Daniel Mays is one of the most familiar British faces and names screens large and small. With a list of credits as long as your arm – Swimming With Men, Rogue One:A Star Wars Story and The Limehouse Golem are among the most recent – he never seems to stop working. Sat next to him is a comparative newbie, director Tom Beard, whose first feature, Two For Joy, made something of a splash at this summer’s Edinburgh International Film Festival and arrives in cinemas around the UK this Friday.
Mays stars in the film, alongside Samantha Morton and Billie Piper, a coup for a director who started out as a photographer and made his way into film by way of music videos and, until now, had three shorts under his belt. “I feel like photography can be quite a lonely place after a few years,” he reflects. “You’re out snapping and you come to realise that creating something with other people and bouncing off people is so much more rewarding. And with film making it goes so much further: there’s so much more camaraderie and you make real relationships. Photography can be a bit one sided. It was a natural progression. In my music videos, I was trying to tell narrative stories and you’re quite constrained sometimes by the artist and the record label. Everything gets diluted down and I guess it was those kinds of frustrations which pushed me into writing my own films and that goes on to directing.”
Getting such a stellar British trio together for his film was something of a dream come true, although he and Mays had worked together before. “Me and Daniel had worked together on my previous short film, Rags,” he remembers. “I’d met Samantha a few times and she’d been a real support. I’d been sending her my scripts, including my two previous shorts films, and the response from her was always really supportive. She’d always been such an idol to me. When I wrote Two For Joy, her response to the first draft was just ‘yes.’ I remember the phone call.”
Mays felt exactly the same. “Along with that, when you’re told that Billie Piper is attached, and so is Samantha Morton, you think this is starting to get traction. Samantha is an iconic actress. She’s been working in television recently, so we’ve actually not seen her on the cinema screen for a while and it’s a poorer place without her really, because she’s a tremendous talent. I remember her in Control and that scream when she discovers he’s hung himself. Amazing.”
The trio of Mays, Morton and Piper is just half the cast. Working alongside them were three child actors, and Beard recalls how Bella Ramsey, who plays Miranda, the daughter of Billie Piper’s character, was the last of the youngsters to be cast. “I remember seeing a tape of her,” says Beard. “And, for me, film making is so much going with your gut and instinct. The way I like to work with kids and direct them is to just set them free. I don’t over-explain or tell them too much about how I feel about a scene: it’s more of a conversation so that you don’t patronise them. For me, connecting with them through music and emotion worked and I made playlists for them.”
Mays was equally impressed with Ramsey and the other two young actors, Badger Skelton and Emilia Jones. “The great thing about all three performances is that you can completely see the inner life of the characters. As much as Bella is angry and out there, there’s moments of such sensitivity that the inner life is there on the screen and it’s extraordinary. One of my favourite moments is when they’re on the back of the bus and she’s ripping the diary and then putting lipstick on – all the interplay between them there is absolutely magical. And the other scene with Emilia and Badger, who play sister and brother, when they’re eating beans straight out of the saucepan and she tells him he eats just like their father. It’s heartbreaking.”
Having seen the younger members of the cast develop before his eyes during the five week shoot, Tom Beard is excited to see how their careers progress. With luck, they could find themselves in as much demand as Daniel Mays, who sees a pattern in his work. “I think it’s always been a case of people coming back and wanting to continue the working relationship,” he says. “I love that. I’ve had it with Mike Leigh and Joe Wright and others and I genuinely love the camaraderie of the film set.” For an actor who’s often associated with comedy, his list of credits includes numerous dramatic roles, despite a desire to take on less serious parts. He’s due back on screens, on Channel 4 this time, in November for true life drama The Interrogation. “This is about Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who killed a burglar and it’s a verbatim transcript – Tony Martin asked the police for it. Steve Pemberton plays Tony Martin and it’s a fascinating subject because you just don’t know if he meant to do it or not.” No comedy for the time being, then.
Tom Beard and Daniel Mays were talking to Freda Cooper.
Two For Joy is released in cinemas on Friday, 28 September.
Read our review of the film here.