David Morrissey: The unlikely lad

He won rave reviews as Gordon Brown in The Deal, while his marriage to Esther Freud made him one of Britain's best-connected men. So what is David Morrissey's secret?

Interview,Liz Hoggard
Saturday 20 March 2004 01:00

Compelling pale blue eyes, firm handshake, 6ft 3in ... It comes as a shock to discover how handsome David Morrissey is. After all, his roles have hardly been flattering. To play Gordon Brown in last year's acclaimed docu-drama The Deal, he gained two stone, endured a dodgy Kevin Keegan perm and bit his nails to the quick. As the buttoned-up Nazi in Captain Corelli's Mandolin he sweated his way through the Greek landscape. Even his performance as the tax inspector in the television series Holding On had reviewers applauding his incarnation as "a troubled, pasty young man".

Compelling pale blue eyes, firm handshake, 6ft 3in ... It comes as a shock to discover how handsome David Morrissey is. After all, his roles have hardly been flattering. To play Gordon Brown in last year's acclaimed docu-drama The Deal, he gained two stone, endured a dodgy Kevin Keegan perm and bit his nails to the quick. As the buttoned-up Nazi in Captain Corelli's Mandolin he sweated his way through the Greek landscape. Even his performance as the tax inspector in the television series Holding On had reviewers applauding his incarnation as "a troubled, pasty young man".

On screen, Morrissey specialises in "men in turmoil" (the adulterous MP in State of Play, Jacqueline du Pré's brother-in-law in Hilary and Jackie, the tormented school teacher Bradley Headstone in the BBC adaptation of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend). Somehow he seems to make the interior life of even the most repellent character sympathetic. Watching him, you sense a fierce intelligence at work; audiences know he will deliver. "I've always tended to play quite serious roles," he concedes, "though I'd like to do more comedy."

Early in his career, because of his build, Morrissey fought to avoid being typecast as a cop or a soldier. These days he is more relaxed: "I've moved into directing as well as acting, and it has taught me never to take casting personally. Nine times out of 10, the variables are so mad it doesn't matter. It's all about the balance of energy or the chemistry between actors or even their availability."

Morrissey tells a funny story of how he was convinced he could play the romantic hero in Our Mutual Friend, only for the role to go to Paul McGann. "I told my friend, Julian Farino, who was the director, 'Oh I love that book, I'd be great as Eugene Wrayburn.' He said, 'No, I'm thinking of you for Bradley Headstone.' And I said, 'Don't be ridiculous, that's not me.' But then I read the script and thought, 'Actually this isn't a bad part.' He is seen as a mad villain, but in fact he's just an unloved person who keeps on getting it wrong. I could see what a big issue class was for him, which eventually tips him over into madness."

Morrissey, who is 39, is a socialist from a working-class background in Liverpool (he was born in Knotty Ash and still retains his accent), and yet an undeniable aura of glamour clings to him. His partner of 13 years is the novelist Esther Freud, the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. Morrissey's sisters-in-law include the fashion designer Bella Freud and novelists Susie and Rose Boyt. And, of course, his father-in-law is the painter Lucian Freud. f (The family standing joke, apparently, is that they'll never inherit any of Freud's paintings because he sells them before he even finishes them.) Morrissey is aware of the irony, of course. "My mother hadn't even heard of Lucian Freud until I met Esther," he says. But he is so open and unaffected, so unimpressed by status, if you like, that you know he simply fell in love with a person, not one of the most famous dynasties in the world. As he puts it: "The person I'm in love with is Esther and the least interesting thing about her is her surname. It's the person in front of me who's got me entranced."

Morrissey and Freud were famously set up at a dinner party by a married male friend who thought Morrissey was having far too much fun being single. The attraction was immediate and today they have two children - Albie, nine, and Anna, six. Along with Morrissey's partner Carl Clifton, they run a production company, Tubedale Films, and last year they produced the Patrice Leconte film L'Homme du Train, starring Johnny Hallyday and Jean Rochefort. Next they are working with Leconte on an English-language version of Leconte's wonderfully creepy film Monsieur Hire, as well as raising finance to film Esther's screenplay of her novel, The Wild. It is hoped that John Malkovich (a close friend and catwalk model of Bella Freud) will star as the novel's hero, an absent writer-father (assumed to be based on Lucian Freud). And indeed, minutes after finishing our interview, I spot an incognito Malkovich heading in the direction of Morrissey's Soho publicist.

