An Interview with Michael Smiley
Michael Smiley is an actor and comedian. Having starred in acclaimed series such as Spaced, Luther, Dead Still, and Wire in the Blood, Michael has also worked on films including, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Lobster, Tulip Fever, Rogue One, Jawbone, Rialto, Come to Daddy and The World’s End. He is also known for his collaborations with Ben Wheatley and has appeared in his films Down Terrace, Kill List, A Field in England, and Free Fire. I spoke with Michael about his career as a stand-up comedian, living with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the 90s, his collaborations with Ben Wheatley, and the film industry in his native Northern Ireland.
You began your career as a stand-up comedian. Was this something you always wanted to pursue, and how did you land your first acting role?
It was all a beautiful mistake really. I was always quite a funny character growing up. I was always looking for jokes. I used to collect jokes when I was a kid and tell jokes at home and at school. So I think looking back over this, I was honing my sense of humour. It was only later on in my late twenties my mates were telling me you should try stand up, which I did and was successful at it. But by the time I’d got into stand up I was in my late twenties. Maybe my storytelling skills had got better. I started writing one man shows and taking them to Edinburgh, they developed from storytelling into one man plays. From ’97 to ’99 I ended up writing a trilogy. In ‘97 I wrote and performed Confessions of a Catholic Buddhist, ’98 was recycling about a bike messenger that was too old for the job, ‘99 was the parting glass, which was about a man left behind at a wake. Instead of having actors on stage I played all the different parts and that’s sort of where the passion from acting came from. At that time I was I was sharing a flat with two other performers, one of them co-wrote a series called Spaced and he wrote a character for me, so that was my introduction into the world of television acting. It just carried on from there really. So as you can see it wasn’t like I’d decided to go to RADA or there was a Yoda character in my life. Maybe in a way going to Edinburgh every year was my RADA. I grew up in a housing estate in Holywood, Northern Ireland. There weren’t too many Yoda’s around when I was growing up.
You played Tyres in Spaced. I read that the character was supposedly based on you.
Yeah it is based on me, you know. I was a DJ and a cycle courier. I’m interested in the philosophical and spiritual side of life and I don’t have time for idiots, so yeah Tyres is all those things.
What was it like living with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost? You must have learnt a lot from each other?
That’s what I mean when I said two performers. We lived together for about four years in North London and it was a great time, a really happy time.
It was sort of a collective really, you know. We were all sort of exploring these new aspects of our life. Simon was going from stand-up into doing sketch shows and then sitcoms. When we were living together he was heading into that and I was a stand-up just on the road like a road warrior. Nick was a waiter, but Nick is just an enigma. He’s one of the funniest and most original minds I’ve ever come across. He was sort of developing moving from just being a ‘sitting room funny man’, to developing and taking it onto the screen. We were all experimenting in our own ways. It was a bit of an open house, we used to have lots of parties and people would come to stay. It was a flop house for performers from all around the world on their way to Edinburgh for the festival. It was really exciting having lots of people coming through the house, lots of creativity. People bouncing and sparking off each other in the early hours of the morning with a bottle of Jack Daniels, putting the world to right.
I was having the time of my life. I really enjoyed the mix of people. They were younger than me and they were English. Well Nick’s half Welsh, his mother was Welsh. So we all have a trajectory to how we approach life, how we see life and how we’ve all got our different histories. All that helps with creativity. What I find funny or exotic, they might not. Vice versa, you know. We’d seen a lot of potential in each other so we were very encouraging. That really helped me. It was a perfect time. Looking back it was a God moment when the right people come into your life at the right time. Celebrate it, get on with it.
It’s quite a different sense of humour in Northern Ireland, having lived there.
