Star of Channel 4 series The Virtues, Stephen Graham talks staying grounded, the impact of trauma and starting his own production company.
Despite Stephen Graham’s star status among Hollywood’s elite, he is still one of the most down to earth actors in the business.
Although he has worked with some of the biggest stars over the years, for him, there was only one person that left him feeling starstruck.
“Steven Gerrard,” Graham laughed. “That’s the only time I’ve ever lost my bottle, I found myself talking posh and thought, ‘Stephen, what are you doing? Shut up, where’s this voice come from?’”
Graham recently starred in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman alongside Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, who he praises for having “no egos” and said, “[they] made me feel so welcome.”
This past year Graham has dominated screens, from White House Farm, to Line of Duty, to Save Me. Yet it was his moving performance of Joseph in The Virtues that saw him take home an RTS Award.
For Graham when it comes to storytelling, telling the stories of real people like Joseph is what’s important.
The Virtues follows Joseph, whose life is at crisis point when his young son and ex-wife move to Australia, leaving him adrift and alone.
He decides to travel to Ireland to reconnect with his estranged sister Anna (Helen Behan), which leads to the unearthing of a long buried traumatic incident which he has repressed for decades.
Based on the experiences of Shane Meadows’ life, who wrote and created the drama, Graham said he felt a “duty of care to play it as honestly and truthfully as possible” because it was such a sensitive and emotional topic.
All it took was a phone call from Meadows explaining that he was working on a new project for Graham to jump on board.
Initially there wasn’t a full script, just plot outlines and rough bullet points. “It was a completely different story to start with and then we kind of developed it within the workshop process,” said Graham.
“It can change dramatically on the day, it just depends on how we’re all feeling as the characters and what direction Shane wants it to go down.”
For Graham, having that freedom to improvise and be flexible with the script was helped by the unique way Meadows shoots.
“One of the many gifts of working with the marvellous Meadows is he successfully shoots chronologically, which as an actor is a great process because you’re able to take the knowledge from the previous scene and bring it right into the next one,” explained Graham.
Although there were plenty of intense moments during filming, everyone was there for the right reasons, and Graham called it a “beautiful working environment” because Meadows knows how to “capture that little bit of magic.”
“There were moments in the afternoon where we were all crying our eyes out and come six o’clock, we’re all laughing our heads off over something silly,” he explains.
Graham was able to get through his own journey with the difficult subject matter with help from his family, especially his wife Hannah.
“I have a grounded family which don’t let me come out with any bullshit,” he says. “But also in the same respect, Hannah is there for me to talk to, she helps me tap into emotions.”
“I’d be like am I being a dickhead?” Graham laughed and said Hannah would reply, ‘”Yes you are.”’
“My time with my family is quality and they’re the most important thing that I have in my life, I feel extremely blessed to be able to have the vocation that I have and I put one million percent into what I do. But then when I’m at home I’m just little old me,” said Graham.
Having previously worked with Meadows on This is England, trusting him implicitly both as a friend and a director was key for Graham. He said, “if Shane asked me to go jump off a cliff, I wouldn’t question it. In my head he’s obviously got an airbed down there or something, I’d just ask him, ‘do you want me to run or am I walking?’”
Being able to shine a light on those issues was important to Graham and receiving a text from a close friend, thanking him for giving alcoholism such a nuanced portrayal, was a powerful moment.
“This is the kind of work I always wanted to do as a kid,” said Graham, and credits this as part of the reason why he Hannah recently set up their own production company, Matriarch Productions.
“We wanted to be able to give opportunities to tell stories of a broader perspective, our ethos behind Matriarch Productions is to find and tell those stories."
“We finished a production the other day, I believe we were the last production still going in London," he laughed.
Shot all in one take, the production was set in a professional kitchen looking at the pressures and addictions facing a chef.
“We got a fair representation of the kitchen, which was so diverse, we gave actors opportunities who don’t normally get chances," Graham explained. "There’s a lot of magnificently gifted actors out there, male, female, black white, brown it doesn’t matter,” said Graham passionately.
In ensuring that his production company treats everyone equally, Graham made the decision to not have any numbers on their call sheets.
“I didn’t want the girl who was number 33 to feel like she was that far down the pecking order, [like] she wasn’t important,” said Graham.
“You treat people how they want to be treated, like my Ma and my Nana used to say to me as a kid, no one’s above you and no one’s below you.”
But for now, he’s just glad to spend time with his family amid the Coronavirus lockdown, although he laughed, “that might change within the next six weeks...”
The Virtues is now available to watch on All4 and Code 404 starts Wednesday 29th April on Sky One at 10pm.
Stephen Graham was nominated for the Actor - Male award alongside Jared Harris and Michael Ward at the RTS Programme Awards 2020 in partnership with Audio Network. For more information on the awards, click here.