It takes about an hour in actor Joe Gilgun’s company to learn he’s had an intimate, bodily relationship with almost every corner of his hometown. We’re there – Rivington, Lancashire – and he’s hovering near a reservoir, beaming, as his PR, his good friend Dave, our photographer and I look on.
“I’m doing a piss in it!” Joe says, pretending to do just that into the water. Everyone laughs, because he’s always excelled at being the class clown.
“Have you done that before, in there?” I ask.
“Piss in it? Yeah!” A pause. “I shouldn’t say that.”
In ten minutes, he’ll have run down a sharp bank, and taken an actual piss up a tree, suggesting our photographer document that. Five minutes after that, his publicist will ask we not include the piss photos. But piss is, and I can’t stress this enough, the least of a PR’s worries when it comes to Joe, someone who breathes mischief into every minor event, is completely incapable of using a filter and thinks there is no point to interviews unless your answers are gospel truth. That’s why you’ll not find many interviews with him, beyond group junkets. He has bipolar II – the disorder type that involves more frequent cycling of moods and depressive periods – and he’ll later tell me he’s having a depressive day today. This went completely unnoticed: he’s entertaining and forthcoming, steamrolling through story after story in his thick Lancashire accent.
In the UK he's best known for playing character Woody in cult classic This Is England, the painfully troubled and romantic other half to Lol, whose name is tattooed for real on the actor’s right hand. Since starting out in British soaps, he’s been most prominently in Misfits as Rudy, a youth offender with the power to split himself in two emotionally with a gregarious, self-confident part and a depressive part (a bit on the nose?) Pride, a 2014 film about queer activists who support striking miners in 1980s Wales, and Preacher, Seth Rogan’s TV show, playing a drug-addict vampire. But this is the finest moment of his career: he’s created and starred in Brassic, a new semi-autobiographical comedy drama for Sky based on his troublemaking young adult life in Rivington, Chorley.
We’re spending the afternoon exploring this area of Lancashire, Joe acting as some sort of impromptu Weird Britain host. In a quiet moment, Dave, a blonde, tattooed Joe lookalike, will tell me their friendship group “were all rough kids, all from broken homes, just trying to find our way, and sometimes when you’re finding your way you get up to some shit”. Neither Dave nor Joe will share how true to life Brassic’s criminal activity is – we, as viewers, have to make up our own minds.
This is the skeleton of Joe’s childhood: he grew up in Chorley born to beautiful parents. In retrospect, it was an idyllic enough early life. There were hardly any children about so he only had one boy to be mates with. They’d meet and do silly things in the fields and woods, like make dens and throw an industrial fan repeatedly off a gorge (he is delighted to find it in the woods during our afternoon together and throws it off again). One day he went to this boy’s house and found he had moved away without a word. He insists he’s not sociable despite having his Chorley gang, and reckons it was this weird friendship and the loss of it that kick-started his isolation.
At primary school, he couldn’t read, and wrote backwards. The undiagnosed bipolar II contributed to him being disruptive. A turning point came when a neighbour suggested his parents send him to a strict acting teacher she knew. “I used to say a prayer on the way in every day: ‘please, God, don’t let me shouted at’ because he’d do it in front of everyone. He reined me in massively.” In acting he found focus and a passion.
Then his parents split up when he was 11, his dad got made redundant and he “went off the rails”. Meanwhile his mum became ill with the stress. Once a month, Joe would have a breakdown – “completely inconsolable, tears; I’d cry myself to sleep and they’d have to leave me because there was nothing they could do.” In between, he’d be “very up and down throughout the day” which he says he still is. “I’d be kicking off and screaming and misbehaving. I craved attention all the bloody time.”
Stomping through some vines and nettles, he talks about subsequently being shipped between his parents’ houses. “I don’t hold any resentment towards my mum and dad. You get older and realise nothing’s being done to you. As a child it’s hard to comprehend that, so I was very angry for a long time. I think that’s why I’m so self-destructive. I still am. I’m still angry I think.”
Despite his acting fame, he holds Chorley close. I ask him why he doesn’t leave and move to London or LA now he’s essentially successful. “No one knows me out here, no one cares. The people who do know me, they don’t care what I do.”
Deep in some woodland, Joe wants to show us a tiny pool of water, at the base of a vined cliff. Unlike a “turd-brown” river we passed earlier, this pool glints crystal clear. No one gives the water much attention, though, because Joe stands next to a freshly dead calf, flies beginning to swarm. The animal had innocently wandered off the cliff and broken its neck. “That’s country shit right there,” says Joe, in a Texan accent. He insists that this calf is nothing unusual here – cats come here to die from the more populated town centre of Chorley.
By teenhood, Joe’s persona had become louder. His moods and rebellion translated into something sellable. While making money plastering and selling weed, auditions suddenly started coming through via his agent. His acne clearing up contributed to this upswing, but it also arose from how he crept closer to becoming the edgy, tattooed British actor who gets cast in a Shane Meadows production.
