One of the leads in the new Channel 4 drama Everyday, which is described as being ‘a celebration of the small pleasures of everyday life’, is actor John Simm who talks about the unique project, performing as a teenager and being most recognised for roles in BBC dramas.
Michael Winterbottom’s story charts the tale of four children separated from their father, and a wife separated from her husband. The father Ian is in prison. The mother Karen has to bring up a family of four children by herself.
Filmed over a period of five years, Everyday focuses on the small subtle changes as people grow up and grow old whilst being apart. It is a story of survival and love, a celebration of the small pleasures of everyday life.
“It’s a unique project, as far as my career goes, and I think for all of us. It was filmed in real time over five years. I play Ian, who’s in prison for an unspecified crime.” Says John Simm, adding, “It’s nothing violent or particularly horrible, but he’s been involved in something he shouldn’t have. And it’s all to do with the prison visits, really. It’s Shirley’s film, I think. Shirley carries the whole thing wonderfully. It was a very strange film to do, but brilliant. My character was away from his kids the whole time, apart from prison visits, and was on the end of the phone.”
As an actor, your work takes you away from your family a lot. Were you able to use that to play the role?
“Yeah. I could relate to that, because a lot of the time when we were filming, I’d just come back from three months in South Africa or wherever, and I hadn’t seen my kids for ages. And then I’d come home and have to fit in. So when he comes out on day release and tries to fit in to their routine, it’s very difficult. I could kind of relate to that in a tiny way. It takes a while for your kids to trust you again. My name, when I come back from a long time away, is “Mummy-I-Mean-Daddy”. It’s quite hard to take. And for Ian, it’s even worse, because he has to miss Christmases – that’s something I’ve never had to do. The longest I’ve been without seeing them is five or six weeks, which is almost unbearable.”
Why did you say yes to this? What attracted you to it?
“I’m friends with Michael, I‘ve worked with him before, and Shirley. I trust and adore and respect both of them massively. And Michael Winterbottom’s such an innovator, every time he comes up with an idea, I think “Wow. Let’s go for it.” And we started making it, and I thought it was never going to end. I thought maybe he’d forget about it halfway through. He was off doing films left, right and centre, he never stops. And I was off filming, and so was Shirley, and we’d all reconvene when we were all back at the same time. We’d do a week here and a week there. And the passing of time thing was really interesting to me. I’d seen it in documentaries before, but never in fiction. And this sort of melded the two genres together. In a lot of ways, the kids are not acting. I’m very wary of child actors – nothing to do with them, but they’re usually not brilliant actors when they try to read lines. But there was none of that. It was real. It was their house, it was their school, they used their own names. The only thing that wasn’t real for them was me and Shirley. It was just a really attractive proposition for me.”
Logistically, was it difficult fitting this into your schedule?
“No, I’d always find time to work it in. It was an ongoing movie and it was really high on my priority list, so other things would have to move for it. When he gave me the call, I made sure I was there.”
What about snapping back into character. Was that a challenge, for these shoots months apart that lasted a week or two?
“Yeah, that was quite difficult. I had to realise where I was, and who I was. I’d sometimes forget that I was Scouse, sometimes Michael would have to remind me. But it was so interesting – all the stuff in prison. There were two halves of the shoot for me, because Ian starts to spend time at home halfway through, on day release and things like that. But all the prison scenes were incredibly interesting. I got to speak to a lot of people in there, and hear a lot of stories. It was a real eye-opener. A lot of the extras are real prisoners. I never asked what they did. But I would say to all of them “What’s the worst moment of the whole thing?” And they all said exactly the same thing: When the door shuts for the first time. You walk into your cell and – bang – the door closes.”
Did you see the kids growing up and changing in front of the camera?
“Yeah, it was incredible. Mainly when I watched it back, it was really, really extraordinary. I’d forgotten half of it. In the first scene, one of them’s got a nappy on! That’s how long ago it was. It was really interesting, seeing them grow. And seeing us age, as well. We’ve never done anything like that before, there’s no make-up involved to age us, it’s all just completely natural. And I loved the fact that it was just a snapshot. Nothing really happens. It’s just tiny little hand grenades of incidents happen. It was a very, very, very interesting project.”
Your first experiences performing in front of a live audience were performing with your dad’s band, when you were 12. Did that give you a thirst for performing, or put you at ease being in front of an audience?
“ I never thought I was going to be an actor, I thought I’d stick with music. But I was always slightly uncomfortable being myself onstage. I had a guitar in front of me as a barrier. I couldn’t have been Robert Plant or Mick Jagger – I was always going to have to stand at the back with a guitar in front of me. I was naturally quite shy, so it was a very rude awakening as a kid – especially performing in northern clubs. If you can deal with that, you can deal with anything. But it made me also think that I found it very difficult being myself on stage, but if I could put on a mask and pretend to be someone else, it would be much easier.”
