Smiley's people: Co Down-born actor Michael Smiley talks Free Fire and Jawbone
David Roy speaks to Co Down-born actor Michael Smiley about his roles in the critically acclaimed movies Free Fire and Jawbone, the latest additions to a fine CV which also includes Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Doctor Who, Luther and the classic C4 comedy, Spaced
MICHAEL Smiley has been acting for nearly 20 years, but it's really only in the last decade that the Holywood native has begun to transition from cult favourite to an increasingly familiar face on the big and small screens.
Having left the north for London in 1983, by the turn of the century Smiley (54) was an aspiring stand-up comedian and DJ best known for his fleeting yet hugely popular turn as Tyres, the rave casualty cycle courier in the Edgar Wright-directed Channel 4 flat-share sitcom Spaced.
This starred Smiley's former real-life flatmates Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, the latter also co-creator and co-writer with Jessica Hynes: the Tyres character was written specifically for the bike-mad Irishman, who survived being a real life London cycle courier and many hedonistic nights out with his English roomies.
However, Smiley has now firmly established himself as much more than just comic relief.
The father of four, who is married to arts journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer, made a big impact in Ben Wheatley's highly disturbing 2011 hitman thriller/horror Kill List.
His Best Supporting Actor award for the role at that year's British Independent Film Awards effectively kick-started the Co Down man's career as a 'serious' performer – and fans still approach him to beg for insight into Wheatley's obliquely plotted indie classic.
The pair are now four films into a fertile creative relationship, their latest collaboration being the excellent shoot-out thriller Free Fire. A bullets-and-laughter-riddled tale of an arms deal gone terribly wrong in late-1970s Massachusetts, Smiley is part of an ensemble cast including fellow Irish Thesps Cillian Murphy and Jack Reynor.
His role as seasoned Irish terrorist/freedom fighter Frank affords ample opportunity to combine his natural talents for menace and mirth – and he also gets to look sharp while doing it.
"It was really lovely coming up with Frank," enthuses Smiley of his preparation for Free Fire. "I found it really exciting working on his back-story and anchoring him in a bit of history.
"It's never alluded to as to whether we're republican or loyalist but, if we assume that Frank's partner Chris (Murphy) is a young provie, then he is like an old sticky.
"Frank is the old guard with old-school values; hence him polishing his boots in one scene. It's like his old-school OCD.
"The reason I gave Frank a big long moustache is because Belfast men have a massive love affair with the moustache. His black shirt is an homage to Johnny Cash and Americana and the green suit is his Irishness – but it's also his 'invisible suit' that will get him through customs because he'll look like a businessman."
Indeed, correct clothing choices are paramount to both Frank and Smiley himself, who gets a big laugh with the line "I don't like his jumper" upon laying eyes on co-star Armie Hammer's turtleneck in the film.
"That's how we judge people, isn't it?" chuckles Smiley.
"My ma used to tell me that women judge men by their footwear, because men dress from the head down. She'd say, 'if you see a man in a nice suit and s*** shoes, he's borrowed the suit'.
"So I've always had a passion for clothes and especially for shoes. I remember when I was a young Rude Boy at the age of 16, I got a pair of black loafers with golf tassles out of Kay's Catalogue.
"I wore them with red socks, two-tone trousers and jacket and a Fred Perry polo shirt. I just thought I was the nuts. I've a great picture of me wearing those loafers sitting on my girlfriend's coal shed wall.
"Clothes are important for me, so it was important for Frank to wear certain clothes because then than told me who he was."
Wheatley, who co-wrote Free Fire with his wife Amy Jump, is supportive of this kind of actor-driven creative process, as Smiley explains.
"Ben's ideas are all on the page," he tells me.
"He's already written it, so then it's up to you to colour it in. You say to him, 'I'm thinking this, this and this' and then he'll go 'yeah, fine' – as long as you don't turn up saying 'I think he should wear a big f***in' over-sized Stetson and cowboy boots' or something."
While small roles in the likes of TV hits Luther and Doctor Who and a prosthetics masked cameo in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story have all helped boost Smiley's profile in recent years, it's meatier film roles like his work with Wheatley and a superb supporting turn in gritty boxing-themed drama Jawbone which have allowed the Holywood man to show off his Hollywood potential.
Also starring Ray Winstone and Ian McShane and featuring fight scenes co-ordinated by Barry and Shane McGuigan, director Thomas Napper's socially concious drama is one of this year's best films.
It was a passion project for Smiley's friend Johnny Harris, who plays the lead as an alcoholic boxer on the brink of self-destruction and whose script was inspired by his experiences as a former amateur fighter.
"Originally, the trainer character was going to be in his 70s, but they were struggling to cast it," Smiley explains. "So they decided to drop the age. I was actually on the bus going past Johnny's house when he rang to ask me if I would do it."
Naturally, Smiley jumped at the chance, not least because of the involvement of people like Paul Weller (who scored the film), Barry McGuigan and Ray Winstone, all of whom he describes as being "heroes".
"When I was 16 I saw a triple bill of Quadrophenia, Scum and Scrubbers over 20 times at The Strand cinema at Holywood Arches," the actor enthuses.
"By the end of that my heroes were Phil Daniels, Ray Winstone and Cathy Burke. Ray was the only one I hadn't actually met before Jawbone.
"So to be working with Barry McGuigan, Paul Weller, Ray Winstone and Johnny was like a perfect storm for me.
"I'm also a massive fan of Ian McShane. When I met him for the first time, he turned around and said, 'Ah, Mr Smiley, I love all your work – now, let's talk about Kill List'."
Having previously written and performed his own one-man shows, the Co Down man is currently working on a film script with fellow Irish actor Susan Lynch and intends to direct an interesting sounding short.
"It's about an old couple meeting each other in the park – and it only has one word in it," explains Smiley of the project, which will be lensed by Ben Wheatley's regular director of photography, Laurie Rose.
"It's about that thing where people become invisible when they get to a certain age. I need two good, unknown, well preserved actors – so put the word out for me."
With the would-be director's star on the rise, this could be a big break for a pair of sexy sextagenarians. After all, Smiley himself is living proof that it's never never too late to become a star.
Free Fire and Jawbone are available on DVD, Blu-ray and online video services now.