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John Simm: ‘I got rid of the music and clubbing and got into some proper serious drama’

The seven ages of Simm: actor John Simm on The Lakes, Life On Mars, Doctor Who, Macbeth, Grace… and the Game of Thrones prequel that got away

John Simm is one of the great British actors. A northern powerhouse. Although he retains a youthful air as he calls The Big Issue from his ‘man cave’ – where he is overlooked by a framed Beatles poster and has several guitars within easy reach – Simm has been a mainstay of British culture for a quarter of a century since his breakthrough in Jimmy McGovern’s thriller The Lakes.

His latest role, as DCI Roy Grace in ITV’s big Sunday night detective drama is a change of pace for the actor. It also sees him following in the footsteps of so many great actors over the years – from David Jason in Frost,  John Thaw in Morse, John Nettles in Bergerac and, more recently, Idris Elba in Luther. These showpiece series require a lead actor viewers trust and are willing to invest time in. On those terms, Simm was a natural choice.

We asked him to look back over the key roles that took him here – from the highs of State of Play, Doctor Who, Life On Mars and Hamlet to his recent Game of Thrones prequel near miss and an American adventure that didn’t quite produce the expected smash hit…

Breakthrough, Blair and Britpop – The Lakes / Human Traffic / 24 Hour Party People

The Lakes was a game changer for me. A big role to get. And I loved filming it. I remember driving up to the Lake District in my little Golf at night – because that’s when the roads were quiet – listening to the new Charlatans album. It was all kicking off wasn’t it? I remember the 1997 election, Labour getting in – we were filming up a mountain that day. It was a great time to be alive. Music was in the air.

John Simm in Human Traffic
John Simm in Human Traffic

And after The Lakes there was Human Traffic and then 24 Hour Party People so music did follow me around a little bit, didn’t it? There was a lot going on. And whilst all that was happening, I turned 30, had a kid and tried to grow up a bit.

Serious Success – State of Play / Sex Traffic

I did State of Play and Sex Traffic, both with director David Yates, one after the other. It was 2002-03 by then. I got rid of the music and clubbing and got into some proper serious drama. This was like the comedown after the party. Darkness descends. Corruption in the corridors of power. That was a great period for me because it was quality stuff. I’ve got nothing but great memories of State of Play – I remember reading one script after another and realising I’d finished all of them and I hadn’t moved. I hadn’t even taken my coat off.

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I did a podcast with David Morrissey during the first lockdown and we talked about State of Play so I had to rewatch it. Apart from the smoking indoors, it held up really well. It was still gripping stuff, really well made, great cast. I mean, wow, it was amazing. State of Play had the old American remake [with Russell Crowe in Simm’s role] but me and David Morrissey agreed never to watch it.

Leading Light – Life On Mars / Doctor Who

Life On Mars was another game changer. I adored the job, loved the part, loved playing Sam Tyler. I don’t regret only doing two – maybe there would have been a backlash – but I would have done another series if they’d set it in London. I had a small child and the workload was so intense.

John Simm and Philip Glenister in Life On Mars
John Simm with Philip Glenister in Life On Mars

There was a point where [Life on Mars co-star] Phil Glenister and I did everything together. It was like it was in the contract. But we haven’t worked together for a while so we’ll see what happens with [mooted new Life On Mars sequel] Lazarus.

I’m not allowed to say much but it’s the same characters. They’re writing the pilot and apparently it has been picked up so me and Phil, plus [writers] Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham are going to meet up and have a chat. The idea is really good – there’s a lot of travelling in time and car chases. So I think it is happening, fingers crossed. But in this business, you never know.

Doctor Who was also great fun. I don’t know whether it was deemed a success or not [it was!], a lot of arguments go on in fandom. But it is so good to be involved in things so universally loved. To do even one of those things in a lifetime would be enough.

