Paddy Considine always knew he would one day make a film about boxing. A fan of the sport since he was a young child, he loved the first few Rocky movies and was fascinated by the ‘monumental’ nature of fighters.
But, when the time came, Considine realised a different approach was needed.
“I didn’t want to make the archetypal boxing story – it had already been done,” he says of Journeyman, his second outing as a writer-director. Filmed largely in Sheffield, and starring Considine, it tells the powerful tale of Matty Burton, a middleweight boxing champion who suffers a devastating brain injury while defending his title.
The sport takes a back seat as a stricken Matty tries to piece together his identity and reconnect with his wife Emma, played by Jodie Whittaker, and their baby daughter Mia.
“Grown men are crying at this film,” he says, talking affably on the phone from the Soho hotel where he has a day of promotion lined up. “It says something not just about the fragility of boxing but about the fragility of life. We just do not know what’s around the corner.”
Journeyman has been in the works for 10 years, on and off. It was the first feature script Considine started to develop, pre-dating his BAFTA-winning 2011 debut as a writer-director, Tyrannosaur, an extremely bleak drama about an angry, violent drunk – played by Peter Mullan – who is given a chance at redemption through meeting Olivia Colman’s character, a Christian charity shop worker.
Both films are partly drawn from his own life. Considine has habitually portrayed complex, unpredictable individuals, and Tyrannosaur was inspired by things he’d seen growing up. Matty’s ‘loss of self’ can be traced to Considine being diagnosed with Asperger’s, and then Irlen syndrome, a disorder affecting the brain’s ability to process visual information. He is reluctant to fully equate his troubles with Matty’s head injury, however. “It’s very tenuous ground. There’s a grain of my experience that I brought to the character.”
Life has brightened since his diagnoses. “I was lucky. I got help. Irlen syndrome was kind of crippling me. I was living in a very scary world, I was disappearing into myself and finding social situations very hard to get through.”
He struggled to make eye contact, and recoiled if anyone other than his immediate loved ones touched him. “I was getting very angry and abrasive in certain situations because I was just scared. I would go into supermarkets and the information on the shelves would overwhelm me because my brain couldn’t process all of it. It was destroying my whole world.”
Considine was given special tinted contact lenses to wear which had a substantial effect, and he took other measures too. “I had to rebuild my life, eliminate certain poisons and start taking care of myself.”
It ‘made absolute sense’ to shoot Journeyman in Sheffield, largely because of the city’s boxing heritage; Considine trained to look the part at Brendan Ingle’s gym in Wincobank, where Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham, Ryan Rhodes, Johnny Nelson and ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed started out. Brendan’s son Dominic, who coaches Kell Brook and Kid Galahad, put the actor through his paces. “You have to take it seriously. I did what I was told.”
Nevertheless, Considine wasn’t aiming to look ‘ripped to pieces’. “Fighters’ bodies have changed so much in recent years. The model for Matty was like a Joe Calzaghe, who’d always come in really fit, lithe and in good shape.”
Brendan appears as Matty’s father, Kell makes a brief cameo and other familiar faces pop up. The gym scenes themselves were shot at De Hood on the Manor, and a house in Dore was commandeered for the Burtons’ tasteful yet clinical home. “It was the two contrasting parts of the city. We tried to shoot across as many areas of Sheffield as we possibly could.”
Local occupational therapists helped Considine understand the far-reaching impact of a brain injury.
But Journeyman, produced by Sheffield-based Diarmid Scrimshaw, is not an ‘anti-boxing movie’, he says. Its release comes just over a month after the tragic death of fighter Scott Westgarth, who fell ill following a light heavyweight match in Doncaster.
“I’m compelled by it as a sport and that will continue forever. Fighters are fighters – they know the risks but in order to do what they do they bury it very deeply within their psyche. They can’t go into the ring with that kind of fragility in their minds. It’s part of that warrior mentality, that you have to hide your emotions.”
Considine was reluctant to play Matty at first. “I was scared of the task of directing as well as acting in it, and that wasn’t a good enough reason not to do it. I thought ‘You’ve waited a long time for a role to disappear into, and it hasn’t come along’.”
He’s had parts in The Bourne Ultimatum, Pride, and Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death Of Stalin, as well as the title role in TV series The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but didn’t feel he was getting the opportunities he’d hoped for. “Everybody wants you in their film, and you go ‘That’s amazing, I’m really pleased’, then you get the script and you’re in it for a day, which isn’t going to work for me.”
Considine, 44, was born in Burton-on-Trent. He still lives in the town with his wife and three children, and fronts a rock band there called Riding The Low. His route into acting came via his old college friend Shane Meadows’ third film, A Room For Romeo Brass. Meadows persuaded him to audition and cast him as one of the central characters, the eccentric and dangerous Morell.
He’s aghast when reminded Romeo Brass will be 20 next year.
“Is it? Good God. Where’s that time gone. I treasure Morell, I love him, I have the most affection for him and Matty as characters I’ve played. Every council estate has got a Morell on it, lurking somewhere. He was a little man-child.”
Do these roles stay with him?
“Nah, I’m not one of them. I go home and it’s switched off. When you say ‘action’ I’m in character, and when you say ‘cut’, I’m out. There’s a lot of young actors out there who fancy themselves as method actors, but I don’t think they quite understand it. A lot of method actors think it’s an excuse to act obtuse and weird on set – that’s the opposite of what I am.”
Considine will likely be heading to Broadway later this year in Jez Butterworth’s play The Ferryman, which introduced him to the West End stage last year under the direction of Sam Mendes, and he has the lead in the upcoming BBC thriller The Informer.
Just don’t be surprised if he directs himself again in future.
“If I write something that’s great, and I think I can play it, I’ll do it. Why not? Nobody’s giving me great roles, so I’ll just create my own. It’s part of my survival.”
Journeyman is out in cinemas on Friday, March 30.
‘It’s very true to life’
Sheffield boxing trainer Dominic Ingle says Journeyman ‘hits home’.
“It’s very true to life,” says Dominic, who got Paddy Considine into shape at the Ingle Gym in Wincobank. “It’s not a Hollywood blockbuster-type of film, it’s very realistic in what it’s achieved.”
The story reminds him of the fate of fighters Rod Douglas and Michael Watson, who both suffered brain injuries in the ring.
“When you’ve been in boxing as long as I have, you see a lot of these, but we’ve never had any fatalities at our gym in 50 years. People just see the event of boxing, the fight. You’ve got to take precautions in the first place, make sure the training is good and make sure you make weight properly.”
The actor completed about 10 weeks of fitness, weight and boxing training.
“We got him on a healthy diet with someone cooking his food. He looks 10 years younger. It set him off to keep that healthy lifestyle.”
Journeyman’s impact could echo that of The Full Monty more than 20 years ago, Dominic speculates.
“I thought it was a great film.”