Few modern actors have assumed the role of perennial villain quite on the scale of Liverpool’s STEPHEN GRAHAM. His ability to portray the vile racist thug, the manipulative hooligan, the sexual deviant and the murderous husband has earned him plaudits from across the acting world and resulted in the former Everyman Youth Theatre member from Kirkby counting Jonny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio amongst his drinking buddies. And a key role in cult British cinema classic This Is England has led to a series of Hollywood roles and a blossoming career.
Bido Lito! Editor Craig G Pennington met Stephen within the palatial settings of St George’s Hall – the venue for this month’s In Conversation With Stephen Graham evening – to talk playing violent fascists, starring in Arctic Monkeys videos and the ongoing role of music in his life.
As I scale the grand, neo-classical façade of St Georges Hall, I’m slightly perspiring. There’s a touch of foolish trepidation. My relationship with Stephen Graham thus far has been via his numerous roles of the putrid, aggressive individual and I’m not convinced as to whether my nervousness is a result of my respect for one of the UKs finest modern actors, or if I’m concerned that he’ll attempt to rip my nose off. Thankfully, I’m greeted by Stephen with a “Giz a sec, mate, I’m dying for a wee” and I’m immediately at ease.
When he returns from the loo, I’m struck by how, well, normal Stephen is. He talks openly and honestly and, decked out in a quilted jacket, jeans and brogues, comes across as more the bloke with whom you’d share a pint in your local, rather than a member of the Hollywood set. It’s a pleasant surprise.
We’ve become accustomed to Stephen playing characters set within particular youth cultures, with music as a key, centrally defining aspect. Whether it be as skinhead Andrew ‘Combo’ Gascoigne in This Is England or as the casual John Godden in Awaydays, Stephen seems to have a penchant for roles anchored within youth cultures. I wonder if the contexts, if not the characters, are something Stephen can relate to, from growing up in Kirkby in the late 80s and early 90s?
“Yeah, completely,” says Stephen, before nervously admitting, “although when I was growing up I was bit of a break dancer.” This admission is delivered with a cheeky, wry smile – I think he’s pulling my leg. “But no, seriously, we had something though, we had things to do, d’ya know what I mean? Acid house came along, and then ecstasy came and changed everything, in a brilliant way.”
A quick bit of arithmetic and I realise that Stephen would have turned eighteen in 1991, at the onset of acid house. “Yeah, but I started going out when I was fifteen, my cousins used to go so I had a bit of a leap on it.”
And those experiences, the energy of growing up in such an escapist, hedonistic period, do they have an impact on the parts Stephen selects and the individuals that he plays? “With This Is England, I remember skinheads when I was younger and the original sense of what it stood for. It was about workers sticking together and getting to listen to music, that’s where it all came from. It’s where the whole gear thing came from with the boots, because they’d come straight from work to the shebeens, as it was then, and get down, have a great time. Then it got bastardised by the National Front, they hijacked it. It was a culture of no hope or aspirations, their jobs were being taken away, they had nowhere to go and the National Front just grabbed hold of that.”
For many, the idea of playing a violet, murderous, racist thug and the potential of those connotations sticking with the actor beyond the role may seem an un-stomachable proposition. So did Stephen, whose grandfather is Jamaican, have any hesitation in playing Combo in This Is England?
“Not at all. I’m mixed race and I actually thought I wouldn’t get the part. I met Shane [Meadows, Director] to do a workshop and after it I told Shimmy [Andrew Shim] who plays Milky, I phoned him up and said “Look, I’m mixed race” and he said “I knew you were; I knew there was something”. So I asked him what he thought Shane would say and he said “Tell him, he’s here now”. Shane went “What?!” and I thought “Fuck, that’s it, I’ve lost it.” But he said “Well, that makes it a lot more interesting; let’s use what you know about being on the opposite side of racism for the character.”
‘Interesting’ seems like an understatement when you revisit the infamous scene from the original 2006 This Is England film when Stephen’s character Combo, having listened to Milky’s description of his large, loving, Afro-Caribbean family, and having been invited to Milky’s house for dinner, beats his friend to the brink of death. This intense act of violence follows a binge session on strong ganja, Percy Sledge records and a heart-to-heart conversation between Milky and Combo about the skinhead culture’s ability to transcend racial difference.
“It wasn’t the fact that Combo was racist,” says Stephen of his perception of his character, “and not quite that the world owed him a favour. That whole conversation with Milky, I never had what Combo had, I had the perfect family and everything, so what did I ever do that was wrong? He was a product of society and his environment, d’ya know what I mean?” It seems that the opportunity for Stephen to play the role of a character whose perspective he plainly despised was a marvellous one. “It was great to play that role; I learned so much. It was the first time I felt that I’d really created a true person.”
As well as on the big screen and in TV dramas, Stephen has become a regular fixture in music videos, more often than not playing his unique particular brand of despicable rogue. From a hangman in the Jonny Depp directed video to Babybird’s Unloveable, to the manipulative prostitute user George in the Arctic Monkeys’ Scummy Man, I wonder what it is about the format that interests him?
“It’s being able to tell a story; I love that three-minute timeframe. The first one, not a lot of people know, but I did a Travis video years ago. The one where it’s raining, but not Why Does It Always Rain On Me? Erm, what is it called?…Turn, that’s it, off the second album. I haven’t seen that for years, I’ll have to go watch that again!” A quick search on YouTube will confirm it: Stephen as a bottle-wielding drunk dashing past Fran Healy as he completes a ludicrous, day-long press-up bet.
“I did the Travis video and really liked it. Me and Mark Herbert, who’s the executive producer on This Is England and works for Warp Films, were on a train back from London and he says “There’s this great band, have a listen to them.” It was Arctic Monkeys and I was like, “They’re boss them!” He asked if I’d be interested in doing a video and I was well up for it. We made a half-hour short film for Scummy Man which was then clipped and edited down for the video. I got to introduce the band when they played at Brixton Academy and the crowd all started singing “What a scummy man?!” and it was the best buzz I’ve had in my life! Amazin!”
With an ever-developing career in full swing, including regular Hollywood appearances and a longstanding role in the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, the appearance of Stephen this month at St George’s Hall for the latest in Little Atom Production’s In Conversation With series represents something of a coup. As with the previous events (which have featured Peter Serafinowicz, Paul McGann and David Morrissey, amongst others) music plays a key role in the evening. “I really like the format of the night,” says Stephen, “because I get to choose five songs and there’s going to be local artists playing their versions of the songs I’ve chosen that to me are very poignant in my life.” We’re told to expect a mix of nostalgia and reflection (we hear that Bill Withers is involved, which is excellent news), but what role does music play in Stephen’s life today?
“Music is the soul of life, it’s just a truly amazing, amazing thing. I use music a lot with my characters. I’ll use a tune to help me get into a certain emotion, to make me feel a certain way, and then I’ll take that into the scene. Like, I’ve just done this film called Brother – I think it’s out in a couple of months – and the character is very much being drawn along and pulled into what his brother is doing. All of a sudden he’s on the mad journey, he’s killed someone and it’s all going out of control. Maverick Sabre has a song called I Need, and that was exactly what the character was feeling inside. I’d listen to that before I go into a scene; that would be my theme tune for what was going on.”
The theme tune for 17th November is yet to be heard – the organisers are remaining understandably tight-lipped on the details – but what seems certain is that the evening will provide a fascinating insight into the life of one of Liverpool’s most celebrated recent exports. Let’s hope he busts out that break-dancing.