‘I came to love David Beckham’: how an Oscar-winning Succession star put Goldenballs’ wild life on screen

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Fisher Stevens was playing Succession’s most oleaginous lick-spittle when he got the call. Leonardo DiCaprio wanted him to direct a Netflix documentary about David Beckham. At first Stevens wasn’t interested; he was having too much fun playing Hugo Baker, slimy comms guy for the loathsome Logan dynasty.

“I was like: ‘Nah.’ That’s going to be two years of my life and I’d really have to love spending time in that world,” says 59-year-old Stevens from an editing suite in New York.

It is understandable. In Succession’s final series, Stevens gets the best lines. As the sociopathic siblings and their underlings fly to Norway to broker a last-ditch deal to save Waystar Royco with a Scandinavian business whizz, Stevens delivers the incisively self-castigating line: “We’re snakes on a plane.”

“But then the writers, especially Jesse [Armstrong, the English creator of Succession], said to me: ‘You cannot not do this. This is a great story.’ I didn’t know the story.”

‘I didn’t have baggage with Beckham’, says Fisher Stevens.
‘I didn’t have baggage with Beckham’: Fisher Stevens. Photograph: Tibrina Hobson/WireImage

So how did it come to pass, with all due respect, that a know-nothing American was the right fit to tell the life story of England’s leading twinkle-toed pretty boy? Three reasons. First, Stevens is not just an actor, whose CV includes a notorious and regretted brown face performance in the 1986 film Short Circuit but also regular turns in Wes Anderson movies (most recently as Detective #1 in Asteroid City). He’s also a documentary-maker. His 2009 film about dolphin hunting in Japan, The Cove, won an Oscar. In 2010, he collaborated with DiCaprio on the climate crisis documentary Before the Flood.

Second, DiCaprio and Beckham are buddies. “David was hanging out with Leo, and asked him who he should get,” says Stevens. “He recommended me! David watched Before the Flood then Palmer [the critically-mauled 2021 Apple TV+ drama starring Justin Timberlake] that I directed and saw something he liked – the emotion I guess.”

The third reason is most telling. Stevens isn’t just some mug who doesn’t know the beautiful game. Although the Chicago-born Stevens will be a fan of the Cubs (baseball) and Bears (American football) until he dies, he also has something in his wardrobe that marks him out as a soccer stan: a collection of Ivory Coast football shirts. “I went to Stamford Bridge [home of Chelsea FC] and fell in love with Didier Drogba.” What were you doing there? “The first documentary I produced was Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos in 2006. At the time I didn’t know football. Then the producer, John [Battsek], takes me to see Chelsea play and, well, I fell in love.

“I was quite late to the soccer party. That was part of the reason David may have wanted me to do it. I didn’t have baggage with Beckham. I didn’t know he had that problem with the red card.”

Ah, the red card. On 30 June 1998, England played Argentina in the World Cup. There was major beef between the two nations. Both countries were seeking redemption. Beckham could have become a national hero. Instead, he became the most hated person in England because of what happened in the 47th minute.

In his documentary, Stevens replays that moment in slo-mo. Fouled by Diego Simeone, Beckham, prone on the turf, kicks out at the Argentina defender who promptly collapses to the floor. If Oscars were awarded for footballing simulation, one would be sitting on Simeone’s mantelpiece.

Beckham (far left) given the red card after a foul on Argentina’s Diego Simeone during their 1998 World Cup second round match.
Beckham (far left) given the red card after a foul on Argentina’s Diego Simeone during their 1998 World Cup second round match. Photograph: Adam Butler/PA

Stevens makes this the pivotal moment in his drama of a sweet, working-class, east London kid whose dream was to stick the ball in the proverbial onion bag as many times as possible for Manchester United and England. Instead, that kick got Beckham sent off, and England were defeated.

On returning to England, Beckham was blamed for the defeat. He received death threats and was hanged in effigy outside a pub. The Mirror splashed with “10 Heroic Lions, One Stupid Boy” and offered disappointed fans a Beckham dartboard to vent their fury. Bullets were sent to Beckham in the post. Stevens’s film holds up a mirror to this hate-drunk England.

When I interviewed Beckham’s wife, Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, two years later, she was understandably furious that fans shouted at him “Your wife’s a whore. Hope your kid dies of cancer”. Brooklyn Beckham, now 24, was born on 4 March 1999. These were toxic times, showing not only that English culture is often unspeakably vile, but that public bullying predated social media.

“People think he’s this beautiful guy, that everything was handed to him. Not true. He worked his way up and he could have been crushed by what happened to him in 1998 – but he wasn’t. He’s one of the strongest people I know.”

Did Beckham’s trial by media resonate for you, I ask Stevens? In the 90s and 00s, the Hollywood star was written up as punching above his romantic weight in the press. He dated glamorous actors including Michelle Pfeiffer. He was pap-snapped with Sarah Jessica Parker but denies dating her. “You do all this acting stuff, then you get in the press for being somebody’s boyfriend,” Stevens told the LA Times in 1991. “And for some reason, the press like to call me ‘geeky’.”

