'Des' Star Daniel Mays on Bringing a Real Person to Life, Working with David Tennant and More
Even if the name doesn’t ring a bell, British film and telly fans are sure to be familiar with the work of Daniel Mays. Since graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2000, this Essex-born actor has spent the last two decades bringing a wide variety of interesting and authentic characters to the screen.
Mays' talents have been showcased in Oscar-nominated films like Vera Drake and Atonement, as well as in memorable turns as men on the wrong side of the law in the BBC’s hit cop drama Line of Duty and Netflix’s White Lines. He’s also taken on the oh-so-British feel-good genre in films like Swimming with Men and Fisherman’s Friends which I reviewed just last month. And if sci-fi and fantasy is your cup of tea, you may have seen Mays’ guest appearance on Doctor Who or his supporting role in the Amazon Prime mini-series Good Omens.
Recently I had the amazing good fortune to speak with Daniel (or Danny, as just about everyone seems to call him) about one of his newest projects, Des. The three-part miniseries, which received critical acclaim and huge viewer numbers in the UK in September, is now available on the Sundance Now streaming service. Mays co-stars with David Tennant in his role as notorious Scottish serial killer, Dennis Nilsen, who murdered more than a dozen young men in London in the late ’70s and early '80s. In it, he portrays DCI Peter Jay, the police officer at the helm of the grueling investigation to identify Nilsen’s victims and provide justice for them and their families.
I started by asking Mays about his own awareness of Dennis Nilsen, considering he was only a young boy when the case broke.
“I think everyone in the UK at some point becomes aware of him. He's right up there with the most notorious, controversial serial killers this country's ever produced. He's in that bracket of an Ian Brady or Harold Shipman, you know? And then along comes Dennis Nilsen. I mean, in a way it's quite surprising that this story has never actually been told before.”
Daniel explained that the project was a long time in the making. His friend, fellow actor and screenwriter Luke Neal started “delving beneath the headlines” and writing the series six years ago. From the discovery of multiple crime scenes to the varied circumstances of Nilsen’s vulnerable victims, the research uncovered little known facts and rebutted some common misconceptions about the case.
He also emphasized that it was vital that the series be respectful and reverent. “Because it's a tough subject matter, there's no doubt about that. People are still affected by the crimes of Dennis Nilsen so it had to be made with the right tone. And it's not gratuitous. There's no violence, blood or gore. It's a very psychological take, seen through the prism of the biographer Brian Masters (played by Jason Watkins) and, obviously, my character, Peter Jay.”
When it comes to playing a real-life person on screen, Mays is a proponent of doing your homework. For the role of Peter Jay, he studied documentary footage that provided a visual interpretation of the man he would play - how he looked and moved and what he sounded like. He also met with Jay’s family to learn what Peter was like as a husband and father, a man he described as a morally upstanding individual. But research is only part of the preparation.
“You have to get the sort of core essence of someone, but make it work for yourself because they're a living, breathing individual. And it's about you trying to find this humanity in them, Mays said. "I mean, even someone like Ronnie Biggs, which I played in the past, he was the archetype of the lovable rogue, isn't he? But there was a lot of tragedy and regret within that character. So it's always about trying to find the light and shade in it.”
As for what it was like to work opposite Tennant at the height of his disturbing creepiness, Mays had nothing but praise for his colleague.
“David is one of the nicest chaps you could ever meet. But it was kind of clear from the outset, he wanted to keep himself to himself. Not all of the time, but we respected his way of approaching it.
It was just one of the most captivating, but eerie performances I've ever sat across from. It was a real tour de force. It was clear that he’d meticulously researched Dennis Nilsen and even to the way that his accent was, the patterns of his speech, all of his mannerisms. David actually perfected Nilsen’s signature. There was one bit that isn't actually in the final edit, but he had to sign the witness statement. He actually got his phone out, and he nudged me and he said, ‘What do you think of that, Danny?’ His signature was identical to Dennis Nilsen's. So it kind of took my breath away.”
That wasn’t the only thing that made the actor breathless during the filming of Des. In an effort to remain authentic in its portrayal of early 1980’s England, the cast was required to smoke stinky filtered herbal cigarettes…a lot of them. In fact, Jay’s widow, Linda, told Mays that her husband had a two-pack a day habit.
“One would imagine the toll of the investigation and the pressure that he was under, he would be smoking even more than normal. So that's why I decided to do it. It was definitely a character choice," Mays explained
At this point in our chat, we branched out from Des and talked about some of Mays other acting experiences. I noted that he’s played a lot of criminals and police officers and, in one particular case, a bit of both. Namely in Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to popular BBC'ss series Life on Mars. Which led me to wonder, which is more fun, being the baddie or the dedicated copper?
“I mean, the best performance was the Ashes to Ashes character, Jim Keats. Because you're right, on the surface, he was a discipline and complaints policeman. But in reality, he was the devil himself," Mays said. "So I always say that that's the most enjoyable character I’ve ever played. He just kept appearing at all these ominous moments, didn't he? But as the series unfolded, he started sucking people’s souls out of their bodies. So yeah, of course, that's more fun.”
