"I was petrified that I was going to hit him. But at the same time, I didn't want to be that actor who would give Sean Bean nothing."
Jimmy McGovern's latest drama, Time, stars Stephen Graham as prison officer Eric McNally, fighting to protect his son and his career and Sean Bean as Mark Cobden, a teacher serving four years for death by drink driving.
The first episode of Time has been watched by 8.4m viewers in 7 days, becoming the BBC's biggest new drama of 2021, so far and the drama's breakout star, James Nelson-Joyce, plays violent inmate Johnno, who bullies Mark, already out of his depth, during a tortuous and unexpected spell in prison.
Ahead of the final episode airing on BBC One, I caught up with James to talk all things Time, including how he got into character, what it was like to work with Sean Bean and how he's been waiting years to work with Jimmy McGovern.
This interview contains some spoilers for episode two.
First of all, what has the reaction been like from viewers who have watched your performance in Time?
Everyone's gone "You're horrible in it" - and I'm like "Yeah, that's my job innit?". It's a pleasure really. I've always wanted to work with Jimmy McGovern, I'd have just stood on my head and been in the back of shot. It doesn't really phase me, who I am or what I'm playing.
Whenever I'm home, I always go down the Rotunda boxing club, to keep fit, and there's a couple of the lads in there who after watching Time, went "You bully!" "You're horrible, bullying an old man" and I'm like "Yeah, I know." Then they're like "Get in the ring now!" and I'm like "Nah, nah, you're alright!"
How did you come to be cast as Johnno?
I'd originally read for a different character. I'm not gonna say who.... but when Lewis (Arnold, director) came on board, my agent phoned me and said "Lewis Arnold, who's directing Time, would like a chat with you". And I was like, "Yeah, yeah, no worries" - so we had a chat and he said "I really think you're right for Johnno."
I was like "Ah cool, yeah. I'll read for Johnno." - So I did a self tape audition, and thought nothing of it because I'd read for another character a month or two before and hadn't heard back, so thought I wasn't right.
I'd read for a couple of Jimmy's things and I've always just thought that maybe, I'm not good enough. I'm not right for Jimmy's stuff. Because he's top top level, do you know what I mean? He's the Premier League and maybe I'm not there yet.
So when it came through that I'd got the part, I was chuffed, because I was working with Jimmy McGovern, working with Lewis, Stephen (Graham), Sean (Bean) and Jack McMullen, who is one of my closest friends, one of my best mates. He is incredible. Such a good actor, so easy to watch.
Then you've got Paddy Rowan and Bobby Schofield - I know his dad, I've done a play with his dad, so it just felt like we all knew each other and I'd worked with the makeup team before. It's an amazing ensemble.
It's one of those jobs you walk away from and you go "That was special". Not just the drama itself that was special, but also the feeling we had on set. And that was all created by Lewis and Jimmy and Stephen and Sean. They made sure that no one was doing the wrong thing. We all wanted a good product at the end of it, and knew full well why we were doing it.
Did you work much with Jimmy on the character and the script?
No. Jimmy's a magician. Jimmy is our greatest writer. He wrote it, let me meet with Lewis, let us play and let us establish our own backstory.
I actually wrote to Jimmy as soon as I left drama school. He'd done an article about finding it really hard to find working class actors, and I understand, because it's not an industry you're taught to go into at school.
So he put that article up, I found his agent's details and wrote to them saying - If you're looking for a working class actor, I'm here. I'm desperate to work with Jimmy. In my eyes, he was the one I wanted to work with. He was the Liverpool football club you wanted to go and play at.
Anyway, five/six years down the line, I told Lewis that I'd actually written to Jimmy, so he asked to see the email. So I went through my phone, eventually found it and went "Here you are, Lewis. That's it." - and he said "Send me that".
Then Jimmy came on set and Lewis goes, "Jimmy, here's your number one fan, James" and I didn't want to fangirl so I just went "Hello mate. Ta-ra mate." and just ran away. That's all me and Jimmy have spoke.
I'm not very good at meeting people and all that. I come home. I have a cup of tea. I put The Chase on and have a Nando's. That's me.
