Stephen Graham is showing off his newly bulging biceps. “He’s like Popeye,” says his wife, Hannah Walters, on her way to the fridge. “Just give him a can and he pops it and crushes it.” It’s breakfast time in the couple’s home in a former mining town in Leicestershire, and the This Is England star is being teased by the love of his life, as he chats to me from the kitchen counter.
He does have impressive (tattooed) muscles to show off, though, as a result of intensive training for the role of a hardened pugilist in the forthcoming A Thousand Blows, written by Steven “Peaky Blinders” Knight, which the couple are producing together. They chat and spar as we talk, with Graham paying tribute to Walters for getting Knight involved: “I thought, ‘No chance!’ It was all down to that wonderful woman who’s eating cereal there.”
Positive vibes and a generosity of spirit are just bursting out of him, despite the early hour. The Disney Plus original series about illegal boxing in Victorian London will begin shooting in February, and the star of Boardwalk Empire, Line of Duty and The Walk-In is made up at the jobs that have been created already... “I think we’ve got, like, 35 to 50 chippies on site, constructing the set. Then you’ve got the scaffolders, all the people in the workshops, designing the sets and making them. Just to watch it come alive. We’re basically creating a world.”
That violent world is certainly a contrast to the magical one I’ve Zoomed in to chat about. Graham is one of the stars of the new movie version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical – easily the most joyously entertaining film of the year – but he very nearly wasn’t in it. “When it came in, I was like, I can’t do this,” he says, remembering when he first picked up the script. He’d been offered the part of Mr Wormwood – Matilda’s father – who, Dahl wrote, regards his sensitive, brilliant daughter as “nothing more than a scab”. But Graham had his own daughter, Grace, to contend with, as well as Walters, when he decided to pass on the role in Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly’s adaption of their own worldwide stage hit – which happened to be a family favourite. “Grace went, ‘What do you mean!?’ I went, ‘Nah, come on, me in a musical... it’s not really gonna work, is it?’”
The 49-year-old was triple-Bafta-nominated this year, for the Covid care-home series Help, the prison drama Time, and the searing, single-continuous-shot film Boiling Point, set in a London restaurant kitchen. He turned Matilda down. When the producers came back and asked him again, he still balked: “I was like, ‘This isn’t me. I do social realism. I’ve done nothing but truth.’ And they said, that’s exactly what we want for this. We’re gonna heighten it, and have the comedy behind it, but in essence, you know, it’s finding the truth about the character and that relationship.”
This time, thank heavens, he said yes, because he and Andrea Riseborough have an absolute blast as Matilda’s cruel and colourfully vulgar parents. As Riseborough squeezed into lurid catsuits, Graham got into the details of his character’s wardrobe – the checked suits, directional knitwear, and patent leather shoes. He’s talked before about how the right shoes and walk are key to finding a character for him. In Matilda, he’s channelling Minder’s Arthur Daley, classic Ealing comedies, Eastenders’ Frank Butcher, and even the snooker player Alex “Hurricane” Higgins – “I noticed that he had, like, a gold watch and a gold bracelet on the same wrist. And I just thought, ‘Oh, I’m having that.’”
Topped off with perma-tan and an upper set of prosthetic teeth, which give his speech “this lovely kind of cadence”, Mr Wormwood springs rudely to life. And the actor’s fear that he couldn’t live up to Danny DeVito in the 1996 film of Matilda, which Grace and her younger brother Alfie had “watched a million and one times”, proves to have been gloriously unfounded. Every time Graham delivers the running gag that Mr Wormwood can’t let go of the idea that Matilda is a boy, not a girl, his comic timing is spot on.
In another life, one could imagine him in a Seventies sitcom, sparring off Ronnie Barker or Molly Sugden. Yet he’s quick to highlight “the star” of the film – Dublin-born Alisha Weir, the actor who plays Matilda, who is 13 now but was 11 when filming began in May last year. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a talent. She reminded me of Thommo when we did This Is England.” (Thomas Turgoose was 13 when he first played the autobiographical central character, Shaun Fields, in Shane Meadows’s 2006 film.) “She’s just got this beautiful quality, an essence of truth.”
There is a dark side to Dahl, though, which finds its way into his books in the shape of sadistic villains that rival the Brothers Grimm for cruelty. It’s perhaps what makes his stories so unputdownable for young readers: the terrifying Miss Trunchbull (played by Emma Thompson), who runs Crunchem Hall school, thinks “children are maggots”, and has a nail-studded “punishment cupboard”, is one of his greatest creations.
