From Shakespeare to Star Wars: A conversation with local actor Simon Paisley Day

Simon Paisley Day is a local actor from Whitstable who has had roles in Sherlock, The Crown, Doctor Who, and even Star Wars. He also has had an extensive theatrical career, consisting mostly of Shakespeare, spanning from Measure for Measure to Macbeth. I got the opportunity to chat with him over zoom about film, TV, theatre, and tips for budding actors.

Gareth: Good morning Simon! It’s lovely to get the opportunity to chat with you. I understand the pandemic has presented many obstacles for filmmaking over the last two years. As an actor, how did the pandemic affect your career?

Simon: When they announced the first lockdown, I remember Susie, my wife, going ‘Oh my God, I really hope that’s not going to really mess you up’, and I always remained optimistic and thought, oh, things won’t affect me. I swiftly realised however that it would. Theatres were closed, TV productions were shut down and I wouldn’t be earning anything. Theatres especially took a lot longer to get back up and running, because you’re playing to a live audience. By the second lockdown, things were getting back on an even kneel. TV and film companies conducted regular testing and bubbled together their actors. So, if they were shooting a film, they’d make sure that everyone involved in the film was bubbled with each other for the duration of the shoot. Actors would have to say goodbye to their loved ones for a couple of months until the filming was over because they couldn’t risk cross infection. One job I had during the dark days of the first lockdown was at a Stately home in Yorkshire. My friend Jenna Russell, who just lives around the corner, was in it too, and we were playing husband and wife or something. We were going to be sitting next to each other at a dinner table in this stately home in Yorkshire, so I suggested sharing a taxi, but the production company wouldn’t have it to avoid cross infection. The taxi I got in was swaddled in plastic, and I could barely hear what the taxi driver was saying. So, we both drove all the way to Yorkshire separately, and then the next day we were sitting next to each other acting! Whenever the director wanted to come and speak to us, he’d put a mask on and he’d come across and he’d give us a couple of notes, and then he walked away and took his mask off. It was properly bizarre, but I understand why they needed to do it. When I got the big job of playing Dominic Cummings in the drama This England, we filmed in an aircraft hangar in Norfolk, and we were all staying in little cottages near the hangar. We all had to be bubbled away from our loved ones and just get on and work. So, the business found a route back to work which involved regular testing, and asking their actors to be not going to nightclubs and snogging anyone they don’t know, which clearly is difficult for actors!

Gareth: (Laughs) I can imagine. I remember in one offer I had to be an extra they said I had to go to Leavesden studios to do a COVID test, and then go all the way to Sussex for the filming!

Simon: I understand it, I mean, if a supporting artist comes on set with COVID and an actor playing my size of role gets it, they can’t film anything.

Gareth: You mentioned theatre earlier, how does film, TV and theatre compare? Do you have a preference?

Simon: The last theatre I did was a Yasmina Reza play called God of Carnage. It never made the West End because of COVID, so it had a short run, but I loved it. We rehearsed it for a month and then we played eight shows at five venues across the country. Sometimes, a tour will go for 20 weeks, or it’ll do a five-week tour like I did and go into the West End where it will play for minimum of 12 weeks to a year if it does well. I’m incredibly wary of those because I get bored of doing the same play repeatedly for so long. This is especially the case for me as I live in Whitstable so I need to commute in and out. So, I do love theatre, but I much prefer doing TV and film because you learn the lines, you do the scene a couple of times until you get it right and then you move on. You don’t get stuck doing the same thing over and over.

Having said that, I do miss audience reactions in the theatre. On a TV or film set, when the scene is over there’s no applause. No one comes to the stage door and goes, ‘Darling, you were marvellous!’ and many actors thrive on live audience. In film and TV, the most you’ll get is a director approaching you after a take and saying, ‘Good job!’ and moving on. Actors live for praise, and the applause you get after taking the audience on an emotional journey on stage for 2 hours gives you something to feel proud of.

Gareth: Speaking of theatre, you’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. How does Shakespearean acting compare to more contemporary acting?

Simon: It depends how well it’s rehearsed. If you don’t get sufficient rehearsal, you’re not directed well, or you’re not acting with the right people, it can be very tricky. But if all those things are right, then there’s nothing like it. It’s like learning a different language, but you need to speak as if it’s natural dialogue. I’ve said to countless drama students you need to figure out what your character is saying, and then say the line with the intention of the simplified idea in your head. So effectively, you’re saying the Shakespearean line with modern English intention, and hopefully it comes naturally.

