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“I Don’t Know If I’m Seen as an American Actor, I am in England” – Stephen Moyer talks Krays: Code of Silence

10 min read

Head Gear Films

Perhaps best known as Southern vampire Bill Compton in sexy vampire show True Blood, or as concerned dad to mutant kiddies in comic book show The Gifted, Stephen Moyer is an actor of considerable talent. Appearing in both movies and series, Moyer has a gift for using his leading man good looks and penchant for darker elements to incredible effect. His latest film is true crime thriller Code of Silence, about Leonard “Nipper” Read’s quest to bring down the infamous Kray twins, FilmHounds got a chance to discuss the role with him.

Despite being violent gangsters, The Krays are kind of British cultural icons. What is about them, do you think, that makes them folk heroes?

It’s so interesting, isn’t it, this kind of Robin Hood quality they’ve managed to cultivate. I we tend to think it’s just us English that have that, but it isn’t. If you look at Ned Kelly, or Al Capone, or Whitey Bulger. These characters who have somehow bucked the system, they’ve done illegal shit and got away with it, there is some sort of – they become heroes for beating the system. There’s very few of them that managed to do that for very long. The flame burns bright. 

But, of course, when you do research on any of those people – they’ve done some really heinous stuff. We tend to forget that aspect. When they approached me to do this film I wasn’t sure that we needed another Kray film. I’ve seen all of them. You know, I grew up with my grandparents who are from the East End. So there were legions of stories about them, about these two men in our family. Everybody’s got them. I wasn’t sure we needed to tell the story again, but then I found out it was about Nipper, so I started to do a little down-the-rabbit-hole research. He’s fascinating. 

So, I read the script, loved it. Loved how Ben [Mile, the director] sort of dissected the world and created this version of events that take place in his head. When I met him, he had fort of decided, it was a low budget movie, we didn’t have a lot of money to recreate 1960s East End and everything that entails. So, he found this warehouse, an old abandoned factory, which he though was a fantastic metaphor for being inside Nipper’s brain, the corridors and alleyways. I was really sort of attracted to how we would go about recreating Ben’s idea. You see at certain points of the film we place Nipper in certain places which I think works quite well. You not only see him investigating the Krays, but he’s in the place where the events happen. I was really taken with Ben’s ideas and imagination, and I think Nipper’s fascinating.

He isn’t as well known as the Krays, criminals tend to be sort of well known.

And very “heroic”.

You mention Al Capone, Nipper is compared to Elliot Ness at one point. Ness is sort of famous, Read isn’t so much. How do you go about researching someone who isn’t as high profile as the crooks?

Nipper is an incredibly modest man. He reluctantly wrote an autobiography [Nipper, later published as Nipper: The Man who Nicked the Krays] and in the foreword he says “I had no intention of doing this, I didn’t think anyone would be interested, but my story seems to have attracted some interest, so I decided to do this”. You know, he was part of the team that brought down The Great Train Robbers – more folk heroes. I think with those things, as well, it’s other people’s money. It’s the bank’s money. We like when the bank’s get screwed over, we love heists.

The John Dillinger thing – “we’re not here for your money, we’re here for the bank’s money”. 

Yes, exactly! The Dillinger thing. I was thinking of Dillinger as I was saying it.

So, with Nipper, even though he doesn’t have the notoriety, he has the respect of a lot of people. I think, possible, even the respect of the Krays. He came from a similar background – he was working class, he had no qualifications, he also was a boxer. He was quite a handy boxer, he won quite a few trophies and belts. I think that The Krays, we don’t examine that in the film, but The Krays would almost certainly have been aware of that, and he would have been aware of the Kray’s boxing skills and what they managed to do. So, I think they were very similar, and if you flipped a coin, Nipper could have very easily become a bad guy. He could become a villain.

But he also had a very strong moral backbone, which comes across when you’re reading it. As I said it’s a very modest book, he’s very quick to pat other people on the back who helped him along the way. It’s not all about him. He’s very liked within his sphere, and very liked by people under him.

Head Gear Films

As an actor do you stay in character, I can’t imagine it’s a role that’s easy to dip in and out of, he’s quite an intense person.

He is an intense person. It’s interesting that sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I don’t have a specific set method that I follow every time that I go to work. There’s been two or three times where I have absolutely immersed myself, one could argue to lesser or better degree for the final piece.

One thing you realise as an actor as you go through is that you’re a very small piece of the puzzle. You don’t get to assemble the puzzle. A lot of the work that we do is given to an editor. The editor does what they want to do, the director does what they want to do, the music people do what they want to do, the ADR and sound people do what they want. You find your part in the final piece is very small. So, I think that’s why as I got older I become a more didactic director.