Dahl knew darkness and tragedy from his earliest years: losing his father and older sister as a tot, being sent to a boarding school with a headmaster who delivered vicious beatings, surviving a Second World War plane crash in the desert, losing a beloved daughter to measles, and seeing his infant son terribly injured by a motorist who drove into his pram in New York. Misfortune deepened a cynical streak in the author, which he triumphs over in his fiction. His wife, whom he cheated on, referred to him as “Roald the Rotten”, but it is his openly antisemitic views that are now seen as thoroughly repellent.
“I had no idea he had those views,” Graham says. “I think the film we’ve made is a million miles away from those kinds of views. It’s about acceptance. It’s about finding who you are, having that connection with another human being.” Matilda, so despised by her parents, finds a kindred spirit in her teacher, Miss Honey (No Time to Die’s Lashana Lynch). “That’s why it’s been such an honour to be a part of this film. That sense that there’s someone out there for all of us. It may be a lover, or a sister, or a mother... whatever it may be, that connection is out there. You can be the person who you’re meant to be.”
Dahl seems almost a test case for “cancel culture”: is the work of a writer who has given such a gift of imagination and joy to the world more important than his personal opinions? Is the art more important than the artist? “Just from my own personal view,” Graham says, “would I be on set with an actor who was misogynistic, who was racist, who was homophobic? No, I’d slap ’em across the f***ing face. I wouldn’t stand in a room with someone who held those beliefs, because I’m a mixed-race man myself.”
Graham’s biological father is of Jamaican and Swedish descent, and the stepfather he calls “Pops” is also of mixed-race heritage. He has spoken about experiencing racism as a boy, but he prefers to let his work do the talking, he tells me. We’ve just seen him in Jeff Pope’s ITV drama about real-life former British nationalist Matthew Collins and his attempts to infiltrate a racist, far-right group in order to prevent the murder of MP Rosie Cooper. Graham petitioned for Collins to speak the Bob Marley quote on which the series ends. “If you’ve seen The Walk-In, you will see where I stand on these kinds of issues... I like to take on projects that have a social conscience. [The TV] is the empathy box in the corner of anybody’s home. I like to be a part of things that can create debates, create discussion, that can put a mirror up to society... I have been very selective in the roles I have chosen – to be a part of things that move me emotionally, and intellectually.”
But does immersing himself in a role like that of the care-home patient with early-onset Alzheimer’s that he played in Jack Thorne’s Channel 4 drama Help, set during the Covid pandemic, give him a heightened perspective on whether the former health secretary Matt Hancock should be on I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!? “I don’t watch I’m a Celebrity...,” he says. “Do I have an opinion on the fact that Matt Hancock is on it? Hasn’t he got a constituency he should be looking after?”
I mention that Jack O’Connell, with whom he starred in This Is England and The North Water, and who is currently in Steven Knight’s SAS: Rogue Heroes, told me recently that Graham has been a mentor to him throughout his career. He’s clearly touched by this. I wonder if it’s something he consciously does, taking younger actors under his wing a little. “Yeah, I do,” he confesses. “I’m there as an ear for them, someone to talk to.” Jodie Comer, he says, “is like a little sister to me... she was always destined to be this magnificent star. I think it is difficult for working-class actors to break through. And I think at times, you know, it’s a slog, it really is.”
Graham’s own memories of starting out include his early experience in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, in a role he got almost by accident when he accompanied a mate to an audition, and the director talked him into having a go himself, then told him, “You start on Monday.” While filming it, he met Brad Pitt, who he recalls was “this kind of hugely famous man, but he was so down to earth, and so accessible. I’ll never forget, he was sat on the floor one day, and I was looking over, and he just went ‘Come here,’ and I went and sat down next to him. And he went, ‘How’re you doing?’ because he knew it was my first big film. He was like, ‘It’s good fun, isn’t it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And then he said one of the most beautiful things anyone’s ever said to me – he said, ‘You’ve got a lot of characters in you. I can see it.’ We’ve kind of kept in touch ever since.”
“What I really noticed about the likes of Brad, and then someone like Leonardo DiCaprio [whom he met on Gangs of New York], and then, you know, Al Pacino [The Irishman] – I sound like I’m really name-dropping now – my experience of being with these men was that there was no ego. They treated me like an equal. And the conversations we had were deep conversations about life, about acting, about society. What I have noticed is how you conduct yourself with other people is hopefully how you want to be treated yourself, too. My mum always said to me, manners cost nothing. It’s nice to be nice.”
