A tough Liverpool upbringing means Hollywood actor Stephen can still dig deep for gritty UK drama roles. By Stephen Armstrong.
This year, television's ascendancy feels complete. Chernobyl's epic scale dwarfed most modern action movies, Fleabag's second series was the best romcom in a decade, and His Dark Materials will redefine the fantasy epic. Amid all this excellence, the best performance by an actor was Stephen Graham's soul-plundering role in Shane Meadows's The Virtues.
As Joseph, a recovering alcoholic, we see him say goodbye to his ex and his son, who are moving to Australia, then walk home. But he stops at a pub, orders a pint of lager, takes his first sip and the screen explodes in a dizzying, heartbreaking vision of a blazingly drunk Graham forging a party in the bar, embarking on such a monstrous, despairing bender that you can't bear to watch, but can't tear your eyes away.
Graham, 46, is meeting me in a London hotel to discuss another meaty role, in The Irishman, his third Martin Scorsese project. He plays Tony Provenzano, a mob boss fighting for control of the Teamsters union, alongside Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and appropriately it feels like I'm meeting a capo di tutti capi. I'm ushered into the large, quiet room where he's sitting alone at an enormous table as a waiter serves him scrambled eggs.
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Smartly dressed in a tailored shirt, he has cropped hair above a face that lets every emotion play across it instantly. When he's moved, tears fill his eyes. When he laughs, it's a belly laugh. When he disapproves, his frown is as menacing as an avalanche. It's all I can do not to kneel and kiss his ring.
Instead, I ask about that scene from The Virtues. I have alcoholic friends, and I've seen their grim descent. How did he, a teetotaller, deliver that so well? "I have friends who suffer too — I really wanted to capture as honestly as possible the decision to take that first drink," he explains. "Just press the button and go. In my early twenties, I suffered from really bad depression and tried to take my own life once. Thankfully I'm here today. But I know the loneliness, isolation and feeling you can't cope in the world, so it wasn't a big stretch."
It was a bigger stretch than he makes out. Meadows had booked the pub for a daytime shoot, a scene overran and the pub was opening at 5pm. The producer decided to recruit the regulars with a free bar and hoped for the best.
"We turn up at about eight, they'd had a free bar since five," Graham laughs. "Anyone worth their salt gets chasers, pints, even the cocktails out. Everyone was wasted. I said, 'Nice to meet you all. Do me a favour, will you all call me Joseph?' And they were magnificent. It was one of the most exhilarating and frightening things I've ever done as an actor."
His career should have been complicated. His mum was a social worker and his father — "My stepdad, but he's the man that raised me. I love my biological dad to bits, but my pops raised me" — was a mechanic, then a paediatric nurse. They lived in Kirkby, a Merseyside town, current population circa 40,000: in theory, a difficult place to begin. In fact, as Graham was growing up, Kirkby talent was storming the screen: the Clarke family provided the writer/director Frank and actors Margi and Angela. For Graham, it was Andrew Schofield, the star of 1984's teen drama Scully, who changed his life.
"Drew lived across the road from my nana's house. He was massive in Scully when he came to watch my first school play — Treasure Island. I was Jim Hawkins. He said to my mum and dad, 'Your Stephen's got some talent,' and he introduced me to the Everyman Theatre. That was when my love affair truly began."
Graham clearly believes in paying it forward. When his fellow Scouser Jodie Comer gave her tearful Bafta acceptance speech this year, she reserved her greatest gratitude for his help. He seems uncomfortable with the praise; indeed, throughout the interview he bats away every compliment. With Comer, he says, "I was in this thing with her. She was very good. All I did was ask my agent to meet her. Everything else is her."
It's more than just Liverpool loyalty at work. He's aware that he was lucky to be growing up with actors of his class — and with his accent — within walking distance. He's not sure a young Stephen Graham would see those people on screen these days.
"In the 1980s, television was truthful to the working-class voice," he says. "When Scully was on, you also had Boys from the Blackstuff, Minder, GBH, even Grange Hill was proper gritty — never making fun of, and always being a part of, the working class. Now that voice has gone."
This explains his presence on British TV. With three Scorsese projects under his belt, as well as films such as Snatch, Pirates of the Caribbean and Rocketman, he could easily be holed up in Hollywood. Instead, he's in dark dramas like Little Boy Blue, Line of Duty and The Virtues.
Graham is dyslexic, so his wife, Hannah, whom he met at Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance, reads scripts for him. "She says, 'We're doing this,' and I say, 'OK,'" he smiles. "If I can find socially aware, political things that are saying something — well, that's where I'm from. It's what I know. So it's where I've tried to keep my base."
Which brings us to Scorsese: how does a working-class lad from Kirkby get into Italian-American gangster films? First with 2002's Gangs of New York, then as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire and finally in The Irishman, playing Provenzano — alongside De Niro, Pacino and Pesci? "It's mad, isn't it?" he chuckles. "I've always had an ear for accents, doing impersonations when I was a kid."