Simon with actress Samantha Spiro in a production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew

Gareth: You frequently play quite authoritarian, military-type characters. Is that something that happened by chance or is it something that you always wanted to do?

Simon: Most actors end up getting typecast, and it can get repetitive. If you shuffle into an audition quite unconfidently, they might think that you would be good for a role which requires you to be unconfident. Likewise, if you walk into the room and you stand up tall and speak confidently then they’d probably think you’d be good as an authority figure. Quite early on it seemed to me I would get cast in authoritarian roles. I went to a public school for the last three years of my education, and I learned to speak posh. So, I’ve got used to playing lawyers and all sorts of military people. But because I’ve been typecast so much I’m itching to play something completely different like a criminal or low-life who isn’t very articulate. I keep telling my agent that if any of these sorts of roles become available send them my way!

It happens less in the theatre than on television, I think because theatre is a big dressing up box. For example, you could be doing a Shakespeare play and there’s a cast list of 28 characters, but they haven’t got 28 actors. So, they get a team of 10 actors and everyone has to play multiple roles. Within those plays I had the most fun I’ve ever had in the theatre. I was doing Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure around some American universities with four friends about 25 years ago. We had no costumes, really. We had no props. Just the language. Since there was only five of us, each of us played at least three roles. I remember I played Angelo, who’s the sort of corrupt power figure, and this geezer called Frog, who was always getting into trouble. Another was this pimp who was trying to get people for his prostitutes. Playing multiple roles in a play is the most fun in the world. Within one scene you’re flipping from one character to another with different posture and different voices. It’s shape shifting. Which is why we all go into it because we don’t want to be ourselves, we want to be someone else for a bit.

Gareth: That’s true, I’ve noticed actors tend to get a lot of praise for versatility. One authoritarian role you played was in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker; you played General Quinn in a scene where you get choked by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). As an avid Star Wars fan, I must ask – what was it like being on set? Was that you being thrown in the air or was it a stunt double?

Simon: Well, it was a combination of me and a tall, skinny stunt guy. The stunt guy is who you see being thrown in the air, and they had to give him a bald cap so he looked more like me. But it happens so fast you can’t even tell it’s not me. They winched me up to the ceiling in a harness and I had to be on the ceiling pretending to be choked for about half a minute. The whole thing was over in a flash. As soon as I finished filming, they took me off to this room filled with cameras. They then asked me to pull several different faces for the cameras, so I stood there for about 10 minutes being photographed at all different angles. It was so they could CGI my face onto the stunt double just in case they decide to do it in close-up.

Simon as General Quinn in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

But was it enjoyable? Not really. There was a lot of pressure on set, and you were made to feel like you were very, very lucky to be there. JJ Abrams, the director, he was nice. Everyone else was rather gruff and business-like. It was not a particularly friendly set up. Hilariously, none of the actors in my scene knew whether they had lines until the day of shooting. We walked onto set and we all sat around the big table, and this woman comes around and hands everyone laminated scripts of the scene that we’re about to do. I look down and I see my character, General Quinn, has a few lines. Richard E Grant, who’s sitting next to me, also had some lines. Several of the other actors however did not have any lines, and they were looking pretty frustrated because it’s now emerged to them that they’re supporting artists for the scene.

JJ Abrams then comes on and he’s nice and friendly to everyone. Adam Driver then came on in his Kylo Ren costume, and I thought maybe he’ll come around and go ‘Hey I’m Adam, nice to meet you!’ but clearly, he thinks he’s a bit too cool for that. Richard E Grant kept forgetting his lines as well which was rather funny. I wasn’t even allowed to take a picture of the script so I could learn my lines because they didn’t allow phones on set! But I guess it’s so the plot doesn’t get leaked and no one bothers to see the film. The whole thing was shrouded in secrecy.

Gareth: That’s understandable since it’s backed by Disney after all. The other recent role I wanted to talk to you about was Dominic Cummings. It’s a coincidence that you were in Brexit: The Uncivil War alongside Benedict Cumberbatch who played Dominic Cummings, and now you’re playing Dominic Cummings yourself in the new drama, This England. So, what can you say about that role and how did you prepare for it?

Simon: I’ve worked with Cumberbatch a couple of times now, and he’s a nice fellow, but I thought when he played Dominic Cummings he was just playing himself really. But I guess that’s what you do as a big film actor. You basically play yourself and let the character come to you. Dominic Cummings is quite shy and doesn’t like the media, so there wasn’t much footage of him to go on. But I watched what I could find, and I just played him as a slightly arrogant, more intense version of Cumberbatch’s. Although I’m sure Dominic Cummings isn’t as arrogant as I portrayed him to be, I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice husband and dad.

