Stephen Graham: Britain’s most ‘reliably excellent and in-demand’ actor

From Snatch to The Irishman, the Liverpudlian’s résumé is filled with blockbuster roles 

Stephen Graham at the international premiere of The Irishman
Stephen Graham at the international premiere of The Irishman
(Image credit: Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

Stephen Graham says his newest film, Boiling Point, is the “most exhilarating and frightening thing” he’s ever done.

This is quite a statement from the award-winning actor, said James Mottram on the i news site, as the 48-year-old’s extensive on-screen résumé includes blockbuster roles in hits such as This Is England, Snatch, Boardwalk Empire, Line of Duty and The Irishman.

Born in the Merseyside town of Kirkby in 1973, Graham’s school careers officer told him to forget acting and “get a trade”, The Observer’s Johnny Davis reported. This advice was “happily ignored by his stepfather” – “Pops” – who took the youngster to a video shop and rented out Taxi Driver, The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. If he was serious about acting “this was the stuff to aspire to”.

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Graham discovered acting at the age of eight before joining Liverpool’s Everyman youth theatre in his teens, The Guardian said. And his “breakthrough role” was his Bafta-nominated performance as skinhead ​​Andrew “Combo” Gascoigne in Shane Meadows’s This Is England.

In portraying Combo, Graham delivered “one of the most intense, magnetic and haunting performances in modern memory”, said Tom Jolliffe on Flickering Myth. It was a performance “which caught the eye of many in the business”.

‘What am I going to tell my mate?’

Graham revealed that his “big break” in the acting world came after a “surreal audition” for Guy Ritchie, Metro reported. Meeting the director by chance, he secured his first major role – cockney boxing promoter Tommy in Snatch – in “unlikely circumstances”.

Speaking on Sky One’s There’s Something About Movies, Graham said that he’d only gone along to the audition “for a ride”. Ritchie came out and asked if he was next and the then-unknown actor said “no, I’ve just come with my mate”.

After going into the audition – which he improvised because his dyslexia meant he struggled to read the lines – Graham was told by Ritchie, “wow, great, you start on Monday”. “What am I going to tell my mate?” Graham asked, to which Ritchie replied: “It’s not my f***ing problem…”

Stephen Graham in The Irishman

Stephen Graham in The Irishman
(Image credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

‘My Champions League final’

Graham’s contacts book includes some of the finest behind-the-camera talent in Hollywood. As well as Meadows and Ritchie, he’s also worked with legendary director Martin Scorsese on The Irishman, Boardwalk Empire and Gangs of New York. Joining icons such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel on The Irishman, Graham told The Guardian that working on the Scorsese gangster epic was “my Champions League final”.

“I slapped an ice-cream out of Al Pacino’s hand, which he wasn’t expecting,” he said. “I threw a line at Bobby De Niro and he came straight back with the best reply. Those scenes were a joy. These are the people I grew up watching, revering and wanting to emulate. So for that little kid from Kirkby to be working with them was amazing.”

After getting the role of Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano in The Irishman, Graham told Esquire the story of how he went to Scorsese’s house and was greeted by “Marty” and “Bobby” De Niro. “I felt like I’ve just been made, do you know what I mean?” he said. “Like I’d been accepted into the family.”

It was a “whirlwind” moment for the actor. Graham recalled the tale with “relish”, painting himself as the “starstruck Scouse kid” who can’t quite believe his luck, said Esquire’s Tom Nicholson. “But you don’t get to be one of Britain’s most reliably excellent and in-demand actors by chance.”

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‘I adore what I do’

Looking at the recent additions to his CV, Graham certainly attracts interesting roles. Just in this past “dramatic year” he’s played a prison officer in Time, a care home patient in Help and now a kitchen nightmare in Boiling Point, said Davis in The Observer.

Coming up in 2022, Graham will be introduced as the newest member of the Peaky Blinders cast, where he will star alongside Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in the show’s final series. A short teaser clip posted on social media by the BBC last month gave fans a sneak peek at Graham in a “still-undisclosed” role, Digital Spy reported. And it looks like it “won’t be in a friendly capacity”.

In 2019 at a Royal Television Society event showcasing his two decades in TV and cinema, Graham said that acting, for him, “is not a job – I adore what I do”. With a career taking in “some of British TV’s grittiest parts” and “meaty mobster roles across the Atlantic”, it’s a good thing that Graham ignored his school careers officer… that “little kid from Kirkby” certainly found his trade.

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Mike Starling is the digital features editor at The Week, where he writes content and edits the Arts & Life and Sport website sections and the Food & Drink and Travel newsletters. He started his career in 2001 in Gloucestershire as a sports reporter and sub-editor and has held various roles as a writer and editor at news, travel and B2B publications. He has spoken at a number of sports business conferences and also worked as a consultant creating sports travel content for tourism boards. International experience includes spells living and working in Dubai, UAE; Brisbane, Australia; and Beirut, Lebanon.