Craig Parkinson talks acting and talking to actors on the Two Shot Podcast
Craig Parkinson, star of Line of Duty, Temple and The English Game, talks to us about his tour de force performance in short film Futures, his experience filming Charlie Brooker's choose-your-own-adventure film Bandersnatch, plus co-creating and hosting The Two Shot Podcast.
There aren't many interviews I approach with a certain amount of trepidation. That's not to say I wasn't thrilled by the opportunity to speak with actor Craig Parkinson, but having listened through many of the wonderful interviews he has conducted on The Two Shot Podcast, it would be the first time I've interviewed an interviewer. And a bloody good one.
That being said, we agree at the start of our chat that Covid has become such a staple in everyone's lives over the last 9 months, that it's gone from being one of the first questions you might ask someone about, to something you're quite happy not to talk about at all.
"I'm trying to not ask those questions if I'm interviewing people, and also of people who are interviewing me. We're all kind of in the same boat, really. Especially in the arts."
So, I cross that question off and we dive straight into the good stuff. First on my list of topics to discuss is his barnstorming turn in short film Futures. Written and directed by Daniel Marc Janes - and nominated for Best Film at Exit 6 Film Festival - it's a tense thriller focusing on toxic masculinity in the extreme in the guise of an amoral City trader called Leo. How did Parkinson get involved with the project?
"Kate Bone, who works with casting director Nina Gold, got in touch and had this script and her and the director wanted me to play this part. I went to go and meet the director just to sound him out because it was based on a play that he'd written and it was being transferred to screen. It read very well. I suppose I just wanted to see him and see if we clicked and if there was anything there. Luckily there was. With it being such a small cast, I wanted to know who else was involved. Then when Ria Zmitrowicz and Luke Newberry's names were mentioned, I just thought, 'Well, this is going to be a lot of hard work over two days, but I think it could be a lot of fun'. And it was."
Much of that fun would come from playing such a larger than life character. Leo is a chauvinistic, homophobic, immoral alpha-male who is at the same time disarmingly impressive for all the bravado and energy with which he demonstrates his deplorable traits. It's an energy that Parkinson brings seemingly effortlessly to the role.
"It's a lot of fun, especially when you're co-starring with actors of the calibre of Ria and Luke. We had very little time to get to know each other, but we did and there was an immediate trust there. If there's trust there, then you can do your job and you can play and have fun to a certain extent, even if you're going around screaming in their faces and calling people c***s and saying and doing the worst things imaginable. It's a lot of fun, but it is draining. It takes a lot of energy with a character like that, there is nothing sly or sneaky about him at all, he's there in your face so you have to approach it at ten. Also, it's a short film, so we don't have time to start at six and come up to ten. He's there at ten from the start and that's what you have to maintain.
"It was very clear to me what Daniel wanted and between all of us, we just stuck to it from the word go. He was very sharp and direct, and really knew what he wanted. Obviously, there's nothing worse than the director saying, 'Not really sure what I want here. What do you think?' We don't really have the time to be doing that on this job. He came to set so prepped and knew exactly what he wanted, and that was great."
Working with new directors is something that Parkinson enjoys, and in the short film medium there are no shortage of those. What is it he enjoys most about collaborating with directors at the start of their careers?
"Passion, energy, clarity. A level of excitement that we're embarking on something that hasn't been done before or we're treading new ground. That's always exciting. Again, it's about communication. It's about listening. I have to listen to what they want, and hopefully, we meet somewhere or we have ideas. Sometimes you might even approach a scene in a completely different way to what the director thought and then you have to completely rethink what you planned or what your gut instinct was. That's great. That's exciting. It's like everything with any sort of filming. Again, it's just communication. In that respect, it's like acting because you're just listening. It's not just that, but it begins with that."
While short films are something the experienced actor is still open to, at this stage of his career he insists there has to be something really special about the script for him to get involved. However, his love for the medium is evident.
"I've seen incredible short films over the years. Even when you look at the very early shorts of Lynne Ramsay, just f*****g incredible. The very early stuff that Mike Leigh was doing and Ridley Scott. They weren't pretentious, they were a short story. I love reading short stories and I love seeing short films. I want to be challenged, but I don't want to be baffled as an audience member, and as an actor I don't really want to massage the ego of a director. Sometimes I read a short film and it would be largely a bit pretentious, and I'm not really into that."
