Michael Socha interview: This Is England, Once Upon A Time
As his new E4 sci-fi comedy series, The Aliens, prepares to land, we chat to This Is England and Being Human actor Michael Socha…
Actors talk a great deal about luck. That they’re lucky to be able to do the work they do, incredibly fortunate to work with such talented co-stars, truly blessed to play a particular role… Feeling lucky is the mantra of the green smoothie-drinking beautiful people.
A lot of that talk is bullshit. It’s assumed humility. Successful people rarely believe that their own talent, beauty or graft played no role in their rise. Many see success as their due. Calling themselves lucky is just another actor lie, like fresh air and exercise being the reason Hollywood foreheads stay unlined and chins stay taut.
Few successful actors really grasp that without their “luck”, they’d be scratching out a living in a job that doesn’t give a toss about their creative fulfilment. That if it vanished, their freedom of choice and opportunity would go with it. (Not the case for the increasing number whose privileged backgrounds would cushion any such blow). To really know the luck of success, the alternative has to be a real place to you.
It’s a real place to Michael Socha, who grew up working class in Derby, not a product of a drama school or university, taking himself to auditions between labouring jobs. Like Vicky McClure, Joe Dempsie, and Socha’s sister Lauren (Misfits), the free Television Workshop in Nottingham started him on the route to acting. A role in Shane Meadows’ This Is England followed, then small film parts, a regular role in BBC Three’s Being Human, and in recent years, a move to the US for ABC’s fantasy spin-off, Once Upon A Time In Wonderland. He’s just filmed The Aliens, a sci-fi comedy series for E4 from the producers of Misfits.
Last year, Socha completed work on This Is England ’90 in which his character, Harvey, played a prominent role. He’s worked enough to recognise what a rare opportunity it was to work with Shane Meadows and that cast. And when he calls himself “a very lucky bastard”, you know he means it…
This Is England is known to have quite a different process to other TV dramas. How did it work for your character?
There’s a lot of backstory to Harvey and when I first joined This Is England, I always relied on that. Shane [Meadows] basically said, ‘If we’re going to get you in This Is England ’86, how the fuck have you managed to be here? How have you got here?’ So I said, ‘Right, this is what I think…’
I said that Harvey was beaten by his dad and he ran out the house and the first person he saw was Gadget, and Gadget, even in his sloppiness sort of took him under his wing. So I always remembered that and I always played that with Gadget. Even if I take the piss out of him, we still love each other very much.
The thing is with This Is England, you’re always thinking as yourself. You’re acting on an instinct, you’re acting on what you’ve heard, what you’ve been told and what’s happened beforehand.
The scene in This Is England ‘90 where Harvey finds Kelly smoking heroin and throws her out of the flat was really powerful. How did that one come about?
Shane sits you down a lot, and talks you through it. He’d say ‘what would Harvey do now?’ We spoke about it and I said that Harvey wouldn’t have [Kelly] in the house, he’d kick her out. The heroin was the excuse for kicking her out.
Harvey doesn’t like the fact that she was using Gadget. He thought that Gadget was being taken for a prick, and that’s basically what Harvey was trying to say. I think the heroin was just an excuse. Harvey loved Gadget, that was his best friend. Harvey watched Kelly just use Gadget and stringing him along, for her ego or whatever, so when it came to that I thought there was only one decision.
Harvey is a joker, he’s a laugh but also he’s fucking angry.
He’s always the first one to throw a punch in a fight, isn’t he?
Yeah. Harvey was very similar to me in some respects. I think Harvey was a younger me. Harvey was the more piss-taking, angry me, which is fucking amazing to play. It’s therapeutic [laughs] It really is, cliché that it is, it’s fucking beautiful to play.
With that clique, that This Is England lot, you’re doing something that’s magic. Something I’ve never done in any other job before, when you’re relying on each other’s performance, you’re relying on each other’s interpretation of what they’ve seen also before, and it just works.
How is it to film lots of scenes that don’t get used in the final cut?
There’s lots of that. There’s so much of that. You never really know what’s going to be on camera, and Shane doesn’t, until the end. There were workshops towards the end of This Is England ’90 to conclude it. We didn’t really know how it was going to end. There were all sorts of different stories, all sorts of different things filmed. We’d sit in a room and workshop it and eventually decisions are made. It’s so organic, it really is.
You go out for a drink, say, and Shane’ll be out with you and you say something to someone and he’ll go ‘Right, I want Harvey to say that’. He’ll find stories. You’ll tell Shane a story and he’ll go ‘Right, we’ll put that in’ and it just works.
Everything in This Is England is based on shit that really happened, and everybody who’s in This Is England is basically playing a version of themselves. Apart from Flip and Higgy! I don’t know what the fuck they are. They’re beautiful but they aint themselves!
What’s the main lesson you learnt on This Is England that you’ve taken into your other jobs?
I suppose it’s keeping your character sacred. Your character, you own it. That’s something you have to grab hold of on This Is England. Your character is your character.
It’s quite easy to get kept in the back in This Is England. Sometimes on This Is England, the actors were more bothered about getting their voices heard as opposed to getting the drama projected, which sometimes fucked things up. It was an ego thing as opposed to a creative thing.
What I say about This Is England is they’re like my best friends back home. Normal, working-class, beautiful people who I’m creative with. It’s incredible that I’d meet up with these people who are so like-minded and so like me that we get to be creative as well, we were all so lucky.
Presumably if This Is England 2000 or whatever were to happen, you’d play Harvey again and again, if given the chance?
Of course. If Shane was going to do another one, you know it’d be good. You know he wouldn’t do it if it weren’t good.
I’d always work with Shane, whatever he asks because you’re just so fortunate to be able to do that sort of shit. It’s like doing a play, the workshops, rehearsal. You just feel as though you’re adding to something. You’re working on something as a team. You’re not just coming up and doing your words and pissing off, you’re actually part of an ensemble.