We chat about Martin Scorsese’s comments about superhero movies, that they’re “not cinema”. Graham appeared in Andy Serkis’s wildly energetic Spider-man spin-off, Venom: Let There Be Carnage. He smiles. “He’s Marty. Marty can say whatever he wants, and I’ll agree with him at that particular moment. He’s Martin Scorsese. He has the right.” He’s full of praise for Serkis, too – “Fantastic director, what a great energy... he’s one of the people I looked up to as a young actor coming up. He’s a character actor, which I really love, because, you know, I try to see myself as a similar thing, trying to find the truth in these characters.”
Of course, self-effacing though he is, Graham is an equal of all these huge names. As an actor, he has an almost unrivalled capacity to convey emotion, yet he can be as explosively tough and dangerous as American greats like Pacino, Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, all of whom he worked with on Scorsese’s The Irishman. The role of Combo that he played in This Is England remains one of the finest performances of this millennium: utterly convincing, moving, harrowing.
The actor was in his early thirties when he first played the National Front skinhead, and had emerged from a very distressing period in which he’d experienced a breakdown while away from his family for the first time, at drama school in south London. He had recently lost his beloved grandmother, and his mother had had a stillbirth with his brother Kieran. On Desert Island Discs, he described how he’d tried to take his own life at his parents’ home in Lancashire – “I tried to hang myself,” he told Lauren Laverne. “And I kicked the chair, and I heard my nana’s voice... she shouted ‘Stephen.’ And I thought I’d gone... And then I just came to, opened my eyes, and the rope had snapped.”
He’s conscious that some don’t make it through those moments, but he’s hopeful that the picture is changing. “I think, especially amongst working-class men, [suicide] still is the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 to 35. I notice that there is a shift in the consciousness, to be able to talk openly... nobody should be on their own with the things that can go on inside of our own heads. We’re all insecure.”
Qatar’s view on homosexuality is, in my opinion, from the Neanderthal ages
Surviving that crisis, he tells me, has shaped his life since in many ways. “I feel exceptionally blessed. And I’m not talking about materialistic things. I’m not talking about my career. I’m talking about how blessed I feel to have the family I have, to have Hannah, who is my rock, to stand by me through thick and thin, who has always believed in me and is my soulmate. To have found that person in this lifetime is, for me, unbelievable... I really appreciate life, and all the close relationships I have.”
He and Walters met at drama school, but didn’t start dating until six years later. They acted together in Boiling Point – he as head chef, she as pastry chef – which their production company, Matriarch, is turning into a five-part TV series for the BBC. I wonder if he has a signature dish in real life. He laughs. “I don’t really fancy myself as a chef. About eight years ago, I burnt some chicken kievs, and the kids have never let me forget that. I do make a fantastic pan of scouse, though.” Graham has talked before about how Walters helps him prepare for roles because of his dyslexia. She’s also key to his almost flawless run of choices. “She’s the vetter,” he says. “As soon as a script comes in, Hannah reads it, and if it’s any good, I’ll have a look to see if it resonates.” Some exceptions are made: “If Jimmy McGovern picks up the phone and says ‘I’ve got this thing for you,’ you’re gonna go, ‘When do I start?’” He worries, though, where the next generation of working-class writers like McGovern, Meadows and Pope is coming from.
Rare divisions can emerge in the Walters/Graham household. Graham’s a massive footie fan, who supports Liverpool. “On match day in this house it can get a little bit heated,” he laughs, “because you have me, Grace and Alfie, all reds, and you have Hannah, who’s a blue, over there.” I’m assuming he means Leicester City and not Liverpool’s traditional rivals, Everton, but I could be wrong. I wonder if he thinks the England team should be at the World Cup in Qatar. “I think it’s great that we’re actually being able to shine a light on it, because it should never have been played there,” he says. “Fifa had an opportunity to boycott it; the FA could have said, ‘I’m sorry, England aren’t going.’ But they didn’t choose to do that, because you and I both know what runs these things.” He rubs his fingers together in the universal sign for money.
“I’ve watched a lot of the stuff that’s been on telly, the immigrant migrant workers that have died over there to build these stadiums, and their view on homosexuality and gender is, in my own opinion, from the Neanderthal ages. That’s just my opinion.”
He also notes that he didn’t like the way Gary Neville was attacked on Have I Got News for You for going to Qatar as a commentator. “There’s comedic satire, and then there’s really going for someone, and I felt Ian Hislop – and I like him, and I think the programme’s fantastic, I’ve watched it since I was a kid – but I just felt they were a little bit f***ing school-bullyish there for my liking. But I thought he handled it very well.”
My abiding memory of our chat will be that Graham will always be the one to stick up for the person who’s being picked on. We’re lucky to have him. Matilda, on the other hand, will be well pleased to be shot of him – gold watch, gold bracelet ’n’ all.
‘Matilda the Musical’ is out in cinemas on 25 November