John Simm with The Big Issue magazine
John Simm with his favourite magazine

New career stages – Hamlet / Macbeth

I was turning 40 and thought, I’m never gonna get the chance to play Hamlet ever again. So when that pops up, you take it. Doesn’t matter where it is, I’ll take it. It was the same director as Elling, which I’d loved doing in 2007. What an experience Hamlet was – terrifying, exhilarating, incredible. I really miss being on stage at the moment. I’ve been trying to do as much as I can and know from bitter experience that the longer you leave it, the more terrifying the experience is when you get back on stage again.

Doing Three Days In The Country [in 2015] was such an amazing experience. If I could just work the National Theatre forever, I would. It was the most incredible summer with wonderful people, in that iconic place on the on the Southbank. A real treat.

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And I was 50 when I played Macbeth. That is the reason you become an actor. Macbeth was easily the best part I have played. The arc of that character, from honest, decent man to bloodthirsty tyrant is amazing. Shakespeare is the best. It is magic stuff. King Lear at 60? Maybe. But could I do Richard III or Iago at 60 and Lear at 70? I think Henry V has gone the way of the Dodger, sadly. I will never play those roles. It’s over. Let it go!

Collaborations – Exile / Mad Dogs / The Village

I went straight from Hamlet to Exile, with Olivia Colman and Jim Broadbent. Not a bad cast! I really loved that job. And then I did The Village with Maxine [Peake]. Mad Dogs was around that time too. That felt like the luckiest gig – filming in the sun with my mates, Phil Glenister again, Marc Warren, Max Beasley and Ben Chaplin. It was ridiculously funny to us that we landed that gig. We pinched ourselves every day.

American Adventures and the one that got away – The Intruders / The Catch /Game of Thrones prequel

I’ve tried America twice. I did The Intruders for BBC America in 2014 and thought it was a dead cert – written by the guy who did The X Files, directed by the The Blair Witch Project guy, with Mira Sorvino and Millie Bobby Brown, who was about to be huge in Stranger Things. It had been a successful novel but I guess it just didn’t work. Maybe it was too complicated at the beginning? But it was a shame, because I really enjoyed doing it. You’re disappointed at the time, you expect to do more, but that’s the life of an actor.

Then, five years ago we were looking at places in LA in case The Catch went again. It was the Shonda Rhimes Hit Factory, the next big one for ABC, filming just off Sunset Boulevard – again you think, surely this is going to be a success. Everyone was great in it. It was a fun, fun, fun job to do and we were expecting to have to move the family out there when they pulled it. So you’re in the hands of higher powers.

And then, of course, there was the Game of Thrones thing. I did the pilot of the prequel, the one that cost, what was it, $130million? It had SJ Clarkson directing, great cast and once you’ve had the fourth costume fitting and you’re told by the 20th person that it’s 99.99% definitely going to be huge, you’re already celebrating. I was thinking, I’ll see you in Belfast and in the meantime I’ll be moving my family over, looking at schools. Then suddenly, the rug is pulled. Everybody was shocked. You can’t ever get dependent on a certain job.

A New decade – Grace / Crime

… which is why I’m very lucky to be doing Grace in Brighton. With Grace, I’ve been able to dive into the source material, the Peter James books, so it is easy to get into his head. And it’s a tried and tested storytelling method, hugely successful, so all we had to do was not fuck it up.

The character was intriguing. There is stuff with his personal life – his wife went missing – but he’s not so tortured that he can’t do his job. I love that he’s so dedicated. And this series he gets close to a mortuary assistant, as you do. They start flirting over corpses!

When I was younger, I was quite impatient. Now I’m happy to be working so I’m keen to do more. Especially because we moved down here during lockdown. We’d already planned it, by the way. We didn’t do it just for the show. So it was a happy coincidence.

But I’m still looking for variety – and Crime was so heavy. The writing was fabulous. Working with Irvine Welsh was really special, so was filming with Dougray Scott. And it was a chance to work with director David Blair for the first time since The Lakes. But it was so dark. One of those where you have to scrub yourself with a wire brush at the end of each day’s filming just to get the guy out of your head. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to play it or if I really wanted to go there, it was so dark. But what a contrast with Grace – good guy, clean shaven. Very, very bad guy, fantastic stubble…

Grace airs on Sunday nights on ITV

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