In this installment of British Actors You Should Know we profile Daniel Mays from his early days in Mike Leigh masterpieces to his numerous, yet nuanced, roles as police officers
Talented, enthusiastic, diligent, and grounded are all words that can be used to describe seasoned actor Daniel Mays. The 44-year-old Mays could also be called a passionate advocate for bringing more working-class kids like him into the industry. The son of an electrician and a bank cashier, a career in the theatre wasn’t an obvious option for this Essex-born lad. However, with the support of his parents, Mays attended the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts before winning a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
After graduating from drama school in 2000, Daniel did a lot of stage work, a few soaps, and TV guest roles before he got cast in two films by the man Mays credits with turning him into the actor he is, Mike Leigh, the director, and writer, best known for his Academy Award nominations for Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake, both of which he was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay. Since then, he has been continually in demand, earning a reputation as an excellent character actor who seems to specialize in cops or bad guys (and sometimes a combination of both).
Here are our picks for some of Daniel’s most memorable performances over the years.
Set in the 1950s, the critically acclaimed 2004 drama Vera Drake tells the story of a selfless woman devoted to and cherished by her family. Vera (Imelda Staunton) has an illegal vocation of which the Drake clan are unaware; she altruistically aids women in inducing miscarriages for their unwanted pregnancies.
Being a Mike Leigh film, the cast had no script to work from. Reportedly most of the actors were in the dark about what Vera was involved in until the character was arrested. Mays plays Vera’s son, Sid, who is genuinely appalled and grieved upon learning of his beloved mother’s illicit activities.
Red Riding Trilogy
Broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4 in March of 2009, the Red Riding Trilogy dramatizes the investigation into the notoriously brutal Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who terrorized England in the 1970s and 80s. Each installment follows several recurring fictional characters through a landscape where police corruption and organized crime torment the innocent victims of the Ripper case yet again.
Mays portrays a particularly vulnerable victim, Michael Myshkin, a young man falsely accused of some of the killings in 1974. Challenged with an intellectual disability, Michael is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital and cruelly intimidated by Yorkshire police officers.
Made in Dagenham
The 2010 dramedy Made in Dagenham is based on the events of the 1968 sewing machinists’ strike at the UK’s Ford Dagenham plant. Female workers organized a walkout in protest against sexual discrimination and their successful strike led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970.
Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) becomes the reluctant leader of the movement and Mays is her happy-go-lucky husband, Eddie. He tries his best to be supportive but fails to grasp the realities of what his wife and her co-workers are fighting against. He truly looks bewildered when Rita tells him being an upstanding husband is the least he can do
Ashes to Ashes
A sequel to the BBC’s Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes is a crime drama with a sci-fi twist. DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) finds that, after being seriously wounded on the job, she regains consciousness in the past – 1981, to be exact. And just like Sam Tyler, a former cop she was investigating, she ends up in the company of DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) and his rogue officers.
Mays appears in the final season of this series in 2010 as DCI Jim Keats, a Discipline and Complaints officer from Scotland Yard. Or so we’re supposed to think. He’s a vastly darker force in this world that Alex is still trying to figure out. Daniel has said that Keats has been his favorite role to play in his career thus far.
Doctor Who: “Night Terrors”
Mays guest starred in this 2011 Doctor Who episode during the era of the 11th Doctor (Matt Smith). In it, he plays Alex, the father of a very troubled and frightened young boy named George. At first, he thinks the Doctor is from Social Services, but soon discovers his son’s monsters are real. Not only that, but he and his wife have been living under the influence of a false perception filter. All very Whovian!
Another project based on actual events, the 2012 ITV mini-series Mrs. Biggs tells the story of Charmian Biggs Brent, played by BAFTA award winner Sheridan Smith. In a compelling love story doomed to failure, Charmian is swept off her feet by a charismatic serial ex-con, Ronnie Biggs (Mays), and marries him against her parents’ wishes.
After failing to keep on the straight and narrow as a carpenter, Biggs helps plan and carry out the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Ronnie becomes notorious for escaping prison in 1965; he and his family become fugitives, changing their names and trying to start a new life in Australia with what remains of their robbery money. Charmian stands by her man as long as possible, but the running tears the family apart in the end.
Line of Duty
2016 found Mays in the hot seat as the bent copper in Line of Duty with Anti-Corruption Unit 12 (AC-12 for short) on his trail. He plays Sergeant Danny Waldron, head of a Strategic Firearms team deployed to detain a gangland execution suspect. Waldron kills the suspect before his team can catch up and pressures them to stick to his story.
Warning: Spoilers for Line of Duty follow!
What shocked fans of this wildly popular BBC police procedural is that Mays’ corrupt officer wasn’t around for long. Waldron was shot during a drug house raid and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital at the beginning of the second episode. Daniel was nominated for his first BAFTA for this performance despite his limited screen time.
In 2020, Mays joined good friend Stephen Graham to co-star in the Sky/Peacock series Code 404, where they play…you guessed it, cops! Both known for their more intense dramatic work, Code 404 is an action comedy that features slapstick, clever dialogue, and a dramatic conspiracy thriller storyline.
Daniel plays DI John Major, who was killed rather quickly in the first episode, only to be brought back to life using experimental Artificial Intelligence. The problem is, while Major has retained his arrogance and gung-ho style, his crimefighting instincts have completely deserted him. This leaves his partner Roy Carver (Graham) in a perpetual state of cleaning up.
Finally, Mays is part of a stellar cast in the 2022 Masterpiece Mystery series on PBS, Magpie Murders. He plays dual roles; that of “thick” Detective Chubb, a character from the Atticus Pünd novels and defensive Superintendent Locke who is investigating the “open and shut” case of Alan Conway’s death. The differences between Chubb who is openly in awe of Pünd and Locke who resents Conway’s evaluation of his policing prowess makes for an interesting contrast in Mays’ performances.