Explain a little bit about The Virtues, and who you play.
The story centres around Joe (Stephen Graham), a troubled man dealing with repressed memories. He sets off on a ferry to Ireland, where he’s trying to piece together his shattered past. He meets long lost sister Anna (Helen Behan), and through her, he meets Dinah, who I play. Dinah arrives in the story in true “Shane Meadows-style” – with a bang, literally, after punching her boyfriend out on the front porch of Anna’s home, which is a fairly common occurrence for her. She’s this kind of wild child, who has found sanctuary in her brother and sister-in-law’s home. It’s here that she and Joe make a connection; They’re almost like kindred spirits, both looking for a place of respite, in order to deal with their demons.
What was it that attracted you to the project?
Shane Meadows. He’s a filmmaker I had admired growing up, I was fascinated by his approach to working with actors, I’d read about how he workshopped scenes and developed the story through the characters, a process I find really interesting. His work is one of the main reasons I started acting. I grew up watching his films –This Is England and Dead Man’s Shoes are two of my favourite films. When my agent told me about the role I couldn’t believe it. I had just moved to London and this was one of my first major castings.
Although you’ve been in some recent major TV dramas, this was the first one you filmed. How did it feel, to have the pressure of your first major job, and for it to be with one of your heroes?
When I was told I got the part of Dinah I was shocked, I couldn’t believe that I was going to be working with someone I respected so much. Of course, there is pressure because you don’t want to mess up such a great opportunity. I was really lucky that I was involved from the get-go. I moved up to Sheffield and workshopped for months so, by the time we came to shoot, I felt very comfortable and was raring to go. I never went to drama school so getting to workshop so intensely with Shane and Stephen was the best education I could get and I feel that what I have learned I’ve carried on to other projects.
Is there a sense that, if you work with Shane from the off, nothing can quite live up to it afterwards?
[Laughs] Stephen did say that to me on my first day on set; “This is going to be the best acting gig you’ll ever experience.” I was like, “Cheers Stevo – this is my first job, I may as well retire now!” He was referring, of course, to the freedom Shane gives actors. On set you never feel any time pressure. Sometimes we would shoot a six-page scene and we’d bag it in one shot, and then other days we could spend the whole day getting one scene. It’s also the way Shane chooses to film scenes, we would have up to six cameras shooting. He allowed us to improv. to warm up into the scene, so some scenes would end up being 10 or 20 minutes long. Also, the trust you have in him is incredible and when you have that on set, you get the best out of people.
You had a lot of scenes with Stephen. How did you find working with him?
Stephen is an incredibly generous actor. I think it’s because he’s so kind, down-to-earth and funny. Working with him was fascinating, I learnt so much. You can never predict what he’s going to do next in a scene and that’s what makes it so electric when you’re working with him, and so captivating to watch. He’s so present. It’s easy to act with him because he’s always truthful and honest in his performance. We had such a laugh together on set and we mucked about boxing together in the gym on our evenings off. He’s been hugely supportive with my career and would always picks up the phone if I needed his advice.
The other person you had a lot of scenes with is Helen Behan. What was she like?
She’s wonderful. I love Helen, she was like a big sister to me. We hung out together quite a bit during production. In fact, the whole cast did really. After filming, most days we would go for dinner or grab a pint. During pre-production Shane sent us, in character, on family activities with the kids who played my niece and nephews. We did this thing called ‘Escape Rooms’, it was hilarious. Another day we all went bowling together. By the end of the week we were like a proper family.
Having moved to London to act, did it feel quite odd to be working with an almost entirely Irish cast?
[Laughs] Yeah, it did, actually. It’s weird, though, you don’t feel like this is an Irish story, you feel it could be set anywhere. It’s just that Shane wanted to set it somewhere where the character had to go from one place to another that was quite difficult to get to. Somewhere you couldn’t just get to in a car. He wanted a body of water, to make the journey more difficult. Myself and Helen were cast very early on in the project so it made sense to set it in Ireland.
Although in some senses, Dinah’s story is a not unfamiliar one in Ireland, in terms of the kind of repressive and conservative background she’s from. Is that still a force in Ireland?
I think it’s a force in many countries. Dinah’s story is a universal one that isn’t limited to just where she grew up or her background and I think people will be able to identify with that. Dinah is a fictional character but I feel that her backstory is one that audiences all over will be able to connect with.
Where do programmes like this fit with that? Does it help to shine a light on mistakes from the past, or does it simply open up old wounds? Are programmes like this helpful?
I feel art is meant to open a dialogue. For me, watching films and TV shows is cathartic and provides relief; It’s probably one of the reasons I became an actor. I’ve always found it intriguing how storytelling can transport people to a place where difficult emotions can be dealt with in a more manageable way. The Virtues is a fictional story but it might pose questions people might ask about their own lives. If anything, it gives certain voices a chance to be heard. Someone like Dinah could be judged or overlooked in the world and The Virtues gives people an opportunity to sit with characters like her, that they may never experience.
The series deals with some pretty significant and fundamental themes. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to people who have gone through what Dinah goes through?
I feel it’s my responsibility as an actor to portray any character as truthfully and as honestly as I can. To make sure I did that for Dinah was to do my research. The production team was amazing, they set up meetings with women who have had similar experiences to Dinah. This was hugely helpful and gave me great insights into how she could be feeling and, from there, I was able to build upon the character. At the same time, Dinah is just one woman and this is her story and I have to serve her truth, it’s not a sole representation of women who go through what she’s gone through.
Obviously we don’t want to give away the ending of the series, but I understand you filmed two endings?
We did. We tried out two options for how things might play out for Dinah. It was up to Shane what way he wanted to go with it in the end. That’s the joy of working with him, he’s not afraid to try things out.
Did you have an inkling of which one they’d use? And did you have a preference?
I did but I never said! Both are really strong and both felt right when we were shooting them. Ultimately, he chose the right ending. He’s a genius at what he does. He just knows! He’s able to look at the piece as a whole and ensure that everything plots out the way it should. But if something unexpected happens in a scene that you hadn’t planned but, instinctively it felt right, he’s willing to explore that and that’s what’s so exciting.