Peaky Blinders' Packy Lee is Belfast, loud and proud
Historical crime-gang series Peaky Blinders returns tonight, having won over fans including Brad Pitt, Jose Mourinho and the late David Bowie in its first two series. Joanne Sweeney spoke to west Belfast actor Packy Lee who, as main man Cillian Murphy's close friend – off screen and on – will be in the thick of the action
PACKY Lee is one happy and very grateful actor. The west Belfast man says that he’s already doing his ‘dream job’, having played Johnny Dogs in the hit BBC2 and Netflix gangland drama Peaky Blinders for the past four years.
One of the stars of Terry George’s Oscar-winning The Shore (2011), the 34-year-old reckons that he’s lucky to be in a show loved by the likes of the late David Bowie, Brad Pitt, Jose Mourinho, the Kardashians and Snoop Dog.
If you're one of the uninitiated, think of Peaky Blinders as Golden Globe-winning The Sopranos mixed with Martin Scorsese’s visceral The Gangs of New York but set in Birmingham around the end of the First World War. Then throw in some of the world’s best actors in the forms of Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Omagh-born Sam Neill.
With a seriously funky and contemporary music soundtrack, the result is totally engaging – no matter if you are a male or female viewer.
Cork-born Murphy is mesmerising in the role of Thomas Shelby, the head of a historical criminal gang – one of many such gangs in Birmingham in the late 19th and early 20th century – known as the Peaky Blinders because of their penchant of carrying concealed razor blades in the peak of their flat caps.
Shelby is sometimes denigrated as a ‘gypo’ in the first two series but one of his closest friends and allies, Lee’s Johnny Dogs, is a proper, proud Traveller.
And it looks like we will be seeing more of Lee in series three.
“Johnny Dogs is my dream job. He’s old school and a great character. Without giving anything way, my character develops in this series. There’s a bigger brand of the Shelby family and Johnny Dogs is certainly a very good part of that,” he said.
“When the scripts were first released, everyone [among the actors] wanted to speak to everyone else as we couldn’t get speaking to anyone else, it’s just so amazing. It’s a real step up. It’s two years later, there’s more style, there’s more risk involved.
“What I can say is that the writer wouldn’t have given me the job he has in this series if he didn’t enjoy what I had done in the previous years. I’m very happy with what I’ve done this year,” he enthuses.
The series returns to BBC2 tonight at 9pm. The trailers show that Shelby is ready to grow his illegal business internationally as well as setting his sights on marriage – although viewers don’t know which of his two love interests on the show it’s going to be.
Lee and Murphy are close personal friends in real life and often spend time together along with their families.
The Belfast man's Traveller accent on the show is very authentic, perfected by his role in the Irish revenge film King of the Travellers (2012).
He lived for a while with actor John Connors from Love/Hate, who is a Traveller himself.
Lee believes that it was his role in The Shore that he ended up being offered the part in Peaky.
“To this day I know that’s part of the reason why I’m in Peaky Blinders,” he tells me. “I didn’t know they were auditioning for Peaky as I was so busy with King of the Travellers. I said to my agent about it and he said that they already picked the cast but I asked him to try again.
“They came back and asked was I the guy in The Shore and I was so amazed by that.”
Packy, or Patrick as he was Christened, has resisted the lure and bright lights of London or Dublin to further forward his acting career over the last 20 years.
A Whiterock man, he still lives in west Belfast where he has made his home with his wife Danielle and children, one-year-old Dallan, five-year-old Seadhna and Fodhla (8). Fodhla will be soon making her First Communion and her father speaks with as much pride of that milestone as her dad does of his acting career.
A self-confessed family man, his children attend a local Gaelscoil. His sense of Irish identity is important to him and his wife, as well as his love of his Belfast home.
“I’m a Belfast man, loud and proud, as they say. While I travel and can be away a lot, home is home. I decided years ago to commute to work. It’s better for me, and the family, and it keeps my feet on the ground.”
Lee first got involved at a young age with amateur acting through attending the former Matt Talbot youth club in west Belfast. After attending a few other youth clubs throughout Northern Ireland, he started going to clubs run by late Peter Quigley and Michael Pointer.
He is forever grateful to both men for their dedication in inspiring him and others into acting.
“I’ll never forget what these guys did for me. They ran Ulster Theatre Company and the Arts Youth Club and I was just one of the kids lucky enough to able to go every Saturday,” said Lee.
“I had to travel over from Whiterock to Botanic where I enjoyed every minute of it. I met wonderful friends there when I was only 14 and they are still my wonderful friends today.”
Lee made sure that he had another career to fall back on in his early days.
“I’m a trained chef. I worked in The Other Place in Stranmillis for five years,” he says. "You always want to try and live your dream but you also must be aware of trying to make the dream a reality and to do something else to survive and live.”
Having appeared many times on stage, in television series such as Murphy’s Law, alongside Jimmy Nesbitt, and in movies including Killing Bono, Lee sees Peaky Blinders as a career highlight.
“I’ve worked hard for years for this. I’ve travelled to Dublin, Glasgow, Australia, America and I’ve been working hard in theatre shows. Even though I was told that I would never work with a name like Packy Lee."
“And then certain jobs like Peaky Blinders come along that just make it worth it.”
:: Peaky Blinders returns to BBC Two tonight.