More Than Just Film
Even before his toxic run of flops from 2009-2013, Danny Dyer’s reputation as an actor was being poisoned by his much publicised celebrity lifestyle and derided presenting work on The Real Football Factories (2006), Football Hooligans International (2007) and Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men (2008). Even his old mucker Nick Love (the Scorsese to his De Niro) was refusing to work with him again.
And yet as bad as it got, he had something to defend himself with, something which proved his worth as an actor and a damn good one at that. He had his distinguished career in theater.
He’d only starred in six plays but half of these were for Harold Pinter, the greatest playwright of his generation, making him the envy of many an A-list actor with pretensions of treading the boards.
So there he was in 2008, Danny the joke Dyer, in a swanky Mayfair hotel at the Olivier Awards for Excellence in Theater, walking to the stage to present the Best Newcomer in a Stage Play award to a fresh faced Tim Hiddleston. Bursting with pride as passed through the massed ranks of the great and the good, Danny was finally getting the respect and recognition he had always craved.
It took a few seconds to register exactly what was playing as he strode to that stage. No, they can’t be.
‘Are you lot taking the piss?’, he inquired with a smile, bringing the house down.
It was this ability to defuse awkward situations that made such an impression with Pinter in the first place.
His greeting of ‘alright son, how’s it going?’ drew gasps of shock and disbelief from all present at the audition for A Celebration (2000) but Pinter himself was charmed. The two men may appear to perch on opposite ends of the high-low cultural spectrum but actually they had much in common. Both were born in the East End and were avid West Ham fans, but whilst Dyer was able to wear his London accent on his sleeve, Pinter was of a generation that had to adopt BBC English in order to be taken seriously. (It’s not unthinkable that, to some extent, this bias against regional accents does still exist).
Another key factor in Dyer getting the role was his confidence. Unlike the vast majority of the other actors auditioning that day, Danny hadn’t been to drama school or studied Shakespeare, Beckett or Pinter. This lack of theoretical grounding had previously ensured that he had little in common with the cast and crews on his early films and plays but on this particular day it all worked in his favour. Barely knowing who Pinter was, he practically stumbled into the audition unphazed and raring to go. This in itself summed up his approach to acting at this phase of his career – he was raw, instinctive and utterly fearless.
Dyer’s absolute self-belief in his acting abilities had won him the role in A Celebration but did not survive the run of the play. After a hugely successful run in the West End, the production moved across the Atlantic to the Broadway. Dyer, still in full party mode, spent his evenings sucking on a crack-pipe before crawling back to his hotel room in the small hours, downing some sleeping pills and then pulling himself together just in time to go on stage. With a certain degree of inevitability, this lifestyle caught up with him and one night he hit his cue on stage but found his mind utterly blank. It was all over, he had been found out.
He froze up and felt the ground disappearing from beneath him. Looking for help from the rest of the cast he saw only absolute terror on their faces. The plane was hitting the side of the mountain. After dying a thousand tortuous deaths, one of the other actors eventually fed him his line and Dyer made it to the end of the play, sobbing like a melt whenever he was off stage. His confidence was in ribbons. There would now be self-doubt and a sense of vulnerability in everything he did.
It was time to focus on film acting instead.
He got through the rest of the Broadway run without any further disasters but the thrill of performing on the stage was replaced with dread. Safely back in the UK, he swore that never again would he put himself through this. A few days later he got a call from Pinter, offering him a role in No Man’s Land (2001). He accepted, of course. No actor in their right mind would say no to the great man himself.
Mean Machine (2001)
In a nutshell: After losing lucrative sponsorship deals and his England captaincy for match-fixing, things get much worse for Danny ‘Mean Machine’ Meehan when he is sentenced to three years for drink driving and assault. Once inside, he’s an easy target for the guards and the various gangs but starts to win everyone round by accepting the role of player/manager for a one-off match between convicts and prison guards.
After the success of Lock, Stock and Snatch, Matthew Vaughan and Guy Ritchie set out to establish Vinnie Jones as leading man material and chose upon a remake of the Burt Reynolds vehicle The Longest Yard (1974). Although Vaughan and Jason Stratham (here in a minor role) went on to be major Hollywood players, what’s most striking about Mean Machine is how major roles are filled with minor talent. It was written by the same team that scribed the quickly forgotten Lock, Stock TV spin-off and was directed not by Ritchie but Barry Skolnick, an ad man who went on to work as a creative director for Sky.
