For a self-confessed “soppy little f*cker”, Stephen Graham does a good line in hardcases. The Liverpudlian actor’s scene-stealing turns as vicious skinhead Combo in This Is England and notorious bank robber Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies have made him the go-to guy for big-screen lunatics, and his latest role — the young Al Capone in Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire — may be his most psychotic yet. But, as ShortList discovers, the real Mr Graham is the epitome of calm contentment.
First Combo, then Baby Face, now Capone… do you get a kick out of playing violent characters?
[Laughs] Listen, I’ve got a lovely wife and two lovely kids, so when I’m at home, I’m a soppy little f*cker. But I’m never going to be Mr Darcy, am I? I actually find those types of character quite boring. So it’s great to play interesting people, with that darkness deep down inside them.
How much research did you do to prepare for playing Capone?
Obviously, Robert De Niro’s portrayal of him in The Untouchables is ingrained in my brain, but Martin [Scorsese] didn’t want me to watch anything in preparation. He wanted my own slant on it. No one had seen Capone when he was young before, so we brought a sense of humour to him and a little bit of naivety.
Is it true that Scorsese called you the ‘British Joe Pesci’?
He did say that, yeah. It was an honour.
Do I think it’s true?
If he says it, it’s true. Whatever Martin says is the gospel to me. I remember exactly when he said it, as well. We were on the way to lunch during filming for Gangs Of New York. I’d just done a scene with Leo [DiCaprio] and we were all walking down the corridor and Martin put his arm round me and said, “You’re like my British Joe Pesci.”
You must have enjoyed your lunch after a compliment like that…
I’ll never forget it — I can still see it vividly. It was spaghetti with spinach. And a little bit of Parmesan [laughs].
Your accent in Boardwalk is great. Did you ‘go method’ to perfect it?
No, that’s a bit too anal for me. My voice coach on Boardwalk was actually the key grip, a guy called Charlie. So, I’d be doing a scene, getting notes off Martin Scorsese and I’d have to say to him, “Sorry Marty – can I have 10 minutes with Charlie?” And Martin would let me go off with the grip and work on my accent. Charlie loved it — by the end, he was sitting at the monitor with the headphones on, saying, “Sort the lights out yourselves — I’m working with Stephen now!”
How was filming in Hawaii for Pirates Of The Caribbean 4?
I had such a giggle on that job. I look more like a roadie than a rock star, though — I’ve got long hair and a scar on my face. Johnny Depp was brilliant to work with.
What was he like?
He’s such a lovely fella, so down-to-earth. I talked to him about Liverpool and our plight in the Premier League. He doesn’t support a team yet, but I’m trying to turn him on to Liverpool. A guy who works for him is an Evertonian, and he tried to steer Johnny towards the dark side, but I wasn’t having that. I squashed that pretty quickly [laughs]. Johnny’s great at the Scouse accent, too. It might turn up in one of his characters soon.
Have you kept any costumes from your films?
I’ve got Combo’s coat from This Is England and the jacket from [BBC drama] The Street. The caps we wore on Boardwalk are great too. So, if my daughter ends up paying extortionate university fees — which, despite the riots, she probably will — all that memorabilia might raise a bit of money to help her out.