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Mark Stanley: being an actor in our times isn’t a job – it’s a vocation

The Dark River star feels called to tell difficult stories, particularly in post-Brexit Britain

Mark Stanley isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Before filming started for his latest film Dark River, he lived and worked on the farm where the film is set for two weeks, knee deep in the realities of life as a rural labourer. The experience hit home hard. ‘The farmer I lived with was up at 6am, worked until 6pm and then went to work for Tesco for four hours. He was 70.’

This kind of reflection is typical Stanley. Born in Leeds, he grew up ‘a city boy’, and has become known for taking on gritty roles, not shirking the responsibilities artists of all shapes and sizes embrace when faced with telling real-world stories, or, more acutely, shining a light on areas of modern life that might otherwise pass unnoticed.

While it’s reassuringly difficult to tie the 29-year-old to a particular genre – he’s done Game of Thrones, the BBC’s Little Women and Dickensian, as well as political thriller Our Kind of Traitor – he’s more often than not found tackling complex parts. His latest appearance in psychological drama Dark River is one of his most intense yet.

Sometimes it’s like decoding a crossword, like you’re blueprinting someone’s psychology”

The film settles on a part of the country that’s largely unexplored in cinematic terms; the hidden world of post-recession rural poverty and the communities it effects. Written and directed by British filmmaker Clio Barnard, and also starring Ruth Wilson, it tells the story of Alice (Wilson), who returns from 15 years as an itinerant sheep shearer to her family’s bleak farm in the Yorkshire Dales. Her father, played in flashbacks by Sean Bean, has died. She plans on taking over the lease of the farm – which proves easier said than done. In the film, she clashes with her brother Joe, played by Stanley, and her own demons. It’s not an easy watch – it’s brooding, tense and at times upsetting.

For Stanley, though, that was what made it the ideal project. He sees this kind of role as his calling. ‘This is a vocation at the end of the day. Sometimes it’s like decoding a cryptic crossword, like you’re actually blueprinting someone’s psychology. I love all that.’

Mark Stanley actor

As Alice’s brother, Stanley is always threatening. The part’s full of unexpressed guilt, anger and desperation, much of which is directed at his sister. ‘The subject matter was always going to be dark and deep enough for it to be a real challenge,’ he says. ‘Trying to find the mentality that he’s in, that headspace. He’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, an alcoholic.’

Filming for Dark River took place at the time of the Brexit referendum. ‘Was Clio aware of Brexit while she was writing it?’ Stanley asks. ‘Probably not. But we couldn’t help thinking about it on set. There were all these ‘Leave’ signs on every farm. Joe would have left. They wanted to pump life back into their farming land – so much of it is being repossessed and suffers from constant sanctions from the water board for the chemicals they use. I think some of them feel shunned by the way it’s going.’

I don’t mind what genre of film I work on, but it needs to be psychologically hard-hitting”

Dark River symbolises more than just the crisis in British farming, and the divisions between Leave and Remain camps. Stanley’s Joe is also a man in crisis, a portrait of broken masculinity. ‘I think his silence is basically a kind of impotence. He can’t express himself, and then when he does everything’s so bottled up he just explodes out of nowhere.’

Stanley’s sense of of vocation, and indeed his credentials as the face of troubled times, will come through in his next project, too. Born To Run, is also a brave drama, based in Scotland and directed by Scott Graham – another British indie director with a socio-realist bent.

Like Dark River, says Stanley, it has ‘a nice bit of social commentary attached to it.’ But for him, the character’s psychology remains of paramount importance. ‘It’s not a laugh-a-minute film,’ he says. ‘It’s another movie where the character’s psychology is the mainstay of the piece. It’s about a guy whose life is sort of churning and churning, and going round in circles, and his son is repeating the same mistakes that he made. It’s about the frustration and inadequacy of feeling that one time you were part of a proud fishing village, and now you’ve been reduced to being an adult educated to survive.’

Whatever the future holds for Stanley, it seems unlikely we’ll be seeing him taking on a fluffy rom-com any time soon. ‘I don’t mind what genre of film I work on, but it needs to be a darker and psychologically hard-hitting part,’ he says.

But still, he readily admits: ‘I’m learning. Still learning.’ We will be too, if his career so far is anything to go by.

Dark River is in cinemas now