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.