A Conversation with Max Beesley

“These things are on DVD for a hundred years so even if you’re sitting in the back of a courtroom and not saying anything, you can’t be taking that as a jerk-off day.”

The English have a rich history when it comes to long-form dramatic science fiction with some of the finest examples of the genre emerging from the turbulent 1970s. In fact the 70’s delivered not only the dark brilliance of Blake’s 7, Doctor Who and Doomwatch, but also the dire post-apocalyptic thriller Survivors from creator Terry Nation, the man often credited for creation of Doctor Who’s iconic Daleks.

Survivors, whose narrative evolved around a devastating viral pandemic premiered in 1975 and, despite receiving both critical and commercial acclaim, lasted only three seasons thanks to a vicious legal battle between screenwriter Brian Clemens, best known for his anthology series ‘Thriller’ and show-runner Terry Nation, with Clemens claiming he and Nation had discussed an almost identical premises for a show in the late 1960s. Coupled with escalating creative differences between Nation and series producer Terence Dudley, Nation eventual walked away from the production altogether, only to continue with his own Survivors mythology as a novel once the show ended.

Thirty-three years later the BBC has taken the bold step of rebooting Survivors from its original pitch, this time under leadership of writer/producer Adrian Hodges, fresh off his successful action series Primeval.

One of the key roles, that of escaped inmate Tom Price, will not only help set the tone of this new incarnation, but will also play a critical role in connecting the show with its contemporary audience. Tasked with that challenge is prolific character actor Max Beesley, who sat down to chat about his take on the violent inmate let loose in a world with no moral guidelines.

Fletcher: Thanks for your time Max. Lets start with how you became involved with the show and what your initial thoughts were on the reboot.

Max Beesley: Well I was over in Los Angeles when my agent called me and said they wanted to speak to me about playing a character which eventually became Tom Price. The more I learnt about it the more I became intrigued and wanted to be involved.

I think I was doing The Last Enemy or something, so this was a completely different kind of chap. I was intrigued by the idea and then the script came through which was just excellent. So that was it really, it was the idea of playing something diverse as to what I’d been doing.

F: Had you seen the original series or at least aware of it before they approached you?

MB: I do remember that it aired on my fifth birthday, the first episode came out around 1976 and I had a look at it. And yeah, it was very good. I mean it ran for three or four seasons but what we’re doing is something that looks slightly different, a more modern series.

F: You were saying how different this role was to what you had been doing. Obliviously there is some inherent darkness and intensity in the character. How did you prep for the role of Tom Price?

MB: I did some research on sociopathic and psychopathic behaviour. I’d been writing a screenplay at that point as well which was a pretty heavy duty violent screenplay, and a lot of the research for that was reading about Richard Kuklinski, The Iceman and similar characters. So I just took snippets of different things and put this jigsaw together, threw a bit of me on top and came up with the guy.

F: Considering you created Tom price from some rather brutal killers, do you enjoy playing him on screen? And is he a difficult persona to shake of at the end of the day?

MB: Oh no, I mean its just work isn’t it? Its like playing a rapist or a child molester, you don’t find that hard to shake off; its just part of the work.

But certainly when your doing a 12 hour shoot and they yell ‘Quite on set’ its strange to just be still and think about things when your getting ready for the work. But the minute that 7 o’clock bell goes, BOOM! I’m out of there thank God.

But again, I played a heroin addict a couple of years ago, and I researched that thoroughly and it was really draining, so you have to learn to let those things go and realise its just work.

F: I understand you originally started in the entertainment industry as a musician. What inspired you to take up acting?

MB: Raging Bull. That was it. I watched that film, I was in Manchester and I said to my dad ‘I’m going to go to New York and find an actors studio or a coach and be an actor. And all because Raging Bull is amazing. I felt empathy for Jake LaMotta, even though he isn’t really a nice man, and that’s just credit to De Niro giving a multifaceted performance. I was really buzzed … really excited by it and so that’s what I did.

F: With the success of The last Enemy and Hotel Babylon, you’ve become a very recognisable face on UK television. Do you still audition for roles or are the jobs now coming to you?

