A star-studded production of Hamlet opens at the Crucible tomorrow. Entertainments Writer David Dunn talks to its leading man and major British actor John Simm
JOHN Simm doesn't recall much about the only other time he performed on a Sheffield stage.
It was around eight years ago and at city music venue The Leadmill with a rock band called Magic Alex.
"That was very, very hazy," he confirms ahead of stepping into the shoes of arguably Shakespeare's greatest role tomorrow. "I don't remember it, but that was the kind of band we were."
No doubt a few gig-goers will have recollections the set. Many more will, of course, know John for his role as Sam Tyler in the massive BBC drama Life On Mars or as Danny in the brilliant '90s drama The Lakes.
But the 40-year-old father-of-two reveals the battle between a
career in music or acting was once a close run thing.
"I used to be a musician with my dad when I was a kid. Luckily I got the chance to do both," he recalls.
Taught to play guitar by his dad Ronald, John joined him on the working men's club circuit before fronting his own band until 2005, as well as playing guitar with Echo & The Bunnymen legend Ian McCulloch on his solo tours.
"The band played massive gigs, thousands of people, supporting the Bunnymen. Also I played with Ian in his band and that included Wembley Arena supporting Coldplay."
Add in his role as Bernard Sumner in the film 24 Hour Party People and performing with New Order at Finsbury Park, the Manchester-raised star believes he did enough in music to justify opting for an acting career.
"I made that choice not to do the music. I find this much easier than standing on stage with a guitar because I can pretend to be somebody else and hide behind a mask, a character. It's not me but when it was me...
"I'm quite shy socially, not inept but I get shy. I hate being the centre of attention. I'm not the kind of person who likes having happy birthday sung by more than three people. So when it's just me and the guitar and my songs in a band, especially if you've been on telly and they're pointing at you because of that, it can become quite difficult."
The spotlight is very much back on from tomorrow, however, with his first major return to a theatre role since becoming one of the UK's biggest TV stars.
Hamlet is directed by Paul Miller, previously responsible for True West at the Crucible. He directed Simm at The Bush in 1996 in Goldhawk Road, his first professional theatre role.
So why Hamlet now? "I'm 40 and you don't get asked that often in your life," he says.
"I was asked when I was 26 and it was far too soon. Also the '90s were quite hazy, I was doing the band and The Lakes and other things so I can't really remember why I said no.
"I would be stupid to say no now. It's one of the greatest roles ever written. If ever you wanted to test yourself, prove yourself, you just have a go at it. It's an honour to be asked therefore I'm gonna bite that hand off."
And, talking to us deep in rehearsals, John is clearly not relying on reputation to carry him through. "The advice all 'Hamlets' get from 'old Hamlets' is 'he plays you, you don't play him'.
"I can see why they say that now. It's a family drama and as long as you're in the moment and let things happen to you and you speak the lines clearly the story should tell itself because it's such a fantastic play."
Beyond Sheffield, the rest of the nation will see John in a Majorca-based Sky1 drama called Mad Dogs next spring. Already filmed, it reunites him with Life On Mars co-star Philip Glenister.
Add in there Clocking Off, the John Hurt film Miranda, Crime & Punishment and powerful two-parter Sex Traffic, and Simms's career has certainly been varied, although he says he had little choice when Doctor Who creator Russell T Davies called.
"It was just a peach of a part and fun to do. My son would never have forgiven me if I'd said no to that. You've got to tick it off.
"I wouldn't want to do Doctor Who, though, even if it was hinted to me.
The Master is perfect for me, he's the baddie - suits me down to the ground."
Hamlet, which also features Midsomer Murders star John Nettles and Family At War actress Barbara Flynn, runs until October 23. Mars was not always marvellous
LIFE On Mars may have been one of the BBC's biggest successes but secretly John Simm was losing interest.
"I went to classical theatre drama school so that's what I was about to do. It just so happened that I made it on TV and in films and that's the way it went for years and years.
"By the time I did Life On Mars I'd lost all sense of excitement about it - I was in every scene, it was literally like a job. I didn't feel anything when the red light came on that camera.
"I might as well have been working in a kitchen and that was worrying.
I thought 'what can I do to get it back'. The reason I was doing it in the first place was because I did plays, so I went back on stage."
He appeared in the 2007 drama The Yellow House playing troubled artist Vincent van Gogh and landed the role of The Master in Doctor Who the same year, but away from TV revived his link with Paul Miller and The Bush as the title character in Elling, earning an Olivier Award nomination.
"After Life On Mars I wanted to disappear for a bit and do some low key theatre.
"But I went back not really thinking Life On Mars and Doctor Who had sold it out - suddenly it wasn't low key any more which, perhaps naively, I didn't really think about.
"It was terrifying as I hadn't been on stage for 12 years and also when you're well known from telly that thing of people being sat there staring at you comes into it's own; you think 'I've really got to deliver now'. Same with this.
"We'll see, but feeling intense nerves is better than feeling nothing I think."
The criminal, The Master and a Tyler make up a varied career
SLIGHTLY bashful while also something of a straight-talker, John Simm is the first to admit his career journey has been anything but ordinary.
Having decided early on musical theatre wasn't for him he has been often drawn to gritty characters, making his professional dbut in Rumpole Of The Bailey, a psycho in The Bill, a burglar in The Locksmith, and a murderer in both Chiller and Cracker.
So has he been fortuitous or picky?
"A bit of both I guess," he shrugs.
"I've got quite a good radar for good scripts and if a film script comes along that's s*** but loads of money I probably wouldn't do it, unless I really needed that money.
"We're a ll right so I don't really need to start selling my a*** for crap, yet. I've been really lucky... Van Gogh, The Master, Hamlet, time-travelling '70s cop.
"That one sounded ridiculous, but was a great big hit."
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