The Boardwalk Empire star remember the teacher who opened his eyes to acting
I wasn’t allowed to do drama at school.
Why? I accidentally set fire to the toilets. When I was 18, I went to the Everyman Youth Theatre in Liverpool every Wednesday, and that’s when I started getting into drama. Our teacher while I was there was Jerry Pantomime – he was also our confidante, our friend. A lovely man.
Jerry gave us a voice.
He was a young, gay man who died of Aids in the end, but he wrote plays and was a big influence on a lot of young people. We were mostly kids from council estates and many of us had never done theatre before. In a similar way to my parents, he made us believe we could do whatever we wanted. We thought we were changing the world, but we weren’t – we were just making pieces about society, the rainforest, that kind of thing.
He really opened my eyes to the possibilities of drama.
I fell in love with acting because I realised you can make people think and feel – it isn’t just a source of entertainment. If you’re lucky, like I’ve been later on in my career to work with the likes of Peter Bowker on Occupation and Jimmy McGovern, you’re able to come into people’s living rooms and make them think: about themselves and society.
The play that really made an impact on me was called Easy.
At the end of the summer holidays before I went to university, we put on our own show. Jerry wrote it and I played Joel, the lead character, a boy that contracted HIV from a one-night stand at a party with a young girl. We were showing that it wasn’t just gay people or drug addicts [who contracted the disease] back in the day, like the fear propaganda said. We made people aware it could happen to anybody.
It had a real impact on my parents, too.
My dad’s always been very complimentary, and he’s very proud – I know he is – and he’s never been one to overly go, “My son’s amazing.” But he came over to me at the end [of Easy] and said, “I’m really proud of you – I’ve just seen my son grow up and become a man on stage.” It was a beautiful moment. I was leaving home, and that gave me the confidence to live my life and be me. My parents used to come and watch everything I did, they were supportive from day one.
Season 5 of Boardwalk Empire continues Saturdays on Sky Atlantic HD, 9pm