James Nelson-Joyce is getting a bit of a reputation for playing tough guys. He starred as a gang member in hard-hitting drama Little Boy Blue four years ago – and his latest role is as bullying prison inmate Johnno in Jimmy McGovern’s new BBC drama Time. In real life though, he’s just a lovely bloke.
“I’m not like that at all,” Nelson-Joyce laughs, as NME speaks to him at his childhood home in Liverpool. “I’m honestly the most boring person you’ll ever meet. All I want to do is watch the footie and have a Nando’s away from set.”
Speaking of rough-looking lads who’re really big softies – Nelson-Joyce is also playing Bez in upcoming Happy Mondays movie Twisting My Melon, which is yet to receive a release date. Here are some other things it’s important to know about him…
He’d rather do gritty dramas than Marvel blockbusters
Nelson-Joyce grew up watching Jimmy McGovern-penned shows like The Street. When he first began acting, Nelson-Joyce emailed McGovern’s agent for a job. “I always wanted to work with Jimmy McGovern. He’s one of the few writers that puts your community on the screen,” he explains.
“He’s just got his finger on the pulse of everything. Marvel is great, but I’d much rather do Jimmy McGovern scripts for the rest of my life. Getting to tell stories my dad and my grandad can watch and relate to is a dream. I just want to do stuff that’s got meat on the bones.”
Meeting Stephen Graham changed his life
After leaving drama school one night (he studied at London’s Italia Conti), Nelson-Joyce bumped into Stephen Graham at his local Nando’s. Having watched Graham on TV growing up in everything from This Is England to The Street, he went over to the actor and introduced himself. “I told him I loved his work and that I’d love to work with him one day,” Nelson-Joyce says. “I remember watching him growing up and being mesmerised by his performances. When you hear or see a person from your background, you think, ‘it’s possible’.
“His wife, Hannah, gave me their email that day and every time I got a part, I’d email them to let them know. Three years later, I’m in Little Boy Blue doing the readthrough with Stephen. I could feel his eyes burning the side of me head. I looked up and he mouthed to me: ‘You’re that lad from Nando’s, yeah?!’” Since then, Graham has become a friend and mentor to Nelson-Joyce. “Stephen’s done a lot for me. He will phone me once a month ask what I’m reading for. He’s helping to bring through the next generation of working-class actors like me.”
His early career was a struggle
“When I said I wanted to be an actor, everyone was like, ‘A fucking actor? Nah, you’ll end up on a building site,” Nelson-Joyce tells NME of his first steps in the acting world. An English teacher from school spotted his talents and encouraged him to apply to drama school, but he came across many obstacles along the way.
“RADA and Bristol Old Vic didn’t want to know. Few people from that world know what it’s like to go hunting down the fucking side of a sofa looking for 25p to afford the bus fare to the audition,” he says. “We hadn’t got a pot to piss in. I’d get £5 for my dinner and I used to save that money up so I could afford the train fares. I used to rob sarnies just so I could eat and save enough up to pay to audition at these schools because it was so expensive. There was little help for people from backgrounds like mine.”
He was told to lose his Liverpool accent…
…but the actor says our screens need far more voices from the regions. “I got told at drama school in my first year to speak in Received Pronunciation. They said I’d never work with a Scouse accent. They try to strip you of your regional identity.” At an audition for Shameless, he tried to dampen his accent, something the casting director told him to ignore. Nelson-Joyce says it was the best advice he ever received.
“I got the part because they saw who I really was; I learned a lot that day. I felt like drama school was trying to pull me into being Tom Hiddleston; I was trying to be who they made me and my identity got a bit lost. People have to get used to working class voices and opinions; it’s not right to keep them hidden.”
He hated bullying Sean Bean in Time
As Johnno in the hit BBC show, Nelson-Joyce gives fellow prisoner Mark (played by Game Of Thrones‘ Sean Bean), a horrible time of it. “I end up bullying Sean [in the show],” Nelson-Joyce winces, explaining that it was especially hard because Sean is one of his and his family’s favourite actors. “Me mum and me nan are gonna give me a lot of stick,” he says. “[Sean] was just the nicest man on set, so generous, feeding me lines to get me more involved. I’d step on set and he would go, ‘Oi, James, you’re not here to bully me again, are you?'”
He’s worked with another Game Of Thrones star
Nelson-Joyce played a leading role in Lena Heady’s directorial debut The Trap. Earning a BAFTA nomination for Best Short, it’s now being turned into a feature-length film. “It’s very, very dark,” Nelson-Joyce teases, adding that Heady was one of the best directors he’s ever worked with. “She’s got the balls and bravery to champion working-class voices and puts you at ease straight away. Nothing is rushed, she’s very calm and zen. You feel like you can try lots of different things and not be worried.”
He’s playing Bez in Happy Mondays film Twisting My Melon
“Let’s put it this way, I’m not the best dancer there is, but when I auditioned I had to send off a little two-step and it’s safe to say I’ve got a bit of work to do to be as good as Bez,” Nelson-Joyce laughs, saying he saw Bez live at London’s Roundhouse a couple of years ago. “Watching him on stage, he’s still got it. I was watching thinking ‘I got to live up to this!’ I do get the tunes blaring when I’m in the shower and give the maraca dance a little go each time.”
Nelson-Joyce got to meet Bez after the gig, and the ’90s legend had a few thoughts about the casting (which also includes Jack O’Connell as Shaun Ryder. “I went backstage and [Bez] goes, ‘Ah, I can’t believe a fucking Scouser’s playing me!” remembers Nelson-Joyce, who also gave us a preview of his Manchester accent and it’s safe to say, Bez’s legacy is in solid hands.
‘Time’ is streaming on BBC iPlayer now