This dark new drama has all the critics talking
Cape Town – The Virtues, a new four-part drama series directed by Shane Meadows (This is England) starring Stephen Graham (Line of Duty) will premiere on Wednesday, 11 September at 20:00 on ITV Choice (DStv 123).
The acclaimed series centres on Joseph (Graham), a struggling recovering alcoholic whose life is turned upside down when his ex-partner moves away with their young son.
In this Q&A, Stephen talks about his character, what it was like working on the show, and how he dealt with the emotional toll the series took on him.
Can you explain a little bit about The Virtues, and who you play?
I play a character called Joseph. When we meet him, his family [ex-wife and son] are ready to leave to go to Australia. He’s a man who hasn’t had a drink for a while. But now that they’re going, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do. Does he press the 'fuck it all' button? Throw his sobriety away? Or does he try and do the best he can, hold on and get through it. And it becomes a journey of this man trying to get away from all that. And it becomes a geographical journey because he has to get away from where he is. And he is asking himself, "Why am I the way I am? What is it? What’s happened in my life, what happened to me as a kid?" So he needs to piece it all together. So he goes on this journey back to Ireland, to answer some of the questions from his past.
What was it that attracted you to the project?
Shane Meadows! (the director and co-writer)
Working with Meadows is very different from working with anyone else…
Completely! There’s nobody else on the planet that works that way. Maybe Scorcese, kind of, a little bit. I never thought I’d be able to say that! They both have a script, but you’re allowed to improvise and play with it. Especially with Shane, the structure just changes completely. The story breathes and grows organically, so you’re trying to find out what you’re doing as you’re doing it. There’s a plan and a routine, and it’s mapped out, but it can change at any moment.
It’s largely improvised – how much do you work out before a scene, and what kind of pointers are you given?
We have a rough idea of what may happen, and then we have certain kind of beats that we need to hit in the scene, and things we need to mention to help our story move along. But then it’s open to the interpretation of all of us, and whatever happens after that, happens after that. But it can go anywhere. You might end up filming a scene set at someone’s house that you didn’t think you’d be filming that day.
Did you do any specific research for the role?
Yes, lots of research. Some heavy stuff actually – I looked into kids who had been abused, and how it affects them. I watched a powerful documentary about a young football team up in Scotland – the Celtic Boys Club (Celtic Boys Club founder Jim Torbett has been jailed for six years after being convicted of sexually abusing three boys over an eight-year period). I watched a lot of documentaries about people who had been victims in that situation, as well as looking into alcoholism and the reasons behind it. And I also looked into why and how people might repress things. The mind is an amazing thing, it can potentially block something out, put it in a box and never open it. But sometimes you get little flashes of what may have happened in your head. Shane said he read an article about a girl who was abused as a child. She had no recollection of it at all until she saw this little flower on a piece of print, and it cast her mind back. When these horrific acts had been taking place, there was a little tiny flower on the bed quilt, and she coped by focussing on this tiny flower. And then 25-30 years later, she saw a very similar print of a flower, and it all just came flooding back. That’s what we tried to tap into – the idea of what it would be like to have all this stuff coming back at you.
You were reunited with Helen Behan (who plays Joe’s sister Anna) after This Is England – how was that?
It was amazing. I never actually worked with her on This is England at all, but I got to know her, and she’s a wonderful woman. But to work with her on this was such a joy. She plays my sister, and she is an amazing actor. She’s one of my wife Hannah’s favourite actors ever – and one of mine. That scene when we’re in the bedroom together - you’re lucky as an actor, you hit moments, and you’re on projects where you completely lose yourself and completely come out of your own body. It’s almost transcendental; you’re just so immersed in that character. Without sounding pretentious and wanky, that was one of those moments. It felt so real and so truthful. She’s just unbelievable. She finds the truth in everything, and she’s prepared to bare her soul. She’s a wonderful actor. And that scene was all one 100-minute take, with three or four cameras. And we only did it the once. We talked, and we talked, and we talked, and we talked. The relationship between the two characters, what it would have been like being separated as a child, being torn away from someone who you loved. And then we just went in the room and did it in one take.
It’s such a massively emotional piece – does that ever take a toll?
It used to. Hopefully, I’ve become more mature. I used to take it home a little bit. I like to immerse myself in the moment and be as real and as truthful and as honest as I can, but then in the same breath, if I’ve done a really good day’s work, if it’s been tough, as soon as I pick up the phone to my wife and say: "You wouldn’t believe what happened today, it was really traumatic, we shot this and that…" The joy is that she’ll say: "You should have been here, I’ve done all the washing and the cleaning and the ironing, I’ve done the food shop, our son’s hurt his knee, and our daughter has got to go to dance." And I’ll go "I’m being a dickhead, aren’t I?" And she says: "Yeah, a little bit, love." So my bubble is quickly burst. You just have to shake it off. There were a couple of times in this where, when they said "cut" we’d all have a little cry. And then you go home, and you have a really good sleep!
Joe is in almost every scene. Does that feel like pressure?
No, not really. We’re just telling the story, it’s his journey throughout the story. I don’t see it as being pressure because I have the utmost faith and trust in Shane. When you’re doing something like this, you’re not really aware that you’re making it for an audience. I suppose it feels a little tiny bit self-indulgent because you’re just completely immersed in that world.
You’ve worked with Meadows so often over the years, and so many people come back and work with him again and again. Why is that?
Because he’s great, he’s amazing, just wonderful. He’s an actor’s dream. He represents everything I ever hoped acting would be. He’s also extremely funny, he’s a beautiful family man, he’s a wonderful soul, and you just love working with him. If I could sign a paper saying once a year I could make a film with Shane, I would. That creativity and that freedom – you never feel like you can do any wrong. I’ve said this before, but if we were to turn up on set in Dover, if Shane said that I had to jump off the cliff in the first scene, my question would not be "What am I landing on, what are the safety precautions?" It would be "Do you want me to run or do you want me to walk?"
Where do you put The Virtues on the list of your work?
At the moment it’s the most present, and it’s the one I’ve put everything into. I’m extremely proud of it. I really hope we’ve created a character of complete truth. It means the world to me; it’s one of the best things I’ve ever worked on.
Compiled by Leandra Engelbrecht.