"State Of Play is all about human relationships and, on top of that, it’s a huge thriller," says John Simm. "Cal finds himself investigating his distraught friend, Stephen Collins, and soon becomes embroiled with Stephen’s wife, Anne, whose marriage has finally fallen apart over revelations of her husband’s affair with Sonia."
Simm has a history of playing dark, troubled souls, culminating in the darkest and most troubled of them all – Raskolnikov in last year’s Crime And Punishment on BBC Two. But his latest roles in both State Of Play and his upcoming film, Miranda, where he stars alongside Christina Ricci, are a departure from all that. The decision to play someone "a bit more grown up" was a conscious one. "I usually play brooding, weight-of-the world weirdos," he chuckles, "but Cal’s not one of those. He’s a bit more normal. He’s not a perfect person – he hasn’t settled down and he’s a bit crumpled – but he’s an investigative journalist, a professional, and very high up in his job so in that respect it is very different. "He does try to help Stephen, but there is always that thing at the back of his mind that the story is everything. The more he unravels it, the more exciting it gets and he’s like a bloodhound. He’ll break rules to get what he wants. His friendship with Stephen sometimes puts him at odds with the rest of the investigative team. But it’s an advantage because sometimes he wouldn’t have got half the information he has unless he had been friends with him.
"The whole relationship with Anne is a messy love thing which he doesn’t really mean to happen. But she and Stephen had already split up so it’s not his fault. She needs a shoulder to cry on and he’s vulnerable. I don’t think he’s ever been very good with women," he explains. Simm was looking forward to working with David Morrissey as he had admired his work for a long time, particularly in Tony Marchant’s Holding On. But the connection goes way back: "He did something called One Summer years ago which I remember very well from being a kid. It stuck in my head and it was one of the things that made me want to go to drama school," Simm says. However, Morrissey wasn’t overly flattered when Simm told him of his early admiration. "He just said, ‘thanks, that makes me feel really old,’ " he laughs.
Simm spent time in the offices of both The Times and The Guardian in preparation for the role. "There’s a lot of things that journalists find out that they can’t tell you or they can’t print. But the interesting thing for me was the how the place came alive as the deadline approached, the buzz of the office became really prominent and everyone’s body language changed."
Simm very briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist himself before he left school, taking part in an organised trip around a local paper and he admits that the idea of being an investigative journalist holds some appeal for him: "You have a licence to do undercover detective work which could be very interesting." However, it is unlikely that Simm would be able to squeeze another career into his busy life as actor, musician and new father. He is due to begin work shortly in Dublin on The Six Revenges Of Gregory Lynn, a film which he describes as "a cross between Natural Born Killers and Billy Liar". He plays a librarian who kills off his old teachers one by one and will star alongside Brenda Blethyn, Michael Gambon and Joely Richardson. In Miranda, due to be released shortly in the States, he plays another librarian. Simm says the film is lighter than his usual roles and his character is eccentric, romantic, shy and quite funny looking – "he has a mad quiff and dresses like Frank Sinatra." He starts a passionate affair with a mysterious woman who walks into his library and, when she suddenly disappears, he travels down to London to search for her only to discover that she has three identities – dancer, dominatrix and con-woman. However, the roles for which Simm is still recognised in the street are usually his earliest – Danny in The Lakes and then Jip in the raver film Human Traffic. In fact, the latter provoked such a response he soon found himself under siege whenever he went clubbing, surrounded by ravers on the dance floor "all gurning away". Although he concedes that it is part of the job, he hates the idea of celebrity culture. "It infuriates me and makes me angry. I couldn’t watch the Oscars in the middle of the war – actors slapping themselves on the back is just crass. I think the worst thing an actor can be is a celebrity because you lose all the mystery. It makes it harder for anyone to believe in you as the character."
He finds it difficult to pick a favourite role but, when pushed, says he thinks Crime And Punishment was the best thing he’s ever done. "It was so meaty, dark and heavy – kind of similar to Hamlet without playing Hamlet." Which is a surprise as you might expect his favourite to be his performance as Joy Division guitarist and New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in 24 Hour Party People, a role which combined his two great loves – acting and music – and one which Simm describes as "the best fun job I’ve ever had".
He has recently played on Ian McCulloch’s new album, Slideling, which is to be released shortly, and says he might get up and do a few songs with him when he tours. If he does, it won’t be the first time he’s shared a stage with McCulloch as his band, Magic Alex, have supported Echo And The Bunnymen on tour. He says there are plans for Magic Alex to release an EP this year but swiftly qualifies it with "but we keep saying that, we’re all really busy". He has no regrets about concentrating his professional energies on acting: "We’ve surpassed everything I thought we would do anyway, so anything else is just a bonus." These days, he insists that he is much more of a family man, happy to spend time at home with his girlfriend, actress Kate McGowan, and their 19-month-old son, Ryan. He describes Ryan as "the meaning of life" and is consequently not looking forward to a two-week trip to promote Miranda in the States. "I’ve never left him for that long before – it’ll break my heart when I get on the plane," he says. "Being a father, your priorities suddenly change, you’re not number one any more, which is quite a weird thing – if the proverbial truck was hurtling towards me, I’d rather die than him. I’d cut my own throat if he wanted blood." But Simm, an avid Manchester United fan, says it could all change if Ryan doesn’t do the right thing when it comes to supporting a football team. "I won’t feel like that if he grows up an Arsenal fan," he jokes. "If he’s an Arsenal fan he can find somewhere else to live, it’s all out the window then!"