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A pint in one hand, a Tony in the other: Jerusalem's real star

Micky Lay was the inspiration for Mark Rylance's award-winning role – and he's got the gong to prove it. Tom Peck met him

Tom Peck
Saturday 30 July 2011 00:00 BST

The door of the pub swings open and, not for the first time, in walks Micky Lay.

In one hand he is holding a roll-up cigarette he hasn't bothered to extinguish. In the other is a Tony Award, still in its branded velvet bag, which he plonks on the bar. "Do what you fucking like with it," he announces. "I'm going for a piss."

If you've never been to Pewsey, a Wiltshire village half way between Stonehenge and Wootton Basset, the chances are you've never met the notorious 71-year-old figurehead of its far-from-thriving pub scene, but thousands feel they know him.

He is the real life version of Johnny "Rooster" Byron, the strikeout star character of Jez Butterworth's phenomenally successful play Jerusalem. For his depiction of him, actor Mark Rylance won first an Olivier award, and now a Tony, after the play's successful transfer to Broadway. It is this Tony that Mr Lay has, rather begrudgingly, brought to the Moonrakers pub, where the landlord, Jerry Kunkler, now seems to work as his agent. While I am there, he fields calls from several media outlets and the publicity people for the next run of the play. He has also been round to Mr Lay's house to wake him up in time for our meeting. ("He was a bit pissed last night.")

On the back of the statuette is a new engraving: "Couldn't have done this without you. Mark." On Thursday Mr Kunkler presented him with the award at a special ceremony in the pub.

Rooster is no saint. He lives in a caravan on the edge of a forest from where he dispenses drink, drugs and wildly hypnotic tales to the village youth. Lay is no saint either, and he certainly likes a drink. He is, says Mr Kunkler, "gramps" to many of the village's younger drinkers, one of whom was Jez Butterworth, the play's author, when he lived in Pewsey in the 1990s. ("I can barely remember him," says Lay.) Given that he was already something of a local celebrity before his nature was laid bare on the stages of the West End and Broadway, the glare of the media spotlight has not changed him.

"You get paid to do this, do you?" he asks me. "Come up here and talk to me? Fucking hell, that's a laugh, isn't it."

He adds: "This is fucking up my day. I should be down The Ship. It's happy hour down there."

And then: "None of it makes any difference to me." He draws on a pint of lager. It is 3pm and it's far from his first of the day. He has come straight from The Ship, another pub in the town, and will be going back there afterwards. "I still do what I want to do. I just take life as it comes. If someone wants to give me a Tony Award fair play to them. I suspect it's the only Tony in Wiltshire."

He and Rylance are close these days. The actor has been to the village many times, on one occasion bringing the Americans from the Broadway cast with him for some accent training. His first visit didn't go so well. When he turned up unannounced at Lay's home, Lay was inside smoking a joint. "I told him to fuck off," Lay recalls. "But he came back with a bottle of whisky."

Fame, the twice-married father-of-four has realised, is not without its downsides.

"My daughters can't be dealing with it. They get fed up reading it all. When my grandson read the newspaper, they didn't know I'd been in prison for dealing cannabis. My daughters were all pretty pissed off."

Comments under stories about him on the local news websites confirm that Lay is not universally loved. They repeat tales of drunken acts of vandalism as well as other serious allegations of violent criminality.

Various drunken misdemeanours have seen him banned from every pub in Pewsey on more than one occasion. Mr Kunkler has banned him from the Moonrakers 20 times in 30 years. "He's alright at the minute," Mr Kunkler says. "You haven't seen what a pain in the arse he can be. I have to look after the fucker."

It was not that long ago that on one Friday night, some of the pub's younger drinkers bought Lay quite a few "Jägerbombs" – a shot of potent spirit submerged in Red Bull. He fell and cracked his head on the pavement. When the ambulance staff arrived they were promptly told where to go.

For all his hypnotic charm, Rooster is not a model father. The same might be said for Lay. He had initially arrived at the pub without his statuette, which The Independent had been keen to photograph. "Well I could go home and get it but I can't be fucked," he says. "It's second-hand anyway." The landlord promptly calls Lay's son Scotty to bring it round.

Lay wasn't able to watch the show on Broadway – his prior convictions prevented him from travelling there. When the show returns to London he intends to see it again, but he does not feel the pull of the bright lights. "Village life is very different," he says. "It's not like it is in Swindon."

But the village, too, has suffered, he opines. "It's all so much deader. The pubs are not the same. The youngsters don't go to the pub. I almost don't want to go out any more." The Government, of course, is to blame.

"It's one rule for them, and another for the rest of us. That Rylance, he gets to smoke a spliff on stage. I can't even have a fag in the pub."

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