There are a lot of David Morrisseys — the intense and brooding character actor, the stage performer, the ‘northern hunk’ — and now the feature film director.
Since bursting onto the acting scene almost 30 years ago as a teenage runaway in the hit drama One Summer, he has enjoyed a television career which has included some of the biggest critical and ratings hits of recent decades — as the shady MP in journalistic thriller State of Play, a bent cop in the Red Riding Trilogy and even a deluded Time Lord wannabe in the newly-revamped Dr Who.
Now the 45-year-old Liverpudlian has taken his first steps into film directing with his new project, Don’t Worry About Me. The film follows 24 hours in the life of cocky London lad David as he discovers the delights of Liverpool in the company of local girl Tina. Based on a stage play written by the two leads, it is a tender and touching romance, as well as a love letter of sorts to Morrissey’s native city.
“I left Liverpool in my late teens and didn't go back much,” he says. “But in my thirties when I had my children I started seeing it differently. It was changing from the city I knew. I grew up there in the 1970s which, like the whole of the UK, was quite a bleak, depressing time. But in the last ten years, Liverpool has had a resurgence. It's nothing like the memories I had of growing up there.”
It is a description that would perhaps as easily apply to Belfast, where he will be visiting this weekend to screen his film and meet with young filmmakers and industry hopefuls.
“Like Belfast, Liverpool was a shipbuilding town, and the people went all over the world,” he says. “That all died and the city was left with these big old buildings, but nothing to put inside them. Now these new high-rise penthouses and hotels are shooting up all over the city. It's a changing landscape and I wanted to reflect that in the film.”
Although he had some experience of directing for television (notably in the dark drama Passer By, which starred James Nesbitt), the challenges of doing so for the big screen were altogether more daunting, even for a well-established name such as Morrissey.
“The films that were available to me weren't what I wanted to make,” he says. “But I tried to find out how much money I could raise and still be totally creative on my own, rather than have a team of people that I needed to please. I read a review for a play called The Pool. At first I didn't think it was going to work, because it was in rhyming couplets, and had quite a contrived ending. I was left quite disappointed, but then the basic story of two people in a city over 24 hours started to germinate in my brain. I met the two writers and actors and we got some sort of screenplay together. Altogether it was about a year from seeing the play to doing the movie.”
Given his somewhat varied experience as a film actor (his starring roles have included such critical and box office bombs as Basic Instinct 2 and The Reaping) a further foray into the movie industry might have seemed the last thing on Morrissey’s mind. Yet, he admits, he is at his happiest when working on a film set.
“At first I was frustrated at the experience of an actor, in that you come to a project late, the script's written, the house and car your character owns have already been chosen,” he says. “Also you leave the process early — you do the shooting and the director edits it, cuts you out. I was frustrated and fascinated by that, and felt I was only touching the surface of the creative process within filmmaking.”
“I find I have to be all-consumed by my profession,” he says.
“That’s the lucky thing about being an actor in Britain, that you can jump around the mediums and don't get locked down.
“But when I act I tend to get lost within that character and cut myself off. I'm slightly nervous about how to do that when you also have to keep an eye on what's going on behind the camera.”
Getting lost within the character is perhaps what Morrissey does best. Among his most memorable roles was that of Gordon Brown in the 2003 drama The Deal, for which he gained two stone and had his hair permed and dyed to play the now-Prime Minister.
Yet, in spite of his interests in all things Westminster (he is a Labour Party member) he insists his politics are those with a small ‘p’. “I’m interested in how it affects people in their everyday lives rather than any polemic message,” he says.
Although not a fan of Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair (“I find him a deeply troubling person”), Morrissey is nevertheless broadly sympathetic to Brown, perhaps understandably having portrayed him so thoroughly.
“From a socialist viewpoint I think Brown comes from very sympathetic place,” he says.
Whether or not the world of politics may provide the basis for another movie, there is plenty for the family man (he is married to novelist Esther Freud, with whom he has three children) to be getting on with, not least promoting the new film. And, who knows, there might even be scope for another instalment of the romance between David and Tina.
“Well, never say never!” he laughs. “But they are incompatible. There might be a story about them in their separate lives — but I think it might be a bit convenient if they suddenly came back together.”
David Morrissey will be taking part in a panel discussion at the QFT tomorrow, February 6, followed by a screening of Don’t Worry About Me. Further information and booking at www.queensfilmtheatre.com