It’s completely different. Northern Ireland being a small part of the world, it’s actually a bit of a Tardis. There’s a lot going on in there. There’s lots of areas and the counties have a different sense of humour. I’ve done stand up in nearly every county in Ireland. Five miles up the road what they find funny is different from where you are. I found when I came to England that I spent a lot of time defining my Irishness to people, which sort of then brought it to the fore today. Stuff that I’d taken for granted, or thought about. People would stop me and go ‘that’s hilarious,’ or, ‘what do you mean by that?’ or ‘oh my God when you say that I think of this.’ So one of the interesting things about leaving home is that you get a more of a definite idea of what home was, or is because you’re constantly explaining, and through explaining you get to find out what it is yourself.
You’ve worked extensively in comedy and drama. Which is your preferred genre to work in, and what’s the biggest difference between the two?
I think the difference between drama and comedy for me is with comedy you’re taking on somebody else’s sense of humour as an actor. With drama you can bring your idea of drama to it. You can bring your ideas of your character to it also. I find drama more freeing than television and film comedy because what you’re trying to get up on screen is the sense of humour of the writer. With drama you get to develop a character and I find it more inclusive sometimes. People can be a lot touchier about their comedy.
You’re seeing a new generation coming through on stage and on screen in Northern Ireland. I find it really inspiring. It’s great to have people who are moving on from the old tropes of the war. Catholics and Protestants you know. Orange men and Republicans and all that nonsense.
I recently saw you in a short film called Rough, at The Belfast Film Festival. The film industry really seems to be developing in Northern Ireland, with lots of shows and films being shot there lately. What’s it like working with people coming through it?
I’m so excited about it. I think what’s happening in the whole of Ireland is fantastic. Each generation who comes along brings another bit of expertise and brings more professionalism and there’s more of them and they bring their own point of view to life and what they find funny. There’s a lot more crew around now, so stuff is getting made. The bigger productions have a drip down effect on the other productions. The fact that Game of Thrones landed in Northern Ireland, and Vikings and Penny Dreadful and Dracula and all those things that came to Ireland. Those productions demand a level of professionalism. To make those productions you have to have a certain amount of local talent, so over the years a lot of people have moved into the industry and have brought a level of professionalism that is just outstanding now. I love it. I love going home. I love being amongst it.
I love hearing and reading and seeing freshness of the younger generation coming through because it gives me hope for the future across the board, not just in the film and television industry. Just across the board there’s fresh ideas coming through and they’re being allowed to come through, they are not being stifled. In the past if you had those ideas and those aspirations you had to leave the country. You had to go somewhere else where you were exotic and people would give you a chance. But if you stayed home in the old days you weren’t exotic and that was part of the reason I left. People liked to keep you in your place, it’s a bit of a tall poppy syndrome in the older generation in Ireland. They don’t like you to get above your station because it’s a reflection of the fact they are not doing anything. They want to cut you down. There’s a very much: "Who do you think you are?” There’s a bit of that going on all the time, but when I go home and I see the freshness of creativity in Ireland, be it North and South I’m just really excited for it and slightly jealous. There’s a part of me that wants to go, ‘I wish that was around when I was younger, you know.’
Don’t let them leave anymore, give them a reason to stay. Give them funding, give them encouragement and give them time on screen. Listen to their voices. Let people from the working-class backgrounds through. It shouldn’t just be a middle-class playground. All the voices should be heard and there’s so many new voices in Ireland. There are so many other cultures that have come into Ireland and that is exciting as well. When I came to London I couldn’t believe the colour on the street and seeing all the different cultures around me. I’d come from a place that was really grey and boarded up and it was just us and them and fear; ‘really stifling.’
We’ve got to let the sunshine of the spirit out baby!
Rough was really enjoyable. It’s a funny one because it’s quite the Belfast sense of humour, it’s dark, it’s hilarious, and it’s pathetic. The idea that this guy has people killed left right and centre thinks nothing of it, but is heartbroken when somebody kills his cat.
You frequently collaborate with Ben Wheatley. What’s the process like working with him?
