Rogues Gallery: Stephen Graham

The Hyena star on his most memorable turns


Published on

Gerard Johnson's Hyena sees Stephen Graham stalking the corridors of the Met's Vice Squad - and potentially fellow copper Peter Ferdinando's worst nightmares - as scheming D.I. David Knight. A snarly, hard-hitting police thriller, Hyena is the latest showcase for the Merseysider's line in screen-shaking villainy. A firm Empire favourite, Graham can play good as well as bad - and all shades in between - but the time is ripe to add him to the illustrious guide of villains and ne'er-do-wells we know only as... Rogues Gallery.

"I said to the director on day one that I wanted Knight to be an absolute twat. No matter what job you're in or where you are, you've always got one person who's so underhand and spineless that they'll do anything to get to the top. They don't care who they stand on. There's always one in your work. We got a lovely pair of brown Gucci suede loafers, which to me shout that word out, and this Comme Des Garçons aftershave I'd bought in Paris thinking I was dead smooth. So I was actually being a twat myself. I tried it and my wife told me never to spray it again, but I thought it'd come in handy one day. Before every scene I sprayed it all over me. I went a little bit Method twatty on this role (laughs).

"We workshopped our characters and me, Gerard and Peter [Ferdinando] and I came up with this history where they'd known each other for years but this incident, this falling out, had happened. I'd gone to Brussels to worm my way up the ladder working for Interpol, with a little place in the Algarve. One of those people that after you've sat down to talk to them, you have to check your pockets. He's a Vice Squad Iago."

"With Combo, we tried to get that sense of a misunderstood [man]. He was the product of society, one of Thatcher's children. He spent all his life in care and then he was in and out of prison, so he found it really difficult to portray his emotions and portray his true feelings, especially with (Vicky McClure's) Lol. Shane Meadows gave me a gift of a character, where we were able to show the span of his life over a good few years and the audience eventually got to understand him slightly. We've just done This Is England '90 and he'll have an amazing empathy, I think. He's not just this out-and-out villain.

"We spent about two weeks together workshopping the film and coming up with back stories for it. Shane brings these outlines of where it might go but it's that rehearsal room creativity that allows you to play. Because it's improvised and scripted, it gives you confidence as an actor. He pushes you to a place where you feel like you're doing the right thing. I don't mean to sound wanky but it feels like you're a kite and Shane is flying you.

"The 'puddin' scene stems from jealousy. Combo likes to hold court and people would listen to him, but then little Shaun (Thomas Turgoose) comes in dressed up in the gear looking like a little Action Man. That sly, underhand bullying was based on a couple of people from when I was lad. The venom he puts in the word 'pudding' is a dig at the other people in the room because he's not brave enough to say face-to-face. It all stems from his insecurity."

"Scrum is the original Danny Dyer. I'm good friends with Danny. I don't know if I've ever told him that I based the character on him. I wanted him to be the original Cockney. There's also a bit of Les Dawson. My wife (Hannah Walters) was in On Stranger Tides, too. Rob Marshall, who's a lovely director, met her, thought she was hilarious and asked her to be in it. The next minute she's in a costume, getting her hair done. You see her sitting on my knee while I'm playing the mandola. She played a wench and it was in 3D, so her knockers were huge. Her corset broke because we were laughing our heads off so much.

"I just spent three weeks on the set [of Dead Men Tell No Tales] on the Gold Coast in Australia and I'm going back for three months. It's crazy - the sets are amazing - but it's so much fun. Scrum doesn't play the mandola in this one. He's just all fun and comedy and action. To go from This Is England or Hyena to something like this where you just go and pretend and run about and be silly, it's great."

"I've always tried to bring a touch of humanity [to my characters], something that an audience would like in them. And I always have to have something I like about a character. With Al Capone, we made him slightly funny. When he first starts off, he has the essence of a family man with a great sense of humour. He killed loads of people, but he was also a loving father and a loving husband, which I tried to portray.

"From the very beginning when Marty [Scorsese] phoned me up with the role, he said, 'Look, I don't want you to watch any of the other portrayals of this character. I want to create something from scratch that no-one has ever seen before.' So I did *a lot *of research and found out that he was a very bright young lad and he had a wicked sense of humour. I wanted to try to bring this ambitious young man trying to make his way in this new world but to have people laugh with him and be shocked by what he does. I wanted that duality where viewers go, 'He's great. He's dead funny,' and then in the same breath say, 'Oh god, no. Don't do that to the man!' I also wanted to capture the drug abuse, because he was a huge cocaine addict. We used either baby powder or glucose to stand in cocaine.

"Flying over to New York, I'd often have to explain my job to US Immigration. For the first year on the show I'd find myself saying, (sheepishly) 'I'm an actor'. They'd say, 'Oh yeah? Have I seen you in anything?' and I'd go, 'Well, I was in a film called Snatch...' and they'd say, (in a broad Brooklyn accent) "Oh my god! It's Tommy from Snatch! Welcome to America.' After the first two seasons of Boardwalk Empire, they'd look at your papers, look up and say, (sounding bored) 'Whaddaya do?' and I'd tell them I was in a show called Boardwalk Empire. 'Oh yeah? I watch the show. Who do you play?' so I'd tell them and they'd say, 'Oh my god, it's Al Capone! Look over here guys!' I used to love walking through immigration and hearing, 'Guess who that was? Al Capone!'

"Baby Face Nelson is the gangster character I'd least like to meet in a dark alley - even less than Al Capone. He was a pure psychopath. How did I humanise him? Well, I didn't really, I just read a lot about him. I tried to find a little thing I could connect to, and he adored his wife. The film didn't portray it but he and his wife got shot together after robbing a bank. So I tried to humanise him but he was a complete sociopath, that one. A crazy man."

"People quote Snatch lines at me all the time. I get 'Zee Germans!' and the most common one, 'Do you like dags?'. And I always say, 'Yeah, I like dags. I like caravans more.' You couldn't tell in the audience, and I never told anybody else, but in my mind Tommy was Jason's [Statham] little brother. So if you watch very carefully, you can see that I dress exactly like him and I even try to walk like him and handle situations the way he would. He's Tommy's hero so I'm aspiring to be exactly like him.

"I kept Tommy's overcoat from the movie. Have I word it out in public? No! I try to keep something from every job. I kept the stunt axe from Gangs Of New York, which is a wooden axe with a plastic blade. I could set up a Stephen Graham museum one day." (Laughs)

"Billy Bremner wasn't the villain of the piece, he was just the one who was really upset at what was going on [when Brian Clough took over at Leeds United]. He was the team's father in a way. Okay, the football Leeds did play wasn't the most attractive but it got results; then to have someone come in and try to make all these changes when you're from the old school... for him it was like, 'Don't tell us that what we won was worthless because of the way we played football. Where's your medals?'

"At half-time they'd have a ciggie, a cup of tea and a little shot of whisky. You can't get away with that these days. It wasn't a different era. I enjoyed the scene where [Bremner] walks to a game smoking a fag. It was a nice [shoot] because we played footie in the day, do a bit of acting and then have a nice meal and a couple of drinks. We didn't keep our distance from Michael (Sheen) on set, none of that Method nonsense. The camaraderie between us was great, and with Jim Broadbent and Timothy Spall. At the end of the day, we're a travelling circus, going from job to job, and getting to meet new people is one of the things I love about acting."

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us