There’s an endearing lightheartedness to Daniel Mays’ charm. He’s an Essex Boy, after all, and fellas from this south-eastern British tribe are known for their quick wit, warm hearts, and refusal to take life too seriously. Daniel has all of these appealing assets in spades.
But behind this breezy persona is a committed and studied actor, who is finally feeling the winds of deserved recognition blowing his way. Throughout a prolific career spanning more than two decades, he has taken on many weighty and emotionally-challenging characters. And his latest TV role, in the true-crime miniseries The Long Shadow, could be the heaviest of the lot.
In the series, Daniel plays Sydney Jackson, a roofer who can’t read, write, or drive — and is left devastated by the death of his wife Emily at the hands of Peter Sutcliffe, one of Britain’s most feared serial killers who became known as the Yorkshire Ripper.
Not only does Sydney have to deal with the loss of his wife, who is literally the driving force of their family, but he’s also left to live with their dark secret being revealed to the world — and most pertinently to the community in Morley, Leeds, where they lived. Emily had been working as a prostitute, with her husband’s consent, as they attempted to make ends meet and keep up with the lifestyles of their more affluent neighbors. Sydney would wait in the pub while his wife used his work van to pick-up clients. But one night, in January 1976, Emily didn’t come home. She had become the second victim of Sutcliffe, who initially targeted sex workers in a killing spree that would span five years.
The Long Shadow is the latest stellar example of the period true-crime dramas that British television does so well. The series is currently airing on ITV in the UK to critical and popular acclaim, with Sundance Now recently securing exclusive rights for the US and Canada. What is particularly notable about this series, written by George Kay and directed by Lewis Arnold, is its focus on the victims. And the tough decisions made by Sydney and his wife — and their heartbreaking consequences — are examined thoroughly but respectfully in the first two episodes of the show.
“It was a beautiful and sensitively written script from George Kay,” says Daniel. “And at the heart of it is the plight of the victims and their extended families. Obviously Peter Sutcliffe dominates the story, but in terms of screentime, he’s only really in the last episode.
“The problem with telling the story of the Yorkshire Ripper is that there were so many victims, you’re in danger of those victims becoming statistics. But this was an opportunity to highlight these individuals and shine a light on their lives. To give them that dignity and importance back.
“In the case of the Jackson family, I had no idea of the intricacies and nuances of their story. It’s heartbreaking that they were struggling to make ends meet, and trying to keep up with the Joneses, so came to this horrendous decision for Emily to solicit herself.
“There was a massive responsibility for us to get as close to the truth as we possibly could.”
The Long Shadow is based on the book Wicked Beyond Belief by criminologist Michael Bilton, a meticulous account of the five-year hunt for Sutcliffe, who was eventually convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven others, between 1975 and 1980. As part of his research for the project, Daniel spoke extensively with Sydney and Emily’s son, Neil, who acted as a consultant on the series. In the second episode of the forensic seven-parter, we watch a recreation of the true-life scene when Neil, aged just 17, has to identify his mother’s body because his dad is too debilitated by grief and guilt to step forward himself. Sydney died in 2007, having barely spoken to his son in 25 years.
“I got on the train to Leeds to meet with Neil, and he was unbelievably generous with his time,” Daniel recalls. “He was so open and courageous with what he told me.
“Neil’s relationship with his dad completely disintegrated after Emily’s death. As you can imagine, the incident totally obliterated their lives. Nobody should have to go through what that family did. Looking into the whites of Neil’s eyes, it cemented something in my own head that made my character more tangible.”
It’s not the first time Daniel has tackled a project which examined one of the darkest episodes in Britain’s recent history. He previously teamed up with The Long Shadow director Arnold to play Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay in Des — a miniseries about Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 12 boys and young men between 1978 and 1983 — alongside David Tennant in the title role.
And whether playing a grieving relative, or an investigating officer, Daniel has been conscious of the lack of emotional support offered to those affected by these harrowing crimes in the years before mental health was part of the public conversation.
He says, “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, men just didn’t open up and talk about their feelings as we’re encouraged to now. When I played Peter Jay in the Dennis Nilson series, he and his team were witnessing the most horrific crime scenes. Peter said that their way of coping with that was literally to just go to the pub. They’d just drink. But that isn’t dealing with the trauma.”
Daniel, 45, grew up in a boisterous home in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, in the same era depicted in these two shows. Mental health chat was not on the menu at family dinner time, but it was a happy and loving working class household, his father an electrician and his mum a bank cashier. As the third oldest of four sports-mad and competitive boys, he was never as good at soccer as his two older brothers — so created his own playing field by pursuing drama. “I think there was something about that middle child syndrome,” he says. “I was desperate to do something to stand out which led to me doing impressions, and performing, and acting the clown.”
Daniel is now the father of two children with his wife Louise Burton, a make-up artist who he met on set almost 20 years ago. And over the years, he has discovered tools to help him find respite from his challenging acting roles, and even the everyday chaos of family life.
“Running is something that I desperately need to do,” he says. “It keeps the blood pumping, and the heart rate up, and all that sort of stuff. But more than that, when I’ve got these different characters rolling around in my head, and a wife and two kids and a hectic schedule, it gives me headspace just to mull things over and work out what it is that I need.
“It’s a form of therapy just as much as it is to keep fit. If I’ve had a run in the morning, I’m bang on for the rest of the day. It’s just about getting into that routine.”
Daniel began his acting career on the popular UK soap Eastenders in 2000, and was soon given an opportunity to tackle some prestigious movie roles by the legendary filmmaker Mike Leigh, who cast him in All or Nothing in 2002 and Vera Drake in 2004. Along with the professional boost, Leigh also gave Daniel some crucial personal advice.
