Michael Smiley has been appearing on our screens for years, in a vast range of TV shows, independent movies and short films. He’s also a bit of a one-off in that he’s an Irish actor who isn’t compelled to hide his broad Belfast accent, instead turning it into his trademark (you’ll know Smiley if you hear him). Having originally emerged from a largely comedic background, he’s developed a reputation for his ability to switch between fierce intensity and a lighter touch. He has had appearances in cult greats such as Down Terrace & Kill List. He’s been also popping up in some of our favourite tv shows such as Doctor Who, Black Mirror, Luther and the visually stunning Utopia. He has worked with some great directors and has shared the screen with names like Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Neil Maskel, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman and Dustin Hoffman. And as his profile continues to rise, he has kindly agreed to become Moviehooker’s next interview victim. As an independent movie fiend, I’m naturally keen to find out what it’s like to be one of the most important names in independent cinema.
Ladies & Gentlemen… Mr Michael Smiley
MH – Hi Michael, how’s it going?
MS – I’m good, I’m good, I’m good. Just finishing the kids’ dinner and I’m just about to cook something for the Mrs It’s full-on domestication in the Smiley household Big lad…. You were expecting me to say I’m just dismembering a body in the bathtub using a butter knife and a Sainsbury’s bag… well I’m doing that too. We’re having Squealin’ Fucker for Dinner.
MH – Sounds delicious!
MS – He’s the one that started it. He squealed to the Cops so I gotta get my revenge.
MH – So, a good time for a couple of questions Michael?
MS – Aye, go ahead, go ahead. Don’t worry about it Big lad, I won’t bite you…. I won’t bite you but I’ll give you a nasty suck.
MH – So, you started your career as a comedian in Belfast, how and when did you get into acting?
MS – I got into Stand-Up late. I was in my late 20s, and I was already a Da and married, with two kids – I already had a story to tell, if you know what I mean. My Stand-Up was pretty much true stories that I boiled down to make them short, fast and punchy for a drunken audience. Then, over the years I took a show up to Edinburgh called ‘Confessions of a Catholic Buddhist’ and it was pretty much the proper stories rather than jokes. Words just sort of came out. Coming from N. I and Ireland, we’re great storyteller, so I just reverted back to the storytelling side of things rather than the punchy Stand-Up side of Comedy things, you know?
I was living with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and we used to sit and tell stories to each other, when we lived together, know what I mean? I used to have them in stitches with some of mine, and they said “You should be telling them on stage”.
So that went into being my first part of a trilogy that I took up to Edinburgh and each episode of the trilogy got more play-like and a wee bit more theatrical and I played more characters and I got more in-depth. So each year it went up so it was like my apprenticeship into acting.
MH – What were Simon Pegg and Nick Frost at when you were living with them?
MS – Simon was doing Stand-up and then he got a part in a tv show or Film, and he was doing some sketch show stuff and that. So he was into the TV, Film side of stuff which is where his forte was. Nick was a Waiter, and the funniest man I’ve ever met in my life. Then Simon wrote Spaced with Jessica Stevenson, who’s now Jessica Hynes. He wrote Nick’s character and he wrote my character. My character was basically based on me really, you know? We were all living together and I used to be a courier and a mad raver and a DJ, you know, so the mood swings were already there.
MH – Like a constant beat?
MS – Life is a constant beat. Life is a repetitive beat, you know from your Mother’s womb, Son – when you got that wee umbilical cord feeding ye, all you’re hearing is that lovely little (makes bass drum sound) beat – that’s your Mother’s heartbeat, so don’t be fucking blaming it on the drug dealers, it was your Ma who started it!
So that’s how it all picked up, Spaced was my first TV spot, and then it was up and running, going to auditions and still doing the Stand-up at the weekends… then slowly but surely I was doing less Stand-up and more acting.
MH – Do you miss the Stand-up?
MS – I do actually, I miss being up on stage and having the audience In the palm of my hand. I miss all that, but I don’t miss the drunken dickheads on a Friday night. I don’t miss travelling to and from gigs. Being a headliner means that you’re on at the end of the night now, which means everyone is drunker and you have that to manage.
