‘I’m getting to be an old fart now’: Daniel Mays on coppers, Brexit and his festive romcom

The actor talks to Louis Chilton about Steven Spielberg, ‘Guys and Dolls’, and why ‘Des’ gave him nightmares

Sunday 04 December 2022 06:30 GMT
Daniel Mays: ‘If you can’t enjoy Nathan Detroit in ‘Guys and Dolls’, there’s something wrong with you’
Daniel Mays: ‘If you can’t enjoy Nathan Detroit in ‘Guys and Dolls’, there’s something wrong with you’ (Will Thompson)

Daniel Mays has hurt his back. “It’s causing me a bit of gyp,” the Line of Duty star admits. “I’m just getting to be an old fart now. But that’s the hazards of the job, I’m afraid.” I’m speaking to him over video from his home in north London. The “job” in question is a new series about one of the Founding Fathers of America, Benjamin Franklin (Michael Douglas), for which Mays has been going back and forth to Paris to film. “Obviously it’s set in 1776 or whatever, and I have to wear those period shoes with heels,” he explains. “So your weight distribution is thrown forward. It’s like when you used to listen to women go, ‘I can’t wear high heels all night,’ because it ruins the small of their back.” He smiles. “My transvestite days are over, let’s put it that way.”

But, as Mays is quick to point out, we aren’t here to talk about cross-dressing. We’re here to discuss Your Christmas or Mine?, a new festive comedy film just released on Prime Video. The film has a simple enough premise: two university lovebirds – Cora Kirk and Sex Education’s Asa Butterfield – each make the impulsive decision to board the other’s train home for Christmas as a grand romantic gesture, unaware that their partner had the same idea. One snowstorm later, and they are marooned at each other’s family home – his, an opulent but sombre country estate; hers, a convivial but chaotic semi-detached house in Macclesfield. Mays plays the affable father of Kirk’s character, a man whom we first meet selling a knocked-off turkey from the window of an ice cream van.

“They’ve got an earthy quality about them,” Mays says of the family. “And I just instantly recognised that as my own family.” The 44-year-old actor grew up working class in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, one of four boys, son of a bank cashier mother and electrician father. “My mum used to hide the money in the Christmas pudding,” he says – something that we see in the film – “and all the blokes used to go to the pub. He’s the closest character I think I’ve played to my own dad: there was that sort of jovial, lovable quality about him.”

There’s more to the film than meets the eye: it’s a romcom, a fish-out-of-water farce, a comedy of manners and a heartfelt meditation on grief all rolled into one. “It really does start to pull on your heartstrings,” Mays admits. “I’m going to say it: I really cried when I watched all that stuff.” Underscoring the jokes and romantic push-and-pull is a wry examination of our country’s class divide. “The class system is well and truly alive and kicking in this country,” Mays muses. “Always has been and always will. What’s great about [comedian Tom Parry]’s writing is he really doesn’t shy away from that. He’s not patronising to either side.”

As we chat, Mays answers every question at considerable length, often punctuating sentences with my name in a warm, avuncular manner. For a man who once described himself as having “cornered the market in spivs”, Mays has accrued a diverse back catalogue of roles. After studying at the Italia Conti Academy in the City of London and winning a place at Rada, Mays acted in EastEnders, before making his name with turns in the Mike Leigh films All or Nothing and Vera Drake. He’s gone on to work with directors from Michael Bay (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pilot role in Pearl Harbour), to Sam Mendes (playing a jaded sergeant in 1917), to Steven Spielberg (in the criminally underrated Tin-Tin adaptation). “Spielberg was just an absolute breath of fresh air,” Mays recalls. “He was just riffing in the moment, coming up with these ingenious ideas.”

In recent years, Mays has become best known for playing coppers – a reputation ossified by his key role in season three of the BBC’s smash hit Line of Duty. One of his best performances came in the 2020 ITV drama Des, in which he played the detective looking into the case of serial killer Dennis Nilson (David Tennant). “It was very tough, that research,” he recalls. “I did loads. There’s so much about him, so many documentaries… I had two nightmares where I was locked in an attic with Dennis Nilsen – I kept waking my poor wife!” (Mays married his long-term partner, Louise Burton, in August 2018; the couple have two children.)

