Interview: Stephen Graham Talks BLOOD, Gangsters, and Boardwalk Empire
In Blood, Stephen Graham plays Detective Chrissie Fairburn, the youngest son in a family of cops. His brother, Joe (Paul Bettany), takes the interrogation of a murder suspect too far and places Chrissie on his path of self-destruction. As loyalties are tested, and Chrissie’s guilt becomes unbearable, the bond between the two brothers becomes irreparably damaged.
As far as character actors go, Graham has made quite a name for himself. In recent years, his work in films like Gangs Of New York and Public Enemies has cemented his status as a rare talent in the film industry. In our interview with the fiercely talented actor, we talk about his penchant for playing gangsters, living with Paul Bettany, and what lies in store for Al Capone on the hit HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
If you could, tell me a little about what drew you to Blood?
Well, firstly it was the script. I thought it was a fantastic script. And the director Nick (Murphy) who I’ve worked with before a few years ago back in England on a film called Occupation. Of course Mr. Paul Bettany who is a close friend, and it was actually Paul who got the script first, and Paul said to me ‘look I’ve got this script and I think you’d be perfect for it – I would love for you to play my brother’. I thought, well we don’t really look like brothers so I don’t know how we’re going to make it work. He said ‘well I think you know the director anyway, so just have a look and see what you think’. I read it, and to be honest with you it was great, you know, and I just couldn’t put it down. So yeah, I thought it was a fantastic script and that’s what drew me to the project in the first place.
The theme of family actually plays a really important role in this movie. Being that you’re so close with Paul, was it easy to get on that level with him, and also what is it like playing opposite a legend like Brian Cox?
To be honest, me and Paul actually moved in together during the duration of filming, we lived in a little apartment in Liverpool which is where I’m from, which was really nice. Paul is such a family man, but what I also found out about him while I was living with him was how much of a mother he is as well. So, we’d come home from work and he’d cook dinner and get everything ready. He’d ask me if I had any wash laying around, and then we’d go through the lines together, and watch a movie and stuff. It was great to have that because it’s very difficult to try to create a believable relationship with two actors. So it was great to have that time and that opportunity together, you know what I mean? It’s great to be able to do that, so yeah that was really great. Hopefully, that relationship comes across on-screen. To answer your other question, to work with Brian Cox – I mean he’s a legend. I’ve grown up watching his films and some of the great British drama he’s done over the years. So to work with someone like him was an absolute joy and it’s great because sometimes I still have to pinch myself and realize that I’m working with these great actors – and I’m not doing too bad myself, you know what I mean?
Your character, Chrissie, experiences some major emotional turmoil throughout the duration of the film. How do you as an actor get to that place, given then dark nature of the film?
You know, each actor has their own little tools that they use to help them get into certain places, and create certain memories that they may have had as children growing up. I just try to play as much as I can with truth, and so for me what I like to do is take a lot of time and prepare myself and get into that role. Then, as soon as the director says ‘cut’, I like to just put it all behind me and just go out and be with some of the cast and the crew – like the electricians – because I’m not one of these actors who likes to bring things home. When I’m on set I like to dive in and get involved and put as much into the role as I can. But yeah, as soon as they yell ‘cut’, you know it’s over and I don’t dwell on thinking about someone that’s died or whatever, I just try to put it behind me.
Are you more drawn to story, or are you more drawn to character? How have you chosen some of the roles you’ve played so far?
I think it’s a bit of both, you know I think it’s the script. As Stanislavsky once said, you know there’s no small roles only small actors. So, it’s never anything to do with the size of the character or anything if you know how good the script is and what I feel I can contribute to it. With the script, if it’s a script I’ve really enjoyed or really like, I’ll certainly spend time trying to create him and work with the director. So it’s the story basically for me, the script is the most important thing.
You had mentioned before that you worked with Nick Murphy on another project prior to Blood. You’ve also worked on both sides with established directors and newer directors. Do you prefer one over the other?
To me, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s a first time director, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Martin Scorsese who I’ve also been lucky enough to work with. To me it really doesn’t matter to be honest, it’s how I get on with that person and it’s the passion that that person portrays to me for the project we’re going to do together. I get just as much buzz walking onto a set and working with Martin Scorsese as I do with a young first-time director I’ve just worked with called David (Leon). We did a film together called Orthodox. So I get just as much of a buzz working with a first-time director as well as a very well-established director.
You’ve played two very notorious American gangsters in your career. You’ve played Babyface Nelson and Al Capone. People really respond to your portrayals of those types of men, so what do you think it is that you bring to them that people seem to really enjoy?
That’s a great question. To be honest, I think – although they are psychopaths – I’m a happily married man with two beautiful children and an adorable wife. I’m a family man at heart. So I think what I try to do is bring some tiny essence of that into these characters. I think it makes these characters a lot more interesting than just being very one-dimensional.
What I try to do with Al Capone is to portray him as a two-dimensional character. Somebody who has a sense of humor, somebody who is a loving family man, and you know a very proud and loving father. With Babyface Nelson I simply tried to do a lot of research. He adored his wife, and I just wanted to try and capture that a little. I said to Michael Mann, you know I wanna do as many things with my wife as possible. Or, just make it look like she’s always there. So I suppose that’s what I try and place a little humanity into them. Really I have fun – I have a lot of fun playing those characters. I’m never going to be Mr. Darcy, you know what I mean. (laughs)
Because of the success of Boardwalk Empire, I have to ask you the inevitable question. What can fans expect for all in this new season?
Yeah, of course! You know, they’ll get to see the Capone of Frank and Ralph, coming to life now and start to take over Cicero. If anyone’s aware of the historical event that took place, then they’re in for a good season with really good performances. Like what I was saying before about working with Paul Bettany and living together, in this one it was completely different. But, to work with such great actors and creating these historical characters who lived, to create that relationship with them has been such a joy and everyday has been a dream just going into work, you know what I mean? I’ve gotten really playful, and really just enjoy creating these characters, I enjoy having fun with it. It’s been great. You can expect a lot from this new season.