"It all begins with the script. If something smacks you around the face when you're reading, or there's an intake of breath which very rarely happens, it's 'un-turn-downable'. But then there are some other factors too. I remember getting sent a short a few years ago, and the opening was of a man coming out of the Irish Sea in his underwear and they wanted to shoot in January. It doesn't matter how good the script is, I'm not going to Belfast in January in my underwear coming out of the Irish Sea! It could come down to things like that, but it starts and ends with the script."
Speaking of not wanting to be baffled as an audience member, I next ask about his involvement with Charlie Brooker's Bandersnatch and what that was like for him as an actor. The stand-alone Black Mirror event broadcast on Netflix was a choose-your-own-adventure style story, where home audience could use their remote controls to select which direction the story took. That meant several permutations of scenes needed to be filmed, with different emotional journeys for the performers.
"Well, talking of breaking new ground, I knew that not only was this the first time any of us, cast or crew had done something like this. It was probably the only time that I would be given the opportunity to do something like this. It was utterly bonkers and fly by the seat of your pants excitement every day. It was a much longer shoot than a normal episode of Black Mirror. At the time, we didn't know that it was going to be, for want of a better term, the Black Mirror movie. We thought it was just going to be a part of that new season.
"You had to constantly think, 'Right, where am I now? Geographically, where am I? What year am I in? Is this before Stefan's mother has been killed? Is it after?' You're just constantly speaking to the script editor and asking, 'Can you just tell me where I am? Where are we now? Have I died yet? How did I die? Have I been chopped up yet? Have I had an asteroid smashed on my face?' You're constantly asking for the support of everybody else. Then people would say, 'I've no idea. Where are we?' It was such a team effort.
"Charlie was just brilliant, he and Annabel Jones are just such a force. They're so brilliant and so generous. I'm pleased that we had someone as focused as David Slade directing. He's a very strong and silent type, but so clear. My God, the prep to direct this, I can't imagine how long it would have taken. This was unlike anything to direct. Everybody was slightly baffled, but it was such a joyous time and one that will never be repeated. I don't think Charlie would do something like that again because he's done that now. He ticks it off. He's done it. I feel very fortunate that I was involved in that."
Another series that has been a significant part of Parkinson's career over the last few years has been the smash hit BBC drama Line of Duty. Not only that, the bonds formed with his castmates on the show have formed lifelong friendships off set, which in his experience is rare thing to happen when a project ends.
"With the best will in the world, you do try. That was a running joke kind of, 'Yes, of course, we'll keep in touch. Of course, we will.' Then through no fault of anybody, you just don't. It just happens. With some people such as Lennie James, Neil Morrissey, Vicky McCLure, Martin Compston, Adrian Dunbar, Jed Mercurio, a job like that does not come along, well, ever, really. I consider myself very, very lucky.
"We just bonded. We live near each other in Birmingham. We went out. We ate together. We all went to see The Specials together in Nottingham. Real work hard, play hard stuff. It's like a family. Vicky and Martin are like brother and sister. Addie is like the dad. Me and Lennie are the mischievous uncles. It's incredible. I feel really honoured to have worked on that and a privilege that all those people are still in my life."
"We spoke before about when you're reading the script and you have an intake of breath. I did that when I read episode one of season one of Line Of Duty. Then I grabbed season two straight away because I couldn't believe what I'd just read. I had to go in and find out more. That's the scale of Jed's writing. Also, the fact that as a cast you're kept in the dark pretty much just until the final whistle blows. I didn't know what was going to happen to my character until a few weeks before we were shooting it because Jed still hadn't really made up his mind."
The cast could not have predicted the success the series would have, eventually taking the world by storm after a launch that doesn't reflect the popularity of the show today. Thrusting them all into the spotlight as a result, the impact on Parkinson's career since has definitely been felt.
"As great as any project that you're lucky enough to be involved with, you want it to turn out the way that you read it, which is why you get involved. Now, sometimes that just doesn't happen because you have no control. As an actor, you're not making the call about what takes are used, you're not in the edit. Actually, more of that can happen with film because you just think, 'Oh, no, the tone of this is completely not what I thought we were filming on the day. That's weird. This is an odd choice'.
