Dave Johns interview: I, Daniel Blake star on the film’s legacy and his long comedy career

We caught up with award winning actor and comedian Dave Johns to talk all things I, Daniel Blake, comedy and what’s coming next

<p>Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake</p>

Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake

If you’ve not heard the name Dave Johns, there’s a high chance you’ll recognise him from his role in I, Daniel Blake.

The 65-year-old comedian got his breakthrough acting role in the Palme d’Or-winning Ken Loach film in 2016, which exposed the state’s lack of support for the most vulnerable citizens with the kind of savage wit the veteran director is known for.

However, before that Dave enjoyed a long career in comedy.

I was lucky enough to catch up with him at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, where his improv and jokes had the audience in stitches. That’s what comes from a 30-year career in front of the microphone.

You started in comedy at The Tyne Theatre, which seemed to be the place to be in the 90s. Can you tell me about where it all began for you?

Yeah, I started at the Tyne Theatre Comedy club, but when I first started working there I was just working backstage.

I used to be a bricklayer and I hated it, and I was looking for something to do. So I ended up helping out there and I loved it. And then they had the bistro that wasn’t doing much.

I went down to London, in 87 or 88 and saw the Comedy Store show and thought ‘this is amazing’. This would be great back home, and I’d always wanted to get into comedy.

So I said to Jack Dixon who ran the theatre, ‘can I have the bistro cause I want to do some comedy with it.’ Within a couple of weeks it was selling out Friday and Saturday nights.

The first gig was me compering, I’d never done that before, and it was Jack Dee and Jo Brand who were just starting out. It was 89 when we first started the gigs.

I had no idea what I was doing but that’s how I got into comedy. I just started, you know, making a name for myself and started going out and doing gigs around the country. Then 29 years later I met Ken Loach.

So it wasn’t a career path you ever thought of pursuing as a kid?

Well, I’d always been funny. But I never knew where to go. People like Billy Connolly, he could play guitar and for clubs he used to sing songs and then he would be funny.

I started doing it, and thought this is good fun man and I’m getting paid to stand on stage and make people laugh. I thought maybe it would last a year or something, but it just kept going.

It just took off, and now at 66 I’ve got a film career. In five weeks I’m off to Belgium to do a film called The Turtles. It’s gonna be a really great film. It’s another lead role with a famous French actor. and I’m learning French. It’s great!

Was the plan to always be an actor-comedian or was acting a natural progression for you?

I’d always loved theatre. I’d been in the youth theatre when I was a kid, and I loved performing, again I just didn’t know where to do it. But I stopped.

When I started the comedy stuff I was going to the Edinburgh Festival in 2003, and I got together with a load of comics like Bill Bailey and a producer, and we did 12 Angry Men which ended up being a massive hit.

And then after that, the next year, we did one for Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Christian Slater.

And then Ken Loach was looking. Our producer said to me that Ken was making a film in Newcastle and the breakdown sounds like you. Same age group.

He says, ‘Why don’t you get in touch with the casting?’

So, I sent a text to the casting director, saying ‘Hi, my name is Dave Johns. I’m a 59 year old stand-up comic. I hear Ken Loach is looking for a bloke to be in his new film. I’d be up for that.

And they brought me in. And I had a meeting with Ken and I did five castings with different actresses, and got the part and now I’ve got a film career at the age of 66.

I know how lucky I am. I feel very lucky, I feel very fortunate. I keep saying to my daughter, if you can get a job that you would do for nothing, and you get paid for it, it makes your life a lot easier.

Because you work a lot, a lot of years in your life. And so if you can do something that you love, then you’d never think it’s work.

I think for a lot of people it’s about fear, you know, it’s about fear of failing but the thing is, all you can do is fail.

A lot of people get put off by it, especially kids when they’re told that it’s not for you, especially if you’re working class. You always think that you’re in the wrong place.

And you always think that theatre is for somebody else, you know. That’s not what you should think when you are a kid.

