David Morrissey: An instinct for drama

He's best known for meaty roles in high-class British television series. So what's David Morrissey doing, tangling with Sharon Stone? Liz Hoggard finds out
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The Independent Online

When Sharon Stone made her dazzling appearance on the red carpet at the London premiere of Basic Instinct 2, it was easy to forget that anyone else appears with her in the new film. Neither on the posters for the film nor in the paparazzi shots of the opening was there any sign of her British co-star. But then, David Morrissey has never relished the limelight.

He is a character actor who made his name playing "men in turmoil" - from MP Stephen Collins in State of Play to Gordon Brown in The Deal - and he was the comic grotesque Ripley Holden in the Golden Globe-winning BBC musical drama Blackpool. So when it was announced last year that he had been cast as the male lead opposite Stone in the sequel to the erotic thriller, the knives were out. How could Morrissey, well known for championing indigenous British drama, sell out?

Meeting him in London's Soho, he seems fairly philosophical. "It was a script that came along that I wanted to do," he insists. "The original sparked a lot of debate at the time; it's not wallpaper. And the director of our film, Michael Caton-Jones [whose film about the Rwandan genocide,Shooting Dogs, is also out on Friday], is a serious film-maker. You're aware that people are a bit sniffy about it - and they will be, even when they see it, because that's the nature of what we do. But for me it was a really interesting character and I loved playing it."

Stone seems to have enjoyed the experience too, calling Morrissey "a super-talent. He sings, he dances, he's the most diverse and interesting guy." And while Morrissey fans may have winced when she declared that she "thrilled" to see him naked for the film's raunchy nude scenes, it's certainly about time he was cast as a romantic lead. At 6ft 3in with compelling, pale blue eyes, he has a strong, visceral quality that translates as eroticism for many women.

Morrissey was one of four actors flown out to Los Angeles to audition with Stone. "I was booked to be there for an hour and it ended up being two hours. We didn't talk about the film or the script for the first hour and a half. We just chatted away about her family and my family - and laughed a lot, and got on very well. Then we read the scenes, and two days later I got the call."

Back in 1992, Basic Instinct was a star vehicle for Michael Douglas (Stone was virtually unknown), who played a detective investigating a series of sexually motivated murders, with Stone's character, Catherine Tramell, as the main suspect. In Basic Instinct 2, Tramell has relocated to London where once again she finds herself on the wrong side of the law. Morrissey plays a criminal psychologist, drawn into her web of murder and sexual intrigue.

"He takes her on as a client because she's a match for him. He's arrogant, he's vain and she plays on that vanity." Morrissey has revealed that Stone used to scream at the top of her voice before every take. "It was quite strange, to the point where it really freaked me out. I realised it was just to release the tension, and I thought it was very funny, but it's quite an un-British thing to do."

How was the chemistry with Stone? "Obviously she's a big star, but when I met her I thought, 'Oh, I can work with this person.' She's an actress, you can forget that. With Hollywood stars you tend to read about their baggage rather than about themselves, and actually when you meet them you realise there's nothing intimidating about them, what's intimidating is the publicity."

Why does she have such a difficult reputation? "I think maybe people get confused with the characters she plays. She's really professional, really up for it, very funny. But she loves putting on the dress and doing all the thing, and she does it so well. We went to Cannes and it was wonderful to see her unashamedly enjoy all that. It was great just watching her be in her element. But then we went to work on Monday and it was back to real life."

People sometimes underestimate Morrissey. He acts, directs and produces (his company, Tubedale Films, produced the Patrice Leconte film L'Homme du Train). And an undeniable aura of glamour clings to him. His partner of 15 years is the novelist Esther Freud, the great-granddaughter of Sigmund. They have three children, Albie, 11, Anna, eight, and a new baby.

Born in Liverpool to a father who worked as a cobbler and engraver and a mother who worked at Littlewoods catalogue company, Morrissey failed his 11-plus and left school at 15. A cousin encouraged him to try out for the Liverpool Everyman Youth Theatre. Later, at the RSC and the National, he remembers being intimidated by the self-confidence of his peers.

"For years I was always jealous of Glaswegians and people from Cardiff and the fact that that regional accent transcended class. You could be a Scottish teacher or a Scottish lawyer, but you couldn't really be a Scouse lawyer."

Morrissey, who admits that he's "very vain", worked out frantically before shooting Basic Instinct 2. In fact, the graphic sex scenes are quite a bone of contention. When we first meet, he's just seen a rough cut of the film. "They've taken out a lot of the sex out of our film, which I'm glad about," he says. "Not in any prudish way, but I think it was holding up the story." However, when Stone saw this cut, she insisted they put back in more nudity.

Days later, I see this version. While Morrissey gives a typically committed performance, Basic Instinct 2 is not a patch on the high-gloss, manipulative original. Stone (in diva mode) looks like she's in a completely different movie from the British cast. Morrissey is sanguine, though. "Every film has this soufflé element. You've got all the ingredients right - will it rise, won't it? It's completely virgin territory for me. With Captain Corelli's Mandolin [in which he had a small part] the pressure didn't fall on me in that way, so I'm blindly walking into it."

What it has given him is more choice. The Reaping, which he shot after Basic Instinct 2 in Louisiana with Hilary Swank, is another high-profile project. It's directed by Stephen Hopkins, who co-created 24. "Horror is a genre I haven't worked in before and one that Stephen is very good at. I was a massive fan of the first series of 24, and this film is full of those surprising twists and turns."

Swank plays a debunker of religious miracles who is summoned by Morrissey to investigate a series of bizarre occurrences that appear to be biblical plagues. Two weeks after Morrissey arrived in Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina hit. "It became clear how badly the rescue campaign was being handled. We stopped filming and helped out at the centres, donating stuff and packing boxes. We wanted to go into New Orleans to help, but we were told we'd only add to the madness."

As a director himself, Morrissey is loyal to Caton-Jones. But with critics predicting that Basic Instinct 2 will be a huge flop, one wonders if he wishes he'd been cast in the far superiorShooting Dogs.

"If I'd felt there was anything gratuitous in Basic Instinct 2, I wouldn't have done it," Morrissey says, "but I didn't feel that in the script. You have to enter into a piece of work. If you like the director then that act of trust happens on a daily basis. Not just in the sense of 'Why should I show this man my arse?' More, 'Are we telling the story that we want to tell?'"

'Basic Instinct 2' opens on Friday