With Nipper I’d done a lot of research, one of the great things about the situation with the global pandemic that we’re in right now is that when you fly in to do a job you get ten to fourteen days to quarantine. It’s a fantastic research tool, because not only are you not allowed to see anyone, not allowed to go out – well certainly you weren’t when I was doing this, and some of the other films I was doing. Getting that time away is really difficult, I’m a dad to four kids. So, it’s often very difficult to get time to yourself and to completely concentrate on one thing. With Nipper I did go pretty deep with thinking about what he would have thought. 

The thing I like to do when playing a historical person is not thinking about where they were with the benefit of hindsight, trying to place yourself where they are at the time. Without knowing the outcome. I played a person called John Fogelman in a film called Devil’s Knot. 

I remember that film well.

Yeah, it’s Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, and Atom [Egoyan, the director], is an amazing director. I was playing a person who has sort of become a bad guy in the story of the West Memphis Three. When I spoke to him, he was like “you’re playing the bad guy”. And what I said to him was “I’m not playing a bad guy, I’m not interested in that. You were trying to do your job. Three little boys had been murdered, and I want to know what was going on in your head at the time.”

During that period of time, maybe friends isn’t the right word, but certainly acquaintances. We talked a lot, and I was really fascinated with when you go in to do your final prosecution speech, or when you’re manipulating evidence to work for you, whether you believe fully in what you’re doing. Whether those kernels remain in your mind. I think it’s fascinating.

So, did I go full method? No. But I was very, very well briefed on all of the cases, and the work that Nipper had done. One of the problems I always found is that i really love set. I love being on set, I’m very interested in how cameras work. I also managed to get three of my dear, dear friends to be in the film. So, if I spent all of my time as Nipper they’d have called me a twat.

Alec Newman is a dear friend, Michael Higgs who plays Du Rose, Max Wrottesley. There were a few people who came in and they’re some of my oldest friends, that was also really enjoyable to be recreating it. They all take their jobs very seriously as well. There’s a moment for fun, and there’s a moment for work. But I really love that switch.

During lockdown, me and my wife re-binged True Blood start to finish. Obviously, in that you’re Southern, here you’re using your British accent. Do you find that people don’t believe you’re British because I’d been introduced to your work with you as Bill the Vampire, so watching this is a bit “that’s a very good English accent”.

Did you? It’s funny, I’ve been here fourteen years now, and I’d already done some work here before I moved, but I’d done a lot of work in England as a normal British actor. I’ve done a lot of work on different television series, and theatre, but it’s really interesting. Now, I’m seen as an American actor. I don’t know if I’m seen as an American actor in America, but I am in England. For example, I won’t say what it is, but I was asked to audition for a British show that has one American character in it and I was asked to play the American. I was like “I can still do British! I’m still actually English.”

But, it’s great, and it’s really nice. I have a friend called Roisin Carty who is an accent coach, so we were Zooming during my prep during quarantine. This was very low budget so thanks Roisin, because she did for very very little. She actually did [Alexander] Skarsgard’s accent for Tarzan. I had put her in contact with Alexander, and she’s done The Witches. She never stops, she’s amazing. So she did this for me, having that is a really big help.

I worked with Eddie Marsan a few years ago on a film called Concussion with Will Smith, and Eddie has it in his contract that he always has an accent coach. Obviously that’s easier for me on my American jobs, but Eddie has it on any job, it’s in his standard contract. He also has it in his British work, because it’s his standard contract. That’s something I’ve been trying to do, because one doesn’t realise you’re doing it, but you end up picking up the local lingo.

I’m a bit of a people pleaser, I find myself trying to assimilate. There’s been times where I’ve had a bit of a West Coast American thing, I just spent four months in England so I think I’m sounding English. Sometimes I can’t tell. Having something like Nipper to think about, and looking at that Nottingham accents and things that differentiate it from things further North, and finding those little moments of differentiation is stuff I really dig.

I’d be in character when I’m by myself, so when I go to the supermarket, or when I’m not with anybody. I’d go and be the character when I’m by myself, just to see if I’m by myself. If I’m playing an American here I’ll be an American when I go to the shops. I will live in the accent while I do it because it helps you. If you want to improvise, or go off-book, you can’t do that authentically. It’s different from learning the script and knowing your lines, if you’re working with actors who throw something back at you that isn’t in the script you need to reply and when you do you need to do it in the accent.

People have different methods for things, it’s always interesting how they work through them.

I have huge respect for how anybody gets from start to finish, I think when I first started I found method acting and people’s processes that were a bit weird – I thought that was weird, and being somebody who likes to fit in I found people putting themselves out there like that, being maverick, I found that unsettling. As I’ve gotten older I’m more “whatever the fuck it takes, man, whatever works for you.” So, when I’m working with someone who is fully method, or with someone who doesn’t have a method at all, i’m completely respectful of whatever someone’s process is, because what we do is lightning in a bottle sometimes, and you have to do whatever you can.

Krays: Code of Silence is released on December 27th. 

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