I, Daniel Blake’s Dave Johns: ​‘I still have imposter syndrome’

I Daniel Blake

I Daniel Blake - Credit: Archant

Dave Johns, the star of Palme D’Or winner I, Daniel Blake tells Bridget Galton about starting a film career in his 60s

Dave Johns with the Best Actor Award for I Daniel Blake during the British Independent Film Awards,

Dave Johns with the Best Actor Award for I Daniel Blake during the British Independent Film Awards, at Old Billingsgate Market, London. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Watching Donald Sutherland bearing down on him at a glittering awards ceremony, Dave Johns froze as the veteran movie star smiled and said: “Hello Dave”.

“I thought, ‘Donald Sutherland’ knows my name,” cackles the former bricklayer. “It seems crazy, having a film career, it’s all a bit bonkers.”

Johns was famously cast in his first film at 59 by Highgate director Ken Loach. In I, Daniel Blake he plays a middle-aged carpenter forced into the iniquitous benefits system by ill health, who befriends Hayley Squire’s struggling single mum.

When it won the Palme D’Or and best film BAFTA, the Geordie comedian found himself rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty.

“Nicole Kidman came up and says: ‘I took my mum to see your film and we were both in tears, your performance is outstanding, Given the subject matter of the film I am well aware of the irony of all that glitz and glamour.”

Johns mines these comic episodes for his stand-up show I Fillum Star, and talks at Hampstead Theatre next month about casting and career. His first step into performance came when he quit the building sites to work at his local Tyne Theatre.

Most Read

“I flew in the scenery for big musicals, that’s why they call me Dave the Showtune because I know lyrics from all these shows after hearing them 20 times.”

Then a visit to London’s Comedy Store in 1986 where he saw Owen O’Neill and Bill Bailey, changed his life.

“It blew me away. I loved it so much I went home and started my own comedy club.”

For his opening night, Johns booked Jack Dee and Jo Brand, with himself as compere.

“March 25, 1989. My first gig. We had a great night and within weeks it started selling out.”

Newcastle’s comedy scene had previously been “working men’s clubs and mother-in-law jokes” but Johns offered alternative comedians like Steve Coogan, Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble.

He also learned his craft, and had soon started a stand-up act.

“I was always funny on the building sites but playing The Comedy Store was very different,” he says. “You are inviting people into your world, but it was great that the things I thought in my head people found funny.

“I was bad at the start, but I got better quite quickly. I had to. With stand up you can only find out by doing it – there’s always a death around the corner, but with a lot of stage time you can usually play your way out of it.”

“Nightmare gigs” included a private function to munching diners in a Chinese restaurant, and an afternoon gig at a nuclear submarine base in Guam.

“The officers were all dressed as women. That was a pretty tough gig, it was a long way to go to die!”

In the noughties he, O’Neill and Bailey acted in successful stage versions of Twelve Angry Men and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where once again he learned “on the job”. Then just as he was contemplating quitting the circuit, he heard Loach was looking for someone.

“I was thinking ‘maybe I have exhausted where I can go with this’. I got as far as talking to the donkey man at Whitley Bay about taking over.”

I, Daniel Blake’s casting director has kept Johns’ initial text: “Hi, my name is Dave, I am a 59-year-old comic. I hear you are looking for someone. I’d be up for that.”

Years of improvisation helped during the casting process, as did the fact that he hailed from Byker, the working class suburb where the film was shot.

“Working the circuit stood me in good stead, I’m good at thinking on my feet and Ken saw something in me and Hayley in our first audition. Honesty was the quality he wanted in Daneil and he saw that in me.”

Loach turned out to be “a perfect starting place” for the rookie film actor.

“Working with Ken is the holy grail. He works differently, you don’t have a big crew or camera in your face, there’s no make-up tarting you up. He shoots chronologically and you get a couple of pages at a time so you don’t have preconceptions. The key to get that feeling of reality is you aren’t aware of the camera.”

Loach instructed Johns: ‘All you and Hayley have to do is listen to each other and find the truth’.

“He doesn’t want you to rely on technique, he wants truth from your gut”.

He feeels it was important to tell the story of a struggling working class community.

“It shook people, helped to change the narrative about people on benefits. They are not strangers, they could be your dad or daughter. The majority want a decent paid job and to pay their way, but a lot of people have things stacked against them.”

Inevitably his career has taken off with the big budget Walk Like A Panther out soon about a father and son wrestling team.

“When you walk on set no-one tells you anything so I had to learn on the job, there were extras, three cameras in your face. it was quite a learning curve.”

Co-star Stephen Graham offered sound advice. “The skill is learning to block out the crew and cameras and find that emotion you found with Ken.”

He still thinks it might all end tomorrow. “It’s a working class thing that you are not to show off, I still have imposter syndrome. There’s that insecurity you will be found out. Ultimately it’s about belief. We all have doubts but you try to put those thoughts away.”