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A chat with Will Mellor

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Dates 014_A2Will Mellor has spent 24 of his 38 years onscreen, having started out at the age of 14 in Children’s Ward. He has starred in everything from long-running sitcoms to Bafta-winning dramas, and even been a soap-opera villain.

Here, he talks about his latest drama, Dates, reveals some dating advice, and recalls a not-so-successful date with the woman who’s now his wife.

You star in Channel 4’s new series Dates. What’s it all about?

It’s nine half-hour long episodes, they’re mini-plays, really. It’s basically about people going on first dates. Some are dramatic, some are funny, some are sad. They’re all very interesting. My story carries over three episodes, others are just one-off episodes, with characters who don’t come back.

So your episodes sort of book-end the series?

Yeah, my story with Oona Chaplin book-ends the whole thing. And Ben Chaplin is in the last episode with us as well.

Are Oona and Ben related?

No, they’re not, actually. Although Oona is Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter.

Oona is a big part of your story. Did you enjoy playing opposite her?

It was fantastic. We basically got together for rehearsals, because a piece like this has to be well-rehearsed. The one thing that John Maybury, the director, said to me was “I don’t want to see any acting.” That was music to my ears. This is a very naturalistic piece. It’s also nice to do something where the silence is very loud, where you can feel that nervous energy and discomfort. I’d never met Oona before, and she came bounding in, a bundle of energy and very quirky, and I could straight away see how her character could be likable. Because you can read her character on the page and it doesn’t read like she’s a nice person at all. But when she plays the part, you can see she’s got a reason why she is the way she is. And you find that out later on, down the line. But she’s magical, and stunning to watch. I think we had something special between us in rehearsals, straight away it was just on fire. And we just couldn’t wait to shoot it. And every day we had a really good time doing it. The job was very important to us both.

Can you tell, as an actor, when you’ve got chemistry with someone, and when it’s going well?

Straight away. Sometimes you have to work at it. But I think I’m pretty easy to get on with – I hope I am – I ain’t got no airs and graces, and we got on well straight away. Oona’s the same. She’ll throw her arms around you within the first seconds of meeting you. She’s very open, and I’m very open, so that got all of the bullshit out of the way straight away.

So did you improvise some of the dialogue?

Yeah, we did a little bit of improvisation. Only in certain bits. Oona would throw something in there, and I’d come back with something, and if the director liked it, he’d put it to the writer. We got that into our characters and what we were doing that if someone threw something in there, we just carried on with it. It wasn’t that we were trying to change anything, because the scripts were fantastic. The way the director shot it really helped us as well. He didn’t do take after take, he would just shoot. We did one ten-minute take, where the cameras just kept rolling. It was more like a play. And when you do it like that, you’re living it, and it becomes so much more natural. It really helps bring out your performance.

Apart from the odd line here and there, it’s basically a two-hander. Have you ever done anything like that?

Yeah, I did one with Sheridan Smith on Two Pints of Lager. We did a full episode, just me and her. It was very daunting, but it was a fantastic piece. We actually ran it in one half-hour take, and then we got to the end of it, and then did another half hour, with no breaks. It was amazing, but very nerve-wracking, because you’ve got an audience in front of you. And although they’re watching it as a play, you’ve got the cameras there and you have to hit your marks, and remember all your lines. We had a lot of rehearsal, maybe ten days rehearsal for it. Whereas the one with me and Oona, we had just two or three days to prepare for it. But it paid dividends, what we got in the end, for Dates. We shot the whole thing in two or three days. If you think about it in film, and they’re doing two or three minutes a day. We did 25 minutes in under three days. But it was good, it kept you on your toes. I love working at a fast pace, there’s nothing worse than sitting around all day waiting to go and say one word.

What was it that attracted you to doing Dates in the first place?

The script and the idea of it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so different, without trying to be different. It’s got no bells and whistles on it, there’s no explosions or special effects, it’s just two people talking on their date, that’s it. I was a bit scared about it at first, wondering if people would buy this as a piece of television, because it’s so different. And it doesn’t necessarily have an ending. I thought “If we get it wrong, it could be terrible. But if we get it right, I think it could be amazing.” And thankfully, I think it’s gone really well.

Did you do any research into the role? Did you look into the world of internet dating, or talk to mates about their dating experiences or anything?

Not really, no. When I read about this character and his background, he’s never really been on a date in his life, because he had been with his wife since he was at school. So he wears all the wrong clothes, and his hair is all flicked over, everything’s wrong. But it’s so wrong that it’s right, it makes him endearing. It was really more about working out his past, who he is, and how he would feel in this situation than anything about the dating scene.

Have you had your share of terrible dates over the years?

Not many, because I’ve been with my wife, Michelle, for 15 years. One of my worst dates was one of our first dates, though. We met in a bar, and she’d brought a mate and I’d brought a mate – you know, as you do – back-up! And I took her to Café de Paris, I was about 22 and trying to be all flash, so I booked us a table and bought champagne. And it was all going great, and she went off to the toilet, and when she came back, I saw this woman who looked just like Michelle, but she was bouncing of every wall and throwing up everywhere. And I thought “What is going on here?” And she fell onto me, and she was going “I’m so sorry!” And I’m thinking “What’s happened?” And her mate started accusing me of having drugged her drink. It turns out that she’d not eaten all day (she’s a dancer) and then I’d given her champagne. And so she went from seeming completely sober one minute to being unable to walk the next. Then she left, with her mate still pointing the finger at me, and my mates laughing at me. The next day I phoned her, and she was so embarrassed she thought she’d never hear from me again. But we had a good laugh about it, and 15 years later we have two children.

And you make sure she’s eaten whenever you go out?

Now she eats every time we go out, I can assure you of that!

What advice would you give to someone going on their first date?

It’s very difficult. I’d say be open-minded, because you don’t know what is going to come through that door. And don’t believe everything you see, because one thing this series does show you is that people lie on the internet. Be ready for anything – anything is possible. But be open-minded – love isn’t always at first sight. As this first episode shows, if it was on first impressions, Mia would have walked out of that door. But once you get to know someone a little bit more, they might challenge you more than you think.

Describe to me your ideal date.

It would be dinner – I love good food – nice chat, nice drinks, on to a bar. I don’t like clubs, I hate clubs, you might as well just sit in different rooms. Go to a nice bar with lots of people and good, good, good music. I don’t think there’s much more to it.

You were in the recent drama juggernaut that was Broadchurch. What was that experience like?

Unbelievable. We knew it was going to be big. It was something I was so proud of, not for me as much as for my mum. Every time there was a drama on, she kept saying to me “Why aren’t you in this?” And I’d say “Mum, it’s not me, it’s not like I don’t want to be in one.” It was a very different character for me, and I read it, and I wanted it that bad, I was so nervous about not getting the job. So I rehearsed it and rehearsed it. I knew the material so well. And I was so grateful when I got the job. Getting those phonecalls is the best feeling. It’s really given me confidence to go on and do more drama.

What are the roles that have meant the most to you over the years?

My role in The Street was huge. It was working with Jimmy McGovern’s scripts. I was working across from Vincent Regan, and it was both of our first times playing gay characters, and we were quite nervous. We won the Emmy in America, and the BAFTA, for Best Frama, so that would go down as one of my favourite but most daunting roles. And obviously Broadchurch – I’m hoping I’m in Broadchurch 2. I’m hoping they’ve upgraded me to work with the police now that my character’s proved his worth.

Dates, part of Channel 4’s Mating Season, begins in June.

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