It doesn’t seem unfair to say that John Simm has one of those faces you know you know, but can’t quite place. It’s older than the picture in your head – he’s approaching 50 – but the dark eyes and curly-lip pout with its hint of devilishness remain. The actor has played some nasties in his time, lest we forget.
Forget we might, though. Sitting here in a bland chain café in North London, his baker boy hat and leather jacket hung lazily over the back of his chair, Simm catches the eye of a few interested locals, who recognise him, but only in a ‘he’s that guy off the telly’ kind of way. Yes people, that’s right – this is the guy who went toe-to-toe with DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars, and waged psychological warfare on David Tennant’s Doctor Who as his greatest adversary, The Master. Remember him? No?
Talking to him, he wouldn’t either. ‘I can barely remember most of them,’ he says about his 51 IMDB screen credits. Rather than a symptom of a lazy mind, this is a product of his modesty – or maybe Northern traditionalism (he was born in Leeds and grew up in Lancashire) – that discourages self-promotion. ‘I don’t do many interviews,’ he says, stirring his cappuccino. ‘I’ve never been interested in being famous, it’s just not for me.’
Perhaps that’s why he headed to America, where he’s less well-known – or at least, where there are more famous people. His recent projects include The Catch, made for America’s ABC network, in which he played the unpredictable benefactor footing the bill for a pair of con artists.
“I’m not one of those who can’t leave it on set. When you’ve got a family, you can’t be bringing murderers back home with you”
Now he’s back to star in one of the winter’s most eagerly awaited dramas. Collateral has credentials other dramas would kill for. Alongside Simm, Carey Mulligan and Billie Piper star (the latter a fellow Doctor Who alumnus – ‘we didn’t talk about that, sorry fans.’), while writing and producing credits go to playwright, screenwriter and double Academy Award nominee Sir David Hare.
It’s a four-parter and Hare’s first original TV series. Simm takes the role of Labour MP David Mars, who gets embroiled in a murder investigation around the fatal shooting of a pizza deliveryman. It’s being pitched as a state-of-the-nation crime thriller, penned by the greatest political dramatist of our time. Simm concurs. ‘It’s a deep, dark story, which talks about lots of issues people care about, like the refugee crisis,’ he says. ‘It’s got a lot to say about the dangerous world we live in.’
Simm seems particularly affected by the experience of shooting it, not least because he was filming it at London Bridge only a week before last summer’s terrorist attack. ‘Our unit base was in Borough Market. We were all there. If it had been a week later… it doesn’t bear thinking about.’
Otherwise, Simm doesn’t take his career too seriously. Perhaps that’s wise. He’s often been cast as the villain of the piece. Early in his career he appeared as a psychopath in The Bill, and in 1997, made a name for himself playing philanderer and gambler Danny Kavanagh in Jimmy McGovern’s The Lakes. His role as The Master in Doctor Who, which he revived last year, saw him attempt to eradicate the human race. What a guy.
‘Yeah, I’ve played a lot of nasty blokes,’ he says. ‘Criminals, a few coppers, never a politician, until now. It can be very intense. You have to find that spite and nastiness from somewhere deep inside you. It does take a toll.’
But he’s insistent he doesn’t take his characters home to his wife and two young children. ‘I take off the costume, rub off the makeup, get dressed in my own clothes and go home as myself,’ he says. ‘I’m not one of those actors who can’t leave it on set. I don’t find it hard to put the characters back in their box. When you’ve got a family, you can’t be bringing murderers back home with you.’
It seems to work. Twice nominated for a BAFTA, he’s applied his talents to theatre, too, notching up an Olivier Award nomination for his performance in Paul Miller’s Bush Theatre staging of Elling, a comedy about two men just out of a psychiatric hospital.
This year is a career landmark – 25 years in the business. ‘I guess it is a milestone, but I don’t really think about it like that,’ he shrugs. ‘I just like to keep working and even now I’m more concerned with what the next job is.’
Indeed, he’s more preoccupied with looking forward than back. ‘This is one of the only jobs where you literally watch yourself ageing,’ he says with a rueful smile. ‘It can be pretty unforgiving if you’re too vain. I occasionally see myself looking a lot younger – and let me tell you, that’s a humbling experience.’
I tell him it’s been a pleasure to watch, if not for him, then for those of us on the other side of the screen. Simm is a leading acting talent, and a man apart. A reluctant star who’s kept a lid on fame. As he leaves, I ask him what he’s doing for the rest of the day. ‘I’m off to get a haircut,’ he says. About sums him up.
Collateral airs on BBC2 on Monday and will be available to download on Netflix. John Simm also stars in Trauma on ITV, also starting on Monday