Peaky Blinders interview: Paul Anderson on Arthur Shelby

We chatted to actor Paul Anderson about playing the violent, conflicted and vulnerable Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders…

Contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders series three.

Paul Anderson is a revelation as Arthur, the eldest of Peaky Blinders’ Shelby brothers. Arthur’s the funniest, the maddest and—until the death of Tommy’s wife Grace in series three—he was also the saddest of the Shelby boys. 

Traumatised by World War I and used as brother Tommy’s “mad dog” in the Peakies’ bloody ascension through the criminal ranks, Arthur came into series three conflicted. For the sake of his new Quaker wife and the child they were expecting, he tried to curtail his violent instincts and be a better, more godly man. No mean feat for someone whose line of work demands brutality, and whose gangster lifestyle presents temptation of every variety.

Old Testament and made in fucking Birmingham, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Arthur Shelby.

Ad – content continues below

Arthur is a character capable of such brutal violence, yet he’s beloved by fans. Why would you say his character inspires such devotion?

There’s a sort of vulnerability to him, I think. I always thought that if I’m going to play a violent man, it’s borne out of his upbringing. If I’m going to play that stuff, I’m not going to do just out-and-out unforgiving brutality. I’m going to play it with a little bit of vulnerability, some emotional conscience. Because it’s not interesting just to be violent or brutal for the sake of it with no moral compass. I tried to give Arthur that sort of emotion and depth of feeling. He does these things but there is some remorse. Maybe people see that in him?

In series three, you see how hard he’s trying, and how he continually disappoints himself, which is the really human thing about Arthur.


You mention the Shelby boys’ upbringing. Arthur’s never seemed as vulnerable as he is in the scenes with his father in series two, the lie about the casino and that scene at the train station, you were so moving in those scenes.

Thank you.

Ad – content continues below

Arthur’s going to become a father in series four. Is he better than his own dad?

He wants to be. It remains to be seen. The times are slightly different. Right now he is, because he does have a son in the new season, he has a little baby boy and Arthur is there raising him, protecting him and caring for him but I don’t know how that may change as time goes on. I’m sure that Arthur Sr. did the same for Arthur when he was a baby in his arms, he was probably there and it was only until he grew up and Arthur was a teenager maybe, that his father left and he lost that part of his life.

The problem is that Arthur’s been brought up a certain way so he sees parenting that way. Although he has his own mind, he just parents the way that he was parented. That’s where generational dysfunction comes into it, like ‘my dad hit me, so I’m going to hit my son’ and they don’t see anything wrong with it.

It remains to be seen whether Arthur will follow in his father’s footsteps. The kid will certainly be raised as a Shelby. He’ll certainly be told to stop crying and be a man and all those things that creates dysfunctional kids, really. There’s nothing wrong with a five or seven year old crying, but you get fathers who tell them to stop and it’s ‘dry your eyes, act like a man’.

That’s part of what leads to some men, as Arthur did, putting nooses around their necks, isn’t it?

Exactly. You’re right. That’s what I mean. Arthur is a product of that. When his father comes back, that’s brings it all back for him. He sees that man and he gets promised again and he returns to being that child, he goes back to that eleven-year-old kid that wants his father’s attention and approval and love, and he gets it for a while.

Ad – content continues below

Tommy Flanagan played my dad and it was funny really. It was quite a cathartic experience for me because he’s from Glasgow and my dad was from Glasgow and I didn’t see my dad from about the age of eleven onwards, so Tommy Flanagan’s character was similar to my dad. For a minute there Arthur got what he wanted, he got the approval and the acceptance, he got the pat on the pat, he got ‘we’re going to go to America, son’ and all that, he got his father back for a second and he believed it, he totally believed it, because he was so… not gullible, he just wanted that so much, he was so vulnerable because that’s all he’d ever wanted, his father’s approval and love.

When his dad puts him in the boxing ring and he beats him, part of that was because he never wanted to hit him. I always thought that Arthur could have beaten him, but I didn’t want to raise my hand to my dad and that’s why I didn’t in the scene. Then he tells me I have to, so I do and then after that fight, he raises my arm and calls me a champ, calls me a winner, calls me his son, and even in that brutality, I love him. Arthur loves the attention, albeit the wrong kind of attention. For him, it’s approval and acceptance.

There was a line in series three that really interested me from Arthur after he and John refused to kill Mrs Changretta, he said “we’re not those kind of men, Tommy” – what kind of men does Arthur think they are?

