Brassic is your own creation. Why did you want to tell this story?
This show is based on where I grew up as a young lad. I grew up in the countryside near Manchester. As a young lad, I suppose my social network wasn't massive. I had few friends and you'd have to walk for miles to go and see them. Of course, as you get a little bit older, you start venturing into town, you meet new people, you get new friends. I think more than anything Brassic is about a group of people we don't usually see on our TV. We've seen what it is to be working class, we understand that people who are working class don't have the things that the middle classes and the upper classes have, right? We're told on television to feel sorry for them and for me, that is a bad thing. The majority of working class men and women that I know are the happiest people I know. They're content with what they've got. They're happy and they don't want to leave. They don't want to live in a giant house. They don't want to have two cars in the driveway. They're content with their lot. Not everybody is, of course. You'll always hear people saying, "I wish I could win. What would you do if you won the lottery?". The truth is if they did, they won't know what the fuck to do!
At the heart of the show is a group of lads who, as you say, are more than happy with where they are and what they are doing...
Yeah, totally. I play a character called Vinnie, who's kind of based on me. Him and his mates are totally happy with where they are in the world and what they're doing. You can still be working class, happy and not desperate to want to leave. They are very much of the mindset, 'Well, if it ain't broke, why fix it?'. I mean, they're getting by. I know a lot of people like that, particularly young men. They don't really know another life, they've never been shown another option but they're still fucking happy. Ultimately, is that not what's important?
Do you think there's a southern stereotype of what the north is about?
Yes, I think it can be the case. But not just a southern stereotype, I think there's also a generalised stereotype, particularly from the middle classes who think of the working class and just believe they must be suffering. To some degree you are but it's not to say that you're unhappy. I think what's really interesting about towns and villages like where I grew up is as they are left further behind they breed this weird microcosm of personalities which are unique. So for example, I remember being a kid and walking down my local high street seeing grown ass men dressed in full cowboy regalia while pulling Morrisons shopping bags! I remember one of them we used to call Ozzy, it wasn't his name but he reminded us of Ozzy Osbourne because he kind of shuffled on his feet and walked with his hands by side. Then one week he started cross-dressing! He's this hairy-assed man who was one thing one day and then the next he's out in a dress like nothing is different. I bloody love all those eccentric people that I saw every day I was growing up, I kind of feel sorry for the posh people around the country who never got to experience it!
Vinnie and the lads get up to all sorts of shenanigans; how much of it is based on what you and your mates did in real life?
I can't really go into it to much because I'm going to get in trouble in Chorley! All I'll say is some of it happened, some of it is loosely based on reality and some of it we made up. You'll have to guess what's what!
So will the people of Chorley be watching to see if they've made the show?!
There are certain people I know who the characters are based on. What I've done is hidden some clues to these people where only the person in question will be able to be like, "Well that is fucking supposed to be me, then!"
How much of Vinnie's character is you?
There is a lot of me in him. So we're both bipolar, which was important to me to have in Vinnie because I suffer on a regular basis with that and wanted to show it. I've been very, very honest about that. My mum is still around in real life but Vinnie's mum ran away. In real life my dad is a drinker and suffers with depression too. There is a lot of honesty in it and the bits that matter, especially the mental health side of things. The thing is, Vinnie's a lot cooler than I am, but mental health is a big part of both of us. A lot of the time I'm quite troubled. I've got a lot going on in my head, it never stops. Vinnie is much the same. I tried to get him as close to me as I can. But the truth is Vinnie is what I would have been if it wasn't for the acting. If I hadn't discovered I could act and not gone down that path then Vinnie is the direction I was heading.
Why was it important to you to put your own struggles with bipolar into your character?
I just hate the typical, television version of what bipolar is. That's the side of the condition everyone seems to focus on because it seems the most interesting. But what I'm trying to say is with the bipolar, don't let the assumption be that because someone suffers with mental health they're not capable of doing what a 'normal person' could do. I'm depressed right now, I've been on a downer since we finished filming Brassic, but I know I'll come out of it and I'm still getting shit done. What I want to show is people with bipolar are hard as nails, right. They're doing all the shit that you're doing and yet they're depressed while they're doing it. I want to put them on the map, all those people who are living with the darkness, the ups and the downs, but still getting shit done.
Did you feel a sense of responsibility to get it right?
Definitely, I did. Honestly, playing a version of yourself is that bit more frightening because if you fuck it up you can't even be you. It's frightening. I felt a huge responsibility. It was just as we started filming that it really started to sink in actually. I have a big responsibility to the place I come from, the people that are in it, the character I'm portraying, and it all suddenly dawned on me.
You were juggling all that pressure as well as acting the role of Vinnie. Did it have an impact on your mental health?
You're not going to believe the shit I got up to on set. Our producer on the show, Juliet, is one of the most amazing human beings I've ever worked with. She put up with all my craziness and did it with a smile on her face. Like this one time I became obsessed with a prop we were supposed to have for one particular scam the lads get up to. Basically they needed a vintage dildo! When I was coming up with the story I had a particular image of what I wanted it to look like. The prop arrives on set and it's nothing like what I had in my head and I just kicked off big time. I was in a bad state mentally and it pushed me over the edge. But what was phenomenal about everyone on this project is they all kind of just accepted me the way I am, didn't take what I said to heart and supported me. It was crazy the shit they had to put with from me! I get angry and irritable because I'm frustrated. My brain is cruel, my mind is cruel and it will take me to really dark, horrible places. It exhausts me to the point where emotionally I don't have much to give anymore. When this dildo moment happened, I'd been up all night worrying about ridiculous things. It can make a small thing feel giant, so I just exploded. But no matter what is going on in my head if I'm needed somewhere I'll be there, I will crawl my way out of bed every time. I will be on time and I will do it, but it's hard.
All the cast have said that your openness about your mental health made it easier for them to admit if they were having a tough day...
Ah man, that's actually made me cry. I'm so relieved to hear that because for so long I had to hide how I was feeling, I wouldn't let anyone know and it would kill me. I remember being on other sets, I'd get the job done, fake it in front of everyone and then crawl home and collapse in mental pain. So on Brassic I wanted it to be different, I wanted everyone to feel safe in their mental health, mainly because I needed to. That is what it is about, isn't it? It's about being able to say, "Listen, today I'm not super social and it's nothing to do with anyone else. It's not you guys" and then having the space and the support you need. Honestly, everyone on this show, cast and crew, are fucking amazing. They are a good bunch and I love them. I feel grateful to them.
It really sounds like you became good mates off camera as you were pretending to be on camera.
We did, yes. I'll be honest, the whole experience has been a huge deal for me and they made it very special. I saw them all a lot, whenever we'd go out we'd have the best time. We were all just a gang really. If you watch Aaron and Tom together, they're like chalk and cheese in the two backgrounds they come from, but they really get on. You'll always find them together, just like they are in the show.
We have to talk about Dominic West, how did his casting come about?
Dominic West is to blame for Brassic, I'm not kidding you! If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have made the show. I was working with him on Pride and one day we were just chatting shit on set and I was telling him about all the crazy shit I used to get up to as a kid and the people I used to knock about with and he was like, 'This is hysterical, you should do a show about it!'. I told him that a good few years back I'd tried to make a show on it but it hadn't worked out and he told me to try again and was like, 'If you get it off the ground then I promise I'll be in it'. I thought, "Right, well I better do it then!". I remember what he was wearing, I remember everything he had on and the way he was looking at me. You know how people talk about how you have a feeling that something's about to change? I got that feeling. So here we are, years later and I call Dominic up and he's like, "I'm resting." I said, "Fuck off, you're resting. I've set the whole thing up, if you're not in it, I'm fucked!" I'd arranged it so he could come for a week and get all his scenes done and he said yes! Honestly, I've got to tell you, I cannot put into words how I feel about that man. He's just one of the most charming man I've ever met in my life. It's like I love him, he's incredibly talented and just a lovely man!
Michelle Keegan plays Erin, the only main female character in the show. What did you make of her?
Firstly, she's mesmerisingly beautiful and every day is a challenge for all of us. All of us are completely in love with her. Even the gay ones! That's the first thing. She is also incredibly talented and just brilliant at the role, mesmerisingly good. I think she's just made it so fucking real. I love her character, I think we all know someone like her, they know they can achieve but they're not being given that opportunity. She's got this kid and it's all about him. It's about providing him with what she never had, which was stability and an opportunity to succeed in life. I think a lot of working class single parents, particularly mothers, should absolutely feel inspired by her story in the way that Michelle portrayed it. I think she's a brilliant actress. She's a beautiful girl inside and out, especially with all the shit she had to put up with. I mean the paparazzi followed her everywhere and she never let it knock her off her stride, she's a constant professional.
Some of the cast have said they felt protective of her when it came to the paparazzi, did you?
Yeah I did because it's unbelievable. She understands that part of her career is in the public eye but there is a line in the sand. It's 2019 and it isn't acceptable to harass a woman the way she was. It actually got to the point where I had to say something. I went over to these guys who had been following her everywhere and was like, "You know what we're concerned about as a cast? You are harassing our only female member of cast at her place of work. We can hear the clicks of your cameras during takes, we can hear it during rehearsals. The photographs we're seeing are the most inappropriate, bum shots and shit like that. It's not on." They were there every day no matter what but I think the fact we made it clear we weren't happy, as men, with what they were subjecting her to, they backed off and actually towards the end they were very understanding of it. For me it wasn't just about Michelle, though that was a big part, but they were also showing all our costumes, our sets, stuff we'd been working on for five years to bring to life and showing it in a way we weren't prepared for. I didn't want the show ruined. So there were one or two moments where lines were crossed. These paparazzi, they're always going to push but they did seem to be quite understanding of the whole scenario in the end.
Did Michelle become one of the lads off set?
She's an absolute sweetheart but definitely one of the lads! She can drink us all under the table! She can put them away. She's a tough bird, man. She is like one of the lads. You don't have to worry about her. We had a cast WhatsApp group and at the start the other lads were like, "Shit. Do we have to be careful?" because she was on it, it turns out you don't at all, she's as bad as we are!
You've put your heart and soul into Brassic. Would you like a second series?
Of course! I feel like there's so much more to do with Vinnie and the lads, I just hope we get a chance to step into their shoes again. But, do you know what? Whether we do or not I'm always going to be fucking grateful for this experience because it's been life changing. It's pushed me in ways I never expected and given me more than I could ever have dreamed of.