Arts: I wanted to be Gene Kelly

Looking for utter derangement? Meet actor David Morrissey.

He enters the cafe and heads straight over, sits down, orders a coffee and starts to chat. With his blokey clothes (cream canvas trousers, blue top) and everyman looks (red-brown hair, pale blue eyes, slight beard), there is little to mark him out from the north London crowd around him.

If this were anyone other than David Morrissey, such ordinariness would go unremarked. But the Liverpudlian actor has so specialised in roles that peel away nondescript behaviour to reveal utter derangement, it's hard to take him quite at face value. You keep expecting the smile to freeze, the eyes to narrow to a squint, and something rather unpleasant to happen. When it doesn't, it's almost a blow, particularly after watching Big Cat, a one-off drama by Lucy Gannon (the prolific power behind such high-ratings series as Soldier, Soldier, Peak Practice and Bramwell) which is being screened tomorrow evening on BBC 1.

Morrissey plays the lead, an energetic man called Leo who is dubbed "big cat" by Alice (Amanda Root), the lonely thirtysomething he woos with a noli me tangere restraint that at first seems comically old-fashioned and then creepily psychotic. He delivers an intense performance that somehow manages to retain our sympathy for a character who engages in compulsive DIY, cleaning and treating his woman like a doormat in order to preserve the fantasy America he has inhabited since he was a child, sheltering from an abusive home life.

Leo could be described as the apotheosis of a part the actor has been making his own during the Nineties: the man who is "not quite all there". Last year, his portrayal of Bradley Headstone, forever lurking in the shadows of Julian Ferino's crepuscular BBC dramatisation of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, made for compulsive viewing: initially the epitome of stern- eyed, taciturn rectitude, by the end his schoolmaster was a haunted, sobbing wreck.

Before that, he cropped up as Shaun Southern, a tax inspector accelerating towards crisis in Tony Marchant's chronicle of chaotically related London lives, Holding On (again for the BBC). Southern's obsession with trying to track down fraudsters visibly started to splinter under the weight of personal guilt.

Looking at the 34-year-old's television CV, it's hard to spot a character that wasn't subject to a similar mental upheaval. In the gritty Sheffield- set police drama, Out of the Blue, he showed a good cop, DS Lewin, cracking up under the strain of work; in Lynda La Plante's Framed, he was again the honest cop who lets it all go, this time seduced into a life of crime by a rich supergrass. In his next project, the film for which he has been growing a beard, Fanny and Elvis (to star Ray Winstone and Kerry Fox), he plays a psychology lecturer in a northern college - whose marriage is, guess what, falling apart.

Part of the reason he continually gets to play these obsessives is, he believes, to do with the cautiousness of the television industry. "The turning point for me was a Central film made in 1989 called The Widow Maker, in which I played a man who goes berserk in a small Midlands town and shoots 10 people. After that, I got offered a lot of heavy stuff. Because drama series operate on a slow burn, the programme makers want to let the audience know in advance what they're going to be watching, so they tend to want actors to take on similar roles from one series to another."

Not that he's complaining about the niche he's found. He relishes building each character anew, both through assiduous reading and inner burrowing, and savours the complexities these kinds of parts afford. "I don't approach them as deranged people, or villains. In fact, I try and imagine what their ordinary day-to-day lives would be like, because they perceive themselves to be normal, and the world around them as mad. I don't think that is exceptional. You can see people like Leo all around you. They might not end up violent towards others but they might do great harm to themselves."

He denies being any more temperamentally suited to these angsty souls than anyone else: "I tend to play characters who have an edge of depression about them. They are on the outside looking in. There is a side of me that has that, but the same is true of everyone. If I do have obsessive tendencies, playing these roles tends to exorcise them. I never take things home with me apart from my hair dye."

Home is his partner, the novelist Esther Freud, whom he met seven years ago, and their two small children; a world off-limits in interview.

Growing up on a council estate in Knotty Ash, Liverpool - the youngest of four children, his father a shoe-repairer, his mother an employee of Littlewoods - he was fascinated by TV and film, particularly musicals ("Gene Kelly was the person I wanted to be").

He got involved in youth theatre at the Liverpool Everyman and got his first break at the age of 17 after leaving school, with no qualifications, in One Summer, a Willy Russell five-parter for Channel 4, about two Scouse lads who have the holiday of their lives in Wales. That confirmed his vocation in his family's eyes (although his father had died two years previously). After travelling, he took a place at RADA.

Morrissey these days is unknown as a stage actor, but during the Eighties, he was in the ascendant, most notably playing Peer Gynt at the National and the Bastard in Deborah Warner's King John at Stratford, as well as stints with Manchester Royal Exchange and Cheek by Jowl. But he grew disillusioned and stopped accepting roles: "I did four years of solid work and remember getting a letter from my bank manager telling me I was overdrawn. It wasn't as creatively or financially rewarding as I wanted it to be."

When I suggest that Morrissey's talent might be more widely recognised if he had stuck with theatre (many the films he has had bit parts in - Waterland, Being Human - have sunk away quietly), he shakes his head: "I don't feel underrated. I get lots of jobs. I suppose I'd like to have my work seen on a bigger scale, but only because the more successful you are, the more choice you have in getting challenging roles."

A glance at his future schedules suggests that that time may be drawing close. Later this year, he stars in Hilary and Jackie, based on the controversial biography of Jacqueline du Pre, in which he plays the part of Hilary's husband, Kiffer, the conductor who had a sexual relationship with Jacqueline (played by Emily Watson) when the latter was having a nervous breakdown.

For once, Morrissey couldn't have landed a sounder character: "He doesn't have a secret agenda or a ticking timebomb. He's a genuinely good man."

He sounds genuinely pleased. If the film finally communicates David Morrissey's considerable talent, and grounded personality, it might be his most cunning move to date.

Big Cat is at 9.20pm, Sun, BBC 1

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital