And the winner is...
BOOZE, BOXING, A BREAKDOWN; PADDY CONSIDINE'S JOURNEY FROM WEST MIDLANDS INDIE CINEMA TO RUSSELL CROWE'S NEW BLOCKBUSTER HAS BEEN A STORY OF BLOOD AND GUTS. BUT HE'S CLEANING UP NOW, SAYS CRAIG McCLEAN. PHOTOGRAPHS MITCH JENKINS
Paddy Considine is British acting's secret weapon. Seriously serious, swearily committed, forcefully unflashy, a little bit frightening, refreshingly and amusingly off-message. Able to sink a beer in the blink of a bleary eye. Has a laser-beam stare and a wide smile. Mesmerising in last year's Dead Man's Shoes (as a former soldier avenging the fatal bullying of his little brother) and My Summer of Love (as a violent ne'er-do-well turned messianic Christian). Tough enough, and good enough, to go toe-to-toe with Russell Crowe in this month's boxing epic Cinderella Man.
'Was I nervous about working with him? Not at all. I was excited by it.'
Intimidated, then, at the thought of promotion from the low-budget ranks of British film to the Oscar-winning team behind A Beautiful Mind (Crowe and director Ron Howard) and their big new drama about a real-life hero?
Another casual shake of the head. Nope, Paddy Considine doesn't do fear, and has always relished a challenge. 'No. No. People who are arseholes usually haven't got it, have they?' Meaning: if Crowe really was as big an idiot as rumour has it, he wouldn't be as talented as he is. And Considine, a bloke au fait with the world of macho men, knows and respects talent. And people who are focused on their art.
'The amazing thing about Russell was how he just threw it away,' enthuses Considine in his gentle Midlands accent. 'He just had all the lines. It wasn't like he sat there chewing over things. He was so absorbed in the character, he didn't have to frill it up with anything. It was a brilliant insight for me. Actors are all different, we've all got different motors.'
Paddy Considine's motor? To make films that 'mean something'. To leave a little of himself in each project. To 'exorcise something'. To provide both for his own future acting development and for his family; coming from a working-class household with six children, he knows what it's like to be skint and doesn't want to go back there. It's a perilously full-on and occasionally contradictory approach. Paddy Considine's motor works so hard, and so fast, that once upon a recent time it drove him to a breakdown.
In Cinderella Man , Russell Crowe plays Jim Braddock, a New Jersey fighter and committed family man. He had it all, including a beautiful wife (Renee Zellwegger) and three lovely kids, lost it during the Great Depression, then fought back in 1935 to become heavyweight champion of the world. (His real-life riches-to-rags-to-riches story inspired Damon Runyon to call him The Cinderella Man).
The subject matter alone must have excited Considine. A long-standing boxing fan and sometime sparrer, before his acting days he was also a photographer: he secured a place on a course at Brighton University with a portfolio shot ringside at a club in his home town of Burton-on-Trent. While still a student, he had a series of portraits of former boxers published in The Guardian.
After graduation, he made a documentary, Ex-Boxers , and it was while he was editing the film in Nottingham that director Shane Meadows; the fast friend he'd made on a post-school BTEC performing arts diploma in Burton; asked him to try out for the part of troubled loner Morell in A Room For Romeo Brass (1999), which he was filming locally. Considine jumped at the chance.
In Cinderella Man , Considine plays Mike Wilson, a fictional character inserted into the film's biography of Braddock to personify the devastating loss experienced by millions of Americans in the years after the Wall Street Crash. In his former existence Mike was middle class and a stockbroker. Now he's reduced to scrabbling for work at the docks alongside an equally desperate Braddock. Where Braddock is tough and set on nobly toiling his way out of poverty, Mike is bitter, boozy and imbalanced. It's an obvious conceit; the little man who can't cope in the shadow of the big guy who can; but Considine invests this small but pivotal character with blazingly believable passion and confusion.
'It was a support role, and he was kind of underdeveloped,' says Considine, evenly. 'And he changed over the [script] drafts. He was an alcoholic. He was a character who was fighting for his place in the film. And I was aware of that when I got this script'.
Naturally, Cinderella Man is a fairy-tale: a 144-minute giant that is exactly the kind of hefty, brilliantly executed crowd-pleaser that Howard and Crowe do so well. Of course Braddock's gonna beat the odds and win. You'll cheer, you'll cry, you'll dive deeper into your big bucket of popcorn.
It's all a bit Hollywood, and a long way from the edgy, grass-roots UK filmmaking in which Considine has developed his craft. He's worked with innovative directors such as old pal Meadows (on A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man's Shoes ), artful Polish expat Pawel Pawlikowski (on Last Resort and My Summer of Love ), prolific indie-auteur Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) and comedian-cum-TV-anarchist Chris Morris (on the Bafta-winning short My Wrongs 8245-8249 and 117 ). Even his one previous 'American' film; Jim Sheridan's soulful In America , in which he played the conflicted father in an Irish family starting a new life in New York after the death of their son; was made with Irish money.