Endearingly, Morrissey credits his partner with forming his work ethic. "The thing I've got from Esther most of all is self-discipline. I always have to go out to work even if it's just a desk somewhere or an office or the British Library. So I've always found it amazing the way, as a novelist, she goes to work at home. She has a timetable she sticks to every day. You literally see someone working through a different problem in the story, and finding different ways to get in. She's taught me to take your work seriously even if you're at home. But having said that we never really discuss the work problems we are having in an artistic way because a) we don't have time and b) you so want to leave all that behind when you're with each other."

Freud also shaped his taste in literature. "She introduced me to female writers - Julie Myerson, Helen Dunmore, Rachel Cusk. They're what our bookshelves are full of. And Julie is a really good friend of Esther's so there is that slight element of, 'Oh gosh, Julie's got another book coming out,' because Julie is so prolific," he says, shaking his head. I confide that Freud's 1993 novel Peerless Flats got me through the loneliness of moving back to London. Morrissey laughs. "And not just London. When I first met Esther she was writing Peerless Flats and I remember reading some of it, and thinking, 'God, I've stood in those pubs, even if they were in Liverpool, waiting for a girl to look at me,' just like her heroine waits for a guy to look at her. I've been on those lonely weekends and thought, what the fuck am I doing here? You get up really late to avoid filling time and you think that it will never, ever end."

It seems the pair have more in common than you'd think. And the greatest formative influence on both of them, says Morrissey, is that they were "brought up by a single parent in quite a weird place". His own father, a shoe repairman and key cutter, died when he was 14, leaving his mother to raise four children. Freud's early life with her free-spirited mother has formed the basis of several of her novels. "When I met Esther I had no preconceptions about her background," he admits. "Then I read Hideous Kinky which is a basically an introduction to her whole life as a young girl."

He is understandably keen to play down the media interest in his bohemian relatives. Nevertheless it is clear that Morrissey has become very knowledgeable about the art world. The other project Tubedale is trying to get off the ground is a film called The Carnal Artist. "It's about a sadomasochistic artist who gets taken up by in the YBA scene. There was an amazing guy called Bob Flanagan and we took a lot of inspiration from him. The film is a black comedy but it's very much about the nature of art versus publicity. You know how all those YBAs did fantastically outrageous things, but then people like Michael Landy destroyed everything he ever had ... you just watched and thought, 'Is this brilliant or am I just participating in a man having a mental breakdown? Am I watching a car crash here or am I watching someone telling me it's a car crash?' I think these are really muddy areas in artistic practice. And then there was the man who was given £25,000 by the Arts Council to do his performance art that consisted of walking around the streets of London with two buckets of water. So you think, OK, you can only have fun with this in a film."

Morrissey is largely self-taught (he failed his 11-plus and left school at 16) and he is a meticulous researcher. For his role in the film Some Voices he spent two weeks shadowing the head chef at The Terrace restaurant in Kensington. Even on a romantic break with Esther, he arranged to spend two hours a day chopping vegetables in the hotel kitchen (she wasn't exactly thrilled - he ended up reeking of onion). For Captain Corelli's Mandolin, he read up on Hitler Youth and Gitta Sereny's book on Albert Speer. And, researching State of Play, he cultivated the friendship of MPs such as Peter Mandelson and Fabian Hamilton. "They were all very generous with their time. Because it was a thriller, there was no political agenda, really. It was more about finding out how Westminster operated. In fact, I think that's why State of Play worked; it took two very maligned professions - politics and journalism - and treated them seriously." The research proved invaluable when he was later cast as Gordon Brown in The Deal (opposite Michael Sheen's Tony Blair) "because this time no politicians wanted to talk to me. It was quite a closed shop. But I was able to talk to journalists, like Jon Snow and Simon Hoggart."