Me and Stephen (Graham) are very close now and I find that very easy. I just like my life how it is, so being around Jimmy, I just thought I'd say something stupid or act stupid, so I just walked away rather than ten minutes later, going "Why did you say that?!"
How did you prepare for the role?
First of all, Lewis sent around some amazing documentaries. So I watched them and then I started to watch other things online. That's the beauty of YouTube, you can find anything.
I also had someone very close to me, who had done a stretch in prison, so he was always there to talk to and tell me about things - such as little sayings and how things are. I didn't know that your Pot Noodles and your shower gels and your tea bags are all neatly aligned because they're on display - they're all the possessions you have.
I didn't know that, so me being a scruff, I certainly wouldn't have had my cell like that. So they were little things that I implemented.
Then, I really liked the idea of Johnno being a narcissist. Like it's all for show. Everything is for show. The boiling the kettle. The turps on the feet. He's not going in there and saying "Let's have it!" - he's going in there to make a statement.
So all these things I started to prepare as Johnno's backstory, but on set, all you really need is a little bit of music to get you into the rhythm, and then you just go and play. And that's the beauty of Lewis and Jimmy. They let you go play.
How long did it take you to get into character?
Not long. Not long at all. As soon as you put the costume on, you're really there. And you've got the world around you. We're in a real prison and everything has to be quick. The turps on the feet, for example, it has to be quick. It's got to be violent. It has to be, because any moment a warden can come through that door.
So if you've got in your head, that someone's going to come through any minute now, it's fast, it's messy, it's real. That's what we try and get across. In my head, all I'm thinking is, someone could burst through that door right now, let's get it done.
How do you see Johnno?
With Johnno - and you see it a lot in working class cities, where there aren't many opportunities - you're either a footballer or a drug dealer. Education, schools aren't really the best, unless you're very fortunate.
So for me, with Johnno, it is all about that gangster life. That culture of "Look who I am!" In my head, the reasons for him doing it, is that he's come from nothing, got nothing and he's doing it for his mum. Single parent. That's how I built the story. Now, you never see that in the script, but that's all in my head.
I definitely think the narcissist thing really helped me play Johnno and really worked. Whether that came across on camera or not, I don't know, that's for the audience to decide.
Why do you think Johnno singled Mark out as his target?
Because he's the most vulnerable. An easy target. You put your flag in the weakest part of the floor, so that's where he went. He was just the easiest target. He saw Mark was lost in the jungle and he thought, I can make myself a lion here by just picking off a tiny little deer.
What was it like working with Sean Bean?
I love that man. I've got the biggest man crush on him now. He was wicked. He's just one of these people who's so gentle and vulnerable, but he's a man. We'd be sat around, talking about football and gravy and chips, just normal life things - and then all of a sudden, they say "Go!" and I have to do all this to Sean!
I remember one day I came on set and he went "Oh no. Not you again, James." - and I was just like "Sean, I'm sorry." - and he went "No, it's fine. Come here, let's have a hug." He's cool. He's great.
In terms of the violence, how much training did you get for those scenes?
We had a stunt coordinator on set, but I know how to handle myself a little bit so your footwork, your distance, how to keep someone off range - I know if I throw a jab, it's not going to land because I know where my feet are planted. Little things like that, make life so much easier.
But when it came to doing it with Sean, I was so scared. I was petrified that I was going to hit him. But at the same time, I didn't want to be that actor who would give Sean Bean nothing.
It's a fine balance. But he was great, he just said "James, do whatever you need to do. It's fine." - but I'm not going to!
The scene in episode two where Sean fights back and bites Johno's ear, what was that like to film?
It was quite physically demanding because although you're wrestling, you're wrestling to not hurt each other. It was also a long to shoot, because if you think, he bites it and then we have to go back to makeup to get everything applied.
I get my ear, Sean gets his eye done and we come back to reshoot it. It was a long day, but Lewis is so cool. He just goes "Yeah, we'll shoot from there, we'll shoot from there, just play. Just play." and he never bombards you with notes.
In the turps scene, for example, we shot that three or four times - and it's not that things get stale - but things can get a repetitive rhythm, so Lewis said "Just try something a little bit different." and I went "Yeah, OK. Cool. No worries." and you always have little things up your sleeve that you're going to try.