MB: Its a bit of a juxtapose there. I mean L.A. is a completely different story. I’ve been pretty lucky in England but I think the harder you work the luckier you get. I’ve been lucky with the choices of work and the diversity of work. I’ve been really blessed in England and not have had to audition for quite a number of years.

But again, people see the work and they kind of know what they are going to get. I think I’ve got a reputation as being a professional and applying myself to most things, so that’s great. But then Los Angeles is completely different; it’s on the treadmill, in the rat race. I mean there are 500,000 actors living in West Hollywood all wanting a job, so I’m far from being out of the war zone.

Do have a personal preference between working in the U.K. or U.S.?

MB: Eithers fine, as long as there are good scripts, good directors. I mean it great driving onto the lot at Universal and seeing all the history there, walking around and then going home. We shot Mad Dogs out in Spain, which was brilliant; Survivors in Birmingham and Manchester and that was great. But it’s very magical in Los Angeles. The magic of driving onto the studio lot never goes. It’s always pretty exciting. And I think the day that goes is the day you should give up.

F: And how often do you actually see a Good script come across your desk? What’s your take on the state of television at the moment?

MB: Yeah. There’s not a lot of them mate, I can tell you. The current TV climate is making television that attracts a big audience or gets some artistic credibility. And it’s very difficult to get something that has both those qualities in the same bowl. But the great, great scripts are few and far between and you have to be very carful in choosing what you do.

But you know we have some great writers in England, and also in the states. There’s some fantastic shows coming out here, I’ve just been watching Boardwalk Empire, which is just brilliantly written, and a fantastic show. But really, its up to audiences as to what actually takes off.

F: And as an actor, what the one thing that will land your interest in a role?

MB: The writing, as well as the diversity and complexity of the character. As an actor that’s what we try and do, keep it diverse. I mean I’d been doing Hotel Babylon before Survivors came along, and I certainly wanted to do something different from the light and fluffy stuff. Its like food, you want to keep trying something new otherwise it becomes boring.

F: You mentioned you’d been working on script yourself? Do you have aspirations to become a screenwriter, or perhaps direct something you’ve written?

MB: Writing is very difficult. I’ve done this one film, but I don’t think I’ll do another one. I’m just enjoying acting. Maybe in a few years I’ll consider directing but I’m not too sure yet. I think it’s important that when you create your own screenplay and look to putting a film together that you know, The Idiots Guide to Every Department on a Film. I want to know about line producing. I want to know about producing. I want to know about distribution forecasts. The pro and cons of film over digital… everything. I want to know about all that so I feel comfortable the thing is being done properly. I guess that’s a reflection on me as a person. I just apply myself to… well everything.

F: Getting back to Survivors. The show is set in a time where most the human population has been eradicated by a virus. As a result there are some very creepy location shots with entire city blocks completely deserted. How difficult was it to film and capture those scenes?

MB: Yeah, we had a lot of lock downs in Manchester, and even more in Birmingham. We shot a lot on Sundays. Its interesting because most people look at it and think we have a lot of CGI on the show, but we actual don’t; its the production department and the location scouts doing their jobs properly.

F: I understand you might shot a number of sequences at a time during those lockdowns, which could effectively span numerous episodes? As an actor is it difficult keeping focus as to what scene plays where in the shows narrative?

MB: We’d get a feed-line through from Adrian Hodges. He’d keep us all well informed as to where each of our characters are going. Though sometimes not as much as you’d like so yeah, you have to sometimes play a guessing game.

F: Have you found your character evolving during the actual shooting of the series? And have you found the opportunity to give any input into how that happens?

MB: No, Adrian pretty much just watches us work and how we interact with one another and how we were with the characters. And he then very smartly will add little nuisances that would be suitable to us as actors.

F: When all’s said and done and they wrap on Survivors, what do you think will be your take on the experience will be?

MB: I think it was well rounded character and that I worked really hard on it. You know these things are on DVD for a hundred years so its important to do your best work every single day. Even if you’re sitting in the back of a courtroom and not saying anything, you can’t be taking that as a jerk-off day.

    J. Fletcher

    Based in Sydney, Australia. Entertainment Journalist. Critic. Photographer. Coffee Snob. Not necessarily in that order.

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