Q&A: John Simm


Actor John Simm plays a copper who's transported to the 1970s in this week's very different new BBC Wales drama series Life on Mars. Leeds-born Simm, 34, lives in London with his partner, actress Kate McGowan, and their four-year-old son Ryan

Q: What's your new series Life on Mars about?

A; I play Sam Tyler, an ambitious Manchester detective who, after a near fatal car accident, wakes up dazed and confused in 1973, struggling to understand what's going on. Has he gone back in time, or is he in a coma? What follows is Sam's 21st-century account of '70s life, feeling like a fish out of water. His biggest challenge is probably having to work with DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who's a real non-PC, Sweeney-type cop, getting his results through gut instinct and, sometimes, brute force. It's action-packed, stylish and very witty.

Q: You're known for quite serious drama like State of Play, and Sex Traffic, so what was the attraction for a series like this?

A: I read the premise, and then I read it again and again, and I kind of thought, "This is ridiculous!" Then that became a bit of challenge - that if I could make this believable, I can make anything believable. Usually my work is steeped in realism, and I have to question it a million times before I do a scene. With Life on Mars, it was quite redundant to do that. Also, I like the ambiguity of the situation; is it in Sam's head, or has he really gone back in time?

Q: Did you have a say in your '70s wardrobe in the series?

A: The idea that it's all in Sam's head kind of dictates the costumes too. Before the accident, he's suited up, and when he comes around, it's a bit like if you were to wake up in the '70s, what would you like to be wearing? So we agreed on a leather jacket, the Cuban heels, and even the little medallion around his neck. I wore a few interesting shirts through the series. There's a lot of brown and beige going on!

Q: Did you enjoy the action side of the series?

A: Oh yes. Doing rolls over car bonnets and all that. And I get to do some funny fights with Philip Glenister. It smacks of '70s TV and I love that about it. But chasing criminals in Cuban heels is hard, I have to say.

Q: Did you do much to prepare for the series?

A: I watched some DVDs of The Sweeney, which I already loved, and it still stands up as great drama; I want to see the next batch now! But I remember The Professionals too. If there's anything in my head about the way Sam looks and acts, for me it's Bodie, as played by Lewis Collins.

Q: What are your abiding memories of the '70s?

A: Well, I was only a kid, but I adored The Six Million Dollar Man. I bought a DVD of it recently and looking at it now, it's absolute rubbish, so I was heart-broken. My biggest abiding memory is the long hot summer of '76. It was when the Sex Pistols arrived, and I remember a specific lime-green T-shirt I had, with a transfer of Starsky and Hutch on the front.

Q: You get to ride in a Ford Cortina in the show, what was that like?

A: Alas, only as a passenger, as the car belongs to Gene Hunt. I didn't have one which is unfair! It was fun being in it, though. We went through lots of cardboard boxes.

Q: Did filming in Manchester, away from your home in London, cause any problems?

A: This has been the toughest shoot of my life; six months filming, and I'm in every scene. I have to be, really, as it's all from Sam's viewpoint, and it might all be in his mind anyway. And as loath as I am to moan about acting - because no actor should, it's a great job - this one was quite difficult. Just being away from my family was a pain. It was 20 million times harder than Sex Traffic, even. Not the subject matter, obviously. Sex Traffic was hard too, because I was commuting to Romania. But with Life on Mars, I may as well have been in Romania for six months. Or Mars!

Q: What kind of feedback did you get to Sex Traffic?

A: The reactions we've had have been amazing, and I'm very proud of the awards it got. If I can hold anything up in my career that was truly worthy of doing, then that is definitely it.

Q: You starred in the Cardiff-set clubbing movie Human Traffic. Do you still get recognised from that?

A: I can't go clubbing anymore - which is probably just as well, because people always shout at me. I suppose it's the only proper film about clubbing, and ever clubber worth their salt has seen it, and they quote it incessantly. But I remember having a fun time in Cardiff making it, even though the real club scene - there was nothing like it looks like in the film. That world doesn't exist, from what I saw.

Q: Do you still play guitar in your band, Magic Alex?

A: We do the very occasional gig. But generally I'd say our musical career is grinding to a halt. We're all in our 30s, we live all over the country and we've got children. It's just not very rock'n'roll!


© Rob Driscoll, Western Mail http://icwales.icnetwork.co.uk