Danny Dyer: 'I said a really stupid thing'

He is the lad's lad who caused a scandal last year when he offered some outrageously thuggish advice. But he's also a gay icon and was a favourite of the late, great Harold Pinter. So which is the real Danny Dyer?

Sorry to interrupt," says the waiter, shimmying across the billiard room. "Wot, no jasmine?" snaps Danny Dyer, the 33-year-old geeza, actor and tabloid staple. "Well, we've got camo-mile, breakfast, Earl Grey..." "What a-baat green? Lessava droppa green."

It's noon at the Groucho. Downstairs, slick-haired Soho types are looking fragile and ordering Virgin Marys. Dyer has been driven in from his five-bedroom home in Essex which, he later tells me, has an Astroturf lawn, in a figure of eight, of which he is immensely proud ("It's like a carpet. All you do is 'oover it!"). Staff greet him like a hero returning from battle, performing man-hugs and elaborate handshakes. He wears the uniform of an off-duty film star: faded jeans and a grey T-shirt, revealing muscular arms and the hint of a paunch.

Usually, he would have a drink, a Jack Daniel's and Coke. But not today. "I don't know what's happened to me," he grins. "I've got a bit more sophisticated in my old age. I like a bit of jasmine tea. I love it." Oh. This isn't the hard-man Danny Dyer I know from tabloid stories, the star of British lad movies such as The Football Factory. This isn't the Danny Dyer who wrote in his memoirs: "I've always taken drugs and probably always will." The one who is more famous for making controversial statements than the 40 films and 18 TV series he's made an appearance in so far. Is this Danny Dyer winding down?

His chemical journey got off to a bad start aged 12, when he had his stomach pumped free of Southern Comfort and Dr Pepper – "a terrible mix". The first cigarette was at age 14, a joint soon after, and almost everything else followed. Two decades on, he's still a lively presence at nightclubs, and a few days after we meet he's off to Manchester to DJ a set. "I've done some stupid things in the past," he says now. "I do walk with a bit of a swagger. I do swear a lot. And people are going to be offended by that. But in this PC world, you can't be honest."

Honesty is Dyer's most winning quality. To any question he'll give an instant reply. He's a tabloid editor's dream. "If there's somebody I don't like, and I'm asked about them, I say I don't fucking like them. But there's no mileage in it. It just makes me look like a fucking prick." He laughs. "So people think I'm an arrogant, thick Cockney cunt."

To some, the open drug-taking isn't ideal for a father of two and public role model. But, as he says in his book, he's not a Blue Peter presenter. He's an actor, who invariably plays an exaggerated version of himself: the cheeky bad boy, a loveable rogue, the duckin' and divin' wheeler-dealer East End barrow boy who comes good in the end...

Actually, he does want to correct the image of him as a hardman, which he says he's not. "I play quite endearing characters – working-class anti-heroes. A lot of the films I've done have been about working-class people, doing working-class things, in working-class environments, so the people who love that are usually working-class people and are very loyal to me. I think anyone in a white van knows who I am. Anyone with a Burberry cap is going to recognise me."

But there's a fine line between laddism and thuggishness, as he discovered when he crossed it last year. He had a weekly advice column in Zoo magazine, and was asked by a reader what he should do about missing his ex-girlfriend. "I'd suggest going on the rampage with the boys, getting on the booze and smashing everything that moves," was Dyer's advice. "Then, when some bird falls for you, you can turn the tables and break her heart. Of course, the other option is to cut your ex's face and then no one will want her."

Even for a lad's mag, it was beyond the pale. Half-baked excuses emerged about being misheard filing copy down a crackly line. In the end he and the magazine parted company; he went to ground for several months, and Zoo made a donation to a domestic-abuse charity. Today, he takes full responsibility, but says he let himself be pressured into something that wasn't really him. "I think the mistake I made was getting involved with a magazine like Zoo in the first place. It was a column I didn't write. It's a publication that's about being laddy to the extreme. That's what they wanted from me. I'd get rung up by a journalist every week, we'd talk for a little while, they'd ask me about politics, and I'd say something stupid. And I just said a stupid thing. I said a really stupid thing. Which had no substance to it, I didn't mean what I said, at all. And I trusted them that they wouldn't print that.

"The idea of me advising anyone to cut the face of a girl is ridiculous. It makes me fucking disgusted. And with the backlash I got – it was a really dark time for me. People expected me to say something like that because of this persona that I had helped build, this sweary don't-give-a-fuck lad. And they made a serious error to print it because it was like a joke, but a really bad joke that should never have been printed. I sold out. I should never have got involved with it. It wasn't even for the money, it was just a nice little promotional tool."

Dyer's latest film, Age of Heroes, is a slight departure from his usual fare: instead of being set in modern-day Deptford or Soho, it's a Second World War number, about a secret intelligence mission to Norway. But his part is true to form: he plays an ordinary private who disobeys orders to go back to the front, and punches his commanding officer, a Hollywood English baddy. Then, thrown into prison, he forces his way out at gunpoint. This reckless bravery impresses the head of a commando unit, played by Sean Bean, who lets him join an elite squad of commandos on a raid to Norway.

The moral, as in many of his films, is that sticking two fingers up to authority will get you what you want. Does he worry that he glamourises bad behaviour? "I don't think I do personally. Some of the films I've been in have caused controversy. I love being part of controversy, because it leads to debate. It gets people to think about things. I would hate the idea of making a film and people saying, 'Oh, it's all right.' I'd rather it upset a few people."