I talked to Steve [Knight, writer] before we started season four about the kind of men they are. For me, they’re products of their environment, of their upbringing and the way they’ve been raised. Although they’re all different ages, we’re still the same men brought up by the same father, although he left. There’s a moral code there, and it’s twisted and hypocritical but they will think nothing of murder, then when it comes to shooting a woman just because she’s related to an enemy, there’s a sort of line, certain things that these type of men won’t do. They consider it their honourable traits.

Arthur is the type of man who has a reputation. He’s a feared man, he walks down the road and he gets respect. Some people dislike him, he’s hated by others, but he has that respect and doors open for him, he can go anywhere and get what he wants. He has money in his pocket, he can fight… All those principles, they’re the sort of thing that men like that teach their sons and pass on to the next generation. That’s what I think Arthur was taught growing up. It might well be dysfunctional and not the way it is now, but then, that’s the way it was. They knew no different.

In Tommy’s rage, he wanted that innocent woman to suffer because of Grace dying, but we were like ‘we get your rage, we got the father, we got the man responsible, but we’re not going to kill his wife just because of the association.’

Ad – content continues below

Because there’s a line they don’t cross?

There’s a line they don’t cross. We don’t beat our women in it. There aren’t scenes of domestic violence in that respect, we don’t beat our women or kids. There are certain lines that you don’t cross, but we think nothing of beating a man in the street because he disrespected us. You know what, that man exists in working class culture, or criminal fraternities, in that kind of environment. There’s a code that men then lived by, to others it may seem corrupt but to them it makes perfect sense.

Arthur’s more vulnerable than Tommy in many ways, isn’t he?

They’re brothers but they’re very different emotionally. We recently did a scene in season four—I can’t really talk about it but our reactions to the same thing that we witnessed, Tommy’s is completely different to mine. We had this conversation before it and decided that Tommy would be quite muted whereas Arthur would just wear his heart on his sleeve and express a whole range of emotions. That runs as a current through it.

Do you and Cillian [Murphy] always talk together about how you’re going to approach scenes beforehand? Is that all part of the process between you, or with the director?

In season four, which we’ve just finished, we do talk it out. Cillian and I do, depending on what the scene is. Also with Joe Cole as well, we love to sit there and discuss the scene. Some of the stuff is fun and we don’t really need to talk much, we have a kind of understanding, me and Cillian. Neither of us ever had this chance to spend so much time with a character, it’s a luxury.

Ad – content continues below

On the subject of fun, can we talk about that Russian orgy in series three? Arthur had a great comic moment there when he stripped naked and shouted “Made in fucking Birmingham!”, but it was also a tragic episode for him because he totally lets himself down and gives in to temptation.

That was crazy. Tim [Mielants], the director just wasn’t holding back that day. He wanted the supporting artists to be as free as they wanted to be, everyone who showed up that day was very keen to get involved. I just remember sitting there watching all this thinking, sort of white-knuckling it really. Arthur’s thinking ‘I don’t want to get involved’, so I’m sat looking at this wedding ring on my finger. I don’t know if Tim really caught that?

You see Arthur take off his wedding ring when he does give in.

That’s right, I take it off, but before that I was just sitting there looking at it and Tim didn’t really pick up on that. I was looking at the wedding ring, looking at the debauchery, looking at the ring, looking at the drugs, thinking ‘what do I want?’ After about half an hour in the room, he just couldn’t hold out any longer.

I really love Steven’s writing, how it’s not predictable. I was unsure when they introduced Linda, Arthur’s wife and this whole sort of pious, religious element, I was a little unsure about where Arthur was going and what he was going to be in series four, and it was just great, the dichotomy between good and bad, that was really good to play.

Arthur married Linda and found religion between series, so we didn’t see it happen. Do you have a sort of personal timeline for the character and the exact point at which he found God?

Ad – content continues below

I don’t think it was a spiritual awakening. I don’t think he had an apparition or anything. He says a prayer before he hangs himself, so he’s always had a belief, a Catholic belief and that’s from their upbringing as gypsies anyway, there was always that presence in their life. I think there was a turning point when that rope snapped.

As an actor you think about moments you don’t see on screen, where he would have sat there and contemplated it. There is one point, I can’t remember the episode, but I am sat there, lost in this sort of daze and Tommy comes to see me and it’s almost like Arthur searched back through his life and thought ‘when have I been the most content or found the most relief from this noise in my head?’

