Stephen Graham: I’m privileged to step into people’s living rooms

Boardwalk Empire’s Stephen Graham always searches for the humanity in his characters, he tells Laura Davis

FORGET Academy Awards judges or film critics. Stephen Graham gets his best feedback from the women in his local Co-op. They deliver their analyses of his latest performance when he calls in to buy bread for his childrens’ packed lunches.

It was a big Co-op thumbs up for The Accused, Jimmy McGovern’s latest BBC series in which Graham plays married satellite engineer Tony who falls for vivacious transvestite Tracie.

As well as giving us man’s man Sean Bean in full make-up and a dress, it was an extremely gentle performance from the Liverpool-born actor more used to playing gangsters and thugs.

“One of the women came up to me and said ‘I loved that last night, it was very different to what you normally do. But you still killed someone didn’t you’,” he laughs.

“When Jimmy said he wanted Sean Bean to play the part of Tracie, I was like ‘wow, okay’.

“And he was like, ‘I just think it would be really great for him to play that role and people would look at him in a different way – and he’s also got a great set of legs’.”

It was the script, by Liverpool writer Sean Duggan, that attracted Graham to the role of Tony. That and the chance to play a totally different character.

The director’s name also plays a strong part in his decision to take on a project.

“Whether it’s a big role or a small role, you’re in a very privileged place where you can come into someone’s living room for an hour or whatever and have their attention,” says Graham, 39.

“I feel it’s important to be a part of telling good stories and hopefully doing work that can make people think.”

It surprised the Co-op critics that Graham is nothing like the crew of nasties he has played on the screen – among them Scrum in Pirates of the Caribbean, Combo in This is England, police murderer Noel Finch in Good Cop (filmed in Liverpool) and, the most notoriously vicious of all, Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire.

In person, the ex-Everyman Youth Theatre member is very much the cheeky lad from Kirkby – a bit shorter than he seems on TV but much cheekier, with a big grin and a warm personality.

We meet in the concert room at St George’s Hall where he will be taking part in a Desert Island Discs-style In Conversation event later this month. Local musicians will play his song choices as he talks about his life, in the sold-out event organised by Little Atom Productions.

“Hopefully I’m nothing like the characters I play, but with most of them I try to bring a bit of humanity and a bit of humility to them, to make them interesting, not to just play them as one-dimensional, angry people,” he says.

“Apart from the character I played in Good Cop. I wanted him to have no redeeming features at all.

“I wanted people to hate him straight away because gangsters can be glamorised with their flash cars and money and nice houses. Some kids look up to them as role models.

“With Al Capone, we wanted people to like him, to find him slightly funny. Everyone knows he was one of the biggest gangsters ever to live, he was a psychopath. We wanted to show how that developed.”

Boardwalk Empire director Martin Scorsese (or “Marty” to Graham) called him personally to invite him to play Capone, having worked with him on the 2002 historical film Gangs of New York.

Graham was excited but typically unfazed until the point in his first scene when it came to saying the scripted sentence, “I’m Al Capone”.

“The gravity of saying those words!,” he exclaims.

“I’m looking around the set and there’s three cranes, six vintage cars, 100 extras all in costume. It was like s–t, this is a bit serious this.”

It is reminiscent of the moment when Graham first felt the need to act gripping him by the heart.

He was on stage at the Everyman Youth Theatre, playing the part of Joe, a teenager who discovers he is HIV-positive after having unprotected sex with a girl at a disco. He can still recite parts of the script.

“At the time, it was such a controversial play for a young group of people to be doing,” he says.

“It was very poignant and I felt honoured to be a part of that.

“I remember looking out at the audience while I was doing a monologue and I had this weird out of body experience.

“I could see me talking to people and I could see the audience. It was like this little flash and I thought ‘wow, I want to do this forever’.”

IN CONVERSATION with Stephen Graham takes place on November 17 in the concert room at St George’s Hall. The event is sold out.

Liverpool Post, November 1, 2012