One person he does upset is the film critic Mark Kermode, whose rant against Danny Dy-aaa on Radio 5 Live (relating to his appearance in the film Pimp) has become a YouTube hit. In it, he mocks Dyer's Cockney accent and writes off his films as atrocious. Does this hurt him? "I'm a human being, of course it upsets me." But perhaps it particularly touches a nerve because Dyer knows he has helped create a persona that undermines his credentials as a serious actor. "Mark Kermode thinks I'm some two-bob actor who does two-bob films for no money, who just walks about with a swagger. When actually I'm a serious fucking actor." Do people misunderstand him? "Yes. And I think I'm to blame for that."

Danny Dyer is not technically a Cockney. He was born "on a rough estate" in Canning Town, in the Docklands area of east London. His father was "a grafter", his mother a housewife. He was nine when he learnt his father had secretly been keeping another family for years. Neither woman had any idea, and his father walked out, leaving him, his brother and two sisters. He wrote about the trauma of those years in his book, which was a therapeutic experience, especially giving the book to his dad to read – a man with whom he had never spoken of those years. His dad had never read a book and found the experience equally disturbing – " It freaked him the fuck out. Yeah, I had him on the phone a little bit pissed up and apologetic; it was nice because it brought us a little bit together, because it could have gone either way. I was nervous about giving it to him."

Growing up, Dyer was surrounded by women – his mother, who was affectionate and always giving him hugs, sisters, cousins, aunts. He didn't get on with school, except in acting classes, which he immediately loved, so much so that he would secretly go to after-school classes. "Drama was a girls' thing. I lied to people when they asked where I was going. It was a secret pleasure." He loved it so much that he went to a free Sunday drama club in Kentish Town in north London, jumping the train barrier, as he didn't have the fare. "As long as I got to the auditions I didn't mind being nicked on the way home. My mum never had any money to give me, but even if she did I would spend it on 10 Benson."

Aged 14, he was spotted by an agent. He also started going out with local girl Joane Mas; five years later she was pregnant. By 1996, Dyer had won a few stage and film parts, but was filling skips in between auditions to raise money for the baby. He knew then that if he didn't make it as an actor, a life of labour lay ahead. "I've total respect for labourers," he says. "But I'm not a nine-to-five kind of person. And if you're a labourer, you're doing all the menial jobs, like sweeping sawdust. I hated it. So every audition I went to at that time I treated it as my last." It paid off and he landed a part in the 1999 clubbing feature Human Traffic. His reputation was sealed after he landed a part in Harold Pinter's debut production of Celebration, at the Almeida, the first play Pinter had written for 15 years. It helped that Dyer didn't know "who the fuck Pinter was"; they hit it off immediately.

They developed a strong relationship, and Pinter asked Dyer back to appear in No Man's Land at the National. "I think he liked that I was quite raw, and untrained." What was he like to work with? "He could snap at any time. He had a little table set up, with a bottle of wine and one glass. He would sit there drinking his bottle of wine, and we would just get on with it. He might make a few tweaks at the end but otherwise you would just get on with it. He would trust you as an actor. That was the reason he hired you, because he didn't want some stressy actor who needed a pat on the arse every two minutes. He was funny, loved a drink, so intelligent and good with words, I just felt more intelligent being around him. He was a real inspiration for me. I was absolutely devastated when he died. A fucking great man."

Though he is in constant demand for film roles, Dyer won't rule out returning to the stage – and he certainly has a capacity to surprise. In 2006, when promoting a documentary about some of Britain's toughest men, he did a half-naked cover shoot for Attitude, the gay magazine. "I liked the idea, and I just got on with it. And actually it did me a lot of favours, especially with gay people, who assumed I was homophobic. They read the interview and saw that clearly I wasn't." Some ambiguous comments he made about his own experiences generated speculation that he had a gay past, but he scotches that rumour. He has played several gay characters, especially earlier in his career, which must have been difficult to square with his hard-man image.

"Yeah, the first thing I did was Prime Suspect 3. I played a rent boy, and I had one line in it about blow jobs. And the fucking stick I got about it! Just because I said the word blow job. That prepared me for later. Because it's a big part of the game, and you've got to accept it and get on with it. I did a film called Borstal Boy, in which I played a gay character who yearns for another man, and it was tough for me to get over the mental boundaries of it all. But in a way it was quite liberating. Of course I got a lot of stick over it."

Today, he has found the more conventional niche of being the lad's lad – though it's one that pay the bills. He used to worry about it, but not any more. "I know what I'm capable of. It's just whether someone's going to take a risk with it. At the moment I've just got a bit of a niche in the market for a certain thing, and I put a certain amount of bums on seats. My agent wants me to do more period dramas and different roles, but maybe I've come too far now. People know what I'm about. Would it work for me to drastically change and become some kind of Hugh Grant-type actor? I don't know if that's possible now."

Danny Dyer has calmed down. For years he didn't pay tax, he says, and was hopeless with money, spending whatever he was paid. Now he has a mortgage on the house he shares with Joane – "not a mansion, just a nice house" – and is putting his youngest daughter through private education, which he loves, "because I never had that". His eldest daughter is becoming an actress, and already has an agent, aged 15, though she doesn't thank her parents for calling her Dani (they were convinced she was going to be a boy, to be called Danny, and couldn't think what else to call her). There's plenty of work, though much of it for little gain. Several small-budget numbers he has made have gone straight to DVD, which he admits is bad for his reputation, and he is currently on a four-month break. He'll be back on set this summer, and in cinemas this month with the release of Age of Heroes. He will also, no doubt, appear in a tabloid headline somewhere soon – but for now, he's off home, for a proper cup of jasmine tea.

'Age of Heroes' (15) is released on 20 May

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