You’ve got to remember that it’s post-traumatic stress, he’s got that. That was never diagnosed then, nobody ever knew what that was or what that meant, the men just came back from the war and drank their feelings and took it out in other ways. There’s this noise in his head that he never understood and all this chaos and I just imagined him finding peace.

Maybe Arthur grabbed the cross on the side in that little house in Watery Lane, and felt this feeling, this energy of praying to God for help, and then Linda comes along, his wife, as this god-fearing, pious woman and she’s Arthur’s saviour in a way. I’m sure some people thought, oh, ‘Linda’s holding Arthur back, she’s turning Arthur into something that he’s not’, or that we don’t want him to be. I got worried about that at first, I thought, would Arthur just accept this woman coming in and telling him, ‘no Arthur, don’t do that. We must pray and we must not be out late, the devil’s work is at night’ but for Arthur, that’s something positive in his life. He’d hold on to that, to that humanity. Linda’s voice quietens him, it comforts him.

Seeing Arthur struggle with all that has led to some of your best work on the show. Arthur’s Best Man speech at Tommy’s wedding was another great moment, it was so sad seeing Arthur so far out of his comfort zone.

You know what, I gave a best man speech once and I wasn’t very good at it [laughs]! It wasn’t as bad as Arthur’s but I remember giving a best man speech and not preparing, I didn’t write anything down, I had no notes and I remembered how awkward that was. I thought it’d be easy to do in front of a lot of people, but it wasn’t. So, I did it with memories of that. I played it as if I just couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. I had the speech in my hand but it was almost like I just couldn’t get to it. That’s not Arthur, he’s happier with a drink in one hand…

Ad – content continues below

…and a weapon in the other.

[Laughs] I actually felt uncomfortable doing it, I felt real nerves standing there as Arthur, it was a real experience.

There was a throwaway line in that episode with a joke about Arthur getting lost on his way to the kitchen in Tommy’s new house. It might have been a joke, but that seemed pretty telling. The family are lost in that environment aren’t they?

Of course. We had this whole thing where I was walking around absolutely lost trying to find the room. We played around with that a lot. It’s completely the way Arthur would react to that big house, which is so different to where they’re from.

You mentioned the director not holding back on that Russian orgy scene – how safe is it to be your co-star in some of Arthur’s scenes? When he seems to utterly lose control, do you just let yourself go? Or are you always in control, or relying on other people to pull you back?

It’s funny that. It’s a mix of the two really. You’re probably better off asking other people in the show about filming around me, because I do let go. I find that when you’re being spontaneous and not thinking too much, just more happens. I much prefer being in that state and when you find it—I don’t always find it, but when I do, it feels great. It clicks, it works, that energy just feels right. It’s normally just in the moment, it’s not premeditated. I don’t really tell the other actors what I’m planning, what I’m going to do so they discover it for the first time in the take and I love that.

Ad – content continues below

I like acting against that as well, I like other actors to do the same thing, it just keeps it really alive for me. I’m certainly in control but there’s an unpredictability to it. It’s great knowing where you’re going to start a scene, but not knowing how it’s going to end.

That must rely on a lot of trust between you and the other actors. You have that relationship with Cillian, Finn, how does it work with Tom Hardy? I’m thinking of the “Shalom, Arthur!” scenes.

With Tommy [Hardy], it’s exactly the same. He’s exactly the same as that. The first time Arthur and Alfie ever met was that scene with ‘shalom’. That ‘shalom’ was never scripted and Steven Knight—we’ve spoken about it—he loved it. That in particular he really liked because he repeated it in season four, he’s put that in in places. I remember walking in with Tommy, Alfie, Arthur and all that, I just thought, what would Arthur say here to make himself acceptable, to ingratiate himself with this community? So I did the ‘Shalom’ thing and that was one of those moments where I didn’t know the outcome. I knew Tom [Hardy] but I’d never really done any acting with Tom, so I didn’t know what his reaction would be, whether he’d laugh, or just ignore it, you don’t know. And he just went with it! We spoke afterwards and he loved it.

That’s how Tom kind of works, he’s full of surprises. The more surprises the better, when the other actors in the scene can work with it as well. You’re very careful not to do anything to put anybody off or lose the essence of what you’re doing, but within those guidelines you can play, and Tom definitely does that. I’ve done a couple of movies with him now and I understand and get how he works and does stuff. It inspires me because I love that kind of freedom.

Has anyone actually ever got hurt on those scenes? I’m thinking about the mass brawls at the Eden Club, for instance – are there actual injuries? Do you ever come away with bruises?

