Interview: Shaun Evans on playing Endeavour Morse
IT may be the bad line, Shaun Evans’ strong Liverpool accent (or my Cork one) but whatever it is, Rí-Rá’s conversation with the star of ITV’s latest hit crime drama, Endeavour, doesn’t get off to the smoothest start.
The 33-year-old actor is taking a badly needed break from filming after a nonstop year, so perhaps it is just that he’d prefer not to spend his time off answering questions.
Evans’ career is on the ascent. He has proved himself a charismatic and convincing actor with roles in The Take, Silk and playing the menacing Ian in The Last Weekend.
His latest, and most high-profile part to date, is playing the young Inspector Morse in Endeavour, a four-part prequel series written by Lewis creator and Inspector Morse writer Russell Lewis.
The first episode of Endeavour (which Morse anoraks will know is the detective’s seldom-uttered first name) transmitted in January 2012 to mark the 25th anniversary of the first episode of Inspector Morse and attracted 8.2 million viewers, making it the most popular single film on television in the last five years.
Despite fans of the original series worrying about a prequel, the pilot film and Evans’ brilliant portrayal of Morse were well received by critics and viewers alike.
Evans was born in Britain, but he has family in Tyrone and Dublin and visits often. “I’m always [in Ireland], I love it. It’s one of my favourite places,”he says. Faced with a choice after he left school between pursuing acting or studying history and politics at university, he chose the former. Did he know from a young age he wanted to act? “Was I a show-off in school, is that what you’re asking me?” No, I explain, but I do want to know where the instinct, the urge or the desire to act came from?
“I was 18 and I fancied it to be honest. It may sound flippant but it was what I wanted to do… I can’t really explain it. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to drama school and I went. I dunno, I don’t really think about it to be honest.”
Were his parents surprised by his choice of career path? “Ya, surprised but supportive,” he says, closing the subject down. Evans was almost finished his threeyear drama course when he left to start working, but his first film never saw the light of day.
His next big part was in the Channel 4 comedy Teachers. Was that his breakthrough role? Evading the question, he gives the analogy of a driving lesson to illustrate the difference between drama school and acting in the real world.
“You can take lessons but you only know when you get out behind the wheel. It was great to be surrounded by people of my age with a common interest and that is probably the best thing I take from it,” he says, describing his days in drama school.
Using his analogy then, was his role in Teachers his first time on the road? Teachers is not something Evans wants to talk about, it seems. The analogy is silly, he says, and circumventing the topic again he goes back to taking about being surrounded by like-minded people at drama school.
So, after drama school, what was it like for a young actor auditioning and landing their first TV part? Irritated now, he repeats: “What was it like? Right, why are you interested in that?” I say that I am interested because I imagine it is an exciting time, a turning point in a young actor’s career. Leaving Liverpool, moving on and starting to work was “a natural progression”, Evans says, and that is all he is willing to say.
He is happy to talk about The Last Weekend, the gripping ITV thriller which aired last year, and co-starred Irish actress Genevieve O’Reilly. “I loved that. It’s based on a great book by Blake Morrison, and a great adaptation… it was a lovely job.”
He is also positive about The Boys from County Clare, the Irish comedy/drama he starred in alongside Andrea Corr and Colm Meaney. “It was extraordinary, I had the best time. It was just a great, great group of people and a beautiful setting. It was amazing. We shot up North just outside Belfast and on the Isle of Man and it was just a great time.”
It was while on set that Evans and Andrea Corr started a relationship that lasted for four years. Was it strange to date the singer in the height of her fame? “Again it’s like a natural progression… you start going out with someone and then you don’t make a big song and dance about it, you just get on with it,” he says, before cutting himself off.
“I don’t really want to focus on that to be honest. Let’s move on to the next question.” Thankfully, the next question is about Endeavour. Was Evans a Morse fan? He answers honestly: “Truth be told… I was working away at the time in the US and my agent gave me a call and said ‘what do you think about this?’ I said ‘I don’t know what I think about it’.”
