Words by Matthew Bell. Portrait by Josh Shinner.
The contrast could not be greater: from the horror of the Somme in BBC1’s recent adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong to playing a CIA hit man in a shoot ‘em up Hollywood action film. But this is the new life of in-demand British actor Joseph Mawle.
As an up-and-coming actor he’s been a fixture on British TV screens over the past few years, most recently in two meaty roles: Jack Firebrace in Birdsong and Gerald Crich in BBC4’s DH Lawrence adaptation Women In Love.
Now he’s arrived, Mawle has taken the well-trod route of top Brit acting talent: first to US TV, in his case for HBO fantasy series Game Of Thrones and now to big-budget Hollywood movies.
Mawle’s latest, action thriller The Cold Light Of Day, sees him play a maverick agent has to beat up bad guys in a Madrid bar. “On the page things looked fairly thin, as they sometimes do with action films, but [director] Mabrouk El Mechri was really open to ideas. My character ended up as a Johnny Cash listening, Southern boy, having started out life as a straight-down-the-line CIA assassin. I do something fairly unpleasant to one character while listening to [Cash’s] The Man Comes Around,” recalls Mawle.
Later this year comes the unlikely sounding supernatural action film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, in which Mawle plays the father of the future US president who spends his spare time hammering stakes into the hearts of vampires.
But Mawle is not lost to Britain. He’s soon to appear in Shell, the first feature of writer/director Scott Graham, about the claustrophobic relationship between a father and daughter (Scottish newcomer Chloe Pirrie) living in a remote region of Scotland.
“I approach everything the same, whether it’s an indie or a big budget film,” says Mawle, which, in his case, means meticulous research. For Shell he learned how to hunt and strip deer, spending time with local stalker Duncan MacKenzie in the Scottish highlands.
For Birdsong, Mawle visited the battlefields of northern France. “I was hoping I’d be horrified but in a funny kind of way it was incredibly peaceful. I lay down in the trenches for a day; I wanted to close my eyes and imagine what went on,” he recalls.
“The terrifying thought for me about the war was imagining how you were going to die. We know the majority of people were killed from shrapnel, rather than by machine gun. So you were looking at a missing part of yourself and then baking in the sun – an excruciating death. It’s unbearable to think about.”
“As an actor you have to be as brave as you can, hold tight and give yourself time to find something you really want to do.”
Looking back over a hectic year’s filming, Mawle says: “It seemed to be the year of the dad for me. Jack [in Birdsong] was the father of an eight-year-old boy, Thomas Lincoln is the father of Abraham and then there was Shell. I’m not a father myself but I completely empathise with my own parents bringing me up and why they were so worried about me going into this profession,” he says.
Mawle’s big break came six years ago with Soundproof – which won a BAFTA for director Edmund Coulthard – playing a deaf man suspected of murder. The actor, himself, is partially deaf following a viral infection at 16, as well as profoundly dyslexic. “I didn’t initially get Soundproof and I remember sitting on my bed that night wondering, ‘Maybe this is not to be.’ You have those awful dark moments. The next day I thought, ‘Pick yourself up, start writing letters again.’ Things have never just fallen into my lap – it’s always been a bit of a fight.”
Then, he got a call offering him the part. “Soundproof was the domino, if you like, that flipped over,” says Mawle. Over the next few years the Oxford-born actor landed leading roles in some heavyweight TV productions: Jesus in Nigel Stafford-Clark’s The Passion; a vulnerable security guard in Dominic Savage’s assault on greed, Freefall; a racist chef in Jimmy McGovern’s The Street and the Ripper in Red Riding, an adaptation of David Peace’s Yorkshire noir trilogy.
What is remarkable about these programmes – aside from the number of BAFTAs they scooped – is the quality of the people involved. “Every job I’ve done I’ve been fortunate to meet people who believed in me. The more people believe in you, the further you’re willing to go for them and the more they’ll get out of you. It’s a matter of trust,” says Mawle.
His acting inspiration is Daniel Day-Lewis – Mawle even trained at the same theatre school as Day-Lewis, Bristol Old Vic. “In The Name Of The Father was one of the first I remember seeing, and then everything from The Boxer to There Will Be Blood. He’s physical and a real actor – someone who will go as far as he needs to,” says Mawle.
He hasn’t met Day-Lewis, but would like to, though Mawle adds: “I wouldn’t know what on earth I’d say.” And work with him? ‘Whether it’s him, Sean Penn, De Niro, Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender, these are the people who are really exciting to watch – they hit amazing serves and therefore you can play a return.”
In the meantime, Mawle is looking for his next role, though he’s in no hurry: “Films are like mini-relationships. You choose very carefully who you’re going to be with because you’re going to spend a great deal of intimate time with them.”
“You have to be as brave as you can, hold tight and give yourself time to find something you really want to do. The scripts come in and I read everything, very thoroughly. At the moment, I’m looking.”