Stephen Graham: There's no small roles, only small actors
Thuggish roles may come naturally for Stephen Graham on-screen, but it was a far more affable persona that greeted Keeley Bolger when they met to discuss Channel 4 drama The Watchman
STEPHEN Graham is in an odd predicament. Back in 2006, his performance as skinhead neo-Nazi Combo in This Is England was so convincing that, for months afterwards, directors shied away from offering him roles.
Then Martin Scorsese came calling, hand-picking Liverpudlian Graham – who'd previously appeared in the director's 2002 film Gangs Of New York – to play Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire, and his fortunes changed.
Now that work is abundant, with roles as Scrum in Pirates Of The Caribbean, Inspector Heat in The Secret Agent and the lead part in new Channel 4 drama The Watchman, casting agents have another reason for deliberating.
"They go, 'We had you in mind, but we just thought [you'd be busy]', and I've gone, 'I can do it if it's good,'" says the 43-year-old with an exasperated laugh, lamenting missing out on some "beautiful little films" in the past because of this.
"If it's a good script and a good director – it doesn't matter to me whether it's a first-time director, a well established director, and it's not even about whether it's a big role or small role. To me, there's no small roles, only small actors."
Graham, a far chirpier presence in real life than the characters he tends to portray, might be physically on the small side at 5ft 5in, but he's a mesmerising powerhouse on-screen, and a master at injecting an underlying unease in films like Snatch, where he played tough nut Tommy.
Off-screen, hardman he ain't. The Liverpool FC supporter is happily married to his "lovely missus", actress Hannah Walters, who he met while they were studying drama in London 23 years ago. They now live in Leicestershire with their two children, Grace and Alfie.
He lovingly refers to Walters as his "buffer", adding that because of his dyslexia, she reads scripts first, alerting him to any which look promising.
"She's turned down a couple of fantastic opportunities but that's completely another story," he says with a chuckle.
Growing up in a close-knit family in Kirkby, he drew on the well of support from his social worker mum and paediatric nurse dad to help with school work.
"It's not severe, it just meant I had to work that bit harder," he explains of his dyslexia. "I came out with some great GCSEs."
Drama was his passion, and he says getting involved with the Everyman Youth Theatre was "life-changing".
Like his This Is England and The Secret Agent co-star Vicky McClure, who recently called for more affordable drama schools, he's frustrated that opportunities in the arts have narrowed.
"We're very quick to say, 'What's wrong with young people?' My answer to that is, they don't have enough opportunities," he states, adding that he's "devastated" by the closure of a youth centre he used to volunteer at due to council cuts.
"It's our job and our duty to give them opportunities and encouragement."
He's full of enthusiasm for The Watchman, a thought-provoking drama, directed and written by documentary-maker Dave Nath.
Graham plays Carl, a dad and CCTV operative whose growing frustration with local police officers forces him to intervene in a dangerous situation.
"What sets off as a normal night shift transcends into this huge thing which spirals out of control," he explains. "I haven't done a play for a long time, so for me it was like a little self-contained play for today; it was a beautiful experience."
Being involved made him think about some of the issues surrounding surveillance and on a wider level, he thinks TV has a duty to be thought-provoking. But there are roadblocks in the way of good drama making its way to the screen.
"If we keep making too much of this reality sh*t, it's not the right way to go," he says. "We went through a little dip [with drama], and now we've realised there's an immense pool of talent, so we're cracking on.
"We're making a lot of period pieces. I'm involved in a few myself, so I don't mean to slag them – they're great stories – but I would like to see a bit more about what's going on now. I'm not into all that Upstairs, Downstairs, 'Yes me lady', and all that."
:: The Watchman is due to air on Channel 4 on Wednesday August 24 and will then be available on 4OD