'I'm Danny Dyer not Danny Day-Lewis': The professional geezer is an actor to be reckoned with
He has starred in 40 British films and several Pinter plays – yet is ridiculed by the critics. The actor tells Gerard Gilbert about his no-nonsense approach to work and why Mark Kermode had better watch out.
Warning: this interview includes hefty swearing. It also begins with an admission: I've probably seen less than one-tenth of Danny Dyer's prodigious output – just three films out of his staggering tally of nearly 40 British movies made in less than 15 years (perhaps, like me, you didn't know they made that many British movies).
But for the record, I thought he outshone his co-star John Simm in the rave-era cult classic Human Traffic, and his conflicted hooligan in The Football Factory was the best thing in Nick Love's geezer-pleaser. I can't remember too much about The Business except that it was set on the Costa del Crime.
But, as for the rest, well, sadly, I missed his three theatrical collaborations with Harold Pinter. And regretfully, I never witnessed him fight off man-hating female zombie cannibals in Doghouse, or, indeed, his performance in Andrea Arnold's Oscar-winning short, Wasp.
And it almost goes without saying, I was not one of the punters who recently helped amass the £747 that was the entire opening-weekend takings for Run for Your Wife, the film of the Ray Cooney farce in which Dyer played the bigamous taxi driver.
But then it's as a cultural phenomenon that Dyer really interests me – what he has come to symbolise. The failure of Run for Your Wife was just the latest stick with which his detractors chose to gleefully beat the 35-year-old cockney actor who once inspired our greatest playwright, but who now inspires such headlines as: 'Are there no depths to which Danny Dyer won't plummet?' or 'Danny Dyer has become the byword for low-budget, no-quality Brit-trash cinema'.
"That's a bold statement," says Dyer, reading out that last cutting. "Thirty-five fucking films… some of them are shit, I'll hold me hands up… every actor has made shit films. Michael Caine is well-known for making shit films, but he's still a national treasure. It's weird that I have this effect on people… that I've become this sort of… I don't know…"
The word that Dyer is struggling to spit out is 'joke'. From Harry Hill's hilarious deconstruction of his BBC3 documentary, Danny Dyer: I Believe in UFOs, to impressionist Morgana Robinson's priceless pastiche of his TV series Danny Dyer's Deadliest Men – Danny Dyer's Hardest Commute – they're all having a laugh.
"That bird has studied me," admits Dyer. "And I love Harry Hill… I was honoured. I'm all up for the banter. But Mark Kermode isn't banter, it's a personal attack."
Ah, Mark Kermode. Settle back, because the film critic, who does a high-pitched (and, it must be said, not very good) impersonation of the actor on his Radio 5 Live review slot, is Dyer's bête noire.
"If I see him I don't know how I'm going to react," says Dyer. "I'll probably just put the nut on him.
"He thinks I'm the most ridiculous human being on this planet and that I shouldn't be an actor. I think he forgets that Pinter asked me to be in three of his plays. I wish Pinter was around today – I'd get Pinter to give him a call."
It's a lovely image. Anyway, Dyer puts such contempt down to good, old-fashioned snobbery. "Clearly, he thinks I talk funny, so he takes the piss out of it," Dyer wrote in his highly readable autobiography, Straight Up: The Real Me in My Own Words. "Well, that's how cockneys talk. Posh people think they're so superior to the working class."
But there's also a sort of inverted snobbery towards Dyer, the suspicion that he's somehow putting it on – that he's a mockney. "I could be more cockney, I suppose, but short of my mum dropping me out of her on the clapper of the Bow Bells, I don't see how," is how he colourfully nails that one.
Dyer was raised on a council estate in Custom House in London's Docklands. His father, Anthony, was a painter and decorator who left home when Dyer was nine. "He's one of my best mates now, but I was brought up by strong women – my mum and my nan. I was quite a feminine kid."
Lessons bored the young Danny until he stepped inside his first drama class. "East London comprehensive school… it just wasn't what boys do," he says. "But something inside me… I just loved expressing myself like that." His teacher spotted his natural ability and encouraged him to do workshops, where he got an agent. His first job, aged 14, was playing a doomed rent boy in Prime Suspect 3, adding in his memoirs the priceless observation of his co-star, Helen Mirren, that "she had an amazing pair of tits… but what I really admired about her was her talent". Good boy.
As a teenage actor, Dyer was never out of work, but then his voice broke and his face no longer fitted. "It wasf around that time that I had my first child, that's when I started to get the knock-backs," he says. "I had no money and I was living in this little flat, me and my missus."
