7 Questions with… Time's James Nelson-Joyce: ‘A family friend of mine was Britain’s most wanted man’

The Little Boy Blue actor talks exclusively to BT.com about teaming up with his “uncle” Stephen Graham again, the struggles of working-class actors and how his experiences of criminals helped him prepare for his role in BBC prison drama Time.

By Becky Gamester-Newton Published: 3 June 2021 - 2.18pm
Portrait image of James Nelson-Joyce

James Nelson-Joyce’s career is on the up.

The actor made a name for himself when he played James Yates – the boy who supplied the gun with which 11-year-old Rhys Jones was killed - in hit ITV drama Little Boy Blue.

He’s also had roles in BBC comedy-drama Mount Pleasant, ITV's biopic Cilla and Channel 4 drama The Virtues, and now he’s working with Stephen Graham once again in Jimmy McGovern prison drama Time.

In an exclusive interview with BT.com, he talks about how his friendship with Graham started with a chance meeting in Nando’s, the hurdles that actors from working-class backgrounds face to get a foot in the door, and how he was able to portray bad-boy inmate Johnno.

Time cast, plot, trailer and everything you need to know

1. Who is your character in Time?

James Nelson-Joyce being held back by a prison officer in Time BBC

Johnno is put away… basically a car is found on a street with loads of gear. There’s me, Bobby Schofield and Dean – we’re all convicted of having this gear. When we go in, me and Dean get eight years and Bobby gets six. So I’m like, it’s the same crime – you’ve grassed, you’ve snitched. So I’ve basically taken it upon myself to be like "Nah, you’re a grass".

The way I built the character was that in my head was… if you make a bit of a name for yourself, no-one’s gonna touch you. And then Sean [Bean] kinda gets involved and I end up bullying Sean as well. So not the nicest of people!

2. What was it like working with Sean Bean?

Sean Bean and James Nelson-Joyce by a prison phone BBC

Sean’s a gentleman. The mad thing is you forget how old he is, you forget his age. He’s just a gentleman. He walks round on set, he introduces himself to everyone, he’s always there if anyone wants a coffee.

When it came to the scenes, I remember halfway through the shoot, I was stepping on one morning and he just went: “Oh, no – not you again James!” Because basically every scene I’m in, I’m making his life hell.

I just walked away from it with a bit of a man crush on him, if I’m honest.

3. You’ve worked with Stephen Graham before – what sort of relationship do you have with him?

Stephen Graham as Eric McNally in Time BBC

Stephen’s incredible. Stephen’s like an uncle to me.

You don’t really see – or I didn’t as a kid – many working class actors on telly, and if you did it was very few and far between. Stephen, I don’t know, there was just something about him, just dead magical.

I’m just mesmerised by him really, watching him.

I remember I’d just left drama school and I had a meeting in London. I just went into a Nando’s and Stephen was there. The whole time I went through drama school, all the directors would go to me: “You really remind me of Stephen Graham. You’ve got that thing about you”. It’s like playing football and someone telling you you’re Steven Gerrard. It’s pretty cool, although I never thought I was, and I don’t think I am. 

Hannah Walters playing Sonia McNally in Time BBC

Anyway I was in Nando’s, and he was in there with his wife Hannah [Walters, who is also an actor and plays Stephen’s wife in Time]. So I just went over and I just went: “Look, Stephen, I find you really inspirational. I think you’re incredible. I just left drama school.” He was like, “Oh, a Scouser in London!”

I said: “I’m going to leave you to it to enjoy your dinner” and it was left at that. Then 10 minutes later, Hannah came over and Hannah was like: “Here’s my email. If you’re ever in anything, email us and let us know and we’ll watch it”.

So then I’d do bit parts in things like Casualty, or I was in Mount Pleasant. I’d done a few bits and I’d always got that working class chip on my shoulder. I’d be like "Oh I can’t bother Stephen Graham – he won’t want to know".

So then when I’d done Little Boy Blue, we were just doing a readthrough and I felt these eyes burying into my head. I looked up and it was Stephen looking at me. So I looked at him and he went "You’re that lad from Nando’s!” and he just put his thumbs up.

The thing with Stephen is he’s probably the most generous person professionally I’ve ever met. He’s approachable, he’s always there for you, he’ll phone me like once a month and make sure I’m OK, or if there’s a script going he thinks I’m right for, he’ll push for me.

And he doesn’t just do that for me, he does it for like all other actors… he does it for Jack McMullen [who is also in Time], he does it for everyone so it’s not just that he sees something in me, he’s just generous and that’s his way of giving back. And you think someone of that calibre, who’s so busy, he hasn’t forgotten his roots and how hard it is. He’s a god in my eyes.

4. Could you see yourself following in Stephen’s footsteps and helping younger actors?

Prisoners brawling in a scene in Time BBC

If I ever get to Stephen’s level and I can create a production company like Stephen’s doing and have the ability to open certain doors, certainly I would do it because I know how hard it is.

I know especially for a working-class kid from Liverpool, just even paying for drama school, to audition for a drama school is £45 which is ridiculous, then you’ve got to pay for your train fare which is extortionate, it’s near enough impossible.