The culture shock for Dyer must have been staggering. Two years of being surrounded by some of the country’s greatest acting talent to watching Vinnie Jones strut around like the big I am. Filmmaking is truly a fucked up industry. Dyer had also spent two years on the standard theater wage of £300 a week, leaving him and his family in a financial pickle. He was grateful that he was getting £8,000 for a few weeks work but this was soured by Jones’s wooping fee of £250,000 for only his fifth film role.
Having been blanked by Jones and frozen out of the Lock Stock crew’s poker games, Dyer once again found himself isolated on the set, but there was still some fun to be had. It quickly became obvious that Jones could only robotically recite his lines so, as a great believer in the old motto ‘acting is reacting’, Dyer threw in pauses or different actions in each take which demanded a spontaneous reaction from Jones’s character. In football terms, Danny was turning Jones inside out and leaving him flat footed again and again. Dyer admits that he grew fond of seeing the terror in Jones’s eyes whenever they they filmed scenes together.
As bad as Jones’s behaviour was, it was nothing compared to Guy Ritchie who insisted on having three minders whenever on set as well as ordering the cast and crew not to make eye contact with him. All this after directing only two films. Danny, being Danny, made no secret of the fact he thought Ritchie was acting like a prize cunt. Ritchie, acting like a prize cunt, responded by not letting Danny meet Madonna at the premier for Mean Machine.
The film’s financial success (£5 million at the UK box office) added to Vaughan’s reputation for having a golden touch and allowed Statham to display the martial arts skills which have made him THE action hero since then. Unfortunately for Vinnie, his limitations as an actor were there for all to see and whilst he’s made a very healthy career as a 2nd/3rd billed action star/hard man, this was his one and only attempt at leading man status.
How was it for Danny? As with The Trench and Goodbye Charlie Bright, Danny has a small role but one which has a significant impact upon the film’s conclusion. He plays Billy the Limpet, an obsessive fan of Meehan’s who, despite always being the butt of the joke, is allowed to join the con’s team and ends up scoring the winning goal.
Billy is the closest thing Mean Machine has to an empathetic character but all to often is grating instead of likeable. This is due to all the supporting cast over-acting like Billio whenever they share the screen with Jones (clearly in a bid to counter-act the leading man’s chronic shortage of charm, charisma and acting abilities).
Say something positive dammit: Just as The Football Factory was elevated (very slightly) by an impressively realistic fight scene and Human Traffic peaked with an all too accurate portrayal of a comedown, Mean Machine just about validates its existence with the best staged football scenes I’ve ever come across. He may well be out of his depth when it comes to things like tone, dialogue, getting good performances etc but Barry Skolnick manages to capture the wonderfully random and chaotic nature of a game of football. The big match between the guards and the cons takes up the final third of the film and ebbs and flows in an pleasingly realistic manner. Sadly, this genuinely impressive achievement is blighted by constantly cutting to a pair of painfully unfunny pitch-side commentators who perfectly capture the film’s enforced sense of zaniness, nauseating smugness and generally punchable demeanor.
Conceptual Reprise: It’s 2008 again and Dyer is getting very positive reviews for his almost dialogue free performance in Pinter’s The Homecoming, even from professional Danny Dyer hater Mark Kermode. It was marred though by Pinter having to step down as directer two thirds of the way through the run due to throat cancer. It is also memorable for another reason.
The clash of cultures between theater and film which saw Danny being derided at the Olivier awards and discombobulated on the set of Mean Machine reached it peak when fans of his work in The Football Factory and The Real Football Factory turned up on mass for an evening of avant-guard theater. It sounds like something from a sit-com where the Dyer fans – notable for their scars, jewelry and sports wear – at first clashed but slowly teach the venue’s typical clientele how to loosen up a little (end with them going out on the raz together after the performance). In truth, it was just awkward.
Not used to such a heavy-weight piece of theater, the Dyer fans ended up treating it as a pantomime, cheering and wolf-whistling him whilst booing everyone else. The result was an intimidating atmosphere and a very fraught experience for the actors who weren’t Danny Dyer. At the time of writing, Danny hasn’t been asked back.