Then, a few years down the line, there's the Britishness of John Simm: a certain cocky self-possession, a taste of provincial comprehensives, shopping precincts, last buses, roll-ups rolled up in tight paper tubes. It's shot through his upbringing, the perfectly average childhood on the working/lower middle class borders in Nelson, Lancashire, population 30,000, four miles from Burnley.
And it's there in adulthood too, in the steady ascent to recognisability accrued through (to name but some) small-screen melodrama The Lakes, addled clubland romp Human Traffic, flinty morality tale Never Never. And it's in his dress, the jeans and denim jacket, the love of football, the contradictions that speckle his persona: chipper but chippy, the northern lad with a home in Muswell Hill, the new father whose image is that of - to quote Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club - a "30-year-old boy". Yet despite, or maybe because of the paradoxes, here he is, probably the busiest (indeed, at times, he seems inescapable) young actor in the country.
So he sits with a beer and a roll-up between his teeth, discussing how he came to be playing the most quintessentially Russian of anti-heroes. "I educated myself, really," he's saying. "I came down from the north, and I was surrounded by these people from Oxford and Cambridge who were extremely well read and that left me, you know... secluded. And I had to catch up. I had to be able to compete. So I read and I read and I read. And that was a massively important part of it."
The "that" he's talking about is Dostoevsky's Crime And Punishment, the centrepiece of an autodidact's stew of classic literature consumed when the then 19-year-old Simm first came to London to study drama. It is, uncoincidentally, also the next project in which he'll be appearing, the first of two forthcoming roles that might translate his status of perennial bright young thing into something sturdier and more substantial.
Ask Simm about filming in crime-ridden, ramshackle St Petersburg, and his eyes widen. The war stories are legion. The crew member mugged by a pair of off-duty cops. The broken rib that convinced him he was suffering a heart attack. The elderly Pushkin fan arrested for screaming abuse at the cast, the drunk who appeared on-set waving a Kalashnikov, or the simple, all-pervasive "smell of the place, the feel of it, the poverty, the white nights, the nonstop vodka. It gets oppressive." There's a last tug on the roll-up, a flick into the ashtray. "I mean, it's easy to sound patronising and the place is fucked on a lot of levels, but the people have this weird, intense intelligence, you know? You see a building site and the builders aren't reading The Sun. They're playing chess. But yeah, that said, it is in terrible shape..."
Yet, if the location gives director Julian Jarrold's adaptation its fierce sheen of authenticity, it's Simm that provides its pitch-black heart. Because, if the chaos off-camera was an education, then what he's asked to deliver on-screen makes for an even steeper learning curve. Abandoning swagger and roguishness, knee-deep in perdition and redemption as the tortured protagonist Raskolnikov, it's a truly startling, genuinely mature performance. One, you imagine, which didn't come without some psychological afterburn.
"Oh yeah. Mentally, it was difficult. But a lot of that was to do with everyone out there knowing the book inside out. So all day you'd have people coming up to you saying, 'This book... is my life.' D'you know what I mean? And every time I walked on the set, I could feel these eyes burning into me..." Another roll-up. A Rizla, laid on the table, slowly filled. "...But yeah, it was pretty intense being inside his head for any length of time. I mean, he's losing his mind. And I can understand why, because he's incredibly intelligent and he's stuck in this shithole. And for someone very intelligent - and I'm not saying I am - but I suppose in that situation you just withdraw." Cigarette lifted, licked into shape. "Withdraw, withdraw, keep your eyes down, pull everything inward... So there was a lot on my mind through the whole thing. I mean, also I was very aware that once you play Raskolnikov, there really isn't anywhere to go, professionally."
