Actor Stuart Graham Talks Spies and Assassins

From Tinker, Tailor to The Painkiller – Carol Murphy discoveries the vagaries of a jobbing actor's life

Belfast born actor Stuart Graham is on a roll. He was Raymond Lohan in Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a detective in the BBC docudrama Brendan Smyth: Betrayal of Trust, played a passport officer in Christopher and his Kind alongside Dr Who's Matt Smith, and can be seen on screen in Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carrés novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It is an impressive resume, but Graham isn’t resting on his laurels.

When CultureNorthernIreland catch up with him, it is over a bowl of soup at the Lyric Theatre. Graham is grabbing lunch during a break from rehearsals for The Painkiller with Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon.

With a series of high-profile roles behind him, it is unsurprising that Graham is happy to talk about the joys of being an actor. However, he doesn't hesitate to acknowledge the trials and tribulations as well.

As an actor, he points out, it tends to be one or the other. All or nothing. Hot or cold. In or out and no mistakes. And it is easy to go from having it all to ending up in hot water, or even flushed down the sink. All it takes is for you to get comfortable, vain or greedy.

Perhaps it is that experience he drew on in Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There are similarities between the life of a spy and a jobbing actor. The cleverest wins, and he who does not let his emotions get in the way can out manoeuvre the competition amongst his peers.

According to Graham, you have to learn to play the game, to settle into your stride and into the patter of what the life of the actor is and give into it.

'Unless you are an opener, unless you are a star, unless you are a name, where actual projects are being produced because you are in them, if you are simply a jobbing actor, in order to have any sort of longevity in the industry, you have to hand over control of your life. There is a great line – you can’t afford to develop a lifestyle as an actor. Just go with the flow, which isn’t always easy, when you have all the responsibilities that everybody else has.'

As an actor, success or failure tends to come down to luck. Being canny in terms of the choices you make – the directors, scripts and timing of the projects you choose to work on – is obviously important. But just because you have been seen in an award-winning and acclaimed film about the 1981 hunger strike, for example, does not guarantee work a year, a month, down the line.

Yet Graham seems to have pulled it off. How?

'You have to be prepared. No matter what you give it just might not end up in the film. It’s not even about quality of performance. You might go on and give a stunning performance but it is in a little role that at the end of the day is not needed. The character is not adding to the story even though the performance is superb.

'So yes, it helps on day one on the set that anyone can throw you any curve ball they like and that you are so on top of what you are doing that you are in a position to take that on board and work with it. The joy of theatre is that you are spending a month together in a room creating work as a team. In film, sometimes you come into that team as a very late substitute.'

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Graham plays the pivotal role of the Minister. Yet when cast, he had never actually met director Alfredson.

'Alfredson had seen me in Hunger and offered me the job, saying he had this little part in Tinker Tailor. That was before I had even seen the script. I was happy to do it. It was a kind of fantasy cast list and I have very fond memories of the television series and I loved Let the Right One In.

'I didn't actually meet Tomas in person until my first day on the set. We did have some time on the first day to get to know each other and as an actor, the more experience you have, you tune in very quickly to the atmosphere on the set. It seemed to me like it was a very happy set, very professional people, knew what they were doing and everybody was on top of it and it was a joy to work on.'

It was also one time that Graham's part definitely made it into the final cut. His stiff, squash-playing minister sweating under the uncompromising stare of Gary Oldman's Smiley, is a small but memorable part of the film.

An actor, however, is always looking forwards. In Graham's case to the nearly-there opening night of the eagerly awaited The Painkiller. He smiles instantly when rehearsals are mentioned, and easily segues into a discussion about the technicalities of performing farce and the fun that he is having with Kenneth Branagh and Rob Brydon.

Graham also finished shooting on Shadow Dancer this summer, a James Marsh film that follows a young Irish woman turned MI5 informer. Gillian Anderson, Clive Owen and Aiden Gillen also star.

If an actor's success or failure is down to luck, then Graham must have rubbed a lot of Buddha's tummies over the years.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is on at the Queen's Film Theatre until Oct 4 and The Painkiller is at the Lyric Theatre until October 16.