John Simm: The time of his life

Travelling back through the years for hit show 'Life on Mars' has given the actor more fame than he knows how to cope with. But now he reveals to Liz Hoggard a new role that will mean seeing a Doctor

"If it had been a hazy, nostalgic 1970s trip with Noddy Holder running around and funny accents going on, I wouldn't have done it," says John Simm. "There were some very dark things going on in the 1970s - racism, strikes, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four - and we need to reflect that in Life on Mars."

One of the best actors of his generation, and long a cult star and unlikely sex symbol, Simm, 36, has been threatening to hit the big time for a while. State of Play raised his profile. But it was the time-travelling cop show Life on Mars that put him on the map. Not only did the show pull in more than seven million viewers, the DVD became one of last year's biggest sellers. In November, Life on Mars won Best Drama Series at the International Emmy Awards. And Hollywood producer David E Kelley (of Ally McBeal fame) is planning to make a US version.

Simm's career has gone through the roof. But you sense he's slightly horrified that Life on Mars has made him so bankable. "I've never done anything so mainstream and glossy before," he admits.

He is endearingly bad at being famous. He rarely goes to premieres and he and his actress wife, Kate MacGowan, nearly didn't get married because they loathed the idea of being splashed across Hello!. "I don't do things for money," he says, half sighing at his own foolishness.

But then Simm has real street cred. Before becoming a professional actor he started his band, Magic Alex (named after The Beatles' electrician), and toured with Echo and the Bunnymen in the early 1990s. After he played New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in Michael Winterbottom's 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, he was invited to sing on stage with the band.

Because of his roles, audiences often assume Simm is a bit of a lad. But he trained as a classical actor and his interests are eclectic. He has started going to ballet ("I'm obsessed with it"), and his favourite painters are Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock. "I remember on a stag weekend in Amsterdam queuing for a whole day to try and get into the Van Gogh museum," he recalls.

Family life is very important. He and MacGowan live in Crouch End in London with their five-year-old son, Ryan, and he admits filming Life on Mars in Manchester for two summers was tricky. "It was hard coming back to London for Sunday lunch, trying to cram everything into one day off. I can't possibly do that again."

Born in Leeds in 1970, he grew up in the mill town of Nelson, near Burnley. After his parents split up, when he was 11, he'd accompany his father, an entertainer, touring the northern clubs. Simm became a talented guitarist, but never enjoyed the spotlight. Acting is easier, he says; you can pretend to be someone else. "But in a band, on stage... there's nowhere to hide. I used to just stand there and stare at the floor."

After drama school his breakthrough role came in 1995 as a psychotic teenager in Cracker. In his twenties he played sweet-faced, hedonistic young men (Danny in The Lakes, Jip the clubber in Human Traffic) and became an alternative sex symbol. More recently he's excelled in gritty roles such as Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland and Abi Morgan's Bafta-winning drama Sex Traffic, about Eastern European girls kidnapped and forced into prostitution in the West. "I don't mean to sound wanky, but I think Sex Traffic was a really important piece of TV... They even made a documentary called The Real Sex Traffic. Suddenly it was an issue, and that's wonderful."

Simm has a slightly prickly reputation with journalists. He hates talking about his personal life (he once dated Emma Bunton, and the papers have never let him forget it). But in person he is funny and modest. In contrast to his naff 1970s wardrobe in Life on Mars, Simm is a snappy dresser (with a weakness for Paul Smith and Versace). He laughs when I suggest Life on Mars is an unacknowledged gay love story between his character, Sam, and his boss, Gene, played to great acclaim by Philip Glenister. "In a way, friendships at work are a kind of love story," he says.

But then Simm is refreshingly unmacho. During our interview some drunks start baying outside the window. "Knobheads with football scarves on," he sighs. "Sorry.I hate feeling snobby, but you think, you morons."

Simm has had his moments, too. He went a bit "ballistic" clubbing and taking ecstasy in the 1990s (he had to give up clubbing when Human Traffic fans started making his life a misery), but he says he is alienated by youth culture today. "I don't recognise kids any more: they've started going crazy and knifing and shooting each other." In the old days, he says, you got a clip round the ear. "My five-year-old's already going bang-bang-bang with his Power Ranger and chopping people's heads off. When I was five it was the Clangers and Sooty. There's no innocence any more. I feel really sorry for them."

These days, just having Simm's name above the titles is a guarantee of quality. When the producers first pitched Life on Mars, they suggested Neil Morrissey and Ray Winstone as the leads. No one got too excited. But when Simm's name came into the frame, it was snapped up.

The series returns on Tuesday. Audiences love the rollicking un-PC humour and 1970s jokes, but there is ambiguity, too. Has Sam really gone back to the 1970s, or is he in a coma - or dead?

Simm believes the series appeals to a key fantasy. "Everyone dreams about going back in time and meeting their parents when they were young. It's that thing of 'could you change the future?'"

Although he promised himself a long break after Life on Mars, he was immediately offered the chance to play Van Gogh in the Channel 4 film The Yellow House, opposite John Lynch as Gauguin. "There was no way on earth I could turn it down. The day before they told me, I had a beard, but I shaved it off to have a facial and go on holiday. When I heard I'd got the job, I was frantically looking in the mirror and going, "grow, grow". He also went on a crash diet to get his favourite artist's emaciated look.

Although the BBC is planning a spin-off to Life on Mars - called Ashes to Ashes, set in the 1980s and starring Glenister, Simm is bowing out. "My instinct tells me not to hang around too long."

He'd like to do some comedy "in warm weather - preferably on a beach. I always seem to be doing drama in horrible brick locations." And for years he's been dying to play a proper villain or a serial killer. The problem is Simm still looks 35 going on 15, but finally he's got the chance: he's just been cast in Dr Who - as the Master, the Doctor's evil nemesis. He'll be quite brilliant, of course, but heaven knows how he'll cope with a whole new horde of obsessive Tardis fans.

'Life on Mars' resumes on BBC1 on Tuesday at 9pm. 'The Yellow House' is on Channel 4 in April

Biography: The route from Leeds to Mars

Married to actress Kate MacGowan. The couple have a son, Ryan, aged five.

1970: Born in Leeds, grew up in Nelson, Lancashire. Attends Blackpool Drama College, then the Drama Centre in London.

1992: Makes his TV debut with a role in Rumpole of the Bailey.

1995: WinsBest Actor at Valencia Film Festival for Boston Kickout. Appears in Cracker.

1997: Stars in Jimmy McGovern's The Lakes.

1999: Film roles in Human Traffic and Wonderland.

2000: Features in Clocking Off.

2002: Plays New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in 24 Hour Party People and Raskolnikov in the BBC's Crime and Punishment. Sings on stage with New Order.

2003: Stars in State of Play with Bill Nighy and David Morrissey.

2004: Takes the lead in Channel 4 drama Sex Traffic.

2006: Plays Detective Inspector Sam Tyler in Life on Mars.

Likes: The Beatles, Ian Brown, Manchester United, Van Gogh, good manners, family life.

Dislikes: Heat magazine, tabloids, bigots, Arsenal, being away from his family.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past