Interview with Daniel Mays for Born to Kill
You co-star in Channel 4’s new thriller, Born to Kill. Explain a little bit about the show.
I’d describe Born to Kill as a ‘study in psychopathy’, it’s very much in the heads of our main protagonist, Sam, a young boy dealing with dark, twisted psychotic desires. It’s also a coming-of-age story. He falls in love with my character’s daughter, and my character tentatively begins a relationship with Sam’s mother as well. As you can imagine, with the horrible dark thing running through the drama, there’s a very complicated domestic, family dynamic as well. It’s a very difficult project to define, it seems to exist between genres. It’s sort of a thriller, sort of a crime drama, but at its heart, it’s a drama about relationships, and the premise of nature versus nurture. I was blown away with it, the filming of it, and the getting into Sam’s headspace. It’s a disquieting, foreboding but deeply compelling watch. They drip-feed you information, and there’s a horrible sense of dread. It’s a very accomplished piece.
And tell us who you play?
I play a guy called Bill, who is somewhat at a low ebb when you first see him in the show. At the beginning of the piece he’s returning to Ripley Heath, where the drama is set. It’s where he grew up, he’s not been there for over a decade. He’s returning with his only daughter. He’s there to reconnect with his mother, but like characters littered throughout the piece, he’s got a really interesting back story. Bill is a widower who has lost his wife to cancer, and you get the sense that there’s a huge void in his life. That’s caused havoc with him, and there’s a sense that he might have suffered with depression. He comes back to look after his mother, who’s broken her hip and is in hospital. He’s lost his job, and he’s sort of making it up as he goes along. Throughout the course of the drama, he meets Romola’s character, and everyone’s wires get crossed.
It’s a pretty dark subject matter, isn’t it? Do you think drama is more interesting when it deals with the dark side of life?
I think so; I think there’s always an appetite for that. Whenever anyone said “What are you doing next, Danny?” and I said “I’m doing a psychological thriller for Channel 4,” they love it. There’s a dark fascination with the macabre sense of things in life. I guess that’s why, when you see a car accident, there’s a tailback and everyone wants to slow down to have a look at it out of the window. I think we embrace the darkness in the piece. It’s a compelling watch, but we’ve certainly not shied away from tough subject matter.
Did you do much in the way of research for the role? Or was it all there on the page?
I’ve played a lot of mixed up characters on the edge in the past, and what was appealing about Bill was that there was a simplicity about him. He’s just a regular guy and a regular dad trying to make the best of things after the death of his wife. Ultimately his journey throughout the piece very much ends up being about saving his daughter, who becomes mixed up with this guy who’s completely off the rails. But it’s also so interesting that his relationship with Jenny is never allowed to materialise. Nevertheless, they have a real, instant connection. They’re two lost, lonely souls. He makes her laugh, and they’re both looking for companionship. I thought that was something really interesting in the drama, how their relationship can never materialise into anything else because of events elsewhere.
Your daughter Chrissy is played by newcomer Lara Peake. How did you enjoy working with her?
I thought she was absolutely top drawer, a really fantastic new talent. Obviously the roles of Chrissy and Sam were key to cast, and I know that [director] Bruce Goodison and Channel 4 searched far and wide to try and find the best two actors to fill those roles. I think they’ve both hit it out the park. They’re both fiercely talented, incredibly committed, and just care deeply about the project. I think you can really see that in their performances. And their relationship and chemistry onscreen is fantastic, but individually they really stand up, and I just think they’ve unearthed two gems, really, two stars of the future.
It must be quite exciting, seeing talent like that coming through.
Oh, it really is. I actually did a radio play recently, and I was talking to some of the guys in it about this series, and about Lara and Jack [Rowan, who plays Sam] and about how refreshing it was to work with a new talent that has no baggage and no preconceived ideas about them. It’s gold, really, because as a viewer, having not seen them in anything else, you can invest totally in their performances. I think they've both done an incredible job. Jack’s performance really carries the whole piece. It’s such an unsettling performance. At times I felt sympathy for him, and it feels like a sort of modern day Psycho. He’s a bit like Norman Bates, with a rather off-centre outlook on the world. He plays it absolutely pitch-perfect, as far as I’m concerned.
Had you worked with Romola before?
No, I never had. I’d met her socially a couple of times, and obviously we were both in Atonement, but she was in the middle section of that movie and then she sort of passed the baton over to me in the Second World War section. So I literally passed her in the make-up bus. But I’ve always been an admirer of hers; She’s consistently brilliant in everything she does. And she really didn’t disappoint to work with. She’s got a fierce intelligence, she really fights her corner, and she’ll really stand up for the character she’s playing. She just had a deep consideration for her character, and she just wanted every beat and every nuance of her performance to compliment the whole piece.
The show is, in a large part, about estranged and difficult relationships between parents and their kids. As a parent yourself, did that unnerve you?
Yeah, it’s every parent’s worst nightmare, to lose connection with your children, to not fully engage with them or have an understanding of what crowd of people they’re mixing with, what they are watching online. I think it just cements the importance of trying to look after and raise your kids the best you possibly can, in a nurturing and loving relationship. Obviously Sam is carrying around this incident that happened years before with his dad. And it triggers the whole debate about whether individuals are born evil or whether they’re shaped by their experiences. It’s a very tricky subject to focus in on, and I’m not really sure what the answer is.
Do you think your interest in the dark and difficult aspects of life is what led to you becoming a Leyton Orient fan?
[Laughs] Someone had to. It’s a bit dark and dangerous at the moment at our club!
Born To Kill launches on Channel 4 this April.