Interview – stars of ‘I, DANIEL BLAKE’; Dave Johns and Hayley Squires

This week, Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winning film ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is released in Irish cinemas. An examination of the UK benefits system through the eyes of two people, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ stars two unknown actors – Dave Johns and Hayley Squires – as a man who has worked all his life, and a single mother, both struggling to survive. had the pleasure of sitting down with the chatty and passionate Johns and Squires at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year to find out more about what it was like to work with Ken Loach, the challenges of the film, and just how surreal they found the glittering festival as first timers.

How did you get involved with the film?
Dave Johns: I had a text from a producer guy that I know, who said that he had heard Ken [Loach] was looking for a late-50s guy, in his new film, from Newcastle, and I went “Oh!”. I have never done a film before, this was my first time; I am a stand up comic so, as I normally do, I sent a text going here’s a link to my website, I heard you’re looking for somebody. I think Kahleen [Crawford, Casting Director] thought that was actually quite funny, that I just sent this text in. I hadn’t heard anything for two weeks, then she said “Would you come to London and meet Ken?”. So I went in, had a chat to him for about 15 minutes and got on great with him. He loves comics; he has a great sense of humour, and we just had a chat about football and I made him laugh a couple of times, I taught him a bit of Geordie; I taught him a few phrases that you need to know. The he got in touch and said “Will you come for a casting? You don’t have to prepare anything, I am just going to give you a couple of scenes to play with somebody. I walk in and this lady [Hayley Squires] is there; we do a couple of scenes, then I did some more with other people. In the last bit we came back together, so we were the first people who did scenes together. I think Ken just wanted to find out how we gelled.
Hayley Squires: I went to drama school and I had an agent and she called me and said “Do you want to meet Ken Loach for his new film?” She said there was no script – which I knew was the way it ran with Ken. I didn’t know anything about the film; I didn’t have a premise or much information about the character. I went in and met with him and Kahleen and again we just had a chat; I think we talked a little bit about football as well, and where I’m from and parents’ background and that kind of stuff. We had a lovely conversation, then I went back in and met Dave, again there was no script, which is obviously very very rare for an audition.
DJ: He gave us a couple of scenes…
HS: But they weren’t scenes were they? We had a conversation. [Ken said] “Just have a conversation, and this is what it’s about, this is what you want…”
DJ: He said to me “You and Kate are friends…”
HS: But he didn’t even say Kate, there was nothing to do with the film.
DJ: Yeah “You and Hayley are friends, you work together. One day you are having a cup of tea on your break and you notice she has a bruise on her eye and you think it’s her boyfriend”
HS: he said “This is where you want to get to and this is where you want to get to, let’s see how it plays out”. Again, we came back around to the final one in Newcastle, then I had to wait all weekend to find out, then I got the call.
DJ: I got the call that night. After I left I thought “I don’t know if I’ve got it or not” and he said “I’ll phone you later”. So I am walking around going “He said he’d phone us up, and they don’t usually phone you unless you’ve got it”, then he phoned me up and says “Hi it’s Ken, we thought you did great today”, and he was so sweet, he goes “Would you be in my film?”, and I says “I’ll phone you back!” [laughs]
HS: When he called me he said “I’m so glad you’ve agreed to do our little film”

How challenging was it for you, as a stand up comic, to do such a dark, dramatic and heartbreaking film?
DJ: Well I have never done a film before, so I had no idea about the protocols. I think I was a fresh canvas. I remember Ken saying to me on the first day “I don’t want you to worry about anything; if you get it wrong we’ll do it again. All you need to remember is listen and react, and if you do that truthfully it will come across on screen. That’s all you need to know”. It’s a safe environment so I felt really… I was nervous, of course I was, but because you only get the script a couple of days before, so I was actually living Dan’s life. It’s like your life, you don’t know what’s going to happen in three days time, so I tried to play it honestly. Ken always done one take first off, then he goes “Right, that’s just to get your pre-concieved ideas about how you’re going to play this when you read the script”
HS: Get it all out
DJ: He doesn’t want you acting.

