An actor’s life for me
PUBLISHED: 17:12 21 October 2013 | UPDATED: 17:12 21 October 2013
Phil Davis rose from a Thurrock council estate to become one of our most respected actors. Pat Parker talks to the man Daniel Day-Lewis rates alongside Meryl Streep and Marlon Brando as one of his greatest inspirations
YOU may not instantly recognise the name, but you’ll certainly know the face. Phil Davis is one of our greatest and most esteemed character actors. He’s starred in Quadrophenia, Vera Drake and most recently in the TV drama series Whitechapel and Silk. He played a murderous cabbie in Sherlock, the evil Smallweed in Bleak House and Daniel Day-Lewis recently cited him alongside Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro as one of his greatest inspirations. Not bad for a lad who grew up on a council estate in South Ockendon near Thurrock and failed the 11-Plus.
Phil is one of the most modest, but highly-regarded actors in the business. He’s easy-going and friendly to talk to and he’s never lost his south Essex accent, yet his intelligence and dedication to his craft shine through.
Phil was born in 1953, the second of three brothers. His dad worked in the Procter and Gamble soap factory while his mum was a hospital cleaner. Like most kids on the estate, Phil did not shine academically and failed his 11-Plus. But unlike most kids, from the age of eight he had nurtured an unshakeable ambition to become an actor.
Where the ambition came from, he does not know. ‘It was an extraordinary thing really to get into my head before I’d even seen a play,’ he says. ‘But I was always a good reader – I could read before I went to school and I loved reading out loud. One of my teachers told my mum at a parents’ evening that I was a born actor and I think that stuck in my head.’
While at Ockendon Courts Secondary Modern, Phil describes himself as, ‘an annoying and difficult kid – very difficult to teach. I was frustrated. I think maybe I had what they now call ADHD. I found it difficult to sit still and buckle down to anything that didn’t interest me. But as soon as I was rehearsing for a school play, I was utterly focused. It was the only place I felt at home’.
By his teens, Phil’s determination to act had become something of an obsession. ‘It wasn’t a comfortable thing, really,’ Phil explains. ‘From a working class family like mine, it was a very eccentric, unrealistic ambition – like saying you wanted to be an astronaut or play football for England.’
But his parents, Sid and Anne, never tried to put him off. ‘They never stuck a needle in my balloon. They could do nothing to help, it was outside their experience, but they just let me go my own way. They were fantastic.’
Phil never lacked self-belief and in his mid-teens he won a place at the prestigious National Youth Theatre. However, Phil didn’t really distinguish himself and its founder, Michael Croft, advised him against acting as a career.
‘I don’t think he was trying to be cruel, he just didn’t think I had the range. I think a lot of people thought I was going to end up disappointed.’
But Phil was undeterred and shortly afterwards landed an audition with Joan Littlewood’s radical Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. Perhaps his working class authenticity made him stand out.
‘I was just 18 and pretty short and squeaky. A lot of the kids she was seeing were from stage schools – all tits and teeth – and she went for the kid slouching at the back.’
Joan’s egalitarian ethos and idiosyncratic methods suited him perfectly. ‘It was fantastic for me – just the right place. Joan was so bonkers I never quite knew what she was going on about, but it taught me a wonderful pragmatism. In most theatres, you’d rehearse a play and then perform it the same way every night. But with Joan you’d constantly be rewriting, refreshing it, so you came to see the production as a living thing which could evolve. It was a wonderful start to a career.’
In 1977, he was cast in Barry Keefe’s play Gotcha!, about an overlooked, under-achieving comprehensive school boy who on his last day holds two teachers hostage. It was this explosive performance which Daniel Day-Lewis said was one of the key influences on his career.
Phil, who acted with Day-Lewis in The Bounty, accepts the compliment graciously. ‘When a triple-Oscar winner puts me on a very august list in between Streep and de Niro, it’s very flattering indeed. But Gotcha! was a ground-breaking piece of work and, although I don’t want to be immodest, it was an astonishingly good performance from a kid that young. It was the theatrical equivalent of punk – a short, angry cry of rage against a world that didn’t care. A lot of people of my generation empathised with it.’
Phil feels he was lucky that in the 1970s it became quite trendy to be working class in the theatre. However, he believes he was not given full credit for his performance in Gotcha! precisely because of his background. ‘I think there was a suspicion that I was too close to the character I was playing and that I was playing it ingenuously. Had I been a middle class actor having to perform that range of emotions, it might have led to more.’
Two years later, however, he again made his mark as Chalky, a Mod in Quadrophenia, based on The Who’s rock opera. ‘We had a reunion screening a couple of weeks ago and the cast were reminiscing that it wasn’t a big hit when it first came out. But over the years it’s become a cult movie. It seems to speak to every generation because it has that fantastic, mad energy of adolescence, but also because so many working class kids identify with Jimmy, the main character. He’s not the best-looking kid on the block, he hasn’t got the best bike and he’s scared about the journey into adulthood and whether he’s going to hit the wall and end up like his dad. It’s a wonderful everyman character.’
