006, Graham has cemented his place in the new class of gritty British cinema. But while many of his more recent performances fit the mould of typecast thug, his raw acting talent has long seen him take on a range of roles, both at home and abroad.
From 2001’s acclaimed US WWII mini-series Band of Brothers, to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Graham has flirted with working abroad on several occasions, and with some success too. He may cut a fierce figure in contemporary British cinema, but his depth and tenacity have endeared him to some of the most esteemed filmmakers working today.
In truth his most recent role, as Baby Face Nelson in Michael Mann’s crime drama Public Enemies, encapsulates Graham’s professional outlook rather aptly. He is an adventurous actor, not content with falling into line and occupying a comfort zone. It is an approach which has seen him team up with some truly outstanding filmmakers, and by all accounts, the best is yet to come.
LWLies sat down with Graham recently to discuss his work abroad, and the impact his work has on those around him.
LWLies: How did you become involved with Public enemies?
Graham: It’s an interesting story actually. I’m still good friends with Leo from when we did Gangs of New York and he told me about it. He was having dinner with Michael Mann and he dropped my name in the hat. At the same time my manager in the States thought I looked like Baby Face Nelson and they asked me to put myself on tape. I haven’t got any guns in the house though so I did the tape pretending to rob a bank with my son’s plastic golf clubs. I sent it off not thinking much of it and three weeks later they phoned me up asking if I wanted to go to Chicago to meet Michael. I thought I was just meeting him but he came over and just said welcome aboard, so that was it.
LWLies: You mention Gangs of New York, and you’ve also worked in America on Band of Brothers, but you’ve very much become a figurehead of British cinema since This is England. It must be refreshing to get away from that and do something like Public Enemies, but equally how challenging is it, especially adopting such a distinctive accent?
Graham: When I’m over in the States I usually just hang round all the teamsters and pick things up off them to get a bit more authenticity. But I’m quite lucky that I have a good ear for accents, it was never daunting just really exciting. It is refreshing though, working with the likes of Michael Mann and Johnny Depp. They’re so passionate and it really rubs off on you, but it was lovely being on that big set with all that money and then coming back and carrying the light no Away Days. I love that you can change scales like that.
LWLies: Does something like Away Days come more naturally to you though?
Graham: I feel comfortable doing both, I love getting involved and creating characters. It’s lovely working with young fresh talent over here because they really care about the industry and are always looking to get involved. But it’s great working with some bigger names as well.
LWLies: How much did you know about Baby Face Nelson before you signed up for the part? He is obviously a familiar name in America but it seems he's not as well known over here.
Graham: Michael is very meticulous so you really had to do your research. I had to take in the history of the time, the music of the time and I watched loads of documentaries and films on the period. I also went to see where he was born and found out about his family and read loads of books and local reports from the time. He was a bit of a paradox really because although he was considered a psychopathic, bank robbing killer, he was actually a really good husband and father, by all the accounts that I read.
LWLies: You do get a sense of that in the film, but fundamentally he is a nutter. Was that civilised humanity a side of his character you wanted to explore further and try to get across in the film?
Graham: Well everything I read about him said that he actually enjoyed killing, so I ran with that really. The cinematographer Dante Spinotti actually said he enjoyed filming me because I was the only actor who kept his eyes open while shooting, so I guess I really focused on that side of his character.
LWLies: It excited you more playing that side of him?
Graham: I was just a kid having a laugh really; I’m wearing all them dapper clothes, hanging off the side of cars, I’ve got a big massive gun, of course I’m gonna be excited.
LWLies: So is it back to British for you or are you looking to keep trying new things?
Graham: Funnily enough I’m actually gonna be playing Al Capone next.
LWLies: Seems like a natural progression.
Graham: Yeah it’s great, it’s written by two of the guys who wrote The Soprano’s. It’s for HBO and it's called Boardwalk Empire. Martin Scorsese did the pilot and he’s going to be executive producing the series.
LWLies: You’re working with some incredible filmmakers at the moment.
Graham: Yeah I’m lucky; I’m on a good little roll. I’ve done some amazing things over here too, being asked to appear in The Street for the BBC was like being called up to the England squad.
LWLies: And you were in Occupation as well earlier in the year?
Graham: That was an unbelievable experience. Filming in Afghanistan was amazing and it really added to the experience, but the feedback I’ve had off people for that has been overwhelming. There’s a woman who works in the Co op near me and she told me she watched it with her son who had served over in Iraq and although they’d never really spoken much about his service but watching that made it all come flooding out and they really connected. She burst into tears in front of me, she was so grateful. I mean it’s the writers really who deserve the credit but just being part of something like that is so special. You can keep your awards and that; if I’ve been a part of someone’s life like that there’s nothing else that can come close. It really is indescribable.
LWLies: What do you do when you’re not flying around the world filming?
Graham: Look after the kids you know, Grace and Alfie and the missus, Hannah, do the dishes and look after the house and the garden. I just try and do normal dads stuff really. It’s hard work being a dad but its harder being away from them for so long. I try and keep it to a maximum of four weeks when I’m abroad though; I can’t be away filming for too long without needing to come home and just get back to normality for a bit.
Public Enemies is released on DVD in the UK November 2.