You might not know the name but the face will certainly ignite your memory. Actor Stephen Graham is most recognisable as the lead character in the promo video for the Arctic Monkeys’ ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ and the short-film Scummy Man. Film fans might also recognise him from Gangs Of New York and Snatch and the more eagle-eyed among you may well have spotted him in various British dramas over the past few years. But that is all about to change. With his starring role as Combo in This Is England, Stephen Graham has announced his arrival as a growing talent in the world of cinema.
Graham looks like a tough guy. In This is England, his portrayal of Combo as a racist skinhead who has just been released from jail is frankly terrifying. It’s quite a transformation from the father who asked me if we could delay our interview so that he could take his young daughter to build a snowman. So how can this genial actor transform himself in such dramatic fashion?
“I think he’s misunderstood, there’s a lot of pain and struggle beneath,” he begins in his infectious Scouse accent with a pause that indicates the amount of back-story that was created for Combo. “A lot of bad stuff happened during his childhood. He’s one of those people who have been abused by the system and that system has forgot about him straight away. He’s the product of a bad system; borstal, children’s homes…”
A lot of the older ones were reminiscing on-set the whole time, picking up games like the original Connect Four and Buckaroo.
One of This is England’s strongest points in the interplay between Graham and the child actor Thomas Turgoose, who plays Shaun, an outcast kid who Combo takes under his wing and attempts to initiate into his right-wing world. Turgoose is a revelation and picked up the BIFA Award for Most Promising Newcomer. The contrast between calculated racism and childhood innocence is a gripping one.
“I had a fantastic time with Tom offset; a really close big brother type relationship,” he says with evident pride. “He’s so amazing, so full of raw talent. I suppose it was like working with someone like De Niro because you never knew what he was going to do next. If he didn’t believe in it, then he wasn’t having it. You have to convince him that the whole thing is real which takes things to another level.”
Indeed, with a young and dedicated cast, Graham represented a senior member, a figurehead if you will.
“It was nice. It’s such an ensemble piece in itself,” he says, taking time to praise each and every one of his co-leads. “During the rehearsal process it felt like we were part of a firm and I did get some respect from them because of Snatch and things like that. But when they saw how serious I was during rehearsals, it helped raise all of our games. We’ve all played it so real.”
This Is England was directed by Shane Meadows, whose work is always notable; he lists Dead Man’s Shoes, A Room For Romeo Brass and TwentyFourSeven amongst his previous work. He captures early Eighties England superbly. There tends to be an element of depicting recent history in film as crassly as simply picking a suitable soundtrack. Of course, Meadows gets that spot-on but more impressive is his ability to capture a feel for the era; the melding of Falklands War footage with a soundtrack that encompasses Two Tone and Soft Cell and the attention to detail to the era’s fashion is astounding. Graham agrees.
“It was amazing! When I walked onto the estate it was unbelievable. It was like being flashed back into the Eighties when I was a kid,” he chuckles. “A lot of the older ones were reminiscing on-set the whole time, picking up games like the original Connect Four and Buckaroo. Even down to the sweets and the papers of the day, it was very nostalgic.”
This Is England represents the first time that Graham and Meadows have worked together. For Graham, it’s the embodiment of what he aspired to.
I suppose it was like working with someone like De Niro because you never knew what he was going to do next.
”I remember when I was expelled from drama school in my first year,” he says as if it’s an everyday occasion. “I was walking in Brixton one afternoon and I passed the Roxy. I saw a poster for TwentyFourSeven and I went straight into watch it. At the end I was thinking that I wish I could be in something like that. And, as luck would have it, I ended up working with Shane. He’s such an actor’s director and an absolute pleasure to work with.”
Not that working with a talented director is new to Graham following work with Martin Scorsese and Guy Ritchie, two individuals who couldn’t be more different but who both share a unique talent.
“Scorsese is extremely similar to Shane. The similarities on-set are amazing. There were a couple of times when I’d look at Shane and think, ‘fucking hell, that’s exactly what Martin would’ve said.’ Working with someone like Scorsese is an amazing experience in itself. I only had a small character but he allowed me to create a lot, He told me that he I always looked busy and that I was thinking which was nice,” Graham states, phrasing his words as if to be still amazed at the praise. “And working with Guy is great. He’s such fun and has so much freedom on-set. I had the most fun I’ve ever had whilst working on Snatch. “
Outside of feature films, Graham’s association with the Arctic Monkeys has proved to be a particularly fruitful one. Graham hooked up with the band after being introduced by This Is England producer Mark Herbert.
“I listened to their CD and thought it was great and the next minute they were massive. They’re lovely lads as well, I’m doing their next video too,” he remarks before declining to go into any more detail. “They came along to the screening of This Is England at the London Film Festival and really enjoyed it.”
And with that, Stephen departed back to his parenting duties. A hard man of the acting fraternity changing nappies? You’d better believe it!
This Is England is released on April 27th via Optimum.