British actor David Shields is stepping into the mainstream, emerging as a presence on star studded and hyped pieces of film and TV such as Black Mirror and Masters of the Air. With prior roles in The Crown, Bad Education, and Doctor Who under his belt, Shields has all the makings of one to watch in the world of acting. Having trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama prior to entering the acting scene as a thespian, Shields is primed to tackle the difficult roles he is drawn to, that take him away from himself. From his bubblegum pink pad he kindly spoke to Metal about his practice and his own cinematic pleasures.
Hi there, thanks for taking the time to chat, what are you up to at the minute?
As I sit writing this, I’m staring at the walls of my living room, wondering how a space which was intended to be a real macho-bachelor-pad of sorts, has ended up with floral artwork, pink walls, and a pink sofa. I’ve designed some kind of Barbie-inspired nightmare. So at this present moment, I’m coming to the realisation that perhaps that’s just my style.
Congrats on your role in the latest season of Black Mirror, how does it feel to be part of such a return and such a show? What can audiences expect from your role?
It’s exciting to be a part of one the best anthology series out there, but daunting given its dedicated following. It’s been a few years, so expectations will be high, but Charlie [Brooker] has introduced new elements, which gives the show a novel twist, and which I’m sure will come as a nice surprise. And while I don’t want to give too much away, I play a duplicitous public figure who uses his flair for oratory, and slimy magnetism as a means to acquire power. Helluva guy.
Dazed recently ran an article posing the question, “has the world become too dystopian for Black Mirror?” What are your thoughts on the matter, do you think the themes of the show fall short of our own twisted reality?
I’m sure when Black Mirror first aired many asked whether it was instead too dystopian for the future - and look at us now. I don’t think they’ve fallen short; time and again they’ve been distressingly prescient. And while I can only speak for my own episode, Charlie and Bisha K. Ali again introduce themes which feel shockingly predictive and relevant.
I understand where the Dazed article is coming from, and I suppose you could say the same of satire in recent times. But I think the implication of the question is a cop-out. Reality will always be more disturbing than fiction, and in twisted times, I think shows like Black Mirror are even more vital in reminding us of both present and future dangers in an entertaining and accessible way.
You are also set to star in Masters of the Air alongside some quite famous folks, in a series produced by Spielberg and Tom Hanks. What has the experience been like?
The companion series, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and now, Masters of the Air, all of which were assembled by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, are unique animals. They set the conditions to create bonds between the cast and crew that are incredibly special and while I can’t say too much about the show, my biggest takeaway were the friendships formed. “You gotta have the crew-glue” Captain Dale Dye (our senior military advisor) would say to us during production prep. He wanted us to find the kind of brotherhood those airmen had in WW2, and I think we definitely achieved that, on and off screen.
Alongside this you have done quite a bit of work in theatre, how does the work differ between being on set and on stage?
On stage you’re the engine of the show, you have complete command of the edit, and on a good night, when things are in flow and you can feel the audience is with you, the buzz is a heady mixture. With film, you’re just one cog in a vast interdependent machine that’s constantly being fine-tuned by everyone around you. Obviously, theatre is like this as well, but with film it’s very apparent that all the different departments are pulling together in a huge, seemingly impossible, joint effort. And as an actor, you’re always trying to set the conditions to catch lightning in a bottle in those brief moments when the camera’s rolling.
You seem to gravitate towards quite serious work, with complicated storylines, would you say that is what entices you as an actor?
I’m genuinely just as interested in comedy and am often looking to bring light to darker material. That was very much the case with Masters. What entices me most though, is finding roles that pull me as far away from myself as possible. I tend to gravitate towards off-beat and weird kind of characters - these are the roles I’m usually craving.
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What was your experience like training at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama?
I couldn’t speak more highly of the place and would recommend it to anyone. I don’t think that training is a necessity for every actor by any means, but the tools it gave me have been invaluable.
What inspired your career in acting, any funny early roles as a kid?
Joseph in the nativity was my breakout role and for years I thought the school had identified me as an extraordinarily rare talent. However, my mum recently revealed, with four older siblings, and the years of school-runs she’d done, it was simply a parting gift from the teachers. Anyway, that’s what gave me the bug.
What are some of your favourite contemporary shows or movies at the minute?
Nothing moves so deftly between comedy and drama as Succession. In terms of contemporary shows, I think it’s in a league of its own. But a different kind of show, that seems to have gone under the radar, is Zero Zero Zero on Amazon. The performances, cinematography, and complex narrative are exceptionally compelling.
What do you do to unwind?
I generally pace around my pink living room, with a glass of neat gin, comparing myself to friends and peers with more successful careers than my own, screaming “Why them and not me?!” That tends to relax me.
What would you say is special about British cinema and television?
I read Metal’s interview with Sam Mendes and I liked what he said about the value in having an end to things - that without an ending there’s only the creation of hunger without satisfaction. If you look at shows like The Office or Fleabag, you can see that British television isn’t so beholden to the idea of keeping a show running until the wheels come off.
You often hear that our cinema is known for its ‘gritty realism’, but I think that’s quite a lazy description, and increasingly inaccurate. There’s a huge breadth to UK film and it encompasses so much more than simply that. What I find that sets it apart, is the particular vein of comedy, with all its irony, biting satire, and love of the underdog. If you look at the likes of Shane Meadows, Joanna Hogg, Ben Wheatley, Craig Roberts, I feel there’s always a peculiarly British seam of humour running through their work. I think that’s part of what’s made Succession (with its team of British writers) so successful. It threads British comedic strands into an American backdrop and story, and makes it feel like something fresh.
What sort of work are you looking to do next? Any dream director collaborations?
If you’re giving me a blank cheque to collaborate with anyone, certainly those