His 'missus' was, and still is, after a long break ("it ain't been easy… I can tell you that now"), Joanne, who he had been dating since they were 13. They had their first of two daughters, Dani, when they were just 18. Providing for his family is a powerful motivating force in Dyer's life – why he works so hard, sometimes indiscriminatingly, and why he feels so violently about his detractors.
"I'm all up for banter," he says, "but this is about trying to feed my kids at the end of the day."
As a new father back in the mid-1990s, Dyer channelled this almost pathological rage into auditions. "I looked at all the other actors with complete disdain, and thought, 'What? You want to take fucking food out of my kids' mouths?' It gave me this extra drive." But it was his admission to the film director Justin Kerrigan that he was no stranger to ecstasy that helped secure his next role – as the hyperactive drug-dealer Moff in Human Traffic.
"I was brought up in the rave era and I respect anybody who could have stayed away from drugs then," says Dyer, who spent more on his hotel bar bill than he earnt from the movie. It didn't matter because Human Traffic kick-started his adult career, and also won that phone call from Harold Pinter, to play the waiter in the first run of Celebration, at London's Almeida Theatre. The 2001 revival of No Man's Land at the National followed, with him playing opposite Corin Redgrave, and Pinter again called in 2008, for a revival of The Homecoming.
"I know it's an odd couple, but we became really good friends," says Dyer. "We'd go out for dinner and we'd talk on the phone, and when he first got ill and he was at his most vulnerable he was directing me in No Man's Land, so I was there for him in that part of his life. I was devastated when he died."
There was nothing Pinteresque about the sullen brutality of The Football Factory – the start of a four-picture collaboration with director Nick Love that has come to define Dyer's career. The hooligan… the gangster… the vigilante… the lairy geezer… roles that led one critic to dismiss Dyer as "a cut-price Ray Winstone, baby Kray for the Nuts generation".
"I've just done what's put in front of me," says Dyer. "I'm from a council estate, I've never been media-trained, I swear a lot, I walk with a bit of a swagger, I've played a few gangster roles, but I'm a sensitive soul. I'm a father to my babies. I won't let people take the piss out of me, but I'm not a hard man. I can't be bothered rolling about on the cobbles, mate. A mug's game."
He's not afraid of a good spat – with his Mean Machine co-star Vinnie Jones, for example. "I've worked with him and he's not the best actor in the world," says Dyer, as well as suggesting in his memoirs that Jones was "trying it on with the crew a bit much". "There's no problem with us," he says now. "If I see him, I'd like to have a pint with him."
One of the chapters in his autobiography is ruefully headed 'Me and My Mouth, Part 628' – describing his self-scuppering of a prospective role in EastEnders when he told a reporter that he'd do the soap "when I'm fat, bald and 50". His most infamous utterance, however, occurred during his stint as agony uncle of Zoo magazine – which in fact, was a collaboration with a journalist from the magazine who would then go away and actually write the column.
One week a reader asked his advice on dealing with a girlfriend after she dumped him. "As a joke – a bad joke – I said to the journalist, 'Maybe he should cut her face so no one would want her'. Even as it came out of my mouth I wasn't proud of it… But I never thought for a minute they'd stick it in the magazine.
"It just makes me feel sick that people would believe that I'm this misogynist who would advise somebody to cut a woman's face, especially with two daughters and having been brought up by women. I adore women… I love everything about them."
The week after we meet, he's due to shoot a vigilante film called Vendetta ("I've been SAS training and I'm really pent up" – watch out Kermode), followed by a gangster flick set in Ibiza called Swipe, and then (more originally) a comedy with Johnny Vegas in which they play long-lost brothers.
He should do more comedy. He was recently a gladiator in ITV2's amusing Ancient Rome sitcom, Plebs, as well as winning a Loaded Lafta award for 'funniest tweeter', beating off Frankie Boyle, another comedian who likes to take a pop at Dyer.
"People appreciate the honesty… I just tweet what's on my mind," he says.
Mind you, it probably doesn't encourage Kenneth Branagh to pick up the blower when Dyer tweets that he'd "rather watch back-to-back episodes of You've Been Framed than read Shakespeare".
Dyer's fan base would probably agree. "I've got these loyal supporters who love what I do… they'll go and buy a film because I'm in it. I am a movie star, I make movies, and I think that's rare that you can do that in this country.
"And then you've got other people who can't stand me… Never get me on any level. I'm not Danny Day-Lewis… I'm Danny Dyer. Daniel Day-Lewis takes a year out between parts to research. Fuck it – I haven't got time. I've got kids to worry about."
'Plebs' continues on Tuesday nights on ITV2
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