Interview: Stephen Graham Talks 'This Is England' and Watching Football with Leonardo DiCaprio

The 'Boardwalk Empire' star got Leo to watch a 0-0, and he couldn't understand it.

stephen graham


stephen graham

In real life, Stephen Graham has one of the most distinctive Liverpudlian accents you’ll ever hear. Yet it was playing a cockney in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch that most people first saw him. And then he forged a sideline playing historical American gangsters in Gangs of New York, Public Enemies and a recurring role as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire. It’s a testament to his incredible talent that he never once seemed out of place in these role. Yet he kept his native Scouse tongue in his greatest part, the terrifying, but ultimately tragic white nationalist Combo Shane Meadow’s brilliant film and TV saga This Is England.

He has a rare starring role in his latest film, the British drama Orthodox, playing a bare knuckle boxer in a Haredi Jewish community trying to stay on the straight and narrow whilst being manipulated by the criminal underworld. The film is out now on DVD and VOD, and we spoke to Graham about the emotional finale to This Is England 90, the struggles for working class actors, and getting Leonardo DiCaprio to appreciate British football. 

What attracted you to Orthodox?

I really liked the concept and the approach it was coming at, and there was more story to tell, so I said yeah. I think it’s important and vital to do proper British films, know what I mean? It doesn’t always have to be for big studios and things like that.

One thing that impressed me a lot was your accent in the film — you have a very distinctive accent in real life….

I’m a scouser and proud of it!

For someone with just a recognisable accent, you’ve played cockneys and Americans incredibly convincingly. Have accents always been something you’ve focused on?

I’m very lucky, I’ve always been good with accents. I’ve got a good ear for them. I’m a good listener, so if I’m in someone’s company for a period of time I can pick the accent up. I remember a teacher said to me that I’d have to loose my accent if I wanted to make it. She said it was too strong.

History is great to look back on, but what’s happening right now is the story we need to be telling

Related to that, there’s been a lot of talk recently about it being a lot harder for young working class actors to make it these days, and all we see on our screens now are posh kids and Downton Abbey. Do you think it’s harder for working class kids to make it now than it was when you started?

It’s a difficult one, that. I choose to believe that irrespective of difficulties we have to overcome, I hope talent will prevail. But yeah, I’d be inclined to agree with that statement. If I was starting off now, my parents certainly wouldn’t have been able to afford to send me to drama school. Back in the day I got a grant. I think it is more difficult now, but as long as people keep striving, they’ll get through. You hit the nail on the head there, you need to make a living. And young lads and young girls coming up from working class families, it is difficult for them to find their opportunities. It is much more difficult than when I started out. But hopefully the likes of myself, and Paddy Considine, and Vicky McClure can be an inspiration and show that it can happen. 

And in the same respect, I am personally getting a little bit bored of period dramas on television. I say that, I’m doing one at the minute! But that’s a bit more of blood and guts, and bit more gritty. It’s by Steve Knight, who wrote Peaky Blinders, and stars Tom Hardy. But I do feel we need to be careful that the likes of young people coming from Liverpool, Newcastle, inner cites and places like that, get an opportunity. I mean, no one’s going to cast me as Mr Darcy, as the lord of the manor. They’ll cast me as a man who’s got a fucking alcoholic problem, and three children to raise, and struggling with life. Which is a great role to play, but we need to keep telling those stories. History is great to look back on if we can learn from it, but what’s happening right now is the story we need to be telling.

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How come you’ve ended up playing so many famous American gangsters?

I have no idea at all! They’re great roles to play, but I couldn’t tell you why. It all just came down to the roles, basically. The first one, with Michael Mann in Public Enemies, I put myself on tape, pretending to rob a bank, and he liked it, and wanted me to play Baby Face Nelson. And then with the second one was just that Martin Scorsese wanted me to be Al Capone. It’s just the way the dice have rolled. Like I said, I’m never going to be Mr Darcy, but I’m always going to be the man that kicks Mr Darcy in the balls.

You’re a big Liverpool fan — do you still get to watch the games when you’re in America or on location all over the world?

I do, I even get up at 6am in the morning to watch them! I try and watch as much as I can. I haven’t been to a game in a long time. This is going to sound really, bad, and I don’t know if I should let you print it, but I’ve been to more Leicester games this season! Only because they’re round the corner, I’ve not jumped on the bandwagon! And both my kids are Leicester fans. 

Have you tried to get any Hollywood stars into football?

I have once. I managed to get Leonardo DiCaprio to watch a second half with me. It was a bit of a crappy game actually, it was a 0-0. I was like “That’s a great result that, 0-0 with Man United!”. And he was like “ I don’t get it man. There was no goals. No one won.” “Yeah but’s a draw!”. “I don’t understand the draw. Why are you happy about a draw?”.

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