It’s just a case of finding your niche, you know, isn’t that what life’s about, at the most people have about 80 years. It’s not long and so If you try something and fuck it up, at least you tried. But I know I’m very lucky.

What keeps you coming back to stand-up?

I still come back to doing stand-up because standing on stage, making a group of strangers laugh is the best feeling in the world.

Making people laugh and making strangers feel good is a great feeling and so even when I’m doing the films, I’ll still always do comedy, because it’s my first love.

I toured my show I, Film Star and it was amazing up and down the country. But going to the Theatre Royal and selling it out yourself, seeing your name there, and the theatre was packed, it was just an amazing thrill.

I’ve been a stand-up half my life. I mean, that’s unbelievable. When I thought it would last a year. I was just doing it for a laugh and it’s lasted 33 years. It’s humbling, it’s just by making absolute nonsense up in your head. And thankfully other people enjoy it too.

I talk to students a lot who ask if I trained, and I say nah, and you can see the lecturers thinking ‘don’t tell them that!’

People come into this business from all walks of life. And that’s why you should never put yourself off.

Actors come from all walks of life, there’s people who train, and there are people who can just do it. If you’ve got the talent you can get on.

Don’t be scared, don’t be frightened, I mean, all you can do is be shit. But it’s not gonna kill you. And you might be brilliant.

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When it came to preparing for a role like I, Daniel Blake, what did you do? Obviously living in Newcastle gives you a good starting point but what else?

Well, the way Ken Loach auditions is you don’t get a script. You go in and do improv scenes with other actors.

I did five auditions with different actresses, and Haley was the first one I worked with. We both went away and worked with other people and came back, and he chose us.

Working with Ken Loach is a different style, everything he does, it’s very documentary. He tends to put you in situations with real people. Like the food bank scene in the film, that was all volunteers who worked there.

So you put me and Hayley in this very real space, and he gives the actors space.

I mean thank god we have people like Ken Loach giving voices to people that don’t have one.

What do you think about the lasting effect of I, Daniel Blake?

That film, it was at the right time, it hit a note. It was about the way they were demonising people claiming benefits and what it shows is that it was ordinary people.

I think it shocked people, we showed the real assessments and sanctions people get.

It could be your daughter, your uncle, people falling on hard times and the Tory idea was to demonise people as if they were scroungers. Which couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I’m actually writing the stage adaptation for Northern Stage. I won’t be in it but Ken asked me to write a stage adaptation which we’re hoping to put on.

I mean the film came out in 2016, and it’s 2022, and do you know what’s changed? The hold music. The one Daniel Blake says is shite. The sanctions, the assessments, it’s all the same.

It did what it did and that’s a great legacy. If I never made another film I’d be so proud of making I, Danel Blake because it had such a weight.

What about the reaction at the Cannes Film Festival? It won the biggest award there and received incredible reviews.

Well I was just thinking ‘wow this is pretty amazing, I’m at the Cannes Film festival’.

Seeing the screening, it was the first time I’d seen myself that big. I was just going my god, look at my big head. But when the film finished, there were 2,000 people there, and it got a 15 minute standing ovation.

I was gobsmacked. Then it just kept going, winning the BAFTA. It won five awards and got amazing reviews. It was just crazy, man. The Tory party were trying to say it wasn’t real, so politically as well we were really happy that it hit home.

What’s next for Dave Johns?

Lots! We just made Fishermen’s Friends 2, which is coming out on 29 April. It’s a film the whole family can watch.

There’s The Turtles, which is a great script and it’s moving and funny.  There’s so much more. I’m also writing a radio sitcom which will hopefully get picked up. And I’ll always do stand-up. It’s my bread and butter.

Dave Johns plays the following UK tour dates:

  • 6th/7th May 2022 - Glee Club, Birmingham
  • 20th/21st May 2022 - Glee Club, Cardiff
  • 27th/28th May 2022 - Laurels, Whitley Bay

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