Considine and I are talking around midnight in a Thai restaurant in San Sebastian, northern Spain. We flew to Bilbao together this evening, but U2 are in town, playing two stadium shows, so there's no hotel room available for me. Don't worry, says Paddy, you can kip in mine. No matter that we only met a couple of hours ago. He's a good geezer, Paddy Considine, relaxed and matey behind that on-screen power. Nothing much threatens him. Only his own desire to always do better. The 31-year-old is spending this summer filming a Spanish-made, would-be Sergio Leone-like thriller, The Backwoods , with Gary Oldman. He wasn't entirely sure about the script but, well, it's Gary Oldman, ain't it? Meantime, The Firm, Prick Up Your Ears; those films mean something. Mean a lot.
It's a lengthy shoot; seven weeks; and when he has any spare time, Considine is racing back and forth to Burton-on-Trent, where he still lives; his wife Shelley, whom he met at 18, is five months pregnant with their second child (son Joseph is two). And that's the other reason for agreeing to this Spanish commitment: the pay's good. With a baby on the way, Considine is intent on moving out of his two-bedroom flat and into somewhere bigger.
'Thing One and Thing Two get a garden,' he smiles. 'It ain't always about me.' Nope, it's sometimes about grafting for a buck: his last job before Cinderella Man wasn't on a film set but up some scaffolding, working with his roofer brother 'Chubby' (aka Martin). Ron Howard couldn't believe that one.
He says he's aware that 'people around me' are all excited by Cinderella Man , viewing it as his big step up. Considine's more cool about it: 'I knew it wasn't gonna be a big breakthrough role, but I knew it would raise my game.' He even plays down reports that Crowe personally picked him for the project, the New Zealander having been impressed by his performance in In America.
'Russell wrote me a note after he'd seen it but I never got it!' he laughs, adding that the wife of one of the Cinderella Man producers, moved to tears by In America , had also lobbied her husband to take a look at the unknown Englishman.
'It's all about cutting your teeth,' he says as he dives into his beef noodles. 'I would hate to be thrust into the middle of a big film and not deliver. There's young actors and they're put into these central roles and they're commanding armies; but they can't quite pull it off. I'd much rather do it in small steps and build it from there. But at least now, for me, when they're casting movies in America, the big question is, "Can he do an American accent?" Well, that's answered now. He can do one, he can do a Thirties New Yorker.'
Considine is a different kind of talked-about British actor to, say, Orlando Bloom, the army-commanding star of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven . Considine can't, and wouldn't, be cast for his looks or demographic appeal to young girls. He's in two minds about the value of appearing in magazines and newspapers. He puts such intense preparation into his roles that he is routinely dubbed a Method actor. 'What does that mean?' he scoffs. 'If I'm making a film set in the Seventies do I have to wear underpants from that period and carry rocks in my pocket to feel heavy?'
He says that if he ever became a celebrity; he spits the word with visceral disgust; 'I'll fucking disappear and go and make shoes like Daniel Day Lewis,' a reference to the Gangs of New York star's long sabbatical working as a cobbler in Italy.
Paddy Considine grew up in Winshill, just outside Burton-on-Trent, obsessing over films. He traces his mania; there's no other word for it; for making movies to watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest 50 times. 'I watched Rocky and Raging Bull and Taxi Driver over and over again. They spoke to you, man,' he says wistfully.
But there were distractions on the council estates round which he roamed. As an adolescent he ran with a gang of local kids. 'The fun we had was a bit on the edge.' He's loath to go into family details but says his late dad, a tough and often unemployed Irishman, wasn't too much of a disciplinarian with him: 'but he should have been'.
Both on-screen and off, Considine radiates a handy physicality, despite being an unthreatening 5'9". He has talked previously of a 'black hole' inside him, and of an internal rage that he mines for motivation in front of a camera. But he insists he was never a hard nut, or a fighter. 'The only thing I inherited was an Irish temper.'
He was more the joker, the wise guy who could do loads of accents. 'At school I was a little bastard. I'd have the class laughing all the time. Then a teacher said: "Yeah, Considine, you might have your audience now, but you won't have it when you leave." I was like, "Whatever". But I was walking home thinking, "Oh man, he's right."'
He was 15, 16 at the time. 'So I went back into fourth year and thought, "I'm gonna try and do something. I can't be another bum from round here, I can't hit the factory. And it was the love of films. I thought, "I want to do acting, I truly do."'
Luckily, Mrs. Balderson, the art teacher he'd been running ragged, pushed him into auditions for a school production of Grease . He landed the Kenickie part, and at her urging attended an evening drama course at the local college, where he landed the lead role in a production of Gregory's Girl.