“Mike instilled in me that you’ve got to remember there’s the actor and the character,” he recalls. “When you’re in character, be brutally honest and play the part as truthfully as you can. But once you’re out of character, you’re out of character. That was a great lesson, and I’m definitely not one of these method actors that takes it home with me — although my wife might disagree!
“People have this perception of actors, that it’s all glamorous premieres and nice clothes. But I’ve always hated that expression, ‘You’re a luvvy.’ Because my experience of actors is that they’re very hardworking, and you have to give so much of yourself. But as much as you’re giving out, you also have to hold onto something. Self-care is paramount in this profession.”
Since those early days under Leigh’s wing, Daniel has built a formidable body of work and is now recognized as one of Britain’s best character actors. He’s starred in some of the nation’s greatest TV dramas, including the award-winning crime procedural Line of Duty. And for the big screen, he’s worked under the direction of iconic filmmakers including Joe Wright in the 2007 period piece Atonement, Steven Spielberg in the 2011 family blockbuster The Adventures of Tintin, and Sam Mendes in the 2019 World War I epic 1917.
“The mark of a great director is that it always feels collaborative,” he says. “And all those great directors are fantastic communicators.
“I only had a cameo — a cough and a spit, really — in 1917. But Sam Mendes met me before we went on set, and told me how he had seen me in this play and that play, and explained the concept of the film, which was inspired by his granddad in the war. Despite it being a small role, he took the time to share the whole vision of the film. And that was a great foundation for me to go out and do what he wanted me to do. And Spielberg was just totally riffing in the moment, which was incredible to watch.
“You have to be able to listen, adapt, take direction, and deliver the goods. Because ultimately it’s their vision, and you have to paint with whatever color they want to paint with. So it’s a balance of being prepared, but not over-prepared to the point you can’t move and shift and be fluid.”
Daniel’s learned from some of the best actors in the world too, both on stage and screen — and Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, Stephen Graham, and Mark Strong are among the many names that roll off his tongue when discussing the peers who have influenced him throughout his career.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with the great Bill Nighy on two occasions,” he adds, reserving some special praise for the Love Actually star. “We worked on Dad’s Army together, which was a bit of fluff really, then on the movie The Limehouse Golem which was a much darker, more serious subject matter. Not only is Bill the coolest dude on the planet, he’s lived the life and there is real wisdom there. Bill would talk exactly the same to the director as the runner making the tea. There’s a beautiful sincerity to Bill.
“I’ve always found that the great actors I’ve worked with don’t have massive egos. What they have in abundance is a great work ethic, and they’re able to collaborate with everyone around them — actors, crew, costume, make-up, everyone. And that’s when the magic happens.”
Daniel is now starting to find himself as the elder statesman on set, sharing his wisdom and humor with a new generation of actors, including Asa Butterfield, the star of the Netflix hit Sex Education, who shares the screen with Daniel in the festive Amazon romcom Your Christmas or Mine?
“Suddenly, you find yourself playing dads with beards and a middle-aged spread,” he says. “You think, ‘How did that happen?’ I still think I’m 21. But you have to embrace your middle-age!
“I like a set to be focussed when it has to be, but often the shows with the serious subject matter are the sets with the most levity. You have to bring a bit of enjoyment and fun, otherwise you’d never leave your trailer!”
Thanks to his talent and work ethic, Daniel has earned his place among the British acting elite. But he’s also had to work hard internally to embrace his success. He went to stage school at Italia Conti in London from age 13, where the focus is on musical theater, before joining the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in his late teens. And he learned more than signed up for at the prestigious acting college.
“I was incredibly intimidated when I went to RADA,” he says. “I was a Conti boy, doing jazz, ballet and tap, then as I matured I really wanted to act. When I arrived at RADA I was the youngest in my year, and my impression of it was that everyone had been to university, everyone was well-read, and they were all philosophizing about what acting is. I just clammed up, and went into my shell a bit.
“But I had to have a long, hard talk with myself. And by the second year, I just went for it. When I looked at a lot of the people that talked a good game, I wasn’t sure how good they really were. It’s really about what you do when you’re standing on that stage, in that moment. It was a tough experience at times. But the more I stayed the course, the better I became.
“It was imposter syndrome, really. And that insecurity can still creep up on you every now and again and tap you on the shoulder. But you have to put that to one side and move forward. I’m a great believer in never resting on your laurels, and that you’re only as good as your last role. But sometimes you just have to take stock, be proud of the things you’ve achieved, and stop giving yourself such a hard time.”
In recent months, Daniel has returned to musical theater for the first time since his stage school days, playing Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls at The Bridge Theatre in South London — an iconic role previously played by legends including Frank Sinatra, Nathan Lane and Bob Hoskins.
He recalls, “I’m always dancing around the house, and my wife would say, ‘You’ve got to do a musical one day!’ Then this offer came in, and she said, ‘Right, you’re doing it.'”
Daniel hadn’t sang on stage since his teens, and had concerns about the commitment and risk of taking on a long musical run with his screen career in such good shape. But any lingering doubts were nixed when he was encouraged by Michael Douglas, his co-star on the Apple TV+ project Franklin, to accept the role. He enjoyed a four-month run in Guys and Dolls earlier this year, and after spending the summer filming in Dublin, Ireland, has now returned for another four-month stint.
“The way they have reinvented this musical, and the way it has been received, is incredible,” he says. “It’s the most thrilling, exhilarating thing to do every night. It’s like a drug. I missed the adrenaline buzz it gives you while I was away — so I’ve come back for more.”
Styling by Tanja Martin
Styling Assistance by Ania Egan
Grooming by Oliver J. Woods using Oliver J. Woods products
Shot on location at the Gothic Bar, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, London
Special thanks to Caroline Drayton and Emma Underwood