How did that experience compare to working on something like Once Upon A Time, then, for US network TV?
Fuck me, yeah. Massive, massive deal. When I first got there and did the spin-off [Once Upon A Time In Wonderland], I was working an awful lot. It was great to work in the green screen studios and all that sort of stuff. It opened my eyes and I got to see a completely different world. I got to see LA. I got to live in Vancouver for two years, eventually.
But then I joined the main show and I wasn’t really used, so I found myself in Vancouver for a long time not really doing owt, which fucked me up a bit really. I thought, if I’m going to be here, fucking do something with me. I’ve got a boy at home and it’s crucifying me being here and not working. If I was here working, I’d feel I was doing something at least, but it kind of fucked me up a bit really.
Wonderland was incredible, but Once Upon A Time, I found it quite soul-destroying. My mam came out for three months eventually because I just wasn’t doing owt. I found it sort of unfair. It wasn’t the fault of the powers that be, it was just the way the cookie crumbled I suppose, but I didn’t really enjoy it by the end.
The fan reaction was definitely that your character, Will, was under-served on the main show.
Originally, they asked me to come and said I was going to be in all these episodes. So the contract was written. The fans are so loyal to the characters that are already there and there’s so much that they have to conclude with the characters that were already there, I think I became more of a hindrance than anything. I didn’t really know what I was doing there.
You had a role lined up here in the UK that you turned down to do the Once Upon A Time In Wonderland pilot, didn’t you. Any regrets?
No. The last year was hard, but I’m so glad I’ve done that. I’m really happy I did that and got to experience that. I think I did the right thing.
I took a massive gamble on a pilot that luckily went through, but the show that I went for, it was an incredible show anyway. I think the geezer that they cast to the part that I was supposed to do did a fucking amazing job. No, I’m happy I did what I did and I think I did the right thing.
It hasn’t put you off going back to America?
No, not at all. The fact of not being used, it could happen here. I could get cast in a BBC show, they’d put me up in an apartment and I’m waiting around a lot. It does happen. And I know a lot of actors even on The Aliens who were hanging around a lot. But hanging around for ten months…
Might your character reappear in future seasons of Once Upon A Time?
They didn’t kill me. I get on really well with the writers, Eddie and Adam [Kitsis and Horowitz]. I don’t know. I’m not the sort of fucker to go pushing, but if they asked me to go back I would. I’d need like a guarantee though that I’m going to be doing something worthwhile. I don’t want to be doing a job where I’m not doing a job, just sitting around in my flat just bored.
Did they ask you to do an accent on Once?
No, they just said “pack that Derby shit in” basically. It was a bit too hard to understand. I did have to, let’s say, smarten it up, refine it a bit. But I didn’t take it away from Derby.
I’ve seen lots of Twitter comments saying ‘why is he pretending to be Scouse?’, all these Yanks thinking that I’m doing some weird accent. I’m not. I’m not doing any weird accent, I’m just making it sound clearer.
Have you seen the super-cut of all the times you say “bloody hell” on the show?
On YouTube? I have seen that. He says it an awful lot. “Bloody hell”.
Once Upon A Time reunited you with Robert Carlyle didn’t it? You’d worked with him years ago on Summer.
He’s a good bloke. I saw him at the Comic-Con convention in San Diego when I was doing Wonderland and he came running up to me and gave me a big cuddle, and I was like ‘wicked, man’. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man, incredible actor. I spent a lot of time with Bobby. The whole cast were incredible, they all welcomed me, they’re all wonderful people. I just wasn’t working enough by the end.
Having been used to workshopping and improvising on This Is England, I’d imagine other jobs might feel restrictive?
It’s about not being scared to fuck about a bit. Often on set, I have a little fuck about. Why not?
But can you get away with that on something like Once Upon A Time?
Until the director goes ‘don’t do that!’ I do. I don’t really care. If they say ‘That’s not working’, you stop. Otherwise, I just try and do what I think’s right.
You improvised on Being Human with Tom?
Yeah. They sort of allowed me on Being Human. I was sticking to script, but I was making it my own. Because by the end of Being Human I completely had Tom. Tom was mine. Not even the writer could sway it. I knew what I was doing. The script supervisor would start saying “Michael…” and the director goes [waves hand]. They’d let me get away with a lot on that.
Did they stop you at any point?
I never really went too far away from Tom. I’d never start going into a Shakespearian monologue out of the blue! I think I’m an instinctive actor. That’s what people have said, that I am. I don’t really get it but I think instinctively when I read a script before I go into an audition, I’ve got the character there and then and I’ll have that character forever.
People obviously like working with you. You’ve got a track record of starting off in small parts that get progressively bigger. Tom in Being Human was a recurring character who became a regular. Will in Once Upon A Time started in the spin-off but then ended up in the main show. You had one scene in the This Is England film and end up in all of the rest and having a major storyline in ’90. That must be cheering?
[Unsure] Yeah. Maybe I do shit auditions! I think that’s probably it. I do shit auditions, they take a chance then think ‘he’s doing alright then, we can probably have him in a bit more’. I don’t know. I think I’m very fucking lucky. I think that’s what it is. I’m massively lucky and I think the parts that I’ve gone for, a lot of them have had scope. They’ve had range, a journey that they’ve trusted me enough to go on.
I think you’re selling yourself a bit short.
Ah, bless. I genuinely think that luck is a massive factor. I go onto a set and if they want me back I think that the fact I was on set is the lucky bit
To be doing this for a living I’m a lucky bastard, a very lucky bastard.
Michael Socha, thank you very much!
The Aliens starts on E4 on Tuesday the 8th of March at 10pm.