I've had a great break but it wasn't handed to me... | As the acclaimed film I, Daniel Blake opens, Dave Johns talks about acting, comedy and politics...

I've had a great break but it wasn't handed to me...

As the acclaimed film I, Daniel Blake opens, Dave Johns talks about acting, comedy and politics...

A mainstay of the stand-up comedy circuit for almost three decades, Dave Johns now stars in Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake, in which he plays a widowed carpenter who can't get his benefits following a heart attack. Jay Richardson spoke to him about the film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and is out on general release in the UK today…

This is a hugely emotional film. What was your reaction when you saw it for the first time?

The first time was in a little studio in Soho, and I was just staring, thinking, 'Dear God! My head looks massive on that screen'. So I never took it in. Then the next time was at Cannes with 2,000 people. Ken told me that if they didn't like it, they would boo. Thankfully, we got a 15-minute standing ovation. 

That first bit, where Daniel gets his first laugh, I felt the audience's reaction then and just relaxed a bit. After Cannes, it's seemed to take on this momentum. I took the summer off gigging to go to all these film festivals. And every single showing got the same reaction, people in tears. And all the Q&A sessions afterwards, them telling us: ‘Do you know this is happening in our country?'

Why do you think audiences are responding so strongly?

They're buying into the two characters. Dan could be your dad. Katie [played by Hayley Squires] could be your daughter or sister. They're very likeable but they're very ordinary too. People think, 'That could be me'. When I signed on, it was social security. Now they call it 'benefits' to make it sound like a handout.

It's captured something and I hope the momentum continues but you know what it's like with hype. Like Funz And Gamez in Edinburgh, that really went. But it didn't work on TV because they didn't let them fuck about. Thankfully, no one tells Ken Loach how to make his films.

What was it like working with him?

So many people think Ken's films are improvised but they're not. But he never gives you much of the script, so you can't look at page 26 and think, 'that's the big scene'. He wants to take you by surprise.

The scene everybody talks about is the food bank scene. None of the cast knew what was going to happen in it apart from Hayley, so it shocked everyone. Even the women who worked there. It was spontaneous. He wants that true emotion. He puts his actors into real situations with the people that actually do those jobs.

People have said to me, 'Did you make a lot of it up?' No, it's all [scriptwriter] Paul [Laverty]'s words but because he writes so well, he disappears out of it. The best writers disappear, you shouldn't be thinking about them, you should be thinking the words are coming from these people.

You're from Byker, your father was a carpenter like Daniel and you've worked as a bricklayer. Did you channel that into the character?

Yes, I've worked on building sites. I always knew I didn't want to stay there for good. And my dad had times when he was unemployed but I wasn't aware of that as a kid because he never brought it home. 

Byker was a working-class area. Nobody had owt but everyone stuck together and it had a thriving high street when I was young. I never thought I was deprived. We had two rooms and an outside toilet but it was a big community. But with social housing gone and everything in the hands of private landlords, the community's broken up. They are deprived now and people are going, 'I've had enough of this'.

People ask me, 'Is it you?' No, it's not me because I would have kicked off long before Daniel did, I wouldn't have been as patient. The first day I'd have been down there going 'I want my fucking money and I'll sit here till I get it!' He's not a shirker, he's ordinary and that's what's moved people. It's ordinary people seeing how the system is stacked against them.

How did you and Hayley prepare for your roles?

The whole film is about Daniel, so I didn't know what to expect. But Ken took me to one side and said, 'All you've got to do is listen to each other and you'll find the truth of it, it'll look right on screen.’ Because there's no music in the film, there's no way to hide. 

I wasn't aware of how it was going on set. The camera's right there but you don't know if it's filming, he doesn't want it to be intrusive. There was no make-up, they'd quickly brush my eyebrows and that was it. There were times when I was talking to Hayley when I didn't know we were filming. It's all about you just listening and trying to play it truthfully.

It's not a comic film, but Daniel has his moments of challenging the system with sardonic humour.

Yeah, because we all know, when you're in a bad situation, there's always humour. He's a cantankerous old fucker at times but he'd help anybody. 

Ken likes comics because he feels that they have to be able to communicate truly with an audience. He says comics have got a great gift because it can be a massive great theatre but you've got to make every person feel like you're talking to them, you have to reach them.

Did you talk to any other comics who've appeared in Loach's films beforehand?

I didn't have time. When I met him we just had a big chat, mostly about football, he didn't ask what I did. After the first audition, I was just happy to have done an improv with Ken Loach. When he offered me the part I didn't know what to do, I sat in this shelter looking out to the sea going 'bloody hell!' I didn't believe it.

