John Simm: 'I've never done therapy. Maybe I should,' says Grace and Life on Mars star

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John Simm in Grace
John Simm in Grace

JOHN Simm certainly arouses the curiosity. The actor is synonymous with playing terrific angst-ridden characters on screen; think a mix of Charlie Brown, Holden Caufield and Heathcliffe – but with a Lancashire accent. But this success makes me wonder if he’s something of a suffering soul in real life?

Yes, we know it’s acting. But directors and producers have a habit of casting actors to type, don’t they? In Simm’s case, have they picked up on an existing character trait?

When he appears on the Zoom video call from his home in Brighton, however, the first impression is John Simm is nothing at all like his distressed journalist in TV drama State of Play (2002), or the bewildered time-travelling detective Sam Tyler in Life on Mars (2006).

There’s no hint of the tortured husband whose dead wife had a secret life in Hong Kong based drama Strangers (2019).

And it’s only geography, (both Brighton-based) it seems, that connects him with his latest telly role, the eponymous Grace, ITV’s uber-intense detective who bottles up emotions better than A.G. Barr bottle ginger.

Or is it? Given the Leeds-born actor slides into the darker corners of the human condition so easily, does that suggest the worry gene is built in? “I guess so,” he says, grinning. Does he worry, for example, before going on stage? “Sometimes.”

HeraldScotland: John Simm in Strangers
HeraldScotland: John Simm in Strangers

John Simm in Strangers

He expands. “It’s almost comical. I remember being in the wings during the press night of Hamlet, (2010) with my headphones on listening to Philip Glass [the American composer and pianist] waiting to go on stage, and catching Michelle Dockery’s eye, [the Downton star who played Ophelia].

Her eyes had the fear in them as well, and I was thinking ‘What are we doing? Why are we doing this? Why would I put myself through this?’ “But then you throw yourself on stage and off you go, and find yourself underneath the lights, looking at an audience and you think to yourself, ‘This is your job. This is what you’ve rehearsed. So, get on with it!’”

And he did and the reviews were great. One critic wrote he was “a tense, wiry, permanently troubled figure with a capacity for swift thought and a voice that cuts through rhetoric like a razor through stubble.”

Simm however continues on the worry theme. “I did a play once called Speaking in Tongues in the West End, (2009) and it was such a tricky play – we had to finish each other’s sentences – I was so nervous, I began to contemplate what would happen if I had a heart attack.”

Seriously? You were that terrified? “Yes,” he says, grinning at the absurdity of it all. “I wondered if they would they stop the show if I had one?” He laughs aloud at the madness of the mind. “I even imagined coming around later in the ambulance. It all went through my head.”

Simm’s internalising no doubt contributes to his performances. He loves to immerse himself in a role, to take on the angularity of a character. But does Grace (based on bestselling author Peter James’ novels) offer the chance to test himself, given he’s so contained? “Yes, he’s calm on the job, he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve and he’s certainly not Sam Tyler. But Grace also gets a personal life, which is great. And we get to see emotional reactions from him when he does lose it.” He says: “He’s an intriguing character to play.”

If Simm weren’t enjoying Grace, he wouldn’t have signed up for a second series. He’s not for hanging about, a fact underlined during his Life on Mars stint. (Ironically, while the viewers were raving about the time travel series, Simm wasn’t enjoying the filming experience. “When the red light came on to begin filming, I felt numb,” he recalled.

“Being in every scene it was virtually impossible to learn the lines on time, I couldn’t really prepare properly, it was all shot out of sequence, and it was confusing enough as it was.”

Although thankful for the chance to star in a hit series, he opted out, and went back to theatre, to get deep into character roles. “The main thing in my head is to play interesting characters.

HeraldScotland: Life on Mars
HeraldScotland: Life on Mars

Life on Mars

“You are in a box on screen and categorised as the angsty guy or whatever. In theatre however you can break out of that. I wanted to get back to it as soon as I could.”

And wallow in the chance to become someone else? He nods in agreement. “I remember when my dad died a few years ago, [2015] I was appearing in the Homecoming in the West End, and I just had to get back on stage straight away. I could hear my dad’s voice in my head saying: ‘What? You’re going to sit around and cry and let an understudy play your part? You need to be back up there. “And I did. I got back up there and hid. It was ironic in that my character was playing someone who spoke to his father a lot. But perhaps because it was fiction it wasn’t as dark as real life.”

He wonders: “In what other profession do you get the chance to disappear for two and a half hours every single night. I guess that’s the delight of being an actor.

“You can disappear into this fantasy world. It’s your version of Westworld and sometimes it’s a wonderful retreat.”

John Simm’s relationship with his dad was far from the usual, indeed it informed and formed his future career. Ronald Simm was a club entertainer who formed a double act with his 11-year-old guitar-playing son and they’d play Beatles and Everly Brothers songs over a seven-year period.

It was an unusual adolescence, to say the least. “Being in a band with your dad – weird in a way, a real eye-opener – the early-Eighties northern clubland circuit?

“That would toughen anyone up. I was working every weekend, so I had more money than the rest of the kids – but I never went out anywhere.”

He adds: “In many ways it was wonderful. But he wanted me to become a musician and then when I left home it broke his heart a bit. It was over. So, he wasn’t easy to deal with after that.”

How did that manifest itself? “He wouldn’t be, let’s say, overly effusive about my [acting]work, let’s put it like that. He was just so gutted that I left.”

The teenage Simm had revealed another talent beyond knowing his way around a fretboard.

