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I TALK TO Daniel Mays

After a recent screening for The Great Fire, I caught up with Daniel Mays to find out what it was like to take on such an iconic historical role, Samuel Pepys.

One of ITV's big new autumn dramas is The Great Fire, which tells the story of the great fire of 1666. Written by ITN's Political Editor Tom Bradby, The Great Fire focuses in particular on the circumstances that led to the catastrophic fire. Circumstances that centre around Thomas Farriner, played by Andrew Buchan and his family life at the bakery in Pudding Lane.

The Great Fire will unfold over four consecutive days (but shown over four consecutive weeks)  as the fire indiscriminately takes hold of the city and the people desperately attempt to overcome the flames.

As well as Andrew Buchan and Daniel Mays, The Great Fire boasts a pretty impressive line-up of actors including Jack Huston, Rose Leslie, and Charles Dance.

Last month I was invited to the press launch for The Great Fire and was treated to the first two episodes which were both filled with drama, high production values and a strong cast telling a great story.

Would it be fair to say you've had a pretty good 2014?

Yeah, there seems to have been a backlog of stuff. I did four plays and in between those four plays I did Common, Nightshift and The Great War - that was only three days so that was all waiting to come out. I finished Mojo, and then I've done three film and TV things on the spin, one of which was this, The Great Fire.

So yeah, it feels like I hadn't stopped for so long but it's been good. I'm really happy with how it's all going.

Personally, I think Common is one of the strongest dramas that has been on this year. What was it like to be involved in that drama?

I think it's great. It was typical Jimmy McGovern, it was politically led and the fact that he was able to shine light on the common law, the joint enterprise thing, was just brilliant.

It's what he (McGovern) does so well. I was early proud of it, even though it was essentially just a small supporting part, it was a great thing to be part of. I got to work with Susan Lynch as well who is just incredible.

So what can viewers expect from The Great Fire?

Lots of people will know 1666, Pudding Lane, the great fire, we look at how it started but much more interesting than that is the fact that this is written by Tom Bradby, who's the ITV Political Correspondent. His scripts are genius in the sense that he's able to lift the lid on the political intrigue of that time.

What really appealed to me, and I think will entice the audience, is the fact that it is an epic period drama, with all that people love about that genre; the sets, the costumes, the make-up, all of that. It's a brilliant piece of writing which has five different storylines which interlink and affect one another as the drama unfolds.

How much research did you have to do to prepare for playing Samuel Pepys?

I only met Tom at the read through, but they were great with the research though. There were lots of biographies to read, of course the Diary which was just a gift really.

The fact that he documented ten years of his life, it was just a great tool for me to try and get into his head really, and underneath his skin. Hopefully we've delivered a complex person with all of his various character traits.

Were you conscious about the way you were going to play Samuel Pepys? Many different actors have played him throughout the years. Was it a conscious decision to play him less tongue and cheek?

Yeah, you're right to say that because it is something that does cross your mind. You think of all the actors who have played him in the past... it sounds like I'm talking about Hamlet! (Laughs)

But I think hopefully we've played him as round and three-dimensional as possible because you do get that slightly bawdy eccentric quality to him.

Yet specifically with all the things with the Bagwells, we explore his infidelity within his marriage, his bullying nature to his employer, Mr Bagwell, but he was somebody who had immense compassion for his city and he really does come to the fore at the end.

There was a hell of a lot to play with and in the end you have to forget about how daunting it is and just try and play the character as best as you can.

And how would you describe the relationship between Pepys and his wife Elizabeth?

It's very complex. They have a very, at times, loving turbulent marriage. There's an age gap between the two of them, she was a lot younger than him and he did everything he did to woo her. He adored her actually, and loved going to the theatre with her and dining with her and going out and celebrating. He was very gregarious with her in that respect.

The elephant in the room is that she couldn't give him kids. That put a lot of tension and pressure on their marriage. But theirs is a story really of someone who's so obsessed with ambition and self gain and wanting to seek the approval of the king and people around him, that he kind of takes his eye off his marriage at home.

That leads to all the arguments that you'll see played out in episodes three and four really. But he was a complex person. He had a huge amount of jealousy towards her and mass insecurity... like us all! (Laughs).

Now that's quite a costume you've got in The Great Fire, not to mention the wig! What's that been like?

Well I'd worked with Kirsten Chalmers, the make-up artist, before on The Bank Job, and weirdly I wore a wig on that as well, so every time I work with her I end up in a wig! (Laughs) But this wig was a lot more curly and huge compared to that one.

But, you just have to embrace the period that you're working with. It's slightly odd when you first put it on, I look a bit like Brian May or something! I think she did an amazing job with all the wigs, it's part of the character.

This hopefully will change people's pre-conceived idea about the characters that I play. I've played a lot of cheeky cockney characters, so this is not that. From a selfish point of view I really wanted to do it and show range as a performer.

That said, this is another historical character following on from your brilliant performance as Ronnie Biggs in Mrs Biggs. Any more historical characters out there you're itching to play?

I don't know. I just see whatever comes in. Weirdly we were talking earlier about how there are similarities between Biggs and Pepys. They're both unfaithful and they both act in quite a selfish way towards their partners... I dunno, maybe that's why they thought of me! Who knows? I'd like to think there's not any part that I can't take on and challenge myself.

There's a lot of real fire in The Great Fire. How was that for you? 

The only scene I had to be honest was with with the Mayor at the end of episode two. Seriously, it was so uncomfortable. We did three or four takes and I wasn't necessarily worried for me, it was the actor playing the Mayor who's a lot older who said "Fuck" during one of the takes.

But it's great that they decided to do that. It gives the whole thing that level of authenticity, and what's really great is that they've seamlessly merged the CGI and the live burning of the sets.

When I watched it back I didn't question it at all, so in that way it's completely right.

Has it changed your view on the great fire that we all know or think we know?

Yeah, I mean you're actually going to see a lynching in one episode. What's interesting is how it resonates with the London Riots, people did start to loot, they did all of that. exactly what they did in the riots. So it's a question of why that seems to happen during a crisis like that. The poor will always try and take what they haven't got.

Has it changed your view on the great fire that we all know or think we know?

I shot a US pilot for AMC called Knifemen straight away after The Great Fire, so we're waiting to hear if that'll go out. And hopefully a movie in October but they haven't announced it yet.

The Great Fire starts Thursday 16th October at 9pm on ITV

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