Danny Dyer
Media training? What media training?! Danny Dyer on Kermode, Keira Knightley, Pinter and more in this extraordinary interview.

30 May 2011

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Our paths will meet, one day, and it’ll probably just be a headbutt straight to the fucking nose, and then he can go off and do his impressions with a broken nose…that’d be good, wouldn’t it?

Danny Dyer is one of those extreme character actors that people either love or hate. I leave it to you to supply a fair percentage split of the two factions; after all, your feelings toward him will depend on how affectionate you feel towards broadly represented cockney wideboys and rough diamonds, which form the staples of his mainstream acting career. In Age of Heroes Dyer takes his laddish charms back to World War II and plays working class hero Bob Rains. He’s still a mouthy bloke with a gun, but this time, he’s with the good guys.

Despite Dyer’s hard nut reputation, it turns out he’s actually quite a sensitive soul. Prior to this interview I was asked by his PR not to mention “the Zoo incident”. It would seem that it’s not a topic he has been able to shrug off easily. It also transpires that criticism in general hits him where it hurts; and unluckily for him he’s an easy target, as he is only too obliging in providing a hilariously OTT reaction. Like his character in Age of Heroes, one senses that controlling impulses does not come easily to Dyer. Even when discussing his struggles in acting, he manages to make things worse for himself by going off on one about arch-critic Mark Kermode. Media training? What media training? Read on to find out more…

Could you tell us a bit about Age of Heroes?

Age of Heroes is a film based around Ian Fleming who wrote James bond books. It’s set during the second World War, and it’s about when he first put together an elite group of soldiers and called them a commando unit. So it was when commandos first came around, really. A smash-and-grab team, eight-handed, sent into Norway, behind enemy lines to retrieve some really important Germany technology. These radar towers, basically. And some of it’s true – based on facts; and some of it isn’t. They’ve just mixed it all together.

“It’s about 8 different soldiers, the best from their regiments, put together and sent behind enemy lines, completely outnumbered by SS Nazis, who are the most ruthless of all Nazis.

Your character, Bob Rains, is a focal point throughout the film. How would you describe him?

Bob Rains is a really good soldier, loyal to his men, but he struggles with discipline. And he gets himself in trouble because of that, because the whole point of being a soldier is a lot to do with discipline. He struggles with a superior officer telling him what to do, when he’s clearly never picked up a gun in his life, never been on the front line, never seen any death whatsoever – and he’s a bit disrespectful.

And so Bob ends up in a military prison, which is where Sean Bean’s character comes in and gives him a chance, puts him in this elite group and says “don’t let me down”. And Bob was an orphan – he didn’t really have a father figure, so he looks up to Sean’s character, and he really needs him in his life. It’s an interesting relationship that the two of them have – it’s meant to be very professional, but clearly towards the end they care about each other a lot.

So you attended a kind of army boot camp to prepare for the role. How was that?

It was a very brief thing, as we didn’t have a lot of money on this movie. Most British movies at the moment…well, there’s just no money around. So for what the project was trying to achieve it was a ridiculous ask – all the money went onto the shooting, locations and stuff so we only had two days with the Marines. And within those two days, I thought ideally it’d be great to get fit, really toned and look like a soldier, but it was more about learning about weapons – how to dismantle weapons, German weapons…because this elite group behind enemy lines had only one machine gun each and you had to steal weapons whilst you was there.

And they sat and told us stories about what it’s like to be a soldier on the front line – about how horrific is can be, but about how close they become, and how they rely on each other for their lives. It’s a real deep bond these men have – and women. That was the most interesting part, for me, is how you get into a mindset where you’re killing other human beings because it’s a war, but you’re also watching people that you care about die – and having to just get on with it. That’s something I really struggled with in my head, because we’re all human beings. It must come out somewhere in later life; you must grieve at some point, because when you’re in a war you haven’t got time.

Did you have any family history of the war for reference?

Both my grandads were in the armed forces, because they had to be. My granddad that’s dead, he was in the Navy; my other granddad who’s still alive was in the army. It’s interesting to hear stories, yeah. I’ve always been fascinated by the whole thing. I do love a good war film.

I’m just a poncey actor at the end of the day – I can never really quite understand what it’s like. And I respect these men so much, because they’re not forced into it – they choose this as a career path like I choose to be an actor. It’s something that you just have to have inside you from a young age, I suppose, that you want to fight for your country.