In 1986, his school drama teacher in Nelson in Lancashire encouraged her star pupil to enrol in the Performing Arts course at a further education college in Blackpool. He went on to star in Guys and Dolls and West Side Story at Blackpool’s Grand Theatre.

“I loved appearing in these shows,” he recalls, his voice revealing the delight he felt at the time. “You know, I watched the new West Side film recently and I thought it was amazing, the songs buried in my psyche. But back then the next college musical was The Boyfriend, which I hated, and I vowed never to do musicals again.”

Simm knew he wanted to become a straight actor. He joined an amateur dramatic group to gain experience and played the lead in Billy Liar and Amadeus. Aged 19, he moved to London to study at drama college.

Graduating in 1992, Simm stepped onto the television treadmill with a part in Rumpole, and three years later landed a pivotal role in Cracker, playing – surprise, surprise – a troubled teenager. He starred in another Jimmy McGovern drama, The Lakes (1997) again conveying delightful misery. Again, his reviews were excellent.

Yet, while living in London, Simm had continued to play guitar. In the early Nineties, he was in a band, Magic Alex, which supported Echo and the Bunnymen and Coldplay. He loved this hedonistic period, enjoying as many forbidden delights as an aspiring rock star should. Which led to a dilemma; the band had a chance to be signed. What to do? Give up the acting – or make his dad a very happy man and pick up a plectrum?

Band life was in many ways alluring. But Simm thought of going round the country in a little white van ‘playing toilets.’ “I thought, ‘Sod that – if I stop acting now, I’m an idiot, because this is what I do. I’ve been to drama school, trained. If I throw all that away just to be in a band, it would be ridiculous.’”

He made the right choice in side-lining music but acting life hasn’t been without disappointment. After the remarkable success of Paul Abbott’s State of Play, Simm was invited to LA to discuss a movie remake.

Fantastic! Well, not quite.

The film went ahead, but with Russell Crowe playing Simm’s part. He had to look through the window again when Life on Mars was remade without him.

By this time, married to actor Kate Magowan (they met in 2002 on the set of 24-Hour Party People and have a boy and a girl), Simm realised Hollywood can be the city of broken promises and dreams.

“I did a show called Catch, for ABC. I loved it and I was driving down Sunset Boulevard to work each day. It was such fun. But the series just didn’t work out. And unless you hit a supernova, that’s often the case.

He reflected: “There was a time when I wanted to be Brad Pitt. I’d have loved to have been in Star Wars, but I was in Human Traffic, not Trainspotting. So that’s the way my life has gone. But I don’t have big regrets because every time something doesn’t happen, something else does. The thing is to go with it.” He smiles, wryly. “And, anyway, I don’t think I could live in LA.”

What to do? He went back to theatre, to immerse himself in the great roles. He played a Pinter season in 2018, followed with more angst and recrimination in Macbeth. Simm then returned to television success with Strangers. More screaming introspection.

Then came the chance to make an epic series, the prequel to Game of Thrones. “We shot the pilot, and we were so sure we’d be moving to Belfast, the kids would go to a new school and all that, so much money was spent on it, [$30m]. But it didn’t happen. And you have to take it with a pinch of salt.”

He shrugs: “I’m too old to be bothered anymore.”

Be careful what you wish for? “Yes, if Hollywood had worked out you can be in LA away from your kids and it’s a very tricky balance to achieve. But I really mustn’t grumble.”

John Simm smiles a lot during interviews. He may be something of a natural worrier, a deep thinker, which helps turn on a rain cloud personality.

But away from the camera he’s decidedly upbeat and funny. (Except perhaps when he speaks of the perilous state of his beloved Manchester United.) Has he had help at any point to deal with life’s travails? “I’ve never done therapy,” he says, grinning. “Maybe I should.”

Well, it’ not compulsory, John. And you seem fairly well balanced. (An early example? He once dated Spice Girl Emma Bunton but found the showbiz attention too much to handle.) He’s perceived as one of the best actors around. I bet he doesn’t even have to audition in the UK?

“Not often,” he smiles. “And yes, the offers come in.”

But would he have liked to work on a range of lighter material, a counterpoint to The Master in Dr Who? Would a cosy Richard Curtis film have been a nice change? “Well, it doesn’t keep me awake at night. Sometimes it’s just the way the cards fall.” He smiles: “No, Richard Curtis hasn’t been in touch.”

Does he push his agent to get him something funny? Did he spend the time in Hong Kong in Strangers, for example, thinking, ‘This is gripping television, but I could do with a few laughs’ He grins. “Yes, every time I film these straight dramas I think ‘Get me a sitcom.’ “But the twist is those heavy dramas can in fact be such fun to make. I don’t know why, perhaps it’s a contrast to the seriousness of the story perhaps, but the sets can be a real laugh.”

So, life’s good. It’s best he chose not to be a rock star. And he still indulges his musical needs. The 51-year-old swivels his laptop around to reveal a super-techy room, replete with a range of guitars, mikes and a keyboard. “This is a new studio. I’m not showing off,” he laughs.

Yes, you are showing off, John, but rightly so.

“Okay, I am. But I’ve stopped apologising to my wife for buying new guitars.” He adds, beaming with pride. I’ve got eight now.”

And what of his dad? Did he ever accept his son’s decision to opt for acting? Simm offers a thankful smile. “It took a while, but he did come back on track.”

So overall, life is good. John Simm isn’t a Charlie Brown at all. He’s a man content in his world, with the realisation he’s done all right as an actor.

“That’s it,” he says, laughing. “I’ve done all right.”

Grace continues on STV, Sundays at 8pm.

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