Mays the force be with him: After Star Wars, Line Of Duty and the hotly anticipated Guerrilla... actor Danny Mays is on a roll – and, he tells Event, it's all thanks to Michael Jackson

Best known for gritty roles in Mike Leigh films and TV dramas like Mrs Biggs and Line Of Duty, Danny Mays is widely regarded as the natural successor to great British character actors like Pete Postlethwaite. But Mays owes his acting career to an unusual inspiration – pop legend Michael Jackson.

‘I saw Jackson at Wembley Stadium on his 1988 Bad tour’ Mays says. ‘Watching him perform Billie Jean in the spotlight wearing his black fedora was when I knew I wanted to perform. ’

From the raging, abusive Jason in Mike Leigh’s All Or Nothing to the haunted figure of Sergeant Danny Waldron in Line Of Duty, Mays has excelled at playing men on the edge, yet in person he couldn’t be more easy-going.

Danny Mays says he owes his acting career to an unusual inspiration – pop legend Michael Jackson. He saw the King of Pop at Wembley in 1988

Danny Mays says he owes his acting career to an unusual inspiration – pop legend Michael Jackson. He saw the King of Pop at Wembley in 1988

Only when the conversation turns to the subject of actors from privileged backgrounds does he display emotion, vehemently bemoaning the lack of opportunities now open to working-class actors and film-makers. ‘I don’t want to start dissing the likes of [Eton-educated] Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. They are incredibly accomplished, but the issue really is the generation behind me – if they really are struggling to get a place at drama school and if they are deprived of their dreams.

‘It’s not just about actors either. In some ways, the most important question is, who is going to be telling the stories about people from poorer backgrounds? Where are the next Mike Leighs and Ken Loaches? We need a new breed of hungry new film-makers who want to tell stories about ordinary people and the lives they lead.’

Despite all his acclaimed television work, Mays is yet to land a career-defining role. ‘Phil Glenister has done loads of brilliant work but he’ll forever be known as Gene Hunt from Life On Mars. I haven’t really had that kind of big moment yet.’

But that part might be closer than he thinks, as Mays has three big television dramas ready to air in the next few months.

First up is Guerrilla, about black activism in Britain. Though set in 1971, Mays argues that it’s particularly timely, given that we live in a time of racial divisions and rising tensions. ‘When you look at the increase in hate crimes and the fact that people voicing their prejudices has become commonplace, it feels like we haven’t moved on very much, if at all, since the early Seventies.’

Following hot on the heels of Guerrilla will be the equally hard-hitting Against The Law. Mays stars as journalist Peter Wildeblood, one of the three men at the centre of the so-called Montagu case of the Fifties. More than ten years before the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967, Wildeblood and his friends were found guilty of homosexual offences and jailed.

After serving a year in Wormwood Scrubs, Wildeblood emerged determined to do all he could to stop homosexuals being imprisoned or forced to undergo chemical aversion therapy in an attempt to ‘cure’ them of their ‘condition’.

Mays as Sgt Danny Waldron in Line Of Duty

Mays as Sgt Danny Waldron in Line Of Duty

‘Again,’ says Mays, ‘this feels like a very timely drama when you stop to consider the rise in homophobic abuse and attacks. When the case became public, it was deeply embarrassing for Wildeblood. It took great courage for him to admit his sexuality, but after he came out of prison, he channelled his anger and bitterness into something positive.’

If Mays is not already seered into the public consciousness by the summer then this month's intense four-part psychological thriller Born To Kill should do the job. He stars alongside Romola Garai as the single parents of two dangerously out-of-control teenagers. Mays says the drama made him reflect gratefully on his own experiences of parenthood. He has two children with his partner Louise Burton – Mylo, 11 and Dixie, four – and the elder is already on stage with a part in the West End production of Matilda. ‘I couldn’t have been a prouder dad,’ he says. ‘I was in floods of tears seeing him perform.’

Mays’ own career continues its upward trajectory. Supporting roles in Spielberg’s Tintin and the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One have whetted his appetite for Hollywood, but he doesn’t find the prospect of moving to Los Angeles very enticing. ‘I’d love to go there to work, but I can’t imagine living there. I’d miss the energy and buzz of London too much. I’d miss going for a night out in the West End. I’d miss the banter. I’d even miss the rain. I guess you can take the boy out of Essex, but you can’t take Essex out of the boy.’ 

‘Born To Kill’ will start on Wednesday, April 20, on Channel 4 at 9pm


Sky drama Guerrilla tells the story of black activism in Seventies London and the brutal methods the police used to suppress it. 

At the centre of the plot, written by 12 Years A Slave’s John Ridley, are lovers Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay), who take up arms after their friend is murdered. 

Danny Mays stars as police officer Cullen, who along with Rory Kinnear’s DCI Pence, runs the police counter-intelligence unit set-up to detect black activism and quash it. 

Executive producer Idris Elba also appears on screen as pacifist photographer Kent Fue. 

Unashamedly political, the producers say it aims to raise questions about race, immigration and the establishment. 

Guerrilla’s most explosive revelation is that there really was a Black Power Desk, which aimed to control and suppress black radicals. 

Where Guerrilla diverges from reality, however, is that its radicals turn to violence whereas the real British black power activists protested peacefully. 

‘Guerrilla’ begins this Friday on Sky Atlantic at 9pm


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