Neil Maskell has quietly perfected the art of intensity and intimidation over the past two decades. Speaking to him, he seems to be a very kind and humble man, and is certainly not hypermasculine or sculpted with ridiculous musculature; he looks and sounds like a working-class Everyman, someone better equipped to handle spatulas than guns. However, put Maskell in the right part, and you’ll see an astonishing, chameleonic, great actor transformation. Suddenly, this kind man with a potbelly becomes the most discomforting, intimidating, complicated killer in the world. He’s simply one of the best British actors of his generation.
Neil Maskell, Master of Malice
Though Maskell has played comedic parts with great zeal (King Gary, The Wrong Door), he excels at the utter intensity of dark and violent men, managing to color them all differently and bring each alive in their own specificity, rather than as mere movie clones. His confident, secretive contract killer in Kill Listhis borderline-autistic and yet relentlessly terrifying man on a mission in the TV masterpiece Utopiaor his blunt, violently angry footballer in The Football Factory – Maskell is a master of malice.
It goes without saying, though, that he’s incredible in all sorts of roles, from Happy New Year Colin Burstead to Small Ax and Intergalactic. He now plays a kind of messenger of death in Paul Andrew Williams’ fascinating and nasty little revenge thriller, Bull. Speaking with him, however, creates a bit of cognitive dissonance; he’s actually a thoughtful and jovial personality.
“You know, it’s a funny thing,” Maskell says. “If you know me personally, then you know I’m the last person to get involved in a physical confrontation with anyone actually, and it’s a strange one, but people do seem to keep writing parts where I’m supposed to beat people up or kill them or whatever. ” In Bullhe plays the titular movie gangster out for vengeance years after a crime family tries to kill him. He’s incredible here, a force of nature, and uses his bare skill as an actor to transform his otherwise normal physicality into something monstrous.
There’s an old saying that goes, never do too good a job, or they’ll make you keep doing it. Maskell has obviously tapped into something special with these performances, and has become a go-to actor for British cinema and television as a result. As a case in point, Paul Andrew Williams wrote the titular character of Bull specifically for Maskell to play, a character who hunts down men and women alike, one by one, in his great revenge movie quest. “Paul obviously thinks of me as being this vengeful, horrible character, and it really upsets my mom, I’ll tell you that,” Maskell laughs.
The Blue-Collar Maskell
Perhaps some of this has to do with a kind of cultural prejudice. There are myriad dialects across the United Kingdom, but many people distinguish between two essential colloquial sounds – the posh bourgeois (the movies of Colin Firth or Benedict Cumberbatch) and the proletariat working class (Michael Caine’s movies, or Bob Hoskin’s). Similar to how many Black actors were only given roles as criminals or servants at one time in Hollywood, actors with working class accents in the UK are often typecast as ‘toughs.’
“I have a very thick, working class, London accent, and in England, that marks you in a certain way. We’re a class-driven country, where the working classes are portrayed in very specific ways,” Maskell says, with strong feelings about class consciousness. “There is something to be said for the fact that when I am speaking in my own accent, normally I’m playing a villain.”
It’s incredible how much of an effect accents (which are entirely arbitrary and geographical) have on everyone, determining how they’re treated by the world simply because of how they sound. Southerners in America are often pigeonholed as being backwards or unintelligent, and Canadians are often viewed as being entirely polite and adorable; if Donald Trump spoke like Hugh Grant, he probably would’ve won his second term.
Maskell has felt this deeply throughout his life, in both negative and positive ways, and he speaks about it with an almost political sensibility. “In the early stages of my career, I was just turning up and threatening people, and there was not necessarily a lot more to it than that. I’ve got a number of parts in my CV that are like ‘Thug 1’ and ‘Burglar 2.’ I think that says more about how the industry sees working class people than it does about what working class people are actually like. We’re not burglars, thugs, hooligans, and gangsters. My family were none of that. “
Regardless, Maskell is a very diplomatic and humble person (or at least objective), and is grateful for the opportunities he got along the way. “Because I’ve been cast in that way though, it’s that thing of, you’d rather be typecast than not cast. It’s probably done me favors in that sense.”
Neil Maskell is Marvelous, No Bull About It
He’s transcended a lot of the typecasting recently, as he continues to prove himself as one of the boldest and most intense actors today. He’s gone the opposite route, though, when playing the educated Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Peaky Blinders, and has just written and directed his debut movie as a filmmakera dark spy comedy called Bells. His intense acting roles may take more of an emotional toll than these, but they’re ultimately worth it in the end.
“It’s almost like physical exercise,” Maskell says, “when I look back, I was f ** ked at the end of that bit of exertion, but I’m glad.” He’s a father, a husband, and a son, so he worries about bringing home these dark and violent men he plays; “I’m not sure if I’m always great to live with or be around,” he wonders endearingly. He has to go to some pretty dark places for his roles – some of his scenes in Utopia caused some uproar, after he played a man who killed numerous children in a school shooting.
“I get a bit tunnel visioned about it,” Maskell says about the process with these intense characters. “There is a toll to it, when you’re putting yourself deliberately in that headspace all day, and thinking the worst of things and the worst of humanity, and whatever it is you have to do to get there emotionally. I suppose there’s a price to be paid. “
What he pays for with this emotional toll are not only some of his best movie performances, but something personally therapeutic. “It’s an act of catharsis. It’s a way of getting rid of stuff that maybe other people who aren’t actors do not get the opportunity to, who just have to see a therapist. Really, it’s primal scream therapy. That’s what [acting] is a lot of the time. “
Bull in the British Film Industry
Nonetheless, he would not have it any other way. In his third decade as an actor, with an impressive career and beautiful family, Maskell has little left to prove; at this point, he just enjoys the work. “I like a film set, I like being around people, and I really feel at home in that environment, and I really enjoy it,” he says. Still, the British film industry is a strange and complex landscape to navigate. “It’s very difficult to raise money for British films. I’ve just written and directed my first film, and that took, you know, a number of years to get the money for.”
Even after making good films, it’s difficult to finance further projects. Maskell attributes this to the death of the DVD and home video in general, along with the solipsism of franchise culture, which in turn leads to lower budgets for independent films. “Streaming isn’t getting you anywhere near the revenue and the money back on [independent films]”he says,” so I think the budgets have gotten even lower and squeezed down, and it’s even harder. “
In a sense, every good British indie movie is a small miracle in a world teeming with tiny apocalypses. Bull is one of those miracles, a gritty, disturbing, almost surreal thriller about justice and redemption, with Maskell giving one of the best performances of the year so far. “I work with amazing actors, amazing technicians, and some brilliant young directors and staff,” Maskell states, spreading the success to the cast and crew of Bull. “I still love the job. I’m very lucky.”
Bull was released in select theaters on April 1st, but is available April 5th through on-demand and digital. It currently has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score with 30 reviews, and that’s no bull.
Exclusive: Neal McDonough Talks Boon, Faith, and Morality
About The Author