Age of Heroes has got quite a different tone to it compared to your past work. Was that happenstance, or was it a more conscious choice?

I was really flattered that they offered me the part; they came to me quite early in the project, didn’t have any money, and I think used my name and a couple of others to raise funds. I said ‘Yeah, this is something I’ve been looking for for a long time ‘cause it is a bit different, and it’s something I’d be honoured to be part of.’ I didn’t think I’d be a the top of their list, you know? I was itching to get involved.

Class identity is an element in your films. Is that something you are interested by when you approach a script?

What do you mean?

As in, they’re often about being working class and making it, and keeping it real.

I don’t know…I’ve been acting for twenty years now and this is the route that I’ve taken…I don’t write the projects. Yeah most things I’ve done are about the underdog or the anti-hero whose not necessarily doing something legal, but is a character that you warm to or find endearing in some way. I’ve got a sort of hard man, tough guy tag which is bollocks. I’ve never claimed to be a tough guy. The way I speak, maybe…I swear a bit…I come from a rough area of London – but I’ve not really put myself in that bracket. It’s more the press.

I’ve never played a psycho, you know? Never played someone really evil. I’ve got a film coming out later in the year called Deviation and I’m a serial killer. I’m not doing it in an obvious evil way – it’s quite a childlike character whose got a problem with women, so it’s important for me to try and put a different layer on it I suppose, and so by the end of the film I’m hoping that, although I’m evil and I kill people, you sort of warm to me a little bit. It’s important that you get me on some level.

You’re right, it’s a good point. I suppose being a working class boy meself, these are the roles that suit me best.

Of course. It’s like Keira Knightley playing upper middle class roles…

Yeah. You’d never see her playing a cockney prostitute, would ya? Though I’d like to fucking see that…

You’ve been acting for twenty years as you say – was it something you always planned to go into?

Never planned it, just loved it. It was the reason I went to school. I used to bunk off every lesson and just go to drama. It came very naturally to me, and I could never understand why the other pupils struggled with it so much. [It was about] being free, being able to be yourself. The lessons were about speaking, personality – charisma. I loved that, still love it, I buzz off it. And I took the long route round – I’ve only really had success in the past 5 years.

So my drama school was working with other actors. That’s the way to learn, instead of being thrown in at the deep end with your first job…someone like Daniel Radcliffe I suppose, first audition is for Harry Potter, got millions of pounds in the bank, yet hasn’t had time to hone his craft yet. Not knocking it – wouldn’t mind being in his fucking situation, believe you me!

Any particular career highs so far?

Working with Harold Pinter, for me…being directed by him was a real learning curve. It was going back to the old school, being on stage every night on a 6 month run. It was a tough thing to do and there were moments I hated it, but I really felt alive on the stage and I just though ‘Wow, this is such an opportunity.’

Any lows, that you’ve put behind you?

Being an actor is about having massive highs and massive lows…it’s part of the business. Some parts I’ve lost out to that I just wanted so badly, but you just have to get used to the idea of rejection. It is an insecure job and you sign up for that.

To be resilient with rejection, it helps to take it with a pinch of salt. So when, say, Mark Kermode parodies you, how do you take that?

I’ve seen it, yeah. He’s such a prick. I don’t even talk like that, you know what I mean?! I actually watched it and I found it quite funny, because I couldn’t believe that this is the way he perceives me. He’s the only one that sees me like that, I believe. It’s very odd. He’s just a got a bit of a problem with me, and what it is I really don’t know. But I think he does tend to forget that I’ve done Pinter and stuff like that. I don’t think he takes me seriously as an actor.

But our paths will meet, one day, and there won’t be no talking. It’ll probably just be a headbutt straight to the fucking nose, and then he can go off and do his impressions with a broken nose…that’d be good, wouldn’t it?

The coalition government has gone in all guns blazing with the cuts and the arts have really suffered. Have you felt that at all?

Absolutely. But I think that’s more to do with the whole recession thing since 2008, there not being a lot of money around. I make a lot of low budget movies, and you need investors for those. People are taking a step back and are not willing to invest their money. It is a risk, of course it is. It’s depressing, but I can’t really see a way out of it. But you just crack on and you get on with it, you know.

So no hard feelings then?

Absolutely not. I got to put food on the table, I got a mortgage to pay, so you just got to crack on with it. Can’t sit back feeling sorry for yourself.