And then the amount of scripts you’re getting through, for every one good social-political piece I get about a working-class background, I’ll get five where it’s the same old – I don’t mean to say rubbish because it doesn’t sound good – but I’m just bored now.

Here’s a perfect example: how many posh from privileged backgrounds kids do you get to see play working class? Quite a few. How many working class do you see to play upstairs? You don’t ever see it.

And that’s because the industry basically has this idea that "Oh, you stay in your lane and you do what you do".

Whereas people like Stephen Graham and Sean Bean are writing and producing these dramas where they’re giving working class kids an opportunity.

I’m very grateful to get the opportunity to read, and if I’m good enough, I’m good enough. But just give me the opportunity – that’s all I want. That’s all I’m asking for, a fair playing field.

5. What sort of research around prisons did you do for Time?

Sean Bean as Mark Cobden in Time, sat in a prison visiting area BBC

Obviously the background I’m from, you know characters like Johnno. I went to school with people like that.

A family friend of mine was Britain’s most wanted man and was on the run for eight years and eventually handed themself in.

Jimmy McGovern writes the world… Jimmy’s the best writer on the planet bar none. Because not only does he write a story, he has that level of detail where it’s like people are 3D.

You can be bad but you can still have a human aspect. There’s a reason why someone robs a bank – it’s usually because they’re skint. You don’t choose to do these things usually, it’s circumstantial. How many billionaires commit shop robberies? They don’t, because they don’t need it.

And that’s the angle Jimmy writes. Jimmy writes what happens behind the gun or what happens behind the crime. He’s a mad genius.

When it comes to Jimmy’s writing, everything’s there for you to go and play. He is the best, him and Shane Meadows. Everyone else is miles behind.

6. What was your first reaction when you read through the script? Things like the effects of sugar in boiling water are quite shocking for a viewer.

Prisoners sat with chaplain - played by Siobhan Finneran - in Time BBC

Most dramas would go "here’s a boiling kettle in your face – that hurts". And it’s that little bit of detail with the sugar. Or it’s the taxing people of the food, it’s the taxing people of the phone calls, it’s all these little details that Jimmy researches.

For me, when I read the script, all of a sudden you’re flicking the page – you want more. I was kind of gutted that it was only three episodes. There’s so much more to go from here. Jimmy could have written five or six episodes in that.

Stephen’s character, Kadiff’s [Kirwan] character, Sean’s character… it’s just nuts. Even the chaplain scene and all that, people forget these things that go on.

It’s one of those dramas I do honestly believe people will look, first of all look at the prison system and whether is it punishment? Or is it reform? Because that’s what this country needs to ask itself.

7. What can you tell us about your latest project, The Offenders, and your role as Bez in Happy Mondays film Twisting My Melon? 

Stephen Merchant 2019 FilmMagic/Getty

It’s good fun. It’s a good comedy, so totally different from Time.

It’s basically about a load of people who are on community service from different walks of life. So you’ve got an Instagram fame girl, a normal bloke who’s been caught speeding. All these people… and the comedy that comes from that. And that’s what Stephen’s wrote. My character once again isn’t Mr Darcy.

To be working with Stephen Merchant, it’s a bit nuts. You’d be doing a take with him and you’re just holding the laughs in because he switches it up so much. That’s fun.

All I can say to the audience is it’s nothing like you’ve seen Stephen like before. Because it also does have a bit of a grittiness to it. It’s set in Bristol… it’s got drama to it, let’s put it that way. It’s not an like Office, spoofy comedy funny, it is funny, but there’s some dark moments in there.

All I want to do is good work, and if it’s funny, it’s funny. If it’s romantic, it’s romantic. And if it’s drama, it’s drama. At the end of the day, if the script’s good I want to do it.

My mum and dad – my mum worked in a factory, my dad’s a builder – they hated their jobs. So for me, you step onto set and it’s a playground. You’re just there to produce. It’s not like a chore for me going ‘oh I have to do this, I have to do that’. I’m fortunate. I’m so lucky.

I don’t want to be famous, I don’t want to do all that, I just want to do good work.

I think a lot of people get lost in that now with the Instagrams and the reality shows. People just want to be celebrities. I find that really hard to fathom, because all I want to do is have a Nando’s and watch the footy.

[Twisting My Melon] is just pure fun. You’re doing research and obviously there’s dark stories with Bez and the Mondays and that but you listen to the music, the Hacienda, when they went to Glastonbury, all that – it’s all fun.

That is just a project I cannot wait to step on now – do you get it, Step On? That’s a good one, that!

Bez is a cracking character because everyone just sees him as just this fun, loud, bigger-than-life character. But he’s actually a really nice person because he was the one who stood by Shaun through all his troubles.

When they came to writing the second album, Shaun went cold turkey, was trying to get off the gear, and the writing wasn’t as good as the first album. So a lot of people on the management side were trying to give him pills and that again to try and get the juices flowing out of him.

And the only one who stopped them from doing it was Bez. That was the only one who stood by his friend. I can’t wait for people to see that aspect of Bez. I got to meet him and he’s a top, top bloke. Really cool. He wasn’t happy a Scouser was playing him!

Time begins at 9pm on Sunday, June 6, on BBC One. All three episodes will then be available on BBC iPlayer.

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