The kids seemed to be very comfortable with you. Was that through spending a lot of time with them?
“I think it was more because I’ve got kids myself. I think that helps. Plus there was also an element that at one point when we were filming it, Doctor Who was on. And the boys watched Doctor Who.”
Not that you played what you’d call a cuddly character in Doctor Who.
“No! No, it must have been a bit weird for them. Actually, I think it maybe made them a little bit wary of me, a bit reticent, for a bit. But they were great kids, I felt really comfortable with them all the time. But it was the right amount of time to spend with them. Shirley was with them a lot, which was correct, and I was with them a lot less, which was how it should have been. The kids were brilliant. I say that they’re not acting in it, but in lots of the scenes they are acting. And you could see them, over the years, become more and more comfortable with it. They’d understand that we had to do scenes more than one time (which they found a real pain in the beginning). In the end, they were correcting us on continuity. ‘Hang on, you didn’t do that last time’.”
What did you do in the way of research for this?
“I always do as much as I feel I need to do. I think with this project needed to be organic. There’s not much research you can do into being a prisoner, and you want it to be a shock when you go in there anyway. So it was organic, which really lent itself to the film. Michael did joke and say that they had a cell for me if I wanted to stay in one overnight. I told him if I was staying in a cell, he was staying in it with me. He’d make some excuse about his daughter needing looking after. So we didn’t do any of that.”
Your relationship with Shirley’s character is very well portrayed. Did you enjoy working together?
“It was lovely to work with her. After a while we had a sort of shorthand, we worked together so well. I said to my wife I felt like I’d been having an affair with Shirley Henderson for five years. I felt like a bigamist, married to someone else, with a secret family stashed away in Norfolk. It was quite weird holding those kids, it was very strange.”
A lot of the material was quite intense. Are you able to unwind at the end of the day?
“Yeah, I’m fine. I can unwind and shed it – take the costume off and off we go. I find it harder with theatre – it’s harder to drop it immediately with theatre, it takes about an hour or so.”
Throughout your career, you’ve played a lot of psychos, murderers, convicts and so on. What do you think that says about you?
“I don’t know. Maybe I‘m a psycho murderous scally. I think those were just the parts that came up. I don’t know what it was, it just rolled on. But as you get older, it changes a bit, thank god. I don’t know why.”
What have been the roles that you’ve enjoyed most?
“Strange ones, ones that you wouldn’t think, like I did a thing called The Yellow House, where I played Van Gogh. It was a tiny little low budget thing, but I absolutely adored that role, and playing opposite John Lynch [who played Guaguin] – we got on really well. It was a brilliant experience. And Raskolnikov [in Crime and Punishment] I loved doing. And The Devil’s Whore – playing Edward Sexby – what a part! Just wonderful, like a boy’s own adventure. That was probably the best part I’ve ever been offered. And in theatre, obviously there are roles like Hamlet. And I did Pinter this year, that was a wonderful experience. I’ve been really lucky to have had all these experiences.”
Are there any particular roles or genres that you’d like to get into that you’ve not done already?
“Yeah. I’d like to do Dickens. I love Dostoyevsky and Dickens. I’d love to do Dickens, but I’ve never been asked. I’m ready for that call if it ever comes in. And I’d like to do more Shakespeare and Chekhov, and more Pinter, please. One of the lucky things about getting older as a male actor is that parts just get better and better.”
Although music has seen you perform in front of some massive audiences. You’ve supported Echo and the Bunnymen and played with New Order. That must be an incredible buzz.
“Amazing buzz. Amazing buzz! The New Order thing was stunning. I didn’t know that was going to happen – I was stood at the side of the stage. I had no idea. And they just called me on. That was like a dream, I still can’t quite believe it happened. The Echo and the Bunnymen tour was different, because I knew we were doing it, and we were rehearsed and so on. I’ve played with him as well, Ian McCulloch, on stage in his solo band. He had massive audiences. I’m so lucky to have been able to do that as well as the acting.”
Does one outrank the other, in terms of the buzz you get from performing live?
“When we played Manchester Apollo, it was amazing, because that’s where I grew up. I went and saw United win that day, and then my band played Manchester Apollo. That was a hell of a day. But, having said that, I’m an actor. That’s who I am, that always takes precedence. Walking off stage after playing Hamlet for the first time beats everything.”
What do you get recognised for the most?
“Probably Doctor Who and Life on Mars. The sci-fi things. But sometimes someone will come up and say “I loved Crime and Punishment” which will give me a warm glow inside. Or “I loved The Devil’s Whore or State of Play.” That’s always really gratifying.”
Everyday airs on Channel 4 in November