“I’ve never been through what David and Victoria went through. I tried to put myself in David’s head. I felt at times I was going through what he went through. I wanted the audience to feel what he felt. I hope that comes through.”

It does, but what also comes through, unexpectedly, is a profound contrast with his last acting franchise. The world of Succession finds its antithesis here. Love and solidarity are expendable commodities in Succession’s backstabbing world. In Beckham, they’re what enable David to overcome the slings and arrows. “He survived because of his strong bond with his wife, the love of his parents [kitchen fitter Ted and hairdresser Sandra], how Manchester and his teammates stood up for him. And because of Sir Alex Ferguson.”

Hold on. Fergie? But isn’t the former Manchester United manager an avatar of Succession’s Logan Roy? “You’ve got him all wrong,” says Stevens. “I was really scared to meet him. But I came to love the guy.”

Stevens learned that Brian Cox, the Scottish actor who played Logan Roy, is friends with Ferguson and used that relationship to get on the good side of the famously irascible football manager. “Brian signed a copy of Fergie’s book which had just come out and I gave it to Sir Alex. That helped get more time with him. And he knew our show. He asked me ‘Why aren’t you going to do a fifth season?’ I told him because it’s over, man.”

Stevens says he admires Fergie because he protected Beckham from hate. True, Fergie was alienated by Posh and Becks’s celebrity lifestyle, thinking it would distract Golden Balls from his destiny – namely to fill the Old Trafford trophy cabinet – but he stood by his embattled man. He created a siege mentality at his club that may partly explain the club’s success under his yoke. Certainly the players Stevens interviews circled the wagons and protected their teammate. What I found surprising is that fondness for Becks from Roy Keane, even though the dour midfield enforcer was never on the same page as Beckham in terms of embracing a flashy lifestyle of Porsches and Rolexes.

What Stevens didn’t realise when he took the gig was what a diverting cast of characters he had at his disposal. Not just the perma-surly Keane, but French philosopher Eric Cantona and Manc motormouth turned wannabe Labour MP Gary Neville. “I wish I could have made 20 episodes, there’s so much great stuff. I mean, some of those guys. Paul Scholes – what an absolute dude.” That is a sentence I never expected to hear.

And yet the most compelling interviewee is Beckham’s nemesis Simeone, now Atletico Madrid’s manager. Should Beckham have been red carded? Stevens asks Simeone a quarter of a century after the fact. Absolutely not, says Simeone, who concedes he suckered the referee with his overreaction. “You’re a good actor,” says Stevens. “I want to put you in my next movie.”

Stevens has a terrible secret. He doesn’t support United, but Liverpool. He supported Chelsea, then Arsenal and now Liverpool. Why Beckham didn’t fire him for this disgrace is beyond me.

One reason is that the documentary series, though compelling, is hagiographic. It ends in Miami with Beckham having lured one of the world’s greatest footballers, Lionel Messi, to play for Inter Miami CF, the team he co-owns. “He’s transformed American soccer,” says Stevens. But he could have ended the story on a sourer note, say how Beckham endorsed last year’s World Cup in Qatar while receiving $15m a year from the Gulf state’s tourist board, despite its appalling human rights record and treatment of the LGBTQ+ community.

Stevens doesn’t roll that way. His series flatters its subject by narrating his life as a redemption story. It celebrates how, cannily, with his equally astute wife, Beckham overcame the red card setback, redeemed himself on the pitch then parlayed his short-lived professional career into lucrative association with some of the world’s most powerful brands. “He’s a great businessman. Good-looking, great taste in clothes and furnishings. Kept his head on his shoulders.” To be fair, Stevens is not the first to be captivated at the court of king David and queen Victoria.

Because of the Hollywood writers’ strike, Stevens hasn’t been able to take acting gigs. Not that he hasn’t been busy. He’s beaten Hodgkin’s lymphoma, had two kids with his wife, the film-maker Alexis Bloom whom he married in 2017, and is currently executive producing her upcoming documentary about 60s It Girl Anita Pallenberg.

Like Bloom, Stevens is devoting himself for the foreseeable to documentary-making. He is producing a film about a Black men’s club in New Orleans called the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. “I used to hang out at this club when I was filming there, was blown away by it and asked if we can make a film about it. It’s about the experience of Black middle- and upper middle-class men that you never see.”

You’re missing a trick, I tell Stevens as we wind up. You should emulate fellow Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds and buy up some underperforming British football club. You could do what Reynolds did for Wrexham. Stevens demurs. “Reynolds is a genius businessman. I am not. I wish I could take lessons from Reynolds and Beckham. They have that thing. I don’t. I’m the only guy that could sell an apartment in the West Village and lose $100,000. So no, I don’t think I’ll be buying a football club any time soon. It’d be a disaster. In that sense, I can’t relate to Beckham.”

Beckham is on Netflix from 4 October