Daniel Mays: ‘Culture and the arts should never be for the privileged few’

Daniel Mays
Daniel Mays appears in the forthcoming Apple TV+ drama Franklin - Will Thompson

Actor Daniel Mays began his career working with director Mike Leigh in All or Nothing and Vera Drake. Since then, he’s appeared in Ashes to Ashes, Line of Duty, Made in Dagenham and Des. He was recently nominated for an Olivier Award for his performance in Guys and Dolls on the West End. He stars alongside Michael Douglas in new Apple TV+ drama, Franklin, about the founding father of America. Mays lives in London with his wife and two children.

The best of times

Performance of your career?

The press night of Guys and Dolls recently. I wasn’t sure about doing a musical: it was actually Michael Douglas who convinced me to do it while we were filming Franklin. I was in two minds, but Michael wouldn’t take no for an answer: he said I had to do it. I hadn’t done musical stuff since my days in school, so it was a risk. I didn’t know how well it was going to go down. Everyone went wild for it and by the time press night arrived, there was no pressure. Michael and Catherine Zeta Jones also came to see me, which was amazing. I’d love to do more musical theatre in the future; I’d love to play Fagin in Oliver! one day.

Celebrity encounter?

On a morning run during lockdown with my son around Highgate Woods, I bumped into this guy dressed all in black with a sort of swagger. At the time, a Netflix show I was in called White Lines was out, in which I played a Mancunian DJ in Ibiza. The guy said: “alright mate, I know you. You’re from White Lines.” It turned out to be Liam Gallagher. I’m a huge Oasis fan – I loved them as a kid. I was completely tongue-tied and then my son appeared. I said excitedly, “Look, Milo, it’s Liam Gallagher!” He replied: “Who’s that?!” It brought Liam right down to size.


Having kids. My son is now 18 but he wasn’t planned, maybe that doesn’t count? I’d only been with my wife a short amount of time, so the nicest way to describe it is that it came as a shock. I’d only just started my career – I hadn’t got going yet and then this monumental, seismic thing happened: it forced me to grow up and take responsibility. Suddenly, you’re not the most important person in the room. That focus on providing for a family forced me to become a better actor too.

Daniel Mays
Mays says his best decision was to have kids - Will Thompson

Person you’ve worked with?

The best actor I’ve worked with is Ben Whishaw. We did a revival of Mojo in the West End and I remember doing the read through and was spellbound by him. He’s got this absolutely magnetic, ethereal quality. We did the read through and I said: “so, what are you going to do for the next five weeks?” He was already good to go. He was magnificent to learn from. Imelda Staunton who played my mum in Vera Drake was a great mentor to me. If I have a dilemma with a part now, I still phone Imelda and get her take on it.

Childhood memory?

Sun-kissed family holidays in Lanteglos, Cornwall. I’m one of four boys, but my parents’ friends used to tag along as well – they’d be four or five different families. My mum and dad were very gregarious. Even now they still have this big group of friends. I try to go to Devon every summer with my family too. I guess the English seaside tradition has stayed with me.

The worst of times

The UK?

The current disinterest in the arts. Keir Starmer gave a really powerful speech a few weeks ago about the importance of working-class kids in theatre and culture in general and it really got to me. Culture and arts in this country should never be a thing for the privileged few; it should be for the many. I think under the current administration, that’s not high on the agenda.

Being an actor?

The rejection. You are the product putting yourself out there, you’re selling yourself. You have to be quite brave about that. If there’s a role that you really want, you really worked on the scenes and you thought that the audition went spectacularly well and then you never get the gig – that rejection is difficult. I’ve got better at dealing with that but at the beginning, it would be so hurtful. You have to learn that it’s just part of the job.


I was a roofer while trying to make ends meet at drama school. If not the worst job, it was definitely the hardest – carrying rolls of lead up a ladder. I actually roofed a property in Soho and I do sometimes go back and think: ‘roof’s still on, I did a good job.’ I also had a job sanding buses for a time, getting them ready for being repainted. It was horrible, suffocating and full of dust and chemicals, I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone.

daniel mays
Mays had several jobs before becoming an actor, including sanding buses - Will Thompson


I passed my driving test aged 17 and bought a Mini Cooper, which was my absolute pride and joy. It was red with white stripes. My dad told me not to get it. He told me you learn to drive in the first six months after passing and advised me to buy an old banger until I knew what I was doing. I was adamant about buying this Mini. Two months later, I accidentally ran a red light and bounced off a Rover, writing my car off. I thought I’d killed the man in the other car but thankfully he was alright – I’d never been so relieved to hear someone shouting, screaming and swearing at me. I should’ve listened to my dad.

Childhood memory?

I was about 11 or 12, playing out with my friends Matthew and James on a hot summer’s day. We used to play knock-and-run at the kitchen door of a nearby restaurant on a busy road. Obviously they got wind of what we were doing. They flung open the doors and started throwing ice cubes at us as a practical joke. We fled, running into the busy road and James got hit by a car: I remember him flying through the air. It was so traumatic. I ran home in shock and my mum gave me a shot of whisky to bring me round. Thankfully, after a few weeks in hospital, he was fine. We threw the towel in on knock-and-run after that.

About social media?

I genuinely feel like my attention span has shortened because of it. All we do is go down the black-hole of doom-scrolling for hours on end. When I get a script, I often find I can’t get through the whole thing in one go. It’s the addictive nature of it. We all put the best versions of ourselves on there too and you’re making your mind up about other people through their social media. It’s not reality at all, is it?

The absolute worst?

The traffic warden who gave me a ticket the other day. I was only out shopping and was just a few minutes late, but she gave me a ticket. She wouldn’t let me off with it – an outrage!

Daniel Mays stars in Franklin on Apple TV+ from April 12 to May 17