Dave Johns: "Ken's radicalised me!"

From jobbing standup to global film star, Dave Johns has done it all. But, he tells Ben Williams, he's not wasting the added profile of a late career boost

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Dave Johns
Published 28 Jul 2017

No one is more surprised at Dave Johns’ recent movie stardom than Dave Johns. The 61-year-old "working class Geordie lad" has been a jobbing standup for 30 years, and happily so. But since scoring the lead role in Ken Loach’s Bafta-winning I, Daniel Blake, Johns’ new life has been, in his words, "a headfuck".

"I’ve been on a weird trip," says the new movie star, over the phone on a day off from shooting his next project. "I’d done bits of TV, but I’ve never really been exposed to that world; to the Cannes Film Festival or the Baftas, or meeting Woody Allen in a lift, or having a conversation with Steven Spielberg about giants. When the film won the Palme d’Or suddenly all these people—all these stars—knew who I was. I’m on the red carpet standing next to Meryl Steep and Emma Stone, and all I could think was: 'This is insane, I’ve gone mad!'"

Rubbing shoulders with the Hollywood elite hasn’t come naturally to Johns, he admits, and the juxtaposition of the film’s subject matter—poverty, hunger, the welfare system, people in need of help—and the glitz of Hollywood isn’t lost on him. "In Cannes there are super yachts all over the place, you’re having gold leaf quail eggs for lunch. It’s madness," he says.

Eating eggstravagant lunches (sorry) hasn’t been Johns’ strangest experience, though. That was winning Best Newcomer at the Empire Film Awards. "I was up against people like Tom Holland," says the comic, baffled. "He’s the new Spiderman, and he’s 21. I’m 61! 'So what happened to the Best Newcomer?' 'Oh, he died of old age.'"

All these fish-out-of-water stories would make a great standup show, thought Johns, and that’s the focus of his new hour, I, Fillum Star. The last time the Tyneside-born comic performed a solo show at the festival was in 1999. With three more ‘fillums’ in the works since Daniel Blake, why come back to Edinburgh at all?

"I love standup," explains Johns. "There’s no better feeling than being on stage with some mad crazy thing in your head that you think is funny and an audience happens to find it funny as well. A film is a collaborative thing, but standup is very immediate; it’s just you on your own."

With a new-found fame comes a new audience, though. There will be many punters at the Fringe who only know Johns from his straight performance in a very serious film. That’s to his advantage, he reckons. "It’s a nice position to be in, because they come with preconceived ideas of what you are, so you can pull the rug out from underneath them. I do get recognised on the street now, and some people do come up to me and say, 'I love the film'. But I also have people who stare at me for a while and then say, 'Did you deliver my mam’s fridge?'"

Fame and success isn’t the only change I, Daniel Blake has brought to Johns’ life. The film’s subject matter—and particularly working with Ken Loach—has reignited his own political consciousness. "Ken’s radicalised me," Johns jokes. "I’ve always been Labour, always been a socialist, but I’ve now been doing Q&As for food banks, and I was invited to speak at the Labour Party Conference. Ken’s a very passionate guy and I think we need to thank ourselves that we have people like him and [writer] Paul Laverty who can give a voice to people."

Unsurprisingly, political reaction to the film was mixed. Jeremy Corbyn praised the movie and, at PMQs, encouraged Theresa May to see it. Whereas former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith described it as "unfair", claiming it focused only on "the very worst of anything that can ever happen to anybody". Of course, these words were spoken long before the Prime Minister lost her majority at the snap election. Does Johns think the movie had an effect on the result?

"I do!" he responds, passionately. "I think the film has helped in changing the narrative of, 'everybody who needs social security is a scrounger and doesn’t want to work'. No, they’re just ordinary people in a system that’s been set up to save money and not to help them. It shouldn’t matter what political persuasion you are, it’s about being a human being and having compassion.

"I’m very happy about how many young people are getting their weight into politics now, because the only change that will come is from young kids. With Brexit, I don’t think anyone over the age of 50 should’ve been allowed to vote, because it’s not going to affect us, we’ll all be dead when the kids are going to have to live with this decision. You old bastards, you fucked the country!"

At 61, Johns might be past his own Brexit vote limit, but he’s clearly not an old bastard. Having been thrown into a glamorous world after decades in grimy comedy clubs, he knows he’s in a privileged position. "I’ve become an overnight sensation right at the end of my career," he jokes. And if it all goes tits up? Well, there’s always Celebrity Big Brother. "Can you imagine? They’d have to get a Stannah Stairlift in for me. 'You’ve been evicted. Please leave the Big Brother house.' 'I’m going! It can only go as fast as it can go!'"