Where he did go was home - and into his other impending project, the long-gestating 24 Hour Party People, Michael Winterbottom's cartoonish account of the rise and fall of Factory Records. For Simm, cast as Joy Division guitarist/New Order frontman Bernard Sumner, the chance to "play New Order's guitars" while working with Winterbottom again (having previously starred in the director's Wonderland) proved too much to resist. Only, the suspicion - the thought you can't help voicing - is that, given his penchant for the darkest of characters, he might have been tempted not by the role of Sumner but his late bandmate, Joy Division's Ian Curtis. Draining as Raskolnikov proved, surely the chance to portray British rock's most iconic suicide case must have called out to him? He gives his response one, two, three seconds. "Well, yeah, I can see why you say that. But, you know, I'm not thin enough, I'm not pale enough, I can't dance like he did. And if you're playing Ian Curtis, those things are important. There's... a responsibility to the audience."
A responsibility to the audience. A pre-established place in hearts and minds is the strongest connection between the nihilistic vistas of Dostoevsky and the sombre beauty of Joy Division. On the pereuloks and prospekts of St Petersburg, after all, children may grow up with Raskolnikov; in Manchester, there's the local history of Curtis and Sumner et al .
"It's definitely a pressure. I know when we were shooting at the Free Trade Hall, there was one extra who'd been at the actual gig in 1979, and we're playing, and Sean [Harris, playing Curtis] is dancing away... and I looked over, and the guy's in tears. So that was kind of heavy. But you know, those songs mean a lot to me, too."
And you believe him. Because, for Simm, music is less pastime than passion. Where other actors in his position might foam over their plans to conquer Hollywood, he reserves his enthusiasm for the star quality of Ian Brown or the Happy Mondays at their demented peak. His own band, Magic Alex (named after the Beatles' in-house TV repairman/electronics guru) have supported, among others, Echo And The Bunnymen; an album has been recorded, release pending. Yet, for all his ardour, he knows that music let him down. It failed to get him out of Nelson.
His father, Ronald, worked as a guitarist and singer, ploughing the circuit, his son witness to the odd, parochial glamour of cramped dressing rooms in sundry working men's clubs throughout the 1970s. By the time the decade was limping to a close, the younger Simm was already a seasoned performer, playing guitar alongside his dad. He made his debut singing Elvis's Wooden Heart; they called themselves Us2. The future was there for the taking - a day job if required, gigs in the evenings, a local star in a tiny firmament, knocking out Apache with a few free pints afterward.
Except, not quite.
"Marry young. Kids young. Work in a factory. Get made redundant." He rattles off the answer when you ask about the life that would have unfolded had he stayed put, settled down in Nelson. "I don't know, because I don't keep in touch with anyone from there. The last one was my best mate from school. He came down when everything was just kicking off for me, which must have been... um, five, six years ago. It was strange, for both of us. Him, especially. You know, now I was an actor, we were in London, and I think it was all too strange for him. Like two worlds colliding..."
There's a catch in his voice discussing Nelson, a measuring of language, a desire not to slate the town where his parents still live, but not to don rose-tinted lenses either for a place where horizons were limited, opportunities more so, and racism "absolutely everywhere".
"I mean, growing up there wasn't bad ," he says. "There was an innocence. It was just I was aware that if you had any ambition, you had to get out. Had to. Immediately. The people I went to school with who are still there... it's fine for them. If they're happy, brilliant. But I wanted something else. And acting was my way out. It wasn't music. I loved music, but it wasn't going to get me out of there. So I saw acting, and I grabbed it."
Were you desperate to leave? "Yeah, I'd say I was." The decision came, he admits slightly sheepishly, after seeing Rebel Without A Cause at 13 (there's a half-smile when I tell him it was Ian Curtis's favourite film). A snatched conversation with his drama teacher led to the school play and then, onward. "And I thought it was so easy. Just... pretend to be someone else. Piece of piss. So I hung on to it till it got me out."
