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TV Interview

'Exile' Q&A: A chat with John Simm

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Sam Ronstadt (Jim Broadbent) and Tom Ronstadt (John Simm) from 'Exile'

© BBC / Red Prouctions

John Simm is back on your telly box this Sunday night in BBC One's new three-part psychological thriller Exile. The State of Play star returns to the world of journalism to play Tom Ronstadt, a wild and hedonistic showbiz hack. With his life and career in ruins, Tom decides to return home to Lancashire and discovers that his father Sam (Jim Broadbent) is now suffering from Alzheimer's. Recalling a vicious beating that he once suffered at Sam's hands, Tom begins to explore his own past and uncovers a devastating secret. We recently caught up with John to chat about his Exile role, his relationship with Jim Broadbent, and his one regret about Life On Mars!

What can you tell us about your character Tom Ronstadt?
"He's the son of a brilliant journalist. A 'proper' journalist, as it were, up north in Manchester. Obviously he wanted to do that [job] and be like him. He worshipped his father. Then something terrible happened when he was about seventeen, and his father beat him really badly. A terrible beating, to within an inch of his life. My character has no idea why. He found something in his father's study. He wanted to be like his dad and he wondered why [this room] was out of bounds. So he went snooping and he found a file with a name on it, and that's the only thing he remembers. He's not sure whether the name's relevant anymore, but it comes back to him when he travels back up north. He left after that [beating] and never went back. He never saw or spoke to his father again, and his sister is increasingly bitter that he's left her to look after their father on her own. Her life has kind of disappeared doing that. She's a lovely woman, but she's understandably quite angry with him. He's been down in London doing loads of coke and shagging loads of girls, and has become a journalist for a showbiz magazine."

What drives Tom back up north?
"He became a very successful journalist, but I think from snooping after celebs and that kind of thing, and so he's not very happy with himself. He probably feels a bit disgusted with himself, and so he gets sacked from his job, hits a woman, and drives back up north. That's where we find him. So that's the kind of guy he is!"

What causes him to hit a woman?
"He's drunk and he's on drugs. He's having an affair with his boss's wife. He tries to get in, he's all drunk, he's all over her. She slams the door in his face and before she does that, he hits her. He immediately regrets it and knows it's a terrible thing to do. That's the catalyst that makes him think, 'I've got to get out of here'. So he gets in his flash, ridiculous car and drives up north, stopping only to do a line of coke in a motorway service station on the way!"

Did you base Tom on any real showbiz journalists?
"No, I don't know any of them! I've met some, but no, I didn't base him on anyone I know at all."

Given that you've played a journalist before, are there comparisons to State of Play?
"Maybe, but they're very different journalists. Cal McCaffrey was an excellent journalist and a good man. There wasn't as much of a journey with Cal. He lost his friend at the end, but he was very professional right till the end and he did what he had to do to get the job done. This character is a very different journalist and professionally he's a mess. He's doing something that he hates, and he hates himself for it. But there is a sense of redemption in it, because he's inspired by his dad all over again. He then realises that what he's doing is kind of vacuous and pointless."

What can you reveal about the secret behind Tom's beating?
"It's revealed in the end why [Tom was beaten]. You totally understand why, and so does he, in the end. There is a reason. It's a shocking, shocking reason. I saw what they filmed and it was pretty bad. It's quite weird seeing Jim Broadbent do something like that. It's quite odd. Tom wants to find out why [it happened]. His father was a good man, a decent human being and a brilliant journalist. Everybody thought he was an incredible man. Tom misses his father and he's just very confused about what happened. His father can't speak to him or explain what happened because he's so far gone with Alzheimer's, so he has to do it on his own."

How does Tom react to his father's deterioration?
"He's very shocked by how much it's taken over his dad's life, because he hasn't seen him for so long. His dad can barely speak to him, he barely knows who he is, which is really upsetting. It must be an awful feeling."

How was it working with Jim Broadbent?
"He's one of my heroes. I love everything he's been in. I've watched him forever, ever since Blackadder and Only Fools & Horses. Since then, he's just become of the greatest actors in the world. I'm a massive fan of his and it was awe-inspiring working with him. Even at the read-through, I looked across, looked in his eyes, he started reading it and I thought, 'OK, I've got to be on top of my game here'. He was wonderful, and in no way was I disappointed with him. He's a lovely guy and a fantastic actor."

The tone of Exile is quite dark, so what was the atmosphere like on set?
"We had a great time on-set. We were always doing gags. I think that's essential, because it's such a heavy piece of drama that if we didn't keep it light on set, it would have been unbearable. It's such heavy stuff. It's great stuff to do, but you've got to keep it a bit jokey. That was easy to do, because for the first few weeks, it was me, Jim and Olivia Colman, who's wonderful and obviously one of the funniest women in Britain. So we just had a right old laugh and it was wonderful."

What was it that originally drew you to the project?
"I did Hamlet just before this, in Sheffield. I thought, 'There is no way I am doing anything after this'. I had a couple of months left until Christmas. I'd just done [Sky 1's] Mad Dogs and gone straight into Hamlet, and I just thought there was no way I was going to do anything else. But when this arrived, it was one of those State of Play moments, where you think, 'If I don't do this, I'm an idiot'. Daniel Brocklehurst is a brilliant writer and the best compliment I can pay to him is that when I read the script, I didn't look at the front, and I thought Paul Abbott had written it. It's that good, it's Paul Abbott good. The writing is superb and it's just a fantastic story. Also, it gave me a chance to go back to what I did before Life on Mars and Doctor Who, which was sort of gritty, hard-hitting drama. I was keen to get back to that sort of thing."

Do you plan to move away from those more populist roles?
"No way, not at all. I'm incredibly proud of Life on Mars and Doctor Who. They were just a blast to do. And why not do everything? You're an actor - try everything. You do the serious stuff and the classical stuff, and you also do the popular stuff and the sci-fi stuff. It was great, it was fantastic. If anything, maybe I was a bit hasty with Life On Mars. I should've done another [series] I think. Maybe one more. I missed my family and I missed my home. My reasons [for not wanting to continue] were genuine. If they'd filmed it in London I would have done [a third series] and then ironically enough they did the spinoff in London! I saw Ashes To Ashes and I sort of thought we could've worked something out. Anyway, it's gone now. But I think we were supposed to make another series."

Exile begins this Sunday at 9pm on BBC One.

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