I also touched on some films Mays has popped up in briefly, specifically Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and last year’s WWII epic, 1917. I asked what makes him say yes to these cameo roles.
“You know, who doesn't want to be in a Star Wars film, foremost? They said we’ll send you the scene if you want to play. It was like a good four-page scene or something with lots of exposition. So even though I could have ended up on the cutting room floor -I mean, thankfully, I didn't. (My character) Tivik was actually an integral part. I have to say this, not just because I'm in it, but in terms of those spin-off films, Rogue One is probably the best one. It’s dark isn't it, but it was just an absolute joy to be in that.
And then when you get the call to be in a Sam Mendes film alongside all those other brilliant actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott and Mark Strong. It's a complete no brainer. You know, you kind of want to surround yourself with quality actors and really good projects.”
But how did he become that guy who gets asked to bring his acting chops to the blockbuster film table? When requested to identify the biggest acting influence early in his career, Mays response is immediate and emphatic: “Mike Leigh, without question. He was an amazing teacher.”
Mays featured in the ensemble casts of two of the celebrated British director’s films, 2002’s All or Nothing, as well as 2004’s commercial and Oscar-nominated smash, Vera Drake.
“The doors started to open professionally for me after Vera Drake. Aside from the success of that film, was the actual opportunity to make back to back films with a filmmaker as great and as genius as Mike Leigh. You know, people really throw the word genius around so much, but Mike is definitely that because he has never compromised, he’s a singular man, and he has his own vision. And he’s a true artist and to be able to call myself part of that ensemble is an amazing thing. Without him, I wouldn't be the actor I am today. That’s without a doubt.”
My next question left Mr. Mays pondering for a moment - that is until I qualified it a bit. If he could only do film, television, or stage acting for the rest of his career, which would he choose…if money didn’t matter?
“Oh, if money didn’t matter, with my acting hat on, I'd probably say, stage because it's the ultimate actor’s medium. I mean, I haven't actually done a play for like, five years, it's coming up now. And obviously, the theatres aren't open at the moment and one expects that’ll go on even longer, but there's nothing more intoxicating and exciting than when you're in a hit play. You're in the zone on stage, in front of a packed house, and they’re enthralled and either crying or laughing along with you. There's nothing more rewarding than that. So it would have to be stage. If I couldn't act on a stage, it would be heartbreaking.”
When I suggested that he give Broadway a go in the future, his reaction was akin to that of a kid in a candy shop.
“You know what, that is something I would absolutely love to do! That's on my bucket list. And I'm very jealous of my actor friends who’ve done Broadway so that would be an absolute dream of mine to do that.”
We decided then and there that was something that must happen and we already have an agreement to meet at the stage door and hang out when he reaches Broadway.
Another way the public can keep up with my new pal Danny is to follow him on Twitter and Instagram. I noted how positive and gracious his many posts always are and asked what kind of guidelines he sets for himself when sharing on social media.
“I was called an addict yesterday by a very famous actor who I bumped into. I won't tell you who it was. It was all said tongue-in-cheek but he said, ‘My God, Danny, you're an addict. You don't stop posting.’
(I’m gonna take a shot and guess the actor was James McAvoy.)
Mays explained that he used to think that he needed to let his work do the talking for him, but as he began to see more and more actors he respected going on social media, he changed his mind.
“I started thinking, I'm missing a trick here because, you know, you do have an audience, Danny, and people do like you as an actor, and it just brings you closer to those people. And I think it's always heartbreaking when a show doesn't land and it doesn't find an audience and you think, this is a fleeting moment in such an overpopulated saturated market now," Mays said. "There's so many channels, so it's about how you can get that one product that you've put your life and soul into to punch through the ceiling. I'm always positive. I try not to get political. That's not what I’m about. It’s an extended promotional tool for me more than anything.”
As our time together came to a close, I wanted to know about the Sky One police procedural comedy Code 404 - in which Mays stars opposite Stephen Graham - which has just crossed the pond via the Peacock streaming platform.
“One of the most enjoyable shows I've ever been part of because Stephen Graham is one of my oldest friends. We have the best time on Code 404 because we're predominantly known for really serious acting roles. But I know that he's great [at] comedy, and I'm very comfortable with it. So it was a great opportunity for us to play in the comedy world and to show people what we can do in that medium.”
For those that don't know, Graham is also the man that introduced Mays to his wife, Louise Burton.
“Yeah, Stephen is my matchmaker. Two children now a boy and a girl. And it's all down to Stephen Graham because I was too shy to ask Lou out on a date.”
So I’d like to thank the folks and Sundance Now and Daniel Mays for making this interview possible. I’m just a fan who loves to talk and write about telly and films and these are the kind of opportunities that I'm thrilled I can tick off my own bucket list.
Are you a Daniel Mays fan or is he new on your radar? Let’s chat about his performance in Des or any of his other brilliant roles in the comments!