“Well, there’s probably not a better qualified actor in the country to play a policeman than me,” Daniel Mays laughs as NME asks him about his long history of playing police officers. He’s played a Victorian officer in The Limehouse Golem, a 80’s DCI in Ashes to Ashes and a corrupt cop in Line of Duty. He’s even played a brought-back-from-the-dead, re-animated officer alongside Stephen Graham in Code 404 – one of lockdown’s television highlights.
Now, he’s taking on his most challenging police role to date, playing DCI Peter Jay in new ITV true-crime drama Des. DCI Jay was the investigating officer who brought Dennis Nilsen – one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers – to justice. “It’s a deeply harrowing, controversial subject, that stays in your mind,” Mays says of the new series.
We spoke to Mays to get the inside info on Des, what its been like returning to filming amid a pandemic and what happened with White Lines.
Des has been five years in the making: what can we expect from the series?
“Yes, it has. It’s never lost on me how long these things take to get to the screen but with this, there’s been a lot of care and diligence and attention to detail that’s gone into the subject matter, because you want to honour the victims more than anything else.
“It’s a hugely controversial subject – he was one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers – but what I think is really great about Des is that it’s not gratuitous, you never see any of the killings or anything like that: it’s much more a psychological take on Nilsen.”
Your character, DCI Peter Jay, is central to the series…
“Yes, it’s told from the point of view of the policemen and Brian Masters [Jason Watkins], Nilsen’s biographer who wrote Killing for Company. The director [Lewis Arnold], always said Peter is very much the foundation, the heart and soul of the story who drove the fight for justice.
“For me, I think it’s probably the most mature, grounded performance I’ve given to date. To act up close and personal with David Tenant [who plays Dennis Nilsen] was such a honour too. I think this is one of the best performances he’s ever delivered.”
Did you meet the family of Peter as part of your research?
“I had an amazing lunch with Linda, Peter’s widow, and his son, Simon. They were just wonderful people to sit down and to fill in the gaps about Peter. I really felt like I’d got closer to him after that. He certainly must have been going through hell and back on the Nilsen case. I think it definitely took its toll on him and was a [big] reason why he eventually left the force… Nilsen also sent him letters from prison after his conviction.
“It was an unprecedented case. Peter was a really experienced detective but nothing could have prepared him for what they were dealing with. It was a massive murder investigation in reverse because Nilsen disposed of all of the bodies; the onus on getting justice and closure for the families more than anything was the thing that really drove Peter Jay and his team.”
Was it a relief not to have to go down a graphic route with something like this?
“It really was, yes. When you’re preparing for a role like this, you have to delve into what happened and it was really, really tough. I woke my wife up screaming because I was having a nightmare that I was in an attic with Dennis Nilsen.
“The content was really toying with my mind, but that was a great thing to experience because when you look at it and policing at that time and what Peter and his team went through, they weren’t privy to any form of counselling or anything like that. Their counselling was going down the pub and drinking copious amounts of alcohol, not opening up to their wives. Talking about your feelings wasn’t common for men of the 1980s, so the drama is also an amazing investigation into what it was like to police at that time too.”
Was it a challenge to film such a difficult story?
“I have to say, it felt very eerie on the first day. Sitting across from David during an initial interrogation scene when he looked so uncannily like Dennis was just eerie. I found it as close to what they must have been experiencing at the time and that felt pretty tricky.
“David completely embodies the role. He very much kept himself distant from all the actors because of the difficult subject matter – you could tell that he was really in character and he wanted his space. It’s an amazing performance.”
How did you cope filming the toughest scenes?
“I was lucky in that a lot of the cast of police that they put in front of me, I knew and had worked with previously. We seriously bonded. We went out on a drinking session before we started filming and we had a great rapport. I do remember it being really jolly with that lot and when filming such a bleak topic, that was needed!”
The drama also explores the homophobia in the press covering the case at the time…
“The great thing about the drama is that it is going to right some wrongs. There are all these preconceived ideas about the case that all the victims were gay. That wasn’t the case, some were just vagrants or homeless or vulnerable. In terms of the media, it was like a feeding frenzy and a huge pressure on the shoulders of Peter Jay and his team because of how much it was sensationalised all across the tabloid press: it really was the classic ‘House of Horrors’ scenario.”
And a lot of the themes also link to now as well…
“Des questions how something like this was allowed to happen over long period. It’s weird that the economical situation we find ourselves in now after lockdown is not a million miles away from the early 1980s. We have more homeless, vulnerable individuals now, just as there was then. What is brilliant about the piece is that it holds a mirror up to society and asks how on earth something like this was able to happen. Why weren’t those vulnerable people protected more?”
You’ve spoken in the past about how Mike Leigh mentored you, especially in helping you prepare for challenging roles. Were you able to draw on that here?
“Absolutely, particularly with something like this because it’s demands a really nuanced, three-dimensional performance. I was very lucky to have worked with Mike so early on. I did back-to-back films with him within a year of leaving drama school, and I probably learnt more on those two films with Mike than I did in three years at RADA. It was just an amazing process to go through.”
Were you disappointed White Lines wasn’t renewed for a second season?
“I was just gutted to not get another run of that character [Marcus], because I think he had bags of potential. Certainly, the backlash with the fans was huge. It was frustrating that it found its audience and people loved it, but it didn’t get another season.”
Why do you think that was?
“Netflix haven’t officially come out and said anything. Part of me thinks that was because it was so neatly tied up, but you never know, there might be a spin-off for one of the characters. It remains one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done, and all of the actors had such a great bond. I think we’re all really sad more than anything that we won’t get to see one another on set together again.
“Reading between the lines, with the way things are at the moment, logistically it would have been a nightmare filming across countries. The virus isn’t going away anytime soon and that’s one of the most frustrating things.”
You’re also back on set now filming Code 404 with Stephen Graham. What’s it like being back?
“Everything is being done to mitigate the COVID risk on set; that’s all we can do. But we heard wind of the fact that The Batman has been postponed and I think Pennyworth and Jurassic Park are having difficulties too. It really feels like you’re filming on a tightrope.
“It was also a shock in the first week of filming and suddenly trying to be funny. I felt a bit ring-rusty. We’re all up to speed now, but I think it’s that thing of not learning lines and not actually working for seven months, it’s that memory muscle – it dissipates and you’ve just got to get match-fit again.”
What can we expect from the next series of Code 404?
“There are new characters in it and we’re ab-libbing more, making a lot of stuff in the moment and that’s working really well. We want to make it as engaging, funny and entertaining as the first series, if not better. It was such a hit that Daniel Peak [the show’s writer] is focussing on really building on that. When I read all six episodes of the second series, I was thinking he’d obviously utilised his time in lockdown, because they were all nigh on perfect.
“I actually haven’t done a second series of anything before, so it feels like a different ballgame for me really, because it’s like going back to a familiar friend, you feel comfortable with it. It really hit the mark in lockdown as a great form of escapism for everyone, and that’s needed now more than ever.”
Des is on ITV from September 14