MH – So your content during Stand-up was based on Northern Ireland and so on – did that ever give you any hassle or anything?
MS – No, nobody ever bothered me about that. I got it once in Edinburgh… there was a guy out of his head… he wasn’t listening to what I was saying, he just heard the accent… a Scottish bloke just out of prison fresh from doing a twelve stretch. So, typical me, I don’t get normal hecklers, I get murderers who are out on licence taking umbrage out on me… I mean, chill out man, the voices in your head are too strong Big lad…
MH – So in Shaun of the Dead, you were a Zombie, and you played Tyres – how did that come about?
MS – Aye, what happened was that Simon and Edgar had written Shaun of the Dead and you know, I’m older than them and there wasn’t a part in it for me to fill, so I just wanted anything to get into the film for a laugh. So I said why wouldn’t I play one of the zombies, but as Tyres so all the Spaced nerds would notice me in the background… all the Spaced train spotters will have a hernia. So that’s what we did, just for a laugh really, having me wandering around in the background. But my cover was blown – because they used one of the stills as publicity in the New York Times, and I was at the very front reaching up for the camera. Then that was it, the cover was blown. It was just supposed to be me being a zombie when Simon and Nick were meant to be zombies walking past the Winchester. That’s all it was.
MH – So basically your part was written for you in Spaced, and Shaun of the Dead and Ben Wheatley has been writing parts for you since Down Terrace, isn’t it? So that must be pretty handy having all these roles written for you.
MS – Well I’m not going to complain about it. It is what it is. It’s a massive privilege. It comes with responsibilities as well, you know – Ben is a Genius, and Amy his Missus who writes with him too is a Genius as well. We’re really good friends, long may it continue. I love working with him not only because he’s a brilliant director, but also because he’s a good friend. We had the shorthand you don’t really have with other directors. With other directors, you build a relationship over a two or three-week period depending on how long you got the job for, you know? With Ben, you’re constantly talking about stuff. Even when we’re not working together, we’re talking to each other on a regular basis. Also, I’m big mates with Laurie Rose, DoP (Ben’s Director of Photography) and Rob Entwistle who’s the sound guy for all Ben’s stuff, and Philly Grace who does the contract side of it – then Directors like Clare and Andy – and we’re all mates – so if you’re getting a project together, it’s really easy. It’s like the Fuckin’ Blues Brothers – you’re getting the band back together again.
MH – So what about the recently announced ‘Free Fire’? You’re working with Ben Wheatley again.
MS – Yes, that will be early next year. It’s very exciting. It’s a really lovely part and I’m working with Cillian Murphy on that. I’m a big fan of his, and I’m very excited to be working with some of these big boys. Sexy stuff ya know. Luke Evans is in it, and Olivia Wilde, and Arnie Hammer – there are some big hitters going to be in it.
MH – Are you shooting in Boston or Ireland?
MS – We don’t know yet. I don’t know where the location is, but the script is amazing.
MH – Can we expect all-out action?
MS – Yeah, there’s plenty of shooting in it. There are two IRA men (played by Smiley and Murphy ) that go to do a gun deal in Boston, and it doesn’t quite work out like that. It’s great, it’s a great script – dark and funny, that Ben’s so good at – well, It’s Amy who’s doing the co-writing while Ben is directing it. She’s an amazing writer, they’re a great double act.
MH – I’ve been following Ben Wheatley since Down Terrace which is really underappreciated. He’s almost tackling a different genre with each film.
MS – What a great film, not many people have seen that film. One of my favourites. Playing Pringle was just a joy. We shot the whole thing in 8 days. I shot my part in one day. I was on set at 8 in the morning and on the 9 pm train back to London again. There’s no pattern to the different films – he’s always writing, and he’s always got something on the go.
MH – you worked with Carl Tibbetts on the fantastic Black Mirror tell me about your experience x
MS – Getting that part was a real joy – I read the script and thought, Fuck, I really want this – I really want this job. It was one of those days, I went in and I and the director (Carl Tibbetts) got on really well, had a really good chat. I went away thinking if I don’t get it, at least I didn’t make a cunt of myself and the next thing was I got the job.
