Celebrated actor visits Chichester University

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He’s been on television, film and stage, and just recently acclaimed actor David Morrissey appeared at Chichester University as part of its series of talks with media lecturer Dr Adam Locks entitled In Conversation With...

With acting, you can’t do it in your bedroom, it’s not like playing a guitar and you practise in your bedroom, an actor needs an audience – you’ve got to get out there and do it.”

This sums up perfectly David Morrissey’s attitude to life, and during the hour spent in his company you could not fail to be inspired by his passion and strong work ethic.

Throughout his career Morrissey has certainly been courageous, treading the boards with the Royal Shakespeare Company, playing a host of complicated souls in several top-end television dramas including State of Play, and plunging into the world of comedy with the cheeky and somewhat grubby series Blackpool, where Morrissey played a ‘singing and dancing’ Tony Soprano, a role he confesses his two children found rather embarrassing to say the least.

Clearly bemused by the larger than life-size photograph above his seat as he walked into the room, it took Morrissey just a few minutes to adjust to the expectant gazes before him.

With a sprightly ‘hullo everybody’ he joked about it being ‘nice working with professionals’, as a last-minute technical hitch was solved, but, once settled in a comfy chair, he was soon relaxed and proved to be an affable, eloquent, humorous, knowledgeable – and above all – top bloke.

With a gentle sprinkling of expletives and colloquialisms, Morrissey is still very much a northern lad at heart, whose Liverpudlian roots are very important and reflected in his refreshingly down-to-earth approach to life.

Slightly embarrassed but a good sport, he was forced to watch several clips of his work which he viewed sitting on the floor at the front of the room and laughed on seeing a fresh-faced version of himself singing You’ll Never Walk Alone in the film which launched his career, One Summer, and encouraging everyone to sing along during a clip of him in Blackpool.

Asked about his upbringing, Morrissey said he was very grateful to grow up in a city which ‘treated the arts seriously’.

“There was music, writing, theatre and film, riots in the city – I never felt out of place in what I wanted to do,” he said.

“I flirted with the idea of being a boxer – that was never going to work. Saying I was going to be an actor was like saying I was going to be an astronaut – there were no actors in my street.”

Joining a drama group opened his eyes to the vibrant multi-cultural, multi-age and multi-class community and although clearly very conscientious now, Morrissey said school was ‘not his thing’.

He admitted he needed a ‘kick up the arse’ but after getting a few laughs when playing a part in the Wizard of Oz, a switch suddenly flicked – he had found his niche. Encouraged by a drama teacher, his confidence grew and life at school changed.

“Suddenly I found myself a place in the school,” he said. “It gave me a status, I thought ‘that’s all right I’ll have that’– it gave me a confidence finally in school.”

After moving schools, he joined the now-famous Everyman Youth Theatre where he says acting ‘really started to work for me’. And there was no room on the sidelines – everyone had to jump in and take part.

“I was very fortunate in the way those cards got dealt at that time in my life,” he says. “It gave me a community to be in, but I was still up to all sorts of nonsense everywhere else. School didn’t make me want to read the works of Shakespeare, I didn’t engage with the education system at that time. Acting certainly gave me focus, and friends.”

During his screen debut in One Summer, alongside his best friend Ian Hart, he celebrated his 18th birthday and at the end had ‘two grand in his pocket’ but says he was a bit cocky with the film’s success.

He was encouraged to go to drama school by the late James Hazeldene to learn the trade properly and avoid playing ‘Scouser blokes for the rest of his life’. He moved to London to take up a place at RADA, but found life in the capital initially very hard. In Liverpool he could have a chat with the person next to him on the bus, whereas people would shift away in London.

“London was a difficult city to come to, having come from such a tight place and a place which was about community,” he explains.

His real education, both in life and art, was at RADA where he was suddenly among people who wanted to do well and he decided he needed to ‘pull his socks up’.

Twenty or so years on, that decision has paid off, with Morrissey enjoying huge critical success.

This year he directed his first film, Don’t Worry About Me, based on a play by two young writers and set entirely on location in his beloved Liverpool.

What you would call an actor’s actor, Morrissey regards it (quite rightly) as his job and takes it seriously. He has managed to enjoy success without the pressure of fame and enjoys a happy family life with his wife Esther Freud, the great-grandaughter of Sigmund Freud, and their two children.

For him, success requires hard work and research, whether spending a week in a young offenders’ institute or a day at Westminster with politician Peter Mandelson for a role, and it is the script which is the most important part of a role.

“The most important thing for me is research,” he says. “I start any character by writing the back story which probably started with the parents and often the grandparents.

“When I play a part, you are trying to lose yourself in it. There are two types of actor, one who looks at a part and thinks ‘how can I change myself to be this character?’ the other actor says ‘how do I change the character to fit myself into it?’ I’m the former.

“My inroad to anything is the script. If you give me a terrible script I’m probably not going to do it. Scriptwriters are who I want to work with.”