Around this time, Phil began a long association with acclaimed director Mike Leigh, who cast him as the gentle Marxist motorcycle courier Cyril in High Hopes and more recently as Stanley, the husband of illegal abortionist Vera Drake. He’s appeared in six of his films in all. ‘I first worked with Mike in 1978 and I was blown away by it really, because up until that time I’d always thought of the characters I’d played as extensions of myself. And suddenly, with Mike, we were inventing this fictional person and investigating their life, and suddenly I got it. I learnt to put myself into other people’s shoes and try to embody them. It changed the way I thought of myself as an actor. I thought, “I can do this. I can play anyone”.’
Famously, Leigh encourages his actors to develop their characters through research and improvisation, so that the script evolves over many months. ‘Working with Mike was a complete inspiration. When we did Vera Drake it was fantastic because I was playing someone born in 1906 who was orphaned at the age of 12. I had to research what his life would have been like, so you end up with this massive well of experience from which to draw when you finally come to act the part.’
Whereas he’s played numerous baddies in his time, due mainly, he thinks, to his looks – ‘all nose and teeth’ – Leigh has cast him in gentler roles. ‘Most of the characters I’ve played for Mike have been honest and true. I think he has a liking for the sheep in wolf’s clothing – the guy who looks like a psychopath, but who’s actually quite nice.’
Phil has played an impressive range of creeps, swindlers and murderers, from the psychopathic cabbie in the first episode of Sherlock to the evil Smallweed in the BBC’s Bleak House. He even played the Devil in Being Human.
‘I play those evil, oddball parts with relish, and I play them unapologetically and from their own point of view,’ he says. ‘I can empathise with them – I can empathise with anyone. I like playing characters which are colourful and vivid.’
He’s never chased stardom or big money – he always knew he never had the looks to be big box office material. For Phil it’s the quality of the parts which matter. ‘I never wanted to be a celebrity. I wouldn’t want to be much more famous than I am. My level of fame is very nice – people look pleased to see me on the streets, pat me on the back and say, “Well done”. Really, I’ve led a charmed life.’
In recent years, he has been cast alongside public school actor Rupert Penry-Jones in a number of TV series, starting with North Square, a legal drama in which Phil played a scheming chief clerk. He teamed up with him again in ITV’s Whitechapel, in which Phil plays hard-bitten local cop Ray Miles opposite Penry-Jones’s patrician detective inspector. ‘It’s great fun,’ says Phil. ‘It’s where the horror movie meets the cop show and the more bonkers and ridiculous it is the better.’
In the BBC courtroom drama Silk, Phil plays dodgy solicitor Micky Joy, again alongside Penry-Jones. ‘We’re a real chalk and cheese combination,’ he says of the pairing. Silk returns early next year and Phil reveals that in the new series, Micky is no longer a solicitor, ‘although he does crop up in the courtroom’. On the wrong side of the law? ‘You’ll have to guess,’ is all he’ll say.
Phil’s 60 now and has never been in more demand, and the range of roles he’s offered has widened as he’s grown older. ‘I’ve often managed to get a part which I call a mould-breaker,’ he says. ‘You play that role, and a whole new area lights up for you – you unlock a room and there are lots of characters no one would have thought of offering you ten years before.’
Yet, if he likes the script, he’s still prepared to work on a project for next to nothing. He recently starred in the incredibly low-budget movie Borrowed Time, in which he plays an irascible pensioner who befriends a teenager who tries to burgle him. ‘We were all on the minimum wage – I earned the same as the tea girl!’ laughs Phil. ‘I do quite a few films for much less than my usual fee if I like the writing and it’s an interesting part.’
His next project is another British film entitled Dough, in which Jonathan Pryce plays an East End Jewish baker who is trying to hold on to his shop in the face of a very nasty piece of work who is trying to buy it and turn it into a car park. Phil plays the villain, so another baddie to get his teeth into.
Phil has a teenage son, Hugo, from a former relationship, and an 11-year-old daughter, Amy, from his marriage to actress Eve Matheson. Fatherhood, he says, has had a profound effect on him. ‘I’ve found it inspiring. The relationship with my children has enriched my life enormously and made me even more ambitious to be a better actor.’
But retirement is a long way off. ‘I’ll keep going as long as I can stand up and remember my lines,’ says Phil with a laugh. ‘And if I can’t stand up, they’ll have to wheel me on. I’ll keep going because I love it. I wake up in the morning and have a nice scene to play and I’m the happiest man alive.’