Balancing life and work is a challenge for Midlands actor Ben Daniels, as he tells Roz Laws.
Finding the right work/life balance is something most of us struggle with, including the character played by actor Ben Daniels in his latest television drama.
In Law & Order: UK, the new, critically-acclaimed British version of the long-running American series, Ben is Senior Crown Prosecutor James Steel – a barrister so obsessed with his work that his wife left him.
And Midland actor Ben admits to suffering from some of the same compulsion. His level of commitment goes far deeper than viewers of the ITV1 drama realise.
James’s quest for truth and justice has destroyed his marriage, and Ben is also consumed by his work. He doesn’t just say the lines, he needs to know everything about his character, from his favourite radio station to his parents’ occupations.
Ben, 44, says: “I am completely obsessive and always take characters home with me.
“I go into great detail and will email the producers to say ‘this word in the script, I think it should be a different one’.
“I’ve done lots of research for Law & Order. I grilled the head of the Crown Prosecution Service – was he bullied as a kid, where did this idea of fighting for justice come from?
“I’ve built up a complete back story for James. We don’t see him outside work, but I know what radio stations he listens to, what he likes to eat and drink, that his father taught maths and his mother taught English.
“That’s all passed to the props department who fill his office. It was my idea to give him a Rubik’s Cube to fiddle with. It’s a metaphor for his cases – if he does things in a certain way, he can bring about a harmonious outcome.
“I love all the legal stuff. I have a great set of books called Law Express, revision guides for law students, and you can go online and test yourself. I fear I have become boring! Doing all this preparation makes me feel less anxious, and the less anxious I am, the better I am. I know I can be too obsessive. My partner says ‘Just forget it!’ all the time. But he’s an actor too, so he understands. I hope there’s no threat of him leaving me!”
Ben, ranked 79 in the Pink List of 100 influential gay and lesbian people in Britain, has been with 59-year-old stage actor Ian Gelder for 16 years and reveals they have tied the knot in a civil partnership ceremony.
Playing such a “decent and morally upstanding” man as James Steel makes a change for Ben, who shot to fame as cheating Finn in the BBC1 hairdressing drama Cutting It, decided Jesus should be crucified in The Passion and played an untrustworthy diplomat in The State Within.
Last year he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of manipulative Valmont in Les Liaison Dangereuses on Broadway.
He says: “Valmont is one of the most wayward characters in literature. While playing him, someone sent me a crucifix and said they would pray for me! The producers of Law & Orderflew out to New York to see me on stage, then asked if I fancied playing a hero instead.
“The majority of my characters have been very duplicitous. It’s refreshing to play a man who is a beacon of truth.”
Ben was born in Nuneaton, where his father was a Rolls-Royce engineer and later a grocer and his mother owned a chain of children’s clothes shops. He left Manor Park Comprehensive to take an A-level in theatre studies at college in Stratford-upon-Avon before training at drama school in London. He has worked steadily ever since, although payment hasn’t always been forthcoming.
He is yet to be paid for Luna, a film by graphic novelist Dave McKean in which he stars with Dervla Kirwan and Michael Maloney.
“We had just one scene left to film and then the money fell through. We’re waiting to get the final bit of funding so we can finish the film, 18 months on. I hope we can get paid and it will be released, though the financial climate now is terrible for the arts.”
While Ben likes to choose quality productions – he turned down roles in Hollywood movies The Patriot and Vertical Limit – he can be persuaded into projects which satisfy his geeky side. He collects comics and accepted a role in the sci-fi action movie Doom because he’d been playing the video game for years.
And he admits he would love to appear as a villain in Doctor Who.
“That would be fantastic and such kudos for me with my nephews and nieces!” he chuckles. “Her Doctor Who connection is one of the reasons why it was so great acting with Freema Agyeman in Law & Order: UK.
“She didn’t know the identity of the next Doctor, despite me asking her, but she has told me things I will have to take to my grave.”
Ben’s increasingly high profile means he is recognised around the world – including at the Taj Mahal while on holiday in India.
He says: “It was bizarre. There I was, soaking up this extraordinary place, and suddenly someone shouted ‘Oi, Finn!’. They wanted a photo of me in front of the Taj Mahal, but I said ‘Two old relics in one picture, you don’t want me spoiling it!’.”