At this stage, Evans was yet to receive a script, so he went back to the source material — Colin Dexter’s Morse novels, which the TV show was based on. “I hadn’t really seen Morse in any of the incarnations so I bought the books because I think your imagination is the best place to start.”
Intrigued by the part, he returned to Britain and started work on Endeavour, but he was adamant that he would be playing Morse on his own terms — this wasn’t going to be any John Thaw imitation. “I was clear that if an impression was what they were after then they should look elsewhere. If you just do that then you aren’t doing anything interesting. I had the good fortune that all the creators were on the same page.”
Playing a legendary character like Morse wasn’t daunting, he says. “I never even thought of it to be honest. When you are working you can’t be thinking about that kind of stuff. Whatever has come before, you have to come at it with fresh eyes… it was only when we made it and everyone started asking me questions that I thought about it.”
Unsurprisingly, as Morse is such an iconic British TV character, the series has attracted media attention, which I doubt Evans has enjoyed. “I actually feel incredibly grateful for the exposure,” he says, somewhat surprisingly. “If that’s what it takes in order for people to engage and watch our show, then so be it.”
Evans is proud of the four new films, each shot by a different director, and co-starring Roger Allam as Detective Inspector Fred Thursday. Inspector Morse ran for 13 years and spinoff show Lewis lasted for seven series, so even at this early stage there are rumours that Endeavour might turn into something more, but Evans is coy about what might happen. “I was glad that the first one went down well and I hope these ones do too. Each of them is a great story well told in itself. If this is it, then that’s enough.”
His career to date has seen him on stage, the big and small screen and Evans says he has been lucky in this regard. “To be honest, the medium isn’t important, if it’s a really interesting part and a really interesting character, if it’s a radio play or a stage play then I’m happy either way, just as long as I can keep working… if I can keep shaking things up then I’m happy.”
Asked about his plans for the coming months, he just says: “It’s been a really full on year so I’m just going to hang out.” Evans gives little away, but comes across as driven, intelligent, serious, taciturn and occasionally terse… he might just be more like Morse than he knows.
On portraying the younger Morse…
We have tried to show someone who is slightly out of joint with the world he is in. He does have a talent for this particular line of work but he finds it difficult to get over things from his past and move on. As a result of that he’s trapped a lot in his head, which is both a great and terrible thing.
A great thing because you have these tiny details of people and crimes and Endeavour has space in his head to ruminate and pay attention to those, which ultimately brings justice to the stories we’ve created.
By the same token in his personal life, he finds it difficult to move on in a relationship and suffers with social awkwardness. He’s still trying to find his feet. I also think that the flip side to being tenacious is the feeling of being superior and more intelligent than the people around him.
On why he thinks the public love Morse so much…
With the films that were made with John Thaw, I think that it was a combination of an interesting character played by a very charismatic actor. As a detective, he has that combination of imagination, intellect and curiosity. With our films it’s very much still forming. We have to tell a great story and tell it really well. But all the credit is due to Colin Dexter. None of us can take credit for Endeavour Morse apart from Colin.
We do our thing but the idea of sitting at your kitchen counter and creating a character — that’s really special. He’s very pleased and grateful with what we try to bring to Endeavour. That makes me happy.
On Morse’s relationship with Fred Thursday (played by Roger Allam)…
It’s easy to say it’s a father/son relationship but it’s more interesting than that. Thursday is somebody whose time and way of working is about to change. If you throw on top of that this guy who hasn’t got a relationship with his father, Thursday feels he has something to impart to Endeavour.
Thursday sees the potential in him but also that capacity to screw it up. If you’re mentoring someone, they are the ones who need slightly more attention — the ones you think can be brilliant if they just stop screwing it up. With brilliance alone, you’ll just rise to the top. But if you do need a guiding hand, those more complicated people are definitely more interesting.
On the production…
The 1960s setting is very authentic. It’s lovely seeing the girls dressed up and the chaps in suits. It’s good for a story to have a strong style. The four directors each have their very own take on how it should look and although we’ve had the same production and costumes designers, each one has had a different spin. It adds something to it. Also Oxford is a very special place — the architecture, the streets, the people walking around.
Endeavour continues on ITV this Sunday (April 28) at 8pm.