The cliché was true: acting opened up another world for Considine. He began to get better marks at school. Later, on the BTEC course, he and Shane Meadows hit it off immediately. They would do their own skits in the canteen, and make short films in which they would pretend to be Seventies cops. Meadows would do a character, Tank Bollock; Considine wrote a filthy song for Tank Bollock called 'Proper Farming Lass'. They formed a band together, called She Talks To Angels. (A sometime drummer and guitarist, Considine still writes songs, 'only for myself', inspired by alternative country and by cult band Guided By Voices, his all-time favourite group.)
But the lecturers didn't take them, or their wild imaginations, seriously. Considine dropped out after a year. On the dole, with Shelley away at university in Buckinghamshire, he realised he had never finished anything. He was allowed back into college without enrolling on a course, drifted into photography classes and, trying out his camera down the boxing club, found a vocation.
Studying photography in Brighton, he says, eyes burning, 'that was it, that made me. That made me . I discovered how to translate stuff from your head and your guts and put it into something.' That something; from photography to documentaries and via Meadows; was acting.
Intensity has served Paddy Considine well. But it can get the better of him. In late 2000 he made a 'little film in Wales' which he didn't enjoy ( Happy Now ), then had a boozy Christmas, then went to make 24 Hour Party People , a brilliant romp about the mad Manchester music scene in which he played an utterly convincing Rob Gretton, late manager of New Order. Then he hit the wall.
For the first time this evening his conversational flow sputters. 'I'd abused myself in a strange way. I was drinking a lot of alcohol, and I was burning the candle at both ends. And when it came to Party People , we were getting pissed on-set. There was all sorts of shit being consumed on that film. But I wasn't doing any of that, I don't do drugs. But near the last couple of days of filming, I just woke up one morning and my head felt like it had been removed from my body.'
Considine draws his body upright at the table and pushes some noodles around.
'I couldn't even; I didn't wanna; I suppose I had a little breakdown. But yeah, it was bad news for a while. I was ill and it was very, very dodgy whether or not I could get on a bus, let alone get in front of a camera.
'It was a film that got him through it. A crappy little thing that no one's seen called Doctor Sleep . 'On the morning of the audition I walked four miles to the train station. I made it as hard as I possibly could. It was like, "I don't care if I drop dead or have a breakdown in the street, I'm gonna walk to the station and start to beat this monster." I got through by being around people again.'
Considine faced down his demons and moved on. Shortly, he was to begin work on In America . Then one week before he began filming, his dad died from cancer.
'It's like, fucking hell, nice one!' he recalls wearily. 'But that [ In America ] performance was kind of cathartic.' A sigh, a shake of the head. 'It's a strange one, man. All right, I wasn't feeling very well but I never shied away from the fight.'
Little wonder, perhaps, that a watching Russell Crowe was impressed enough to write him a note and help bring him to where we are now.
It's getting late in San Sebastian. We're both a bit pissed, I think. The talk of breakdown, death and demons has left Paddy Considine looking a little morose. But when I ask him if he wants to direct a film, he suddenly gets fired up.
'Yeah, I've written a short film, Dog Altogether . It starts with a guy putting his dog down. Then he goes on the rage for the day. He wants to go to the pub and find the guy that kicked his dog. And it transpires that the guy, through misplaced anger, kicked his own dog to near-death the night before. And the guilt is driving him to go through this day where he wants somebody to kick the head off him: "Somebody punish me."
As he relays this at the table in the now-deserted hotel restaurant, Considine acts out the guy's rage and confusion; palms flat on the table, eyes boggling, body weaving and nostrils flaring. For a brief moment, it's alarming.
'What was the inspiration for that?' I ask. He shoots me a funny look.
'Dunno,' he says quietly. 'What was the inspiration?' A big, shoulder-slumping sigh. 'I don't fucking know. There's just some things; why talk about them? Why trivialise the things that push my buttons, that drive me? Just harbour 'em and use 'em. Dunno. It's all about where you grew up and the things that go on around you in them communities. That's all it is, man. And I can't be any more specific. Cause I don't wanna be.
And so to bed. We go up to his room. Before I hit the cushions on the floor we drink more beer and he tells me hilarious stories of the roofers his brother works with, how he'd like to move his family 'further out' into the Peak District, how mad he is about kids. He says he's disappointed with Stoned , the upcoming biopic about Brian Jones, in which he plays the builder who allegedly killed the former Rolling Stone, but he's proper excited about his next shoot. It's called PU-239 , and its executive producers include Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney. Considine plays a Russian scientist who shuts down a reactor in meltdown, but is fatally exposed to radiation in the process. He discovers that his family will receive no pension when he dies, despite his heroic sacrifice. So he goes to Moscow to sell stolen plutonium to terrorists.
'He's literally imploding from radiation sickness, his insides are all over the place. He can't even kiss his wife. The guy's going insane. That,' Considine says, almost smacking his lips, 'is a good role.
'It's not difficult to see how the story resonated powerfully with Paddy Considine: 'You want to give it everything, you want to be the best you can be,' he had said downstairs in the restaurant. 'But I don't look at a performance and think, "Man, that was worth a breakdown!" I'm not the finished article, man. Every one, for me, is Could Do Better.