“I had an attitude,” he says, taking us back to the car from the dead animal. “I’d gone from being a sweet little country kid to a bad kid in the city. I didn’t care if you gave me the job but would ironically turn up to every audition bang on time.” Hilariously, his agent urged him to carry on in this vein; “She told me, ‘Keep turning up and being a shit, they all like it.’”
He realised then what would support him throughout his career: casting crews want to buy a real life version of the character. To win was to be yourself. And so, he does as little acting as possible. Which is true – in front of me, Joe is Woody, he’s also Vinnie, his Brassic character, and all the others he’s been. He could always rely on that agent, who believed in him during a fractious time and changed the course of his life. “I always wanted to be successful but I didn’t want to do the stuff to get there – like turning up and being vulnerable.”
The trouble with turning up and being vulnerable is that there’s nowhere to hide. Around this point in the interview, Joe becomes convinced that his depression has made him sound overly negative. He’s not seemed cynical at all, rather, realistic on miserable subjects – famous actors, social media, modern life – and when I assure him of this, he seems genuinely unburdened, tiny weights lifted off both shoulders. “Aww, cheers, mate,” he says, fist-bumping me.
Back at the car he swings around and says, “Right. We’ll go to my mum’s caff, have a brew and a bloody chat.”
Once upon a time, his mum’s home, now in the process of getting done up, was a derelict house in the woods, its roof open to the heavens, in complete disrepair. Now it belongs on the front of a Yorkshire Tea packet, illustrated. Chickens and children run about over the lawn and up the drive. A few years ago, when he was at a mental low point, Joe broke in and set up a tent inside. “I had gone off the rails, had a lot going on, put my shit in a wheelbarrow and just pushed it up here,” he says, over a cup of black coffee on the veranda. “I just used to sit on a chair that’d been abandoned and sit alone for days and days.”
At this point, a man walks past. Joe shouts at him to “say hello, Dad”. The appearance takes me by surprise. They have a brief exchange and the man stiffly walks off, smiling. “He’s gone missing for a few days, he’s just come back,” Joe explains. Joe’s dad is an alcoholic, and just as Brassic’s Vinnie is Joe, the dad character in Brassic was based on his own dad. “You don’t wake up one day and think ‘I’ll be an alcoholic’. Life just knocks you about so badly, and if you don’t get help from the right channels, you’ll self-medicate eventually.”
By Joe’s admission, work is both a force for good and evil in his life. He loves acting, but each role seems to put him under immense stress. It was the making of Pride that saw him swore he’d never act again, and turn instead to writing, which ended up as Brassic. “It’s a double-edged sword, bipolar, because there are times you’re off your fucking nut, really creative, staying up after a long day to write. Then other times the self-loathing is unbearable. I can’t look at myself in the mirror. I’m so thin at the moment, from behaving like I did in Melbourne, I barely made it through.”
Melbourne was where the Preacher filming took place, and it sounds objectively harrowing. Between signing the contract and getting on the plane, Joe was tortured by the repercussions of being so far from Chorley for so long (“Will I get my medication out there? Will I have a psychotic episode?”). Once out in the foreign country, one of his longest bouts of depression and subsequent self-medicating put him under such stress that he lost 87 percent of vision in his left eye. He’d had a similar bodily reaction when filming Emmerdale, losing some of his hair. This sight issue however was permanent.
“In Melbourne I wake up one morning and I can’t see properly,” he explains casually between sips of coffee. “I think I’m hungover or something, it’ll pass. It took hours before I covered up one eye. It’s like looking through an out of focus camera.” He explains – with such detail that I won’t try to fact check this – how cortisol floods your eye when you’re stressed and that his eye, flooded with fluid, created a blister, which drained and broke his iris in on itself. “Now I’ve got a fucking scar inside my eye – there’s nothing they can do for it. You’ve got to chill out.”
The question hangs in the late afternoon air on the veranda, while wind chimes play – when will you chill out, Joe? “Like I said to you earlier, I’m ambitious, I want it all. I don’t want to struggle for the rest of my fucking life. We’ve all done enough of that, me and Dave. I want to be able to point to something and say I did that,” he says, looking between me, Dave, the photographer and the PR, one by one. “And fucking hell, I believe in myself now. I thought I was thick, I really believed that for years, and for the first time in my life I’ve realised I’m not fucking stupid.” It was creating Brassic himself that did that. “It’s taken a long, long time. But… for the future I’d like to learn to love myself and genuinely mean it when I say it.”
Within 30 seconds of that revelation, he’s spinning a comic tale and gets his phone out to show us a picture. “I just panicked then: what if porn comes up? ‘Massive dick in camel’s mouth’ – fuck!” Everyone laughs again.
It’s time to leave his mum’s but as is in his giving nature, he asks if we want to see some chickens. Obviously we do, and follow him around the back of the building. In a pen, spotless ducks and various strange-looking breeds of chickens rustle and peck at each other and Joe starts giving them all a story of their own. He narrates using different voices as they strut around the pen, and there in some sort of unmediated flow, he looks really happy.
The first season of ‘Brassic’ is available on Sky One now.