Johnny Harris, one of Britain’s finest character actors and star of tonight’s BBC1 drama From Darkness, has no truck with the actors’ party circuit, which he denounces as “a sham”.
Uncompromising on film, on stage and in person, Harris – who played one of television drama’s darkest characters as the rapist Mick Francis in Channel 4’s This Is England – thinks real acting talent is being ignored while the media focuses on the red carpets, glitzy launches and VIP areas.
“I went to one of these parties and if you’d looked in the media the next day you’d have thought I was part of the coolest crowd in the world and that we were all friends. I can tell you now, categorically, none of ’em spoke to each other, they all stayed for five minutes, got their photo on the red carpet and f***** off home or to the next party it was cool to be seen at,” he says.
“I had friends and family ringing me up the next day like I’d entered some secret club. But I’ve met them [well-known actors] in real life all slagging each other off and then you see them on Twitter saying ‘Isn’t he great?’ ‘Isn’t she great?’ It’s a sham … it’s make believe … it’s the emperor’s new clothes.”
Harris is finally getting his dues as an actor after a long and painful journey that has included heavy drinking and time spent sleeping rough on the streets. In cinema he has appeared in Welcome to the Punch (with James McAvoy), Snow White and the Huntsman (alongside Ray Winstone), the cult independent film London to Brighton and Monsters: Dark Continent. TV audiences also know him from BBC3’s supernatural drama series The Fades and from the high-budget Sky production Fortitude.
In From Darkness, which will be shown in four one-hour episodes, he plays Manchester detective DCI John Hind, who suffers a midlife crisis but finds excitement in a renewed acquaintance with former policewoman Claire Church (played by Anne-Marie Duff, star of Channel 4 drama Shameless).
While playing the role, Harris spent four months living in a hotel in Manchester’s Chinatown. He took the part because he was entrusted with the complete script in advance (rare in TV drama) and because the young director, Dom Leclerc, impressed him with his theatrical background and talk of the “rhythm and musicality” of the story. Before filming he spent time with real police officers and, even with his background, was shocked by some of the cases they had dealt with. “There’s some dark stuff out there and thank God there’s people that deal with that. When I left the room I shook their hand and I meant it.”
Harris arrives at a south London café bar to talk to The Independent on Sunday fresh from a session at a boxing club where he is in “full-on training” for a personal project for which he has written the screenplay. Harris was a brilliant teenage boxer, winning the national Amateur Boxing Association light flyweight title, aged 16. But he knew it was not the life for him and ran away to Paris before deciding to be an actor.
Since then he has stayed close to his manor and muse: Elephant and Castle, south London. “There’s been times when I’ve wanted to put a bomb under the place, and times I want to cry with love for the place; times when I’m deeply inspired by where I live and times when I’m traumatised by it.”
His roots include nearby Morley College and the Union Theatre, where he learned his stagecraft and where he frequently returns to encourage young actors. He wants to persuade the industry to pay greater attention to fringe theatre and not be distracted by media coverage.
“Some of the finest actors I have ever worked with have never got out of the fringe theatre. I know actors who are making millions who have about as much life in them as that lamppost over there,” he says. “I know a lot of casting directors, producers and agents now, and we are going to encourage them to look a little bit further afield.”
It still annoys him that he and his colleagues in the 2006 film London to Brighton were referred to as “non-actors” because they were unknowns, and that the same “untrained” charge is being levelled, even now, at the cast of the hugely successful This Is England. “Most of them were trained at Nottingham Workshop. What’s the difference between them being trained there and somewhere that cost 30 grand a term?”
He says he feels no obligation to play characters with sunnier dispositions than those he’s become known for. “I don’t want to play a badly written nice guy just so that somebody can go: ‘Oh he’s versatile, he played a wally,’ ” he says.
“If you are playing a character, even Mick in This Is England – all right, his behaviour might have been reprehensible – my job is to find the human being in all of them; my job is to find the child in all of them, the bastard in all of them. Because it’s in all of us.”
From Darkness is on BBC1, 9pm
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- This is England
- London to Brighton
- Mick Francis
- James Mcavoy
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- Morley College