Oh yeah. You’ve got stunt coordinators and pads, if you want to wear them. You’ve got all that, but to make it realistic, I want to be hit! Obviously, I don’t want to be punched in the face, but if someone’s going to grab me around the throat, or if I’m going to strangle someone, you’ve got to physically do it. I like to physically feel like I’m being attacked, and when that happens you always knock an elbow, or you catch a punch, you land wrong, there’s always injury. Fortunately, I’ve never done anything that bad but it can get rough in there because you’re just in the moment, you’re not really thinking until they say ‘cut’ and then you’re like ‘shit, that hurts!’.

Ad – content continues below

How much of series four surprised you and how much do you know about what’s coming afterwards?

Honestly, I’m constantly surprised. Joe Cole [who plays Arthur’s brother John] and I would work out what we thought would happen, we always spoke about what John would do and what Arthur would do, or Tommy or Ada or Polly, we would always have these discussions – partly to pass the time on the train back to London and we never once got it right! [Laughs] I’ve got imagination, believe me, but we never once predicted what Steven was going to do.

Season four, I think… I’m in the show and I don’t want to sound like… I hate all that kind of thing, but I think it’s really some of the best writing there’s been. Honestly. It was great doing it. Maybe it’s because we all get on, but I’ve never experienced anything like that. Normally you do a movie and it’s a few weeks and you don’t see anybody again , you might stay in touch with the odd person but we’re coming back together. Walking back on set, we realised we’d been doing this for five years! That’s quite a long time. We started five years ago. There’s that element of it, then also the stuff that Stephen’s written for season four is great. It really threw me.

Steve Knight told me that, emotionally, the theme of series four is about family love. I told him I thought that sounded a bit cheery for Peaky Blinders and he said, no, it’s about the destructiveness of family love. Does that ring true for Arthur in series four?

In four, yeah. Because we’re back together again as a family in season four. There’s a certain event that takes place at the beginning that makes us come back together. We come back together as a family with problems. We already had problems, but we always had that solidarity, we had the business. Now, it’s just Tommy with the business and we’re broken down. There’s a lot of broken relationships and trust. Season four is about building that trust back, those relationships back, some do and some don’t.

When Tommy tells Arthur, “Trust me, brother” just before the police arrive, you think, how’s he ever going to trust Tommy again? How are any of them ever going to trust him again?

Ad – content continues below

Exactly. It all starts a good while after that. Tommy’s “trust me” didn’t exactly go to plan. We’re not exactly together.

How far would you like the show to continue, if it were up to you?

Personally, the shows that I love have finished at their peak. I think five is good, it’s nice to leave a show when it’s at its strongest, but when it’s really working. Steven says he wants to get it to the Second World War, he never wanted to go any further, to get to when that first air raid siren went off in Birmingham, so we’ve gone from the return from the First World War, with all our problems, and then complete turnaround contrast where even our kids would be round about that age going into the Second World War. That’s what he wanted to take it to. Whether or not he does I don’t know.

Finally then, do you remember your first audition for Peaky Blinders?

I do, because I met them for Tommy. I met Otto [Bathurst, series one director] for Cillian’s role. I got the first episode and all I remember thinking was Birmingham! I just thought Brummie accent? I can’t do a Brummie accent, there’s no way! There are some accents that you attempt in your head and you just can’t do it. I’ve got a good ear, I like doing accents and impersonating, but that I remember thinking I can’t do this. I can’t even visualise myself doing it.

Anyway, I went along and met Shaheen [Baig], the casting director, who’s a Brummie, and Otto. I’d done a few days working on this rough kind of black country voice. It was like [lower] ‘yow’ [laughs]. It wasn’t what they wanted. I had a really good meeting and then they offered it to Cillian. Cillian and I have spoken about this, he really wanted to play the role and so they worked that out and I remember hearing it was going to be Cillian Murphy and I was like great, if I’m losing out, then losing out to Cillian Murphy I don’t mind, because I really like him as an actor and there are certain things you just accept. Then they said ‘they want to offer you the part of Arthur, the brother’. I was so into the script and the whole thing that I wanted to be a part of it. So I went up for Tommy but was offered Arthur. It’s funny how that worked out.

Ad – content continues below

You can’t imagine it being any other way now. You’re Arthur Shelby.

That’s right!

Paul Anderson, thank you very much!

Peaky Blinders series four starts tonight, Wednesday the 15th of November at 9pm on BBC Two.