We caught up with one of the stars of Sky Atlantic’s Guerrilla, Daniel Mays.
Guerrilla is about the Black Power Movement in London in the 1970s. Daniel Mays stars alongside Idris Elba and Freida Pinto in an intense story of prejudice, love and violence.
You’re absolutely everywhere at the moment. How does that feel?
Yeah, it just turns out sometimes that everything you work on comes together at the same time. Though I’m pretty exhausted to be honest. I’ve just finished another film, a comedy called Swimming With Men. I’m not necessarily running on empty but I could do with a break. But it’s great, I can’t complain. All of the projects I’ve been involved in are quite diverse and stretch me in different directions as an actor.
How did it feel to be nominated for a BAFTA this year for Line of Duty?
I’d never been nominated for one before, so I was absolutely thrilled. Being acknowledged by your peers is always gratifying. Series three of Line of Duty couldn’t have gone down any better. It just reinforces that an actor’s career can be richer the more you go on. It’s a never-ending process. It’s always been about the long game for.
Tell us a bit about Guerrilla.
It’s about the British Black Power movement in the early 70s. It’s written by the genius John Ridley, who wrote the screenplay for 12 Years A Slave. It was originally about the Black Panthers in America but John was persuaded to transfer the story over to London. He recognsied that an audience could identify with the British black story. But it’s about the magic ‘If’. It’s not truthful in the sense that no black power movement over here took arms. They were all about peace and protests. But John lifts the lid on the Black Power Desk, a controversial special branch of the Met Police that monitored and squashed any black activism. At the heart of the show, though, is a love story between two activists, played brillitntly by Freida Pinto and Babou Ceesay.
How would you describe your character Cullen in Guerrilla?
Cullen is second in command in the Met Police to Rory Kinnear’s character, Pence. They’re very much a double act. Cullen has a great back story in that he’s of Irish descent and he grew up in London — but he’s treated like an immigrant. He can’t quite understand why he’s second in command to Pence, who’s from Rhodesia. So there’s a lot of friciton and no love lost between them.
Cullen is a complex character. He’s a good cop/bad cop rolled into one.
That’s the power of Guerrilla. All of the characters, not just the police, Idris Elba’s character for example, are complex. Living and breathing 3D creations. Nothing is black and white. Even as the activist become more violent they become more fragmented and think “can I go down this path?” And someone like Cullen, his mindset is completely warped for an outsider in 2017 looking back. He turns to violence. He’s incredibly deplorable at times. It puts under the spotlight that relationship with policeman and informant. I really latched onto that in Guerrilla and I worked brilliantly with Denise Gough, my informant. He treats her like a rat in a cage. But they need each other.
The violent scene in the pub with Denise Gough. Do you psyche yourself up for something like that?
It’s quite shocking, isn’t it? That’s an example of two actors really having to trust each other and I just commend the bravery of Denise. It wasn’t particularly nice for her. There’s a stunt coordinator and it’s completely safe but there’s a degree of it being unpleasant and uncomfortable to film. It’s a pivotal role for Cullen and comes from nowhere. Up until then the audience, like you say, think he’s the good cop. It makes you think he’s even worse than Pence!
How have children and marriage affected your career?
When you’re a young actor starting out, it’s all about your career, that’s all that matters. Then when kids come into your life you’re no longer then most important person in the room. So you need to adapt. I didn’t want to be one of those actors that when you’re old and grey, all you’ve go to show for it is a long and successful career. Life’s not about that. You can have both that and a family. I’ve got a great partner behind me. The more life experience you have, like kids and marriage, it only makes you a better actor.
Will you send your children to drama school if they show any interest in acting?
If they show an interest in it and feel fulfilled by it then I’d encourage that. The thing is to give them as much opportunity as possible and nurture them and love them. All you really want is for your kids to latch on to something that they enjoy and can apply themselves to.
Finally, if Daniel Mays had the chance to manage Leyton Orient, would he quit acting?
Haha. I wouldn’t last five minues! I’d probably lose it on the touchline too much — certainly if our current chairman still owned the club. I’ll leave that to the professionals.