Before Gangs of New York, Scorsese sent a wealth of research. Graham digested it, made notes, then flew out to meet him. "And I was, like, 'All right, Mart, I've got all that stuff you sent me. I want this big scar on my face because if you got caught nicking from fishmongers, they'd rip the cheek with a hook. And I want a little Jack Russell for catching rats.' He must have thought, 'Who is this guy?' But he put it all in."
Eight years later, when Scorsese cast him as Capone, he was offered enough first-class flights to go home three or four times during the shoot. He traded them in for 20 economy flights so he could go home at weekends. "It's like my uncles in the 1980s, when they'd work away in London and come back for a weekend — that was what I did," he says simply.
Oddly, despite being an actor that directors from Scorsese to Meadows and Guy Ritchie return to, he had such a fallow patch that at one point he nearly gave up acting. It started with the film of This Is England in 2006, where he played Combo, the racist skinhead. Graham is mixed race, with some Jamaican blood, and he auditioned swearing racist abuse at Andrew Shim, the BAME actor playing Milky. That evening he rang Shim to explain.
"I said, 'Look, mate, that's not me, I'm mixed race.' Before I could ask him not to, he put Shane on. I was, like, 'You probably want to give the part to someone else now.' He said, 'Are you kidding me? That makes it really interesting.'"
After that, though, his phone stopped ringing. Eight months out of work, he was volunteering at a local youth centre when an audition pulled him back. Even today, he seems to have slight regrets at leaving that work. "I loved it, and the kids listened to me, because I'm the same as them," he says.
"Even recently, this woman said hello in the street, and my actor ego kicked in for a second. But she said, 'You helped my lad Ben out all those years ago. He was going through a bad patch, and it gave him some confidence. He's doing really well now — job, missus…'" and he trails off, biting back the emotion overwhelming him at the memory.
As a transatlantic everyman, he now combines Hollywood, British TV and his old friends in a social life that's possibly unique. He's big mates with Johnny Depp — filming Pirates, Graham persuaded him to play one scene like a Les Dawson sketch — and Leonardo DiCaprio, but he's also friends with Leon, a south Londoner who works in the City. He's taken Leon and Leo out on the town together. Would he ever put all these people in one room?
"It's a possibility," he nods. "That's the way I was brought up. I'm no better and no worse than anyone."
Next he's playing Marley's ghost in the BBC's A Christmas Carol, scripted by Steven "Peaky Blinders" Knight. His children — Grace and Alfie — have both just studied it at school. Actors typically take Christmas roles as something their kids can watch, so I assume that's his motive. But this is Stephen Graham.
"Oh, no, this is dark," he grins. "Really dark. Steven gave Marley turmoil. He can't move on from purgatory unless Scrooge gets his. It's like a twisted It's a Wonderful Life, and I'm a dark, dark Clarence. It's also very politically apt for today. It's saying to the rich, 'Be careful who you stand on' — do you know what I mean?"
As we wind up, I ask if we've missed anything. He says hesitantly: "Can I tell you the joy in my father's voice when I told him I was in this film? When I first said to Pops, 'I really want to be an actor,' he took me to the video shop, and we got out The Godfather, The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver. When I told him, 'I'm in this Scorsese movie, it's got De Niro, Pacino and Pesci in it,' and the pride I heard coming from his voice…" He stops, choked up again.
"All that rent they paid, the mortgage they helped with — they've believed in me. At the premiere, I get to introduce him to everyone. I can't wait." And for a moment, he looks like the happiest man I think I've ever seen.
An early A-list encounter for Graham as dopey Tommy in Guy Ritchie's caper of travellers, pugilism and pigs.
This Is England (film 2006, three TV series 2010-15)
A key player in Shane Meadows's rep company, Graham aced the part of the violent, racist skinhead Combo, confirming the arrival of a talent always threatening to burst out of the screen.
Boardwalk Empire (2010-14)
Graham is right at home in this drama about the rise of mob-ridden Atlantic City, as the pugnacious creep who became America's best-known gangster.
Little Boy Blue (2017)
A TV drama series reconstructing the death of the young Everton fan Rhys Jones in 2007, caught in gang crossfire. Graham's DS Kelly is a decent man silently eaten up by anger as he investigates the murder.
The Virtues (2019)
Meadows reunited with Graham for this memorable four-parter about a lonely alcoholic who returns to Ireland, where he grew up, and unearths an abusive past.
The Irishman (2019)
As Tony Provenzano, Graham gets a great comic scene, going nose to nose with Al Pacino's union boss Jimmy Hoffa.
The Irishman is in NZ cinemas from November 22; Netflix from November 27.
Written by: Stephen Armstrong
© The Times of London