How did Gavin Webster and Mickey Hutton end up in the film?

Well, they just auditioned. Mickey's my oldest mate. When we're long dead, someone will be watching that film and he and I will be arguing about dog shit. Forever. That's a pretty neat immortality.

At the gig we were just in, the compere told the audience they might not recognise you now but they will soon. You're friends with some big-name comics and actors like Christian Slater. Are you ready to be famous?

There will be a different reaction. I've got that joke about being a stand-up comic for 27 years and nobody knows who the fuck I am … Funnily enough, Christian called me after we won the Palme d'Or, he was going mad and saying 'Buddy! This is amazing!' and the people around me didn't believe it was him. I've seen how it could be at film festivals because the day after a screening, I've been in a cafe with my daughter and people are buying us lunch and they want selfies. I've also had offers...

Are these dramatic or comedy roles?

Well, I've got a new agent and we've talked about what I want. She knows I'm not 26 but the reviews have been phenomenal. I've had a few scripts and doors are opening that were never open before. It's about making the most of your time in the sunshine. 

I was happy with what I had, I've done all the comedy festivals and I've never been bitter. Sean Lock's a good mate and he said to me, 'You've always been pleased for us that have gone on'. Suddenly, everything came into place. I just had the right attributes that Ken was looking for. If this had been cast in Manchester, I wouldn't have got it.

I understand that you've got the theatrical rights to David Peace's novel about Brian Clough's brief, ill-fated stint as manager of Leeds United, The Damned United.

I had them for a year. I had Alistair McGowan interested in doing it in Edinburgh. But Alistair got a TV thing and had to pull out, so the money fell out of it. I've still got the rights but I've not been able to do it yet.

Are you writing anything else?

I've got something I'm doing at the moment about a jihadi, in this country, which is quite topical. Baby Cow haven't commissioned it but Ali [Macphail, producer] has helped me with it as a favour. And my agent said, ’What about doing a show in Edinburgh about the film, about becoming famous at this age'. 

It's rare for a political film to be so high-profile.

I wasn't aware of the politics when I first started filming. All I knew was that Daniel had had a heart attack and was applying for welfare. In my head I was thinking, 'This doesn't sound like Spiderman'. But as I was learning about what was going on in Dan's life, the politics presented itself. When Dan's looking round the food bank, that was me going 'my God, this is real', about how hard it was.

Then I was asked to speak at the Labour Party fringe. I'm not Mark Thomas, but I did start the Comedians Benevolent Fund. Because I thought none of these idiots has got any bloody savings. I remember one comic getting meningitis and nearly losing their house. I thought well, if we can get all the comics together to do gig benefits we can help out those who fall on hard times.

I stopped doing Edinburgh because my girlfriend said me, 'What happens if you get sick?' And I thought there were probably enough famous comics who would help me out doing gigs. But what about a comic who haven't got those connections? We're already helping some out but what I want to do, eventually, is one massive show in London every year with all the big names that I can get, then have a fund that just keeps topping up. 

A couple of comics who've had problems, we've paid out emergency funding for them… we give them the equivalent of statutory sick pay. It might be £250 a week but that'll keep you from going under, its a safety net.

We've all been individualised but people have said to me this film has bought the comedy circuit together. Comics shouldn't be undercutting each other. If a gig was £200 and then the promoter tries to get away with paying £150 and you do it, that money will never, ever go up again. Most young comics don't think that they'll be on the circuit long but they will. And you have to protect it, you have to protect the wage structure.

Can you be choosier about the gigs you do now?

Yes, just the ones I want to do. I'll do the Stand and all the nice rooms, the Comedy Store Players. I'm doing a one-man show in Paris for two nights because of the film. The organiser said to me that only other person to do two nights there who was promoting a film was Robin Williams. So no pressure! I'm 60 now and I've had my ups and downs over 27 years but I still love it. And there's loads of talented comics who might now be thinking, 'If it happened to Dave...'

I've had a great break but it wasn't handed to me. I'm not just overnight, come from nowhere. I've played to all the stags and hens and had my fair share of shit reviews. So it's nice to get some good ones. 

But when you get a good gig, here’s nothing better than having 1,000 people in the palm of your hand laughing. When you've really got them and you're motoring. You stop to get a drink and the whole room's silent, waiting for what you say next.

• I, Daniel Blake is out today.

Published: 21 Oct 2016

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