Any part that I’ve worked on with Ben has been written for me because he’s considered me. It’s the difference between going to Marks & Spencer’s and buying a suit, or going to Saville Row and having a suit made for you. It’s like Tyres was in Spaced. I’ve been very privileged that a lot of my more successful roles have been written for me. It’s a very lucky way to start your career. He wrote the parts for me and then we can have dialogue around it. It’s so exciting and it’s a good collaboration and he tends to use the same crew which is a core and then gets bigger depending on the production and the budget. It’s like The Blues Brothers, you’re getting the band back together again. When I get a phone call from him I just get so excited. You’re going to see your mates again and you’re going to be working on a project and it’s going to be exciting and different and it’s going to blow the socks off of people and you’re part of it. When I’m not working with him and I see it going on I’m really jealous, but also supportive. When I’m working with him it’s a privilege and a real honour.
Kill List begins as a Mike Leigh-esque social drama before switching gears becoming a crime thriller before finally descending into horror. What was this like? Was this demanding in one role?
We didn’t shoot it chronologically, it’s not how you film. As an actor you’re just taking each day as it comes. It was hard work, but we laughed a lot making Kill List. It was probably the first big bonding job I’d done. Some of us had worked together before on Down Terrace, which was Ben’s debut feature. Down Terrace was shot on a real shoe string and it was shot in eight days. So because of Down Terrace he got the money to make Kill List. Working on Kill List felt like a real collective. Working with people like Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring. These actors are brilliant. They are masters of their craft. People see Neil Maskell as just this white boy cockney actor who was in Football Factory, in fact they are very much mistaken. This is a man who really considers his craft. He works on it and he brings a level of professionalism to the job that I find really inspiring. We didn’t really know each other before shooting the film. What you’re really seeing on screen there is a birth of a friendship.
MyAnna, again an absolute force of nature. Someone who brings a determination and a bravery to all her performances. She’s an amazing actor and a great friend. Everybody on Kill List became friends, Laurie Rose, Ben’s DOP, and Ben and Bobby Entwistle the sound guy Andy and Claire, the producers. We were together 24 hours a day nearly. We all sort of lived in the one big place, these sort of serviced apartments in Sheffield. We’d go out drinking together and we’d have meals together. I cooked a big meal for us one time. Smiley pasta!
It was a whole team experience. So when it started winning all the awards, we’d done all that together. It was a really profound time in my life. Kill List changed my life professionally. I got a big award for Kill List. (Smiley won Best Supporting Actor at The British Independent Film Awards). It’s been one of those slow burn films over the years. It’s coming up to ten years now since Kill List was out. It’ll still be dripping through into the consciousness of the world. You’ve either seen it, or you’ve not.
I remember Maskell and I going in for a cup of coffee in a sandwich shop one day years ago. The guy behind the counter was hanging up his coat and he turned around. I thought he was going to have a heart attack. It turned out that his girlfriend had went away for the weekend and she had given him a copy of Kill List for him to watch. He watched it that night on his own and freaked him out so much he couldn’t sleep. He’d hung up his coat to start his shift and turned around and there was me and Maskell standing there looking at him. He absolutely shat himself.
He spluttered out, ‘Are you actors?’
I said, ‘yeah.’
He said, ‘are you in Kill List?’
I said, ‘yeah.’
And then he just let out this story. Bless him.
You collaborated again on Free Fire, which was a great ensemble cast. It’s action packed and funny and the violence seems very realistic.
It was important. Ben wanted to do one of those 1970s shoot ‘em up movies. He’d done lots of research into shootouts and so where the bullets went was very important. He worked out the trajectory of every shot fired. It was very technical, but a lot of fun. Spending like weeks and weeks crawling around in the dust. Hopping around and wishing I would hurry up and get shot and I could lie down because those Cuban heels were killing me! Jumping around the place and trying to remember what wound I’ve got and how old it is.
Another amazing experience privilege of Ben Wheatley and what a cast! All that and Brighton in the summertime, what a joy.