"Also, as good as anything is, you never want to predict if it will be a hit. You can't think like that. I don't think you should think like that. I don't think that's healthy for an actor because then you're constantly chasing success and you’re not living in the moment, which that's what I've been trying to do. To live that and do this to the best of your ability and try and discover and explore everything and exhaust everything and what you can out of this scene, and then we move on. I'll make no bones about it. Yes, it did change everything, but that didn't happen overnight. After the finale of season three, I didn't work for a long time. It was a really weird and odd time."
"That's when I decided to start the podcast and interview people because I thought I needed to do something that was completely different and also do something that was quite scary for an actor and that is just to be you and be yourself and lay things out there and be a bit naked. I needed to find something slightly different to what a normal interview long-form podcast would be. I had to learn a new set of skills. It's taken me years to transform myself into an interviewer and have that skill set. Yes, it did change everything, but it took a long time to do that. Now I feel very privileged to be in the position that I'm in."
The Two Shot Podcast, co-created with Thomas Griffin, features interviews with actors and creatives sharing their life stories and experiences over simply promoting their latest project. While there will always be some degree of overlap in that regard, it's the personal stories that interest Parkinson. His interviewees across nearly 140 episodes so far include Art Malik, Robert Webb, Samantha Morton, Jodie Comer, Mark Strong, Nicole Kidman, and many of his Line of Duty co-stars.
"I only had two remits with the podcast. I didn't want it to be about my personal life because a lot of interviewers, and I loathe this, have a tendency to turn it back on themselves. In fact, I hate that in normal life when you're having a conversation with somebody and they say, 'Oh, actually, yes, speaking of that, I do...' No, it's not about you, it's about the other person. I wanted to firmly turn the spotlight on somebody else.
"I also didn't want to talk about jobs because it can all get slightly sickening. I don't want to hear about your anecdotes that you had whilst you were filming. I don't think that's interesting. That's not what I want. I want to strip all that away and focus on the human being and the human aspect of somebody. Very much like old school interviewers would do back in the day. I don't want people selling their wares. That's why I've turned so many people down because their agents or their heads of network or PR companies come and go, 'Oh, so and so has got a new film out, a new series, can she come and talk about it?'
No, I'm not the podcast for you. Go on the Jonathan Ross Show. Go and do that there.
"Also, it's exhausting for an actor. You only finish a job when you're doing the press, and you've got to go back and talk about everything. Inevitably, they'll all ask the same questions, some of whom won't even have seen the project they're asking about. They're just there to write their piece and make their money. They don't really care."
It's that care which drives Parkinson in what he does and how he does it. No interview is the same and none can be predicted. What's important is that an honest conversation flows in what is felt by all to be a safe environment to talk.
"As with anybody, you don't know what's going on in somebody's life. You don't know what kind of day they've had, regardless of a worldwide pandemic. You don't know if someone's been up all night with their kid. As with anything, as with that, and you got to be on your toes and get ready to roll with the punches. If someone shuts down your questioning, then what are you going to do? You just have got to go with it. It's like a boxing match, it's like a spar, and not a spa where you get a massage."
"I don't want to be crude in trying to find out something that happened in their life or explore the past. I don't want it to be some trauma porn, even though people have told me things and divulged aspects of their life that they haven't spoken about. Also, they're not just speaking to me, they're speaking to hundreds of thousands of other people. I could pinpoint many people, but when the actress Jill Halfpenny came on, she spoke about a very, very upsetting and traumatic period of her life. She hadn't spoken about it at all, so obviously, then it made the papers. What it did do, her telling her story, it connected with and helped other people listening who had experienced similarities. It helped her by talking. It helped other people talking. Hopefully, it's a springboard for other people to have conversations.
"Sometimes they're just really light and really fun. It's not that I want people to come on and wallow in past misery or I don't want to be known as somebody who digs so deep someone's bawling their eyes out. It's not about that. It's just about a very organic, relaxed, safe conversation. I want them to know that it's a safe place that we can discuss anything.
Such has been the exponential growth of the listenership of the podcast, couple with Parkinson's love for it, the question has to be asked; with the podcast and acting both being huge parts of his life, does he ever see one taking over the other?
"It's a very, very good question because at certain times one does tend to overtake the other. That all depends. I love them both dearly. I've got such pride with the podcast because hitting 40 and thinking, 'I want to try something new when you should be very settled about what you do and that's just the way it is'. Well, no, you can just change things and, in similar respects with the acting, do something that you're not quite sure if you're going to be able to pull off. That's interesting. That's what keeps you going. That's what keeps you doing it. If you're fortunate enough to be given the chance.