It’s a summer-in-the-city day when we catch up with Gary Carr (Death in Paradise, Downton Abbey) in London and despite his relentless schedule, he is effortlessly cool, welcoming and talkative. Downton Abbey fans will recognise the young Londoner as charming jazz musician Jack Ross, while Death in Paradise viewers will recall his three seasons as the earnest Sergeant Fidel Best.
Post-Downton, this multi-talented actor, director and musician is ready to take the world by storm with his American TV debut.
Hey Gary. Congratulations on The Deuce, what's it all about?
It’s a new HBO series from the makers of The Wire, set in the early seventies, and it's all about the rise of the porn industry in America. It’s set in the Deuce area of New York, which is around 42nd Street. At that time it was a hotspot for pimps and prostitutes, the Mob and the police. The show interweaves all these fascinating characters. The creators David (Simon) and George (Pelecanos) are amazing. They have a great way of going at a production, it’s so thorough and detailed. They really do their research and as a result they bring human stories to the screen. What’s so exciting about it is that everyone is expecting to see sex but it’s not about that – it’s about human beings. The porn is just one element of the story.
Tell us a bit about your character in it?
I play a young and ambitious pimp called C.C. I love seeing his journey progress through the changes happening at that time, it’s about survival. The pimp game is a real career for him, he lives and breathes it. It was difficult to research for the character as the industry has changed drastically, so I had to rely on interviews, police reports and documentaries but I found details to build him.
The whole cast was fantastic. Maggie is brilliant – the real deal. When playing these kinds of roles, we have a great responsibility to represent people and not cut corners, and she inspired us to do our research as she was so committed – she met with sex workers and was an advocate for the groups. She really means it. It was inspiring to be on set with her. James is just as great – he’s really on it and passionate. I feel fortunate to be involved with it.
And in turn, The Deuce has inspired you to make a documentary?
While doing my research for C.C, I learned a lot about sex workers and became really interested in it all. I’ve always been fascinated by marginalised communities and I’m heartbroken by how many people don’t have a voice – it’s dehumanising. What I love about this show is that it humanises people. I took part in a fundraiser Sex Worker's Project in New York, and I really appreciated being able to advocate for them. I’d thought about doing a piece on them for my (upcoming) website Art. Humanity. Revolution, and the documentary came from that.
How have you found being behind the camera for a change?
I’m producing and directing, which I’m enjoying. I’ve never worked on a documentary like it but it plays to my strengths. We’re telling other people’s stories so it’s important to me that we don’t just run into it, we need to create a platform for people to have a voice. Filming interviews with sex workers was challenging, as they were wary of us (they have negative experiences with media and press) but it’s going well now. We’re securing interviews with policy makers and law enforcement and we’ll continue to create a 360 view. We want it to be engaging – a 90-minute talking heads documentary won’t work, it needs to really connect with people.
How about funding?
We started off with self-funding but we’re seeking further funding now. We’ve applied for some and hopefully we’ll find out if we’ve been successful soon. We’re also pitching to networks around the world. We’re fortunate to have a network of people in New York that are willing to do great work for no money purely because they’re passionate about the project and are engaged in it.
What prompted your move to US TV?
I’d done quite a bit of British TV but I really wanted to find the right role so I was turning stuff down even though I really wasn’t in a position to. My agent knew that I wanted something that I could really lose myself in and grow from. The Deuce came in and I loved the script so much, I wanted to fly over, there and then. I was so serious about it. I did the tape, they saw it and they flew me over. It was one of those moments where the universe was with me. I remember saying at drama school, “I want to be in something like The Wire!”, so when this came along I felt so humble and grateful.
Before The Deuce you worked on Death in Paradise and Downton Abbey. Good times?
I’m really fortunate to have been part of those shows and I got to work with some great human beings. Danny John Jules is a legend and he made every day a lot of fun. He brought so much to the scenes, he’s a beautiful man! Don Warrington is amazing, too. Just the loveliest person, I’m so grateful to have worked on the island with him.
Downton was a fun show to be part of. The buzz around it was amazing and it had really high production values. I enjoyed it but I’m someone who loves to go into detail and be really thorough with my character, and it wasn’t always possible to strike that balance, which was frustrating. The character wasn’t completely true to how he should be, for example, his singing voice wasn’t quite right considering his background. People said some tough stuff about him, which was hard to read, but I agreed with them! On a show of that size, it’s not always possible to have a big input into the character. The experience was more sweet than bitter though. Jack was close to my heart as I’m a musician and a massive fan of jazz! Downton helped me to get the part in the film Bolden! (about the New Orleans trumpet player, Buddy Bolden).
You also added your voice talents to the game Mass Effect: Andromeda. How was that?
It was a great experience although it took quite a long time to record. I haven’t played it yet but I am a gamer. I grew up on the Sega Megadrive and the PlayStation. I loved all the classics - Tekken, Sonic, Streets of Rage, even Disney games like Aladdin – I loved that!
You’ve now been immortalised into a Funko Pop! Figure (as Liam Kosta). Life goal?
Ha! I haven’t seen one yet actually but that’s so cool.
You've made a few short films. Has that skillset prepared you for making your documentary?
Absolutely. Whenever I've been on a set, I've been a student - always asking questions, learning how the production runs, how to make it all happen. I don't think there's any difference, each project is individual, but the things required to make them run and happen are very much the same. Short films aren’t any different to longer projects, they’re still a narrative. Any kind of visual narrative is an art form, no matter what the length.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out as a filmmaker?
Research is so important, it's difficult to go into it blind. Attention to detail is key.
Are there any personal skills that you consider essential in this industry?
Tenacity, resilience, being able to think on your feet. Being passionate is a huge factor and can determine the running and outcome of a project. Knowing how to interact and communicate with all types of people is crucial, as is remembering that you're working with people first. Respect always matters.
Which side of the camera do you feel more comfortable on?
I love both! It’s all about being creative so as long as I’m doing that, then it feels great. It’s the same as being in the studio and making music.
Your agent calls with your dream role – what is it?
Something that requires me to transform even more than I already have. Look at Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight – that’s someone who transforms, he really went there. That was the first time I found myself scared while watching a Batman film! Then there’s Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Those are performances that stay with you forever. I want a role that requires me to go there in that way, that allows me to really create something. I want every role I play to do that. Of course sometimes you have to just do what is required of you but I really do try to create something with every role.
How do you find a balance between all your different projects?
I prioritise and make lists. I try my best not to procrastinate and to honour opportunities and to stay present and in the moment, which creates great balance. I like the whole 'work hard, play hard' thing.
I do normal stuff too like hanging with my mates and cooking. I’m a good cook although when it’s busy, I don’t do as much of it. My signature dish is a mean oxtail and rice meal with fried plaintain.
Last words. Giving a voice to others clearly matters to you. Talk to us about that.
I’ve always been fascinated but disappointed by the fact that people can’t always see that people need people. We’re all born on this planet and it belongs to all of us - I don’t believe in borders and segregation, or in not taking care of the planet.
I’ve always wanted to help people. When I was four, I called Oxfam and they made me put my mum on the phone. She said, “Why did you call them?”. I had a pound and I just wanted to give it to them to help. When you’re a fortunate person, you’re perhaps in more of a position to help others and to give a voice to people who need a platform. I strive for balance but if I had to choose between acting and helping people, it’d be helping people.
The Deuce airs on 10 September on HBO in the US and can be caught on Sky Atlantic in the UK later this year.