Simon as Dominic Cummings in the new drama This England Sky Atlantic and Now TV

Gareth: So the drama is about the government dealing with the pandemic during the first lockdown, right?

Simon: Yeah, it basically goes from Boris winning the landslide election in 2019, leaving the European Union and then into the pandemic. So, it’s about the first 5 or 6 months of Boris’s government.

Gareth: Have you got a particularly big role in the series then?

Simon: Yeah, I’m like the second biggest role in the show after Kenneth Branagh as Boris. Which is nice because it’s a massive break for me. I’ve played small parts over the past two years because of the pandemic and suddenly I get 55 days of filming so it was huge to me.

Gareth: That’s great to hear. Have you got anymore upcoming roles you can talk about?

Simon: Well there’s a possibility of a film in India I might be doing in December and January. It’s a drama about the Amritsar massacre, which happened 100 years ago when some British officers shot down a group of Sikh protesters at the Golden Temple of Amritsar. That should be interesting.

Gareth: Have you done a lot of filming overseas during your career then?

Simon: I’ve done filming in East Europe because they’re cheaper for the production company. So, they film a lot of things in Prague, Budapest, Bucharest or Bulgaria. I’ve also done one thing in India for a film called Victoria and Abdul with Judi Dench. So, I do enjoy going abroad to film.

Gareth: I have one last question, and that was whether you have any advice for budding actors trying to break through in the industry?

Simon: Most people say to budding actors don’t even bother because there’s so much disappointment and rejection. But I think if you’re passionate about it and you get enough of a buzz from it then give it a go because you never know. You might have the face and the voice that people want right now. It’s not just about whether you’re talented, it’s to do with whether there’s a need for what you’ve got in terms of how you look and how you sound. Your face could happen to land on a casting directors table and they go ‘They look about right for what we need.’ So, if you enjoy it and can take rejection, which you have to be able to do, then give it a go.

Gareth: Yeah, I can imagine it’s got a lot to do with being in the right place at the right time.

Simon: Exactly. On day one of drama school we were told that acting is the art of reacting. Reading and learning lines is the easy bit. You also need to listen to when your cue is coming up, and to listen to whoever is talking and react to the conversation like you would at the pub with your mates. You’ve got to keep directing the focus back to the person who’s speaking. If an audience member drifts and starts looking around and sees you picking your nose or just looking bored, it doesn’t look right. You’ve got to give all the energy back to the person speaking so that audience member is reminded of who they should be listening to. It’s an interesting skill to acquire and you don’t get it unless you practice. I remember when I played Horatio in Hamlet I got so bored of listening to Simon Russell Beale on stage for a year. Even though it’s the greatest language ever written, I was on stage with him all the time listening, watching, and pretending to be interested in what he was saying. That’s the skill you have to acquire, making it look like you’re interested, even if you’re bored silly. 

Gareth: I suppose that’s ultimately the core of acting, learning how to react appropriately when you’re not speaking. I appreciate all the advice you’ve given Simon, and thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat about your career!

Simon: No problem Gareth, it’s been a pleasure! Good luck with all your future endeavours.


How Netflix’s Sex Education masterfully explores human connection, sexuality and social identity

We don’t deserve a series like Sex Education. I have not seen a TV series so perfectly address the fundamental every day aspects of the human psyche. The characters and story subvert almost every stereotype and cliché set by American teen dramas. The characters feel like real people with real connections and real problems, and the series makes you care for them as if you knew them personally. It explores the most important aspects of human connection; from a believable friendship between a straight man and a gay man, to a father-son relationship fuelled by toxic masculinity. The representation the series provides is also unparalleled. It not only contains almost every aspect of sexuality, from heterosexuality to asexuality, but sets the bar for other media to portray these things as the norm and that they don’t need to be a fundamental aspect of character’s stories. For example, if someone has two lesbian female parents, it is simply accepted and is never even addressed within the story. The series quickly establishes that the most important aspect of social identity is that it’s okay to be who you are. It breaks down the expectations that are placed upon us and shows that regardless of culture, background or sexuality, there is nothing more important than being comfortable in your own skin.

