Nico Mirallegro: 'I had to get the role right for the sake of his family'
Nico Mirallegro plays the wrongfully executed Timothy Evans in new BBC One drama Rillington Place. The young actor tells Jeananne Craig about how his growing sense of social justice was fuelled by growing up with a single parent Irish mum in financial difficulties
Nico Mirallegro is all set to be interviewed about his new TV drama, but his head seems a little elsewhere. The actor has just come out of a cinema screening of Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake, and the film's hard-hitting social message is playing on his mind.
"It's very, very emotional. It gets you angry. It's a good solid message on the failed society. I can't stop thinking about it," he says, in his softly-spoken Mancunian accent.
The veteran director is "a hero" to Mirallegro, who cut his teeth on Hollyoaks (as angst-ridden teen Newt) before starring in E4's Bafta-nominated My Mad Fat Diary.
"I saw him on BBC Question Time the other day and I was screaming at the telly like, 'Finally we have someone who's not pussyfooting around the questions!' He was giving real answers. It frustrates you when people don't answer the question. It's like watching really bad actors fight their way out of a paper bag."
The former Hollyoaks actor is clearly switched on to the world around him. His Twitter feed is populated with tweets about social issues, and his recent performances on screen - from Jimmy McGovern's BBC drama Common, about the UK's controversial joint enterprise law, to this year's gay football film The Pass -display a compassion and a maturity beyond his 25 years.
His latest role, in which he appears alongside acclaimed stars Tim Roth and Samantha Morton, is equally meaty.
BBC One drama Rillington Place tells the tale of Welshman Timothy Evans (Mirallegro), whose wife Beryl and baby Geraldine were among the victims of his serial killer neighbour John Christie (Roth), who rented a flat in the same bleak house as him at 10 Rillington Place, Notting Hill.
Evans was charged with his wife and daughter's murders and hanged in 1950, aged 25. In 1953, however, a number of bodies were discovered at the house. Christie admitted to the crimes (but not to the killing of baby Geraldine) and was hanged. In 1966, after much campaigning from Evans' sister and others, Evans was given a posthumous pardon.
In the three-part series we see hard-up new parents Timothy and Beryl (Jodie Comer) befriended by Christie and wife Ethel (Morton) as they struggle financially and with their fraught relationship. "Beryl and Tim and baby Geraldine are really struggling to make ends meet and the flat that they live in is by no means a liveable house, there's all sorts going on with it. You get a sense of the hardship of everything - work and jobs and just everything that was going on," says Mirallegro.
In the course of his research, the actor spoke with Evans' half-sister, who gave him the impression that Evans was "a normal bloke caught up in extraordinary circumstances".
"Timothy Evans adopted a lot of personas; the family man and the sunny joker. But deeper than that, he had a lot of issues stemming from his childhood," says Mirallegro.
"He had tuberculosis at a young age, which left him without a real education, and from then on struggled to read and write. He struggled in school and socially, and with work after that, so it had a big knock-on effect from when he was young.
"I think he was quite easily influenced in terms of looking up to people because, as we were saying, it was a hard time, there wasn't a lot of work and it wasn't the friendliest of times. I think people got from people what they could, so if there was an older guy putting money in his meter and saying he can look after the baby, I'm sure you're going to look up to somebody like that."
Portraying a real-life story gave the project added significance for the star. "As well as the drama, there's a real person's life at the centre of it. We wanted to get that as right as possible for the family's sake," Mirallegro explains.
Working with Roth and Morton was great, but it's his former My Mad Fat Diary co-star Comer for whom the rising star has the most praise.
"She is so down-to-earth and easy to get on with that even if we hadn't worked together before, it would have been just as easy and as intimate and connected," he says.
"It was always a weird feeling on set, because there weren't many positive scenes where they're getting on.
"So when doing these deep, dark scenes, you remind yourself these characters probably lived this out. We had a good communication and a good connection on set. She's ace, Jodie."
Mirallegro grew up in Heywood, Greater Manchester with his Irish mother, aside from a spell in Spain with his Italian father. "My mum said she'd had enough of me and rightly so," he confesses. In Spain, he attended a fee-paying school and "hated it".
"Having gone from quite a working-class school in Manchester to this school where kids could have anything and everything they wanted, I really did struggle out there. Spain's a lovely place but that kind of environment, I got really lonely," the actor admits.
He partly credits his interest in social issues with his background "growing up with a single-parent mum who struggled financially".
"In every aspect, you grow up and you see that, and then things happen around you as you're getting older," he says.
"You see there's so much injustice in the world and that we're not being represented properly by the powers, the people that make decisions. It affects you in a way that you want to make a change.
"You see these films and they inspire you, and you read books about certain things. I think everyone's trying to better themselves and learn each day, and that's all I'm trying to do - educate myself a bit more."
*Rillington Place begins on BBC One, Tuesday, 9pm