MH – Have you got one memory from your whole Acting career, even from your Stand-up that you cherish more than any other?
MS – I’m very proud of the plays that I did in the 90s. But I’d say my highlight for me was winning the BIFTA Award for Kill List. That was a major highlight of my life. Nothing would have come close to that. I was in a room with incredibly well-known and incredibly talented people. I was on a list with Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy and Eddie Marsen, then they called my name out!
MH – You deserved that, it was great!
MS – Oh that’s very kind of you. It was really beautiful to have so many good friends around me that night. To get that award with my wife and Ben there, everyone was so happy for me to get that award. When my name was called out, there was a roar, it was like I went deaf, it was like that scene in fucking Goodfellas when he’s taking her to the restaurant – people moving out of your way, just going up to the podium, luckily because I’m Stand-up, I’m able to give a decent speech – I’m used to a room of people looking at me so. It was amazing, so I’d have to say that. That was a real turning point in my life.
There was another time when I was first doing Stand-up, and I’d done the Newcomers competition in ’93, called ‘So you think you’re funny and I got to the final, and it was a split decision with me and Dylan Moran. The judges were asking the audience who should win and they were shouting ‘Dylan’ and they were shouting ‘Smiley’ and I’m standing backstage with Dylan – thinking that this is it – and I could hear them shouting ‘Dylan…. Smiley, Dylan – Smiley’ and that’s my Son’s name. They were calling out my Son’s name and he was a wee boy at the time and I won. From then everything changed, nothing was going to be the same again. No more riding the bicycle Big lad.. it doesn’t feel like hard work if you’re enjoying yourself – it’s a fuckin’ proper life adventure I’m on and I’m grateful for it and I’m happy with it and I couldn’t ask for more. I’ve got some amazing memories and friends along the way – what more can you want, you know? When I came to London I was homeless and I ended up doing what I’m doing today so, I’m blessed you know – there’s a God up there blessing me.
MH – Are you still very close with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost?
MS – Yeah we’re still very close. Having the jobs we have means we don’t get to see each other so often. We catch up and go to each other’s houses for a bite to eat. Simon’s daughter is my God-daughter so her Birthday we’ll go up there, and go around and see Nick’s wee lad. We’re at the end of the phone for each other during times of grief. That’s what friends are for. Your best friends are the ones you don’t see so much. That’s how you keep your best friends, by not seeing them so much – if you’re seeing them that much they end up pissing you off. It’s about getting on with your life. We’re not wee lads, we’ve got family, we’ve got kids, we’ve got lives we’re devoted to. You don’t want to live in each other’s pockets – we’ve done that 20 years ago, you don’t keep doing that.
MH – Deadly. So independent cinema, you’re a huge name in independent cinema now with Ben Wheatley – what upcoming names should we watch out for?
MS – There are a lot of great Directors out there, I’ve just done a film with Corin Hardy who made a Horror film, called ‘The Woods’, made in Southern Ireland. He’s brilliant, he’s very talented, and he’s going to be a very big name to watch out for. It’s a proper old-school horror feature film, really scary, dealing with Irish Mythology, banshees and so on. He’s an English lad. I went to meet him and he showed me his ideas and storyboards. Even the artwork alone shows he’s just so talented.
MH – There’s not enough Irish horror about. I’m delighted to hear this.
MS – There’s another guy out there called Jack Weatherly who I really rate. I did a short film with him as well called ‘Pieces’ with Paul Kaye (Game of Thrones), Tanya Franks (Pulling) and George McKay (For those in Peril). It’s a really harrowing short film, looking to turn it into a feature film.
And of course, there’s Paul Wright, who had done ‘For those in Peril’ (WARP) with – and I’ve done a new short film with him called ‘Belief’. He’s an incredibly talented man, Scottish. There are a lot of them out there that are really doing something very different and unique. So watch out for all of them.
Another name to watch out for is Nick Rowland. I’ve just done a short film with him about Rally cars and he’s a talent as well to look out for.
I really appreciate the time that Michael took to answer my questions. As an actual fan, it was great to hear all this information straight from the horses mouth. He was such a nice guy to chat with and he was more than happy to answer my questions.
Hope you enjoyed reading it.