The youngest of four children, Morrissey was inspired to become an actor after seeing Ken Loach's film Kes. Aged 16 he joined the Everyman Youth Theatre. It was the golden age of dramatists Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell and his contemporaries included Cathy Tyson and Ian Hart. "It's where I discovered women and friendship." His big break came when, aged 19, he got the lead role of Billy Rizley in Channel 4's first ever drama series, One Summer. Aware that he could play "Liverpudlians running away all my life", he auditioned for Rada. He was accepted, but London proved a lonely place for a working-class boy, and he credits Paul McGann, a friend from home, for helping him stick with it. After he graduated, he began working at the RSC and the National with Adrian Noble, Deborah Warner and Declan Donnellan (who famously directed him in the title role of Peer Gynt). He had small roles in the films Drowning by Numbers and Waterland, but his television career really took off with the cop drama, Out of the Blue. f

Several years ago he began making short films - Bring me your Love, based on a Charles Bukowski short story, had a limited cinema release. "The reason I wanted to start directing is that as an actor I felt I came into a job late. There's a whole team of people who have been working on it for months before you start. You have this really intense period of filming and then you leave it, knowing that the director will work on it for another few months. I always felt slightly frustrated because I wanted to be with the piece a lot longer."

He found himself choosing acting projects where he could watch the director. "I do have that great advantage because directors never get to see other directors at work, whereas I go to different sets all the time." In 2001, the BBC hired him to direct Sweet Revenge starring Paul McGann as an academic who runs an agency to help people screw up the lives of those who have wounded them. A splendid comedy fantasy, full of saturated colour and improbable plot twists, it showed real promise. But arguably it is his latest project, the BBC's two-parter, Passer By, which goes out this month, that will confirm his status as a director.

I remind him he once said, "I like to act because I can forget about everything else." Being a director, with its huge production demands, is the exact opposite. Does he ever feel he has bitten off more than he can chew? "Yes, but I feel that with every job I do! I think, why would they give me this job? I am so unqualified to be doing it. I have no credentials at all. It's impostor syndrome. But then I feel that about being a parent, as well. It's not an unnatural state for me to be in at all," he laughs.

Morrissey is one of several high-profile actors (Kathy Burke, Charles Dance, Adrian Dunbar) who have recently moved over to directing. "It's an odd thing, isn't it?" Morrissey observes, "because I am an actor. That's why I'm here, I know that. And I love everything about it - apart from being unemployed. But there is a point you get to as an actor when the joke that 'it's no job for an adult' starts to become a reality. For me it might have coincided with having kids. There's a point when you think, this is a really mad job. I love doing it, but if I'm not careful, it could really filter into my life, this thing of waking up and getting a car to take you to work, having make-up put on, and stuff like that. It's just, for all the love I have of it, I did want to push myself in other ways. The funny thing is, now I've had experience of directing, and want to do more of it, I enjoy acting far more."

A gritty contemporary drama, Passer By was written by Tony Marchant, and takes as its central scenario something that could happen to any one of us. James Nesbitt plays Joe Keyes, a radiographer who is travelling home on the last train when he sees a young woman being chatted up by two men. As the flirtatious banter becomes slightly threatening, Joe reaches his stop. He's tired, a bit drunk and frankly longing for his bed. Should he stay and intervene, or let himself off the hook? He does the latter - only to find out later that the woman has been seriously assaulted. When he is called as a witness, his failure to act impacts on his authority as a husband and a manager.

According to Morrissey, "Tony is so brilliant at writing a tale of everyman. We see Joe's ethical dilemma, and the knots he ties himself into afterwards because he's set himself such a high moral standard before the story even starts. I just recognised that so much in the people I know. We all make excuses for not acting when we should. I know when it's happened to me, I've always had a list of important things I needed to do. But it plays on your mind." For him, the programme's big subject matter is the idea of being a responsible citizen in a sophisticated society - the unwritten contract that we will all help and look after each other. "Often we don't intervene because we don't want to appear foolish, but the knock-on effect of that social embarrassment can be disastrous."

Without giving too much away, I guarantee that many people will be debating the ending at work next day. And Morrissey himself knows first-hand the power of water-cooler TV. As he recalls, "I always take my kids to school on Monday morning, and after State of Play was on, the other parents would stop me and say, 'Fantastic, I really enjoyed that.' But when the last episode was broadcast, where my character was revealed to be the murderer, no parent wanted to talk to me at all. Everyone turned their backs. It was like I'd personally let them down. It was a very weird experience."

'Passer By' is broadcast on BBC1 on 28 and 29 March at 9pm

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