When I put the turps in Mark's face and say "What is it? Smell it!" - I thought, on this one I'm just going to spray it in his face and even in his mouth - and that's been kept in! Afterwards, Sean said "Did you mean to spray that in my face?" and I was like "Yeah" and he said "Keep it. I love it." - because you see the shock.
So little things like that, you've got to do on set, to keep it fresh. That's the cool thing about acting. We've got the coolest job in the world.
Many viewers have described the show as "difficult to watch" - why do you think they feel that way?
The reason why, is because it's an ordinary man, going into extraordinary circumstances and the audience, straight away, are put into this man's shoes. He's so vulnerable. And you're watching it as an audience member going "Oh no. Please don't do that!"
If he goes and tells the guard, he's in trouble, and if he doesn't tell the guard, he's still in trouble. He's got nowhere to turn and that's the beauty of Jimmy's writing.
OK, perfect example. He gets a visit from his dad and his wife. She tells him she wants a divorce. OK, cool. That's heartbreaking enough. Then he gets told his letters aren't getting sent on, which is heartbreaking. So there's that. And then straight after, Jimmy writes that he gets turps on his feet!
Jimmy just keeps building the stakes, and I think that's why it's a hard watch. because the world's got its foot on. Jimmy doesn't write to fill a page. Jimmy writes because the story is going and it's going fast.
You've worked with Stephen Graham before on Little Boy Blue, was it nice to work with him again on Time?
I mean, I love that man. I really do love him. When I was auditioning for drama schools, it was like The Street, This is England - and to hear someone with your own native voice doing so well, it makes you realise "Oh, I have an opportunity at this. There are chances out there for me." There was someone like me.
I've just seen his career flourish and then I got to meet him and he's just cool. He took me under his wing - he does it for Jack (McMullen), he does it for everyone. He's a very generous man. So not only is he generous there, he's generous on set, he's generous in life, he's the man.
Jimmy McGovern's work always carries a message. What do you think his message is in Time?
I think there are a few things. First and foremost, it's for you to question - Does the system work? Is it there to punish? Or is it there to reform? And what is it doing? We don't know.
Another one of the questions is - As humans, are we very judgemental? If someone was to say to me on the street that they'd been in the nick, you always have a preconceived idea. No one knows what's happened before for them to end up in them circumstances.
They're the questions that Jimmy certainly asks in all of his dramas, I think. He always asks the question of why that person is in that scenario in the first place?
Have you watched the series?
I have! I always find it really hard, if I'm being really honest, to watch things I'm in. But everyone works so hard, you have to watch it. And I do think it's beautiful.
I know people say it's a hard watch, but sometimes - the greatest album, for example, is Marvin Gaye What's Going On - it's a political piece. Time is a political piece and it's beautiful. It shows the human condition and the human psyche. It's Jimmy at his best.
Sue Johnston's line in it - "You're in here as punishment. Not for it." - What a line. What a sentence. That could be asked anywhere.
Is that why you think the series has resonated with so many people?
Yeah, because I feel a lot of dramas now - are a lot of tinsel. And I think this is meat. When he's sat in that van, you're 30 seconds in and you're going "This man's vulnerable" and he hasn't said a word. He hasn't said a word! Now tell me a writer that gives you that straight away?
What will you take away from this job?
That I'm a lucky lucky man. Really. I'm doing a job I love doing and I've just got to work with Sean Bean, Stephen Graham, Lewis Arnold, Jack (McMullen), Bobby Schofield... the list goes on!
Walking away from this job, it's one of those where you realise how lucky you are. I could be out doing a job I hate - like a lot of people - where I just clock in and clock out and that's it.
What's next for you? You're playing Bez in the Happy Mondays movie, Twisting My Melon, right?
Yeah, with Bez in this movie, you're going to see this other side of him. The side that is loyal and genuine and you'll see how caring he is for Shaun, during Shaun's darkest moments. That's amazing.
And then I'm doing a feature film next year, Lena Headey wrote a short, called The Trap which got BAFTA nominated and whatnot, so we're shooting a feature next year. And that, I think, is me doing something people haven't seen me do yet.
Time concludes Sunday at 9pm on BBC One and all episodes are now available on BBC iPlayer