From the very first scene of season 1, the series truly shows how complex human connection is. Sex merely scratches the surface of human connection, and the pressure society places on teenagers to ‘get it over with’ often distorts what it is they really want. Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield), the series’ main protagonist, is a fairly average good-hearted teenager with zero sexual experience. His mother Jean (Gillian Anderson) on the other hand is a very open-minded qualified sex therapist. This provides Otis with a goldmine of knowledge about sex. This leads him to begin running a sex therapy clinic at school with the much more reserved yet rebellious Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey); providing students with advice on their sex lives to make some quick cash. However, the drawback of all this is that Otis is unable to apply such knowledge to himself. He understands the importance of communication and mutual understanding between two sexually-attracted individuals but never really applies this to his own relationships. In other words, he never ‘takes his own advice’, which is something I believe nearly all of us are guilty of. One of the most important and likeable relationships in the show is Otis’ friendship with Eric (Ncuti Gatwa). Eric fulfils the stereotype of the main protagonists’ black, gay best friend, but does it in a way which also flips the stereotype on its head. Eric is not simply an object solely used to contribute to the protagonists’ story, but is his own fleshed-out character with as many ups and downs as anyone else. One of the most interesting plot lines of the series is Eric’s father coming to terms with Eric as an openly gay black man coming from a culture where such things are heavily frowned upon. As such, the series makes Otis and Eric have the one of most believable friendships I’ve seen on the small or big screen. All the small interactions they have really show how big a part of each other’s lives they are, and when their friendship is tested you really feel the anguish at the thought of them falling out.

The show masterfully deals with social acceptance and identity by showing how much it truly affects personal relationships. In this regard, Maeve is one of the most interesting and complex characters in the series. She is another example of a subverted stereotype; initially she comes across as the stubborn, abrasive, strong-female lead type girl, but as the series progresses she shows hints that she has a more sensitive side. The show does a brilliant job of showing these traits are a believable part of Maeve’s personality, and not just to fulfil the stereotype. Maeve is not a people person and it shows – she doesn’t like other people and they don’t like her, but she doesn’t care and she fully embraces this. Her lack of social identity and abrasiveness is almost a defence mechanism against people judging her for who she really is. Without spoiling the story, the series shows how much you can really empathise with a person like Maeve and how important it is to have at least one person you can truly be yourself around. Maeve’s best friend Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) is one of my favourite characters in the series. She is a care-free, people-loving girl who simply wants to enjoy life. She sticks up for people even when they aren’t there, and she’s not afraid to show how much she cares about people, even if this compromises her social identity and self-image. There is a really powerful story arc in series 2 with Aimee involving sexual assault, and the series masterfully deals with the repercussions this has on a person’s identity and self-image. Again, without spoiling, all I can say is that one scene in particular had me welling up with its message, and there were several times I just wanted to give poor Aimee a hug!

These are just some of the characters who have a pivotal role in the series. I don’t think there is a single character whose story arc I found uninteresting, and I could probably go on all day about how each and every one is interesting in their own way. Every character, teen or adult, seems to be masterfully written to encompass every day issues we all face; including toxic masculinity, sexual identity and social pressure. Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) for instance is a tall, intimidating, jock-type teenager who constantly bullies Eric and others around him to assert himself. However, as the series progresses, Adam’s troubled relationship with his father (Alistair Petrie), combined with an internal battle between this overly-masculine front he puts on and his sexual identity suggests there are much more deeply rooted reasons for the way he is. You end up empathising with characters like Adam exceedingly more than you would have originally expected to. Even minor characters like the nerdy anime-loving Lily (Tanya Reynolds) and the popular people-pleaser Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) have an interesting role in the wider story. We can learn a lot from people like Adam, Lily, and Jackson; that being who you really are rather than who people expect you to be is one of the most powerful messages to what it means to be human.

I don’t like using the word ‘masterpiece’ to describe things, but when it comes to Sex Education, I cannot think of another word which so perfectly encapsulates how well the series is written. I have never seen a series or film so perfectly address the every day pressures we all face, and how they affect our personal identities and relationships. Humans are social animals – we are literally hardwired from birth to interact with other humans, because our survival depends on it. The writers of Sex Education know this, and they place it in a time and place during which it is most important and something we can all empathise with – adolescence. This series inspires me to write things like this and get into filmmaking. Every actor in this series gives their performance their all, and they don’t look like your star-studded overly-attractive actors you see in typical film and TV. They look like normal people – normal people who you could believe you know personally. And that is why Sex Education is a masterpiece. It perfectly balances believability with empathy – it’s simply a series about a bunch of normal people trying to figure out who they are, and as human beings, sometimes that’s all we need to see.