Des came amid a boom in serial killer programming. But true crime can be fraught with ethical implications, as Netflix recently found with their controversial drama Dahmer: Monster – The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. Mays says he doesn’t watch much TV (“when you work in it, you can see all the wheels going around, and I’ve often worked with the actors and can see all their tricks”), but he brings up Dahmer when I ask him about Des. “I thought that was quite gruesome, wasn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I was sort of enthralled,” he says. “In the way that we slow down on the motorway if we see a car accident – you’re drawn to something macabre like that. But I didn’t think Des was gratuitous in any way. It was much more psychological.”

‘Tis the season: Mays alongside Asa Butterfield in ‘Your Christmas or Mine?’ (Prime Video)

There’s a certain incongruity to the fact that our conversation began with talk of trapped nerves and back pain: just hours earlier, it was announced that Mays would be starring as Nathan Detroit in a new production of Guys and Dolls at London’s Bridge Theatre next year. It’s a role previously nailed by performers such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hoskins and Nathan Lane; Mays says he hasn’t tackled a musical since his days as a drama student.

Last year, Mays broke a five-year theatre duck when he starred in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter alongside David Thewlis – a pandemic-era livestream-hybrid show that ran for just five days. “I was just so grief-stricken that we only did five shows,” he says, “because I was good to go, I was good to have a really long run. So I’ve jumped from the frying pan – 170 performances. But if you can’t enjoy Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, there’s something wrong with you. You know what I mean?”

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Frank Loesser’s 1950 musical is certainly a left-field choice for Mays. (“I don’t really believe that there’s any such thing as an actor’s ‘career’,” he says. “You never know what’s around the corner.”) But it was one he may never have agreed to if it weren’t for a stroke of artistic serendipity. “I was walking around my flat in Paris, mulling, and there’s a painting on the wall next to the spiral staircase,” he explains. “For the first time in months, I looked at the painting. And it was a scene from Havana. It said ‘Club Havana’ in this massive oil painting –and in Guys and Dolls, the characters go to Havana. I was just like, ‘Holy s***! I’ve got to say yes. It’s a sign from the musical theatre gods!’”

Brexit to me always represented pulling up the drawbridge. It didn’t make any sense

Daniel Mays

In the meantime, though, Mays’s head is in Paris, in Apple TV’s Benjamin Franklin series (a project he describes as “one of the highlights of my career”). He plays Edward Bancroft, one of Franklin’s closest confidantes, who worked as a double agent for the British. What relevance does the American Revolutionary War hold for a 21st-century Brit? Well, Mays argues – quite a lot. “I was trying to get my head around it: it’s like Brexit,” he says. “It completely and utterly polarised families, whole communities. Of course, they needed their independence, they wanted to do their own thing. So it’s really fascinating.”

Filming in France has given Mays first-hand experience of the restrictions that the UK’s departure from the EU has wrought – whether it’s the “rigmarole” of travelling or the newly implemented visa hurdles. “The way that technology and transport systems work now… as a species, we’re sort of ever evolving. And Brexit to me always represented pulling up the drawbridge. It didn’t make any sense.”

Sucking diesel: Mays in season three of the hit police show ‘Line of Duty' (BBC)

It was in fact Mays’s time at Rada in his youth that imbued him with an appreciation for Britain’s cultural diversity. “There was a whole mix of people from America, from India, from Australia… I was a kid from Essex, up there in London as a youngster, exploring and involving myself with so many different people from different countries and walks of life,” he recalls. “My brain just exploded with it all. My whole experience was expanding beyond belief. So I always sort of considered myself to be a European. I never got the whole notion of ‘I want my country back’. To me, it was complete insanity.”

Mays is full of praise for the “professional and supportive” French film crew. “A lot of the time, these TV and film productions, they’ve taken years to come to fruition. The writer slaved over it for years … what you don’t want is a big-headed actor to come in at the last minute and go, ‘Well, I’m not saying that line.’ I’ve seen actors do it, that shall remain nameless. It’s all about the ensemble together pulling in the same direction to serve the writing.

“You know, I’m not an actor with an ego,” Mays adds. “I don’t throw my weight around.” Having spent a bit of time in his (virtual) company, I reckon I believe him. He leans back and laughs. “But I do demand all the blue M&Ms be taken out.”

‘Your Christmas Or Mine?’ is out now on Prime Video

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