At 16, there was drama school in Blackpool, three years of drinking and West Side Story. Then, London. And from there, a career best characterised by its absences. The absence of rep theatre and cheap adverts (excepting countless voiceovers). The absence of sitcoms or soap operas. And the absence, bar a three-month stint in the early 1990s, of the actor's habitual milieu: long-term unemployment. Not bad going for someone who dismisses talk of a masterplan ("I turned down rubbish once I could, that's all") and who, so the cliché goes, would still have rather been a musician than an actor.
"Yeah," he says, "but I am. I'm doing both. And it's weird, coz after I finished the album and the baby was born my sister rang and said, 'How does it feel? Now you've done everything you ever wanted to do?' And I thought about that, and it's true. I've played leads in movies, I've done Raskolnikov, my band's played at the Brixton Academy, I've seen my kid come into the world."
So, there we have it. John Simm, happy. Happy with his football, his music, his son - born late last summer - and his enviable professional Midas touch. Case closed. Game over.
Except, again, not quite. Because, whether by accident or management, something in him gravitates and always has to the most bilious of roles, the acrid side of human nature. There hasn't, he says, been much money: "I famously do not get big pay days." There has, however, been an awful lot of shouting. The loudly discontented Danny Kavanagh, his breakthrough in The Lakes, cutting up rough in rural Cumbria. Jip the cynical raver in Human Traffic, much given to splenetic tantrums and erectile dysfunction. Eddie the feckless husband in Wonderland, or John Parlour, the venal loan shark marooned on the same dank Swiss Cottage estate he once pillaged in Tony Marchant's Never Never.
Over and again, it's there - rage, dispossession, a mile-wide streak of moral ambiguity, a feral gleam behind the eyes, a sneer across the face. For a moment, we swap phrases for the nature of his trade. Troubled souls. Bad pennies. Bastards. No, wait - redeemable bastards. Bastards with a conscience.
"Bastards with a conscience," he says. "That'll do." So why? Why, when the picture is pretty much complete, domesticated and successful, does he exclusively seek out (and excel at) these studies in misery? "I don't know. I can't answer that. I see it, but I can't tell you what it is." Can't, or won't? "Can't. I mean, I don't know myself. I've thought about it a lot and I don't know the answer. It's just what I'm good at." Okay, let's put it this way: when a casting director is looking for a troubled soul/bad penny/bastard with a conscience, what is it that makes them dig out his number?
"Well," he says, lapsing into a mumble, "um... you get your chance... and hopefully you do a good job and they call you..."
He's not biting, is he? "I just don't know the answer. I honestly don't."
So you try and piece it together yourself. And you find that, while acting itself may be a piece of piss, it's the baggage that gnaws at him. The only time, he says, he's felt self-conscious about how he makes his living is when his family didn't know how to handle him after his first flush of success. And the only time his voice rises and the testiness flashes across his features is at the mention of the Groucho culture of sniping and sycophancy, "strangers pulling up chairs next to you and telling you how great you are when you know they couldn't give a fuck". The bleak, vacant world of British celebrity.
There is, he admits, a mordant irony to the low-rent celebrity magazines coming here today to discuss New Order and Raskolnikov. And yet, undeterred by his choice of roles, they keep coming, drawn like moths by his youth and his early (now, he says, regretted) willingness to mouth off with the tape rolling, usually to berate and belittle his own profession. The nadir, he says, came with the second run of The Lakes and the release of Human Traffic, a period coinciding with a short-lived, unlikely relationship with Spice Girl Emma Bunton.
"But I think I've got away from all that now, haven't I?" The question is not rhetorical. I tell him I think he's getting there, but that he must still find some aspects of the life seductive. "Yeah, some. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. I mean, I remember going to Cannes for Wonderland and doing the whole red carpet thing, sitting next to Noel Gallagher on the plane home, getting off and there's a limo waiting... and right outside Heathrow there's a billboard for Human Traffic. And I'm already freaking out driving back to Muswell Hill, and I get back and I see the newsagent's window and I'm on the cover of Time Out. And I literally went into my house, got into bed, pulled the blanket over my head and lay there shaking. You know, like ' Fuck. Fuck. Fuck .' And I'd be lying if I said that was anything but, yeah, seductive's the word, but it's also sort of terrible."
