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Wednesday 24 Sep 2014

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Occupation: Stephen Graham plays Danny

Stephen Graham as Danny

Stephen Graham admits he had problems reading Peter Bowker's screenplay, but not, he hastens to add, because he wasn't gripped by its drama.

"I couldn't get my hands on it," he explains. "My wife, Hannah, is an actor as well. When I was reading it she was grabbing it off me all the time. I'd go off and make a cup of tea and she'd be there with her head buried in it saying: 'You've got to get that part'. I'd say: 'Give it back,' and we'd end up fighting over it."

When he finally got his hands on the screenplay, he knew immediately that he had to take on the role of Danny, the seemingly happy-go-lucky soldier who is drawn back to Iraq as a private contractor working with an ex-American marine.

"I knew I wanted to be part of it from the moment I read it, because the writing was so beautiful and because of what it was saying. The characters are so well developed," he says.

Danny begins the story as part of a tight-knit group. The events that begin the story transform him – and his relationship with his fellow soldiers, Mike and Hibbsy.

"This one situation changes the lives of these three men for ever," he says.

His character, Danny, returns to Iraq to work with an American GI he encounters during the invasion of Basra in 2003. Together they form a security operation that quickly finds itself bidding for – and winning – multi-million-dollar contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq. As Danny is drawn deeper into the murky and mercenary world, he loses his moral compass.

"It's political without shoving it down your throat," he says. "It doesn't really judge. It offers you these people and says look, there are faults in everyone and there is goodness in everyone. It's not preachy, and it allows you to make your own mind up."

Graham is one of the most in-demand actors in the country at the moment. His tour de force in the acclaimed movie This Is England has landed him a raft of roles, both here in the UK and in America, where he has just completed a movie, Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp, in which he plays the Thirties gangster Baby Face Nelson.

It was while he was finishing a homegrown production in the weeks before joining the cast of Occupation that he met the ex-soldier who gave him the most important guidance on playing Danny.

"I was lucky on my last production that there was a very unassuming third assistant director on there, a guy called Chris, a lovely Welsh fella, who was in the Special Forces. You'd have never thought it," he explains. "He looked more like a hippy than a soldier."

Talking to someone who had been through an experience very much like Danny's, Graham began to truly understand his character and what drove him to return to Iraq.

"He told me the thing that kept him out there was the fact that he didn't have any wife and kids. He had nothing. He was just there for the camaraderie and the buzz and the thrill. He'd been doing it since he was 18 so he didn't have any other routine," he says.

"He couldn't cope when he was back here at home seeing his mum and dad and his friends. They didn't quite understand what he'd been going through. He was in the Falklands and then in Kuwait for Desert Storm. It gave me a real understanding of Danny and what made him tick."

Danny's wise-cracking humour at the beginning of the drama also rang true.

"Their humour is quite dark – I love that. You need that, otherwise everyone is going to be sitting there feeling very depressed. You have to find a way of pulling people out of it. That's what Danny is like. But then he self destructs," he says.

Like his colleagues James Nesbitt and Warren Brown, Graham came away from the production filled with admiration for the men and women who served in the Armed Forces.

"We had a military adviser helping us with some of the scenes and we did a few little exercises. He said there are no accidents, only mistakes," he says.

"What I've really understood about it is that you are so dependant on other people watching your back. When it comes down to the bare bones of it, it's your life and you are placing that life in the hands of someone else."

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