My first memory is cycling to the top of the path outside my childhood home, on a yellow kids’ bike with fat grey tyres. I turned on to the road and said aloud: “I’m me, doing this, now.” I was heading away from the home and people I loved, off on my own adventure.
The love I felt as a child was unconditional, especially from my mother. I loved Dad deeply, but was wary of him. It was idyllic, our gang of kids playing out on a Salford council estate. My children are middle-class Londoners, but I sit on the porch and let them play in the street just like I did.
Deciding to become an actor was a real risk. I was 17. My gut told me acting was my way out. After I got a part in Macbeth, I knew I had to play him for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I fell off the stage during my third performance as Macbeth. The lights cut out and I stepped into space, hitting the floor as my crown went flying. This was all I’d worked towards, it could have been devastating. I locked eyes with a bloke where I’d landed, and in his eyes saw total empathy.
Joni Mitchell was once asked about how she came to write Blue. She said she’d had what’s called a nervous breakdown in the west, but in the east is known as a spiritual rebirth. In 2015, I had a severe breakdown of my own. I tried to apply her thinking. The vulnerability, the sense life might slip away, gave me a second bite. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but it’s the best thing that has happened to me.
When I left the hospital I went to stay at Mum’s, still ill. Getting back to work helped me find a way through it. Scripts got me out of bed. I knew I needed to provide for the children. It turns out pretending to be someone else is incredibly useful when I’m struggling.
My physical appearance, accent and class might suggest machismo, but I’m anything but macho. I’m very much the son of my mother. I’m often cast in tough, gritty roles, but I’m nothing of the sort. We’re all forced to put that armour on, but I move through life gently.
Even with all the success I’ve had, if I had my time again, I wouldn’t be an actor. I’d aim to run the National Theatre or a TV channel instead. As a working-class person, if you want to change things, that’s how to do it. Notionally, the arts are more inclusive now, but it’s not backed up by financial reality. If someone from my estate asked for my advice, I’d say acting is great, but aim bigger.
Caring for my kids has transformed me. I wish my dad had shown his vulnerability more – I’ve never wanted to appear tough to my two. I cried when I was with them last weekend, their love makes me emotional. My daughter often says she feels like she has a girl for a dad. I take that as the greatest compliment.
Close to Me airs weekly on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes available on All 4