John Simm: Antihero making headlines again

In BBC1's new psychological thriller, Exile, John Simm plays a sleazy journalist. He tells James Rampton why he prefers roles with a dark side

John Simm has given some memorable performances over the years.

Think of the troubled detective Sam Tyler in Life on Mars, the equally troubled journo Cal McCaffrey in State of Play, the even more troubled painter Vincent van Gogh in The Yellow House, and the most troubled of the lot, Hamlet. Do you see a pattern emerging here?

Simm does not disagree with the assessment. Sitting across the table from me in a faceless office at BBC Television Centre, the 40-year-old laughs that he is indeed attracted to the disturbed and the deranged. "I'm drawn to the dark side," says the actor, who won over a whole new following when he played The Master, Doctor Who's unhinged, bottle-blond nemesis.

"The dark side is more interesting, more complex. There's a lot going on with those characters – a lot of them are ill and have a complicated psyche to unravel," continues the father of two, who in person is much more cheerful and upbeat than the tormented souls he so often portrays on screen. "They're antiheroes."

Simm, who has also played such angst-ridden characters as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Danny in The Lakes, Sexby in The Devil's Whore and Daniel in Sex Traffic, carries on that, "I prefer The Master to Doctor Who. The Master had to be able to match David Tennant's Doctor – he couldn't be a pantomime villain twirling his moustache. He was insane, manic, but still The Doctor's equal. He was like the Angel Gabriel – the chosen one who's fallen to Earth. Such fun to play!"

So would Simm like to get out the peroxide and play The Master again? "Well, the new Doctor, Matt Smith, is young, so they'll probably get someone from Skins to play The Master now!" grins the actor. "All the same, Steven Moffat [Doctor Who's show-runner] is a fantastic writer, so if he phoned, I'd love to have another go at The Master. Put that in, please!"

While he waits for Moffat's phone call, the actor has been busy incarnating another – surprise, surprise – man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In BBC1's Exile, a new three-part drama created by Paul Abbott (Shameless, State of Play) and written by Danny Brocklehurst, who won a Bafta for his work on Shameless, Simm takes the role of Tom.

Tom is a dissolute, cocaine-snorting London journalist with a muck-raking celebrity magazine. Sacked from his job and ditched by his married lover (played by Simm's real-life wife, Kate Magowan), he is forced to return with his tail between his legs to his home town up North. As he shows his face there for the first time in 15 years, his long-suffering sister, Nancy (Olivia Colman from Peep Show), is not surprised Tom has hacked everyone off in London: "There's only so long you can behave like a prick before people get tired of you."

Strapped for cash, Tom is obliged to move in with Nancy and his father, Sam (Jim Broadbent), once a fearless investigative journalist but now an old man with Alzheimer's. Tom tries to get to the bottom of the shocking incident that made him leave home all those years ago – when, for no apparent reason, his father savagely beat him up. The drama is both potent and poignant.

Simm explains that Exile, which begins on 1 May, "Is such an intense, dark story. When Tom has to go home, his self-disgust goes overboard. But even on the way back, he has to pull over and have a line of coke at a service station. That's the kind of guy we're dealing with. He's not a nice man – but we slowly discover there's a reason for that. He gradually pulls himself together and becomes the journalist he's always wanted to be."

The actor acknowledges that he had to visit some pretty murky places when playing Tom. "In one of the first scenes in the drama, I had to hit my wife," Simm says. "It was really lovely to work with her – even though the scene was very grim. Suffice it to say, we didn't bring our kids on to the set that day! It was weird, but then I had to do lots of weird things on this production. In one scene, I had to half-drown Jim Broadbent in a bath. Tom does all these horrible things because he's at such a low ebb."

Simm also found it pretty grubby inhabiting the world of a dirt-digging reporter in Exile. "Of course, there are terrific crusading journalists out there who are really good news," says the actor. "Cal in State of Play, for instance, sacrifices everything for his cause. Cal is the guy Tom wants to be, but he has ended up snooping on celebrities and fitting them up. What do I think of those kinds of journalists? Like The Day Today, I'll express it in a face." And he proceeds to pull a face that indicates he's just cracked open a very rotten egg.

"Because of my job, I've been on the end of those people and been fitted up by them. When I was on The Lakes, a tabloid reporter went to my parents' house, interviewed them under false pretences and really upset my father. I was furious. So yes, I've been hurt by them. That's why I didn't need to research this. With the best will in the world, I didn't need to dirty my hands!"

Tom is the latest in a series of searing performances from Simm. But despite all these terrific turns in recent years, to some fans he will only ever be one thing: The Master. The actor is the first to admit that he should have been prepared for the attention of the famously dedicated Doctor Who aficionados – known in the trade as "Whovians". "I was asking for it, wasn't I?" the actor casts me a resigned smile. "I should have thought of that!"

Even so, Simm was taken aback by the extent of the fans' devotion when he played Hamlet in Sheffield last year. "When you do theatre, the fans know where you are every single night, and lots and lots of them turned up. It was sometimes lovely and sometimes freaky. I'd do Hamlet twice in one day and come out of the stage door to find fans with mountains of Doctor Who paraphernalia for me to sign. I had to keep smiling –and sometimes that was difficult. Sometimes I had to bite my tongue!"

That wasn't the most challenging aspect for Simm, however. "One night, the fans bought out the entire front row at Hamlet, and they all sat there in Doctor Who T-shirts. One T-shirt had a glow-in-the-dark picture of David Tennant on it. In the front row! I thought, 'Come on, give me a chance. I'm not blind. Please think about it before you put that on!'"

Having said that, Simm is quick to point out that there are definite benefits to acquiring such a high profile. "Some people brought their teenage sons along to Hamlet. Those lads would never in a million years have come to see Shakespeare otherwise, but they came because of The Master. That's why it sold out. If they came and loved it, I feel vindicated. There's a reason for everything."

The Whovians' devotion has certainly not held back Simm's career. Earlier this year, he starred alongside a dream-team cast of Philip Glenister, Marc Warren and Max Beesley in Sky 1's holiday-from-hell drama, Mad Dogs, a series which is going again this year. Simm was delighted to be reunited with Glenister, his old sparring partner on the widely adored time-travelling cop show, Life on Mars.

Simm values the partnership. "As Gene Hunt, Phil winged it and got all the praise," the actor deadpans, before adding: "Please put that I'm joking! I'm incredibly proud of the work we did on Life on Mars. Now Phil and I try to work together every year. We have an almost telepathic relationship after all the intense stuff we did together on that show. The challenge on Mad Dogs was to try and make the characters very different from Sam and Gene."

After such a hectic period of work – Simm went from one story about a man who has a very difficult relationship with his father (Hamlet) straight on to another (Exile) – what will the actor do next? "Whenever I've been really busy, I try to have a pause," he says. "I do the school run and empty the dishwasher.

"When you work your arse off and are constantly living in a hotel room, at some point you think, 'What am I doing? My family are growing up while I'm not there!' Sometimes you have to say, 'Stop!' Life taps you on the shoulder and says, 'Hey, remember me? You don't live in a pretend world!'"

Simm concludes with a refreshingly un-precious summary of his profession. "As an actor, you're always inhabiting someone else's world and pretending to be someone else. It's a ridiculous job! I worked with Timothy Dalton on Doctor Who, and in one scene he was firing bolts of lightning at me from his staff before we wrestled each other to the ground. Suddenly, he started killing himself laughing. He said, 'What on earth are we doing? I might as well be seven years old!' But that's why we do it.

"That's the brilliant thing about this job. You never have to grow up!"

'Exile' starts on BBC1 on 1 May

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