Hayley, you went to drama school, but I presume you had never done a project like this before?
HS: No never. I loved it. The whole thing was just wonderful. I went to Newcastle, I packed my stuff up and I went and lived in a hotel in Newcastle for five weeks. Me, Ken and Paul [Laverty, screenwriter] actually did a lot of research for about a month before, to really get into where Katie had been living, the kind of girl she was, her education, her relationship history, her history with her mother and to meet women who were beginning in a very similar situation that she was in. We worked with Shelter, the homeless charity, who were amazing. They put me in touch with women and I went and met them where they were living. But I loved it, it was a dream because it was so lovely not to have the script, carrying the script in your head for five weeks and knowing where the film ends up. If I had known that was where we had to get to, I don’t know what I would have done. I think I would have panicked quite a bit, but you step on set with Ken and it is like stepping onto a platform of total safety, that you just know it’s never going to fall, it’s never going to crumble, so it was actually lovely. It’s an actor’s dream; every so often he just feeds this little bit to you, like finding out what Katie ends up doing for a living. I had no idea about that. [Ken] sat me down one lunchtime and he said “In two days we are going to be doing this, but don’t tell Dave”
DJ: So he kept me and her away from each other
HS: We had become quite close and then we got separated.
DJ: I couldn’t see her for about a week. I was talking to my wife and I goes “I feel really bereft. I am not allowed to phone her, I am not allowed to speak to her”. That was because in the film Dan doesn’t see them for a while, and he was trying to get that feeling of the loss.
HS: His process means a complete investment, but he doesn’t mean an investment where you’re not isolated – I didn’t go home to London at all, and I had the opportunity to – you are surrounded by a group of filmmakers… The only thing I can compare it to is ensemble theatre, where nobody leaves the stage, regardless of whatever scene’s happening. I always remember being in the flat and doing the set up, and then everyone would just melt away into different rooms, but you knew that they were there. Everyone was completely concentrating on what was happening in the middle, which was whatever scene was going on. It was great.
DJ: he doesn’t have any of this make up before you do a shot; everyone gets out and there is only you and the cameras. There’s no checking costumes, there’s no clapperboard before you do a scene.
HS: He creates a space where the actors can go in and you can be completely collaborative with your crew. I have never been on a job where I step on and I know all the crew members by name, and can have a chat with them.

How do you feel about the film, which is about poverty and struggling to survive, ending up in the glamour and glitz of Cannes?
DJ: It’s a good place for it to be, because with the subject matter, there is no point in preaching to the people who know about it. It’s the people that don’t know what’s going on with the benefits system in England that we need to talk to. I think there are a lot of people in England that will be quite shocked about sanctions. I certainly didn’t know about sanctions.
HS: There’s a slightly strange – not a bad taste – but there’s a slightly strange taste to it because of the fact that I had to go and get a load of outfits to bring here, and when I am done I am going to go and live with my Mum in her housing association house; in her social housing. It’s very strange, but at the end of the day I think this is the biggest platform it could go on; it’s completely unashamed in its political voice and what its saying, so the bigger the platform, the more people talking about it – even if its amongst all the luxury and the glamour – some of it lovely, some of it a little bit silly. As long as it’s on that stage and people are hearing it, the voice of the film is out there, that’s the most important thing.
DJ: There was a motorcade with bike riders to the premiere. It’s ridiculous! [laughs] I was sitting in the back of the car just laughing my tits off, going “This is hilarious!” when I knew what the content of the film was. I think [Cannes] is a good place, because I think a lot of people will be shocked in England that if you are five minutes late you can lose your benefit for 13 weeks. It is this thing that has been built up where you have got to tick boxes and you have lost sight of the person, the human being. You are just ticking boxes to get people off a system.

What do you think your Mum will make of the film?
HS: She was here. A few years back now, my Mum was in a situation where it was me and her, and we weren’t sure where we were going to end up. They were building new estate and a certain amount of those were going to be housing association, and we couldn’t pay the rent where we were and we were wondering where we were going to go, and my Mum does amazing work; she works in a school in quite a deprived area, she does wonderful work with kids who get kicked out of class, who have terrible home lives. I moved back to her house because I couldn’t afford my rent in London, so I moved back in with her in her housing association. She was next to me last night, and she hadn’t seen it. She was in bits. I think a massive part of it was because probably she recognised something in Katie when she was younger, and I think the role of the children in it, because it’s something that she deals with every day; kids who are the children of victims. I think that’s what really touched my Mum when she saw it.

Will you incorporate your adventure as an actor in your stand up routine?
DJ: I would imagine so. There is nothing that is more bizarre than this. My daughter watched the red carpet on live streaming last night, and she’s only 10 and she was like “Oh my god! You’re a film star!”. All the comics have been tweeting me, and they take this piss out of me, so they keep my feet on the ground. What I love about it is that in a lot of the reviews, they have understood what the story is about. I think, even if you don’t like Ken’s politics, you can’t fault his sincerity. He is a person who has to tell a story when he sees things that are wrong. Him and Paul [Laverty] will do things that other people won’t touch. Even if you hate the politics, you cannot say anything about this story. Dan and Katie are ordinary people, it could be your granddad, it could be your father, it could be your brother, it could be your sister. It’s ordinary people who are caught in this. The one part of the film that really got to me about Dan’s dignity was when he has been told he has to go to work but he can’t, so he has to go through the ridiculous lip service of giving out CVs and looking for work that he can’t possibly take and he gets offered a job from a garden centre, and he has to tell the guy that he can’t take it, because he will lose his benefits and the guy then says “What, you don’t want to work!? You’re just a scrounger!” and that’s the thing that just gets Dan. It’s dignity.
HS: Dignity is a massive part of it, I think. Watching it, dignity is a huge part of it; losing dignity and trying to find dignity.

Words: Brogen Hayes

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is released in Irish cinemas on October 21st 2016. Watch the trailer below…