Predictably, his experiences with the media haven't been blissful. At least one Sunday tabloid went after his parents in the hope of locating familial skeletons; not entirely emolliently, he mentions meeting a journalist earlier whose magazine last ran an "interview" with him after a minute's conversation in the toilets of an awards ceremony. "I hate it," he says. "I fucking hate it. It just depresses me beyond belief." And interviews? I mention Robert De Niro (whose performance in Taxi Driver is an obvious influence on Simm's Raskolnikov, much as Scorsese's film borrowed from Dostoevsky) and his famous reluctance to indulge the press. "True. Very true. But unfortunately I'm not De Niro, so I have to do them." Then, abruptly, there's a needless apology, a backtrack. "I mean, this is different, talking about politics and race and all the stuff I never get the chance to talk about."
And there, somewhere between the idyll of his current life, the churn of his adolescence and the need to exorcise whatever demons he's subject to in front of a camera, the real John Simm slowly, hesitantly stands up. Complete with a temper ("I get angry, I always have done, too angry"); a jittery sense of right and wrong; a sweet, almost ingenuous eagerness to please. Tell him you like a movie he's done and he blushes, properly. See the pride in his face when he tells you about New Order dedicating True Faith to his baby at a recent London gig. Say hello to the man who, if he's at a party and someone starts playing guitar, "just leaves the room. I find it humiliating. Mortifying. Can't stand it. That's my problem.
"I'm just really, really shy. Chronically. And when my mouth used to get away from me, it was a cover-up. Always. Because I find it hard to be myself. D'you know what I mean? If I'm acting, I'll run down the street naked with a flag hanging out of my arse. I couldn't give a fuck. But if I'm being myself..."
He trails away, rolls another cigarette, eyes darting round the room. "It's funny, a friend of mine said, 'You know, you never say anything positive about what you're doing.' And it's true. And it's because I'm so afraid of my actual mates seeing me as a big mouth. Especially when you've got friends who aren't working, other actors. I just always thought, 'They don't wanna know if I'm doing Raskolnikov for the BBC.' " A long drag, a deep breath. "So I shut up about it. And my friend said to me, 'Look, be happy. No one thinks you're a wanker.' But you're scared of being a show-off, aren't you? And maybe that's changing now. I don't know, it seems, like, with the baby and what happened in September, everything's coming into perspective a little bit."
And then he mentions how, during the post-JFK generation's single most defining moment, he sat with his then four-week-old son, watching the fall of the World Trade Centre. "And the night before me and Kate [McGowan, his partner] had been out for the first time since the baby was born, and we hadn't been to bed, so we're sitting there and I've got my kid in my arms on the sofa and I'm there for three days. Taking turns with the baby, just sitting there, crying."
As the conversation turns, him talking not of how he doesn't care about acting but his being overwhelmed by the sight of his child, his new-found empathy with his own parents, a heightened sense of mortality, I ask if he's religious. And, as he prepares to answer, a delicate guitar line announces itself over the speakers - The Stone Roses' I Wanna Be Adored.
"God, it is, isn't it? Fucking hell that's weird."
"Coz when we were going to have the baby, I had the first Stone Roses album on a loop. I wanted him to be born to I Am The Resurrection. You know when the chorus kicks in? Right there." And did it work? "Nah. 'Course it didn't."
Nice story. I can't quite see what's weird about it.
"Coz I was going to say that by the time he was actually born, I couldn't have given a fuck. Because that was the nearest thing I've ever seen to a miracle. And you forget about acting, or music, or any of it." John Simm stubs out his roll-up, and sits bolt upright in his seat. "And you see that, and you think about there being something we're here for, something to give it all some sort of meaning... and you think maybe. Maybe. Maybe."
· Crime and Punishment is screened on BBC2 on February 12 and 13 at 9pm.