Dance like nobody’s watching

He might not be instantly recognisable for a single role but that’s how Manchester-based jobbing actor Matthew McNulty likes it

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You might presume that the more serious the acting role, the greater the challenge, but that’s not necessarily true, as Matthew McNulty has discovered while flexing neglected muscles for his first foray into musicals.

Although the 39-year-old actor’s more accustomed to playing intense figures in sombre dramas such as See No Evil: The Moors Murders, Jamaica Inn, Deadwater Fell and The Mill, he’s done a complete 180 for his role in Greatest Days, an upcoming film based on the stage musical The Band, which features songs by Take That.

“I do work hard in everything I do but there are similarities between the roles I’ve done, and I have a shorthand with it. This feels like I’m working a lot harder. Also, with heavy drama, you can get a bit self-absorbed, whereas dancing and singing amongst a company of people, it’s the opposite. It’s total interaction with everyone, and so engaging,” says McNulty, who’s based in Manchester.

It was the pandemic that prompted him to pause, reflect and shake things up, literally as well as metaphorically. When the first lockdown happened in March 2020, the actor was in Rome filming the first series of Domina, Sky’s Ancient Rome saga in which he plays Gaius Julius Caesar. Unlike his ever-dogged character, the enforced sabbatical “tempered my ambitions, in a good way”, says the father of three.

“When you’re an actor, it’s hard to feel settled and be happy with your lot. You’re always looking for the next job because you might be out of work for six months, and there’s the self-doubt that comes with that, so you’re always trying to stay one step ahead, but I thought, right, you can’t do anything about it, so enjoy it. And it was great being home with the kids.

“It was solid family time with no distractions, and it made me take stock. Whereas I was always thinking the grass is greener, and keeping check of what other actors were doing, I realised I’ve got to appreciate where I am, and what I’ve got, and things are good for me at the moment so I can’t ever moan.”

McNulty, who was named Michael at birth but changed his name for Equity reasons, began life on an army base in Germany where his father was stationed. Surrounded by a smorgasbord of dialects, he demonstrated an early knack for replicating accents, a skill that’s stood him in good stead throughout his professional life. It also helped him integrate when, at the age of 10, he relocated with his family to Atherton in Greater Manchester.

“We moved straight onto this estate where I was seen as the posh kid, so I had to quickly adapt and changed my accent to fit in,” he says. As a teen, he dabbled in local youth theatre but was too distracted by his part-time jobs and mates to take acting seriously.

“I used to go back and forth. I always loved it and always felt like I was good at it, but could never commit to it, and never thought I’d be an actor.”

But fate intervened when a student fortuitously dropped out of a drama showcase, and McNulty took their place. Casting director Judi Hayfield was in the audience and invited him to audition for the 2006 drama See No Evil about Moors murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley co-starring Maxine Peake and Joanne Froggatt.

It was a prominent role, playing Hindley’s brother-in-law David Smith, but once filming wrapped he returned to his job at a builders’ yard while he waited for the series to air.

“At the time I had a kid, with another on the way, so being an actor wasn’t a sensible thing to do but I was meeting London agents and auditioning, and had to keep pulling these sickies. These days, with so much going on in the North West, you don’t have to completely risk everything to get in the industry but, back then, I ended up quitting my job and temping while I auditioned. It was tough, and for a while, it was a bit like, what am I doing?”

The gamble paid off. See No Evil screened to great acclaim, and at the same time he was offered another substantial role, in the Iraq war drama The Mark of Cain, “which gave me a decent platform to work from then and I started getting other jobs”.

His career might’ve been flourishing but life remained chaotic.

Playing Tom in The Rising (main image) left McNulty “heavy-shouldered”. (Photo: Robert Harper)

“As young parents, we were just frazzled and knackered all the time but at least it meant when I went for auditions, I didn’t overthink it, which I think is best.”

To date, he has dozens of credits to his name, including Return to Cranford, alongside Dame Judi Dench, and Kay Mellor’s The Syndicate, as well as The Paradise, Misfits and Versailles.

His most recent project is the supernatural crime drama The Rising, which was filmed in Manchester and the Lake District last year.

Beginning in familiar territory with the murder of a young woman, there’s a twist with this whodunnit in that it’s the victim, Neve, played by Clara Rugaard, who becomes the chief investigator of her death.

“It just felt like something different, something vibrant, and that’s one of the things that appealed to me. It has a lot of fizz and energy about it,” says McNulty who plays Neve’s dad, Tom, a functioning alcoholic who’s forced out of his rut when his daughter seeks help.

“Out of all the characters, he probably has the highest highs and the lowest lows, and in terms of playing it I did feel heavy shouldered. Our job’s not difficult, it’s not physically draining, but when you let the mood rest heavy on you, it’s hard to wash it off.

“I was at least going home every night, which helped, as I had to switch off to deal with family life. My wife, Katie, probably told me off a few times to cheer up, but it’s never really affected anything at home.”

As for whether he believes in the paranormal, he remains cynical but open-minded.

“Not long after my mum died when I was 18, and when one of my mates died, little things happened that you could say was them, but I just try and be pragmatic about everything and to rationalise it. I’m never shut down to the idea, but whatever the most logical explanation is, that’s what I tend to believe.”

He’s equally level-headed talking about fame, or lack of it. By his own admission, the down-to-earth actor doesn’t have a face that’s instantly recognisable.

“I don’t think there’s that one standout role people can associate with me. They just vaguely know the face, or think I work at Tesco’s, and it’s perfect. People in the industry know who I am but the general public don’t recognise me enough to bother me, which helps really.”

Following Greatest Days, which has been filming across the North West, McNulty’s heading back to Rome, to the famed Cinecittà Studios, to shoot the second series of Domina.

“It’s an intimidating role, but I know who Gaius is now, how ruthless and how genial he can be, and I can’t wait. After that, I don’t know. I’ll see what comes in. I feel happier and more relaxed, and that I can enjoy the job I’m doing rather than constantly looking forward to the next one, and next one. Although now I’ve done something lighter and fun, I definitely want to do more.”

The Rising is available on Sky Max and Now TV. Series one of Domina is available on Sky Atlantic and Now TV

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