John Simm, star of a new BBC drama about a time-travelling detective, tells Amy Raphael he'd run down the street stark naked for his art; he just hates the celebrity that comes with it.
John Simm is worried. He has just had a massive gate put in the garden of his north London house, but he's not sure it's enough. Every time he opens it, there are perhaps two dozen people standing there, looking at him. So he pulls his baseball cap low over his face, stares at the ground. He frets about being paranoid; sometimes he thinks they are all waiting for him. But, finally, he laughs; he knows they are really just standing at the bus stop outside his house.
It's not that Simm has a tremendous actor's ego, it's more an issue of chronic shyness. He would always prefer critical acclaim to any form of modern celebrity. Nor is this diffidence an affectation. As a boy growing up in the small town of Nelson, Lancashire, he used to play working men's clubs with his father; he made his debut singing Elvis's Wooden Heart.
The young Simm was a decent guitar player but even then disliked being in the spotlight. Later on, in his 20s, he was to form his own band, Magic Alex (named after the Beatles' studio electrician), but despite supporting heroes such as Echo and the Bunnymen, being on stage didn't get any easier, and about a year ago they eventually split up.
Sitting in a private members' bar in Soho, London, Simm smiles and says in his soft northern accent: "I've never had that problem with acting; taking on another persona makes it so much easier. For some reason, I can run down the street stark bollock naked if I'm pretending to be someone else. But in a band, on stage… there's nowhere to hide. I used to just stand there and stare at the floor. It was bad enough with my dad, but with Magic Alex it was worse as people would recognise me and point. I'd stand there beaming, my face bright red. I would have stood behind the amp if I could. I just wanted to be anonymous."
If the 35-year-old Simm has an uneasy relationship with fame, things are going to get a whole lot harder for him. His signature acting style - raw, brutal, wayward yet warm, charming, urbane - has made him the mainstay of some of the best television of the past decade or so. Since starring in Jimmy McGovern's torrid hotel drama The Lakes in 1997, Simm has barely stopped working, taking roles in Never Never, Crime and Punishment, State of Play and Sex Traffic alongside film parts in Human Traffic and 24 Hour Party People.
And now he's back as the star of a new eight-part BBC drama, Life on Mars, playing a present-day Mancunian detective who is knocked down by a car and wakes up in 1973.
Sam Tyler initially can't work out if his colleagues have played an elaborate trick on him, then he wonders if he's in a coma, has gone crazy or really gone back in time. It all sounds a bit odd, but with its attention to detail (the slap-dash style of the '70s precinct, the innate sexism, the pre-Hillsborough football hooligans), its gentle humour (Tyler asks for a PC terminal; his colleagues can't think of a constable with that name) and Simm's typically cocksure but vulnerable performance, Life on Mars really works.
It's a huge part for Simm, who appears in every scene, looking rather grand in fly-away collars, flares and Cuban heels. Sitting in Soho now, wearing a Fred Perry polo shirt and pin-striped jacket, Simm drinks his cappuccino, fiddles with the teaspoon. His nails are either bitten to the quick or cut terribly short.
"I've never done anything so mainstream and glossy before. It's quite a big deal. It was hard work: six months up in Manchester, away from my wife and four-year-old son. It was quite tough on my marriage. I felt like a day-release prisoner, coming back to London for Sunday lunch, trying to cram everything into one day off."
Simm found Life on Mars even harder going than Sex Traffic, David Yates's Bafta-award-winning thriller about eastern European women being sold into sexual slavery. "Sex Traffic wasn't difficult, it was just grim. I'm used to working like that. I had to find a different way to work with Life on Mars; I tried to bring some grimness to it," he says, laughing.
He's the sort of actor who pulls a face when asked about playing a romantic lead. He's done it once before (in the flawed Miranda, opposite Christina Ricci) and dismisses it as "really, really easy and… boring". He is much happier dealing with gritty realism, with a character's heart of darkness.
He doesn't know where this fascination for deep, difficult characters comes from, just that he enjoys the challenge. There is already talk of a second series of Life on Mars, but Simm jokes he'd like to fit something totally different in between - "I'd like to play a serial killer; I'm desperate to go dark again. For some reason, I enjoy it more; it's so not me, I can burrow into it" - and there is talk of a second series of the excellent State of Play. "The last time I saw Paul [Abbott], he was so caught up in writing Shameless that he'd only managed one or two episodes of the next State of Play. God, it would be great to work with him again."
Simm has a passion for strong scripts and meaty, occasionally controversial parts. He's a proper star who's not very good at being famous. He confides that he almost didn't marry his actress wife, Kate Magowan, because he didn't want to court attention. He rarely goes to premières. He's not very good at being "a player"; he's too sure, perhaps, of his own mind. He knows what he likes (the Beatles, Ian Brown, Manchester United, good manners, family life) and what he dislikes (Heat magazine, tabloids, bigots, Arsenal, being away from his family).
Despite his shyness, there is a cockiness in there, too. He can certainly do the simian swagger on screen as well as Ian Brown or Liam Gallagher do on stage. "I've got to get rid of that walk, man," he says, laughing. "Groin thrust out, shoulders back. Got to stop it. I noticed it when I watched Life on Mars. At least Sam Tyler is from Manchester."
With talk coming round to Life on Mars again, Simm puts his head in his hands in mock despair. "I'm dreading it. I might even have to do Richard and Judy if it's a big success."
He looks earnest for a moment. "I'd give up some of my privacy for Life on Mars to be a success. I would, really." A self-deprecating smile. "Having insisted I want to be anonymous, if I woke up tomorrow and I was a theatre actor whom nobody had ever heard of, I probably wouldn't like it very much."