Daniel Mays: 'You leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of truthful, believable characters'

Tim Adams
·8-min read

If we’d had this lunch six or seven months ago, Daniel Mays suggests, he would have been banging on about how he never got to spend enough time with his wife and two children. Having been a series-stealing character actor for much of his career, last year, at 40, Mays was suddenly inundated with leading roles – many all at once. As well as the amiable hit movie Fisherman’s Friends, he starred in two Sky series, the comedy Code 404, in which he plays a misfiring robocop, and Temple, the underground thriller alongside Mark Strong, as well as the cultish Netflix Ibiza-rave-murder-mystery White Lines. Back in February, he was telling himself that he ought to take a break, go against all his actor’s instincts and say no to a few things, and then the pandemic made the decision for him.

Early on after lockdown, while out on their dutiful daily exercise in their local woods in north London, his wife, Louise Burton, slipped down a bank and broke her leg. Mays went from workaholic father to full-on home carer. “That first month was insane,” he says. “Lou was in plaster, my son was doing his mock exams in the attic and I was homeschooling my daughter downstairs.”

His wife has recovered now, and when we meet Mays was counting on the kids being back at school in a week or two, but still Quo Vadis in London’s Soho represented an exhale of relief. Mays got to love Jeremy Lee’s Dean Street home-from-home when he was starring in the 2013 smash hit revival of Jez Butterworth’s play Mojo, alongside Ben Whishaw and Rupert Grint. “The character I played, a Soho gangster from the 50s, was on amphetamines the whole evening,” he recalls, “He didn’t ever once stop talking. And it was also literally Rupert’s first time on a professional stage. He and I were very much a double act. Before the preview, I looked at him in the wings and I have never ever seen anyone looking so terrified. We went out there and he was brilliant and we did 118 performances, but yes, there was a need to unwind a bit afterwards.”

This is the first time he’s been in Soho for six months, so at an outside table in the newly pedestrianised street, in the thin sunshine, he is relishing the sight of a menu and a glass of cold beer as much as I am – and toasting the fact that he is finally back in a rehearsal room, for the second series of Code 404.

As soon as he started acting, it felt like an embodiment of Nilsen, I stopped thinking it was David Tennant at all

The last thing Mays made before all the theatres up the road closed and studios shut down was the ITV three-parter Des, about the arrest and trial of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, which aired last week. Mays reconstructs – with convincing moral and emotional determination – the role of the lead detective in the case, DCI Peter Jay, opposite David Tennant’s chatty and mundane psychopath. He says working with Tennant – who has never been more persuasive or disturbing on screen – was something of a disconcerting masterclass.

Because of the grim nature of the material, there wasn’t all the usual between-takes camaraderie among the cast, Mays says. “There was a good deal of banter among the policemen, but David felt he couldn’t join in with any of that because he was playing Nilsen. He was quite aloof on set, sitting by himself, but as soon as he started acting I was sat opposite him in that interrogation room and thinking, like wow. It felt to me like a complete embodiment of Nilsen, I stopped thinking it was David Tennant at all.”

The series is based on Brian Masters’ chilling contemporary biography of Nilsen, Killing for Company, and Masters, played with appropriate camp charm and obsession by Jason Watkins, is the third major presence on screen, picturing himself as a sort of Sherlock Holmes to DCI Jay’s Inspector Lestrade. The writer, who became Nilsen’s confidant and confessor over several years, is in his 80s now, but visited the set a few times. Mays says that in preparing for his role he had invested a lot of thought and time and effort into getting the character of DCI Jay right – he’d met Jay’s widow and son, gone through a lot of archive material. When he met Masters on set he obviously asked him what his rival investigator into Nilsen’s motivation was like. “Oh,” Masters said, dismissively, “he was just PC Plod.”

Mays laughs. “That was actually a really great nugget of information,” he says, “not about Peter Jay, but about his relationship with Masters. Those two characters were just vastly different. Their one common denominator was Nilsen.”

When he hasn’t been playing villains such as Ronnie Biggs (opposite Sheridan Smith in the award-winning series Mrs Biggs), Mays has often been cast as a copper. He is still perhaps most recognised for his role as Danny Waldron, the unhinged armed response officer who kicked off the third series of Line of Duty. Mays identifies that as the moment his current career trajectory began, even though he was killed off – “I was gutted when I got to the end of the script” – after one episode.

Lunch With for OFM, at Quo Vadis, Dean Street, Soho, London, 18/08/2020. Sophia Evans for The Observer
Daniel ate Chilled tomato soup, £8.50; cured salmon and herb sauce, £23.50; pommes frites, £5. Tim ate Tomato, burrata and basil salad, £12, cured salmon and herb sauce, £23.50. Daniel drank Estrella lager, £5. Tim drank Estrella lager, £5; espresso, £2.75 Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Chatting over salmon and frites and a glass of beer you can see why he can be trusted to elevate even “PC Plod” roles to something properly compelling. He is a big, friendly presence; the Essex accent of his childhood deepens when we get on to talking about his lifelong support of Leyton Orient FC, or the three brothers with whom he celebrated the end of lockdown with a game of golf and some tins of lager, or his old man, still working as an electrician in his 70s (“we all have that work ethic”) or the three-generation fishing trip he just enjoyed during a holiday at Salcombe. But he is equally genuine in talking about some of the intellectual challenges of his craft, or the emotional realities of it. He once said he’d like to be remembered as “an everyman who could act a bit”, but don’t underestimate the talent that got him there.

He started to think about acting when it became clear he wouldn’t be the next Paul Gascoigne – his brothers were star players in the local junior leagues, him less so. In the first instance it was monologues and impressions at home. He left school at 13 and went off to the Italia Conti stage school in central London, and then won a place at Rada. Mike Leigh gave him his first big breaks in All or Nothing and Vera Drake and instilled in him that understanding that “you leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of truthful, believable characters”.

It was great seeing my old school mates, and then towards the end of the evening, talk turned to Brexit…

A lot of that faith still seems to have its roots in his own life. Though he admits to some wilder years in his 20s – “the thing about doing a show is that you are suddenly a member of every club in town” – he had a sort of reverse midlife crisis approaching 40, getting married to Louise, a makeup artist, after 14 years together: “Lou lost her parents in quick succession and it was a terrible blow for her,” he says. “She was just rudderless. And it seemed right to do the wedding then, step up. We had an amazing day.”

Mays has been critical in the past of the conveyor belt of public schoolboys into the higher reaches of his profession, simply because other accents and other backgrounds often don’t get a look in. He’s too thoughtful to be a straightforward nostalgist, though. As our conversation eventually gets to the state of the nation, he mentions how though he still loves going back home, he doesn’t recognise some of the attitudes he hears there. A few years back, he says, he was invited to a reunion with mates from his old school in Chigwell. “It was great seeing everyone, and everyone was getting drunk and telling stories, then towards the end of the evening we were outside and talk turned to Brexit. Every single one of my mates was suddenly saying: ‘We want out!’ ‘We want our country back!’ I woke up the next day thinking: ‘We could be in a bit of trouble here…’

“The thing they always throw at you, is that you live in this bubble,” he says, and pauses a beat. “And as our plates are cleared in the sunshine and coffee lands in our laps, we might just at this moment be on dodgy ground.” Come on, I say, it’s the first lunch of a long summer: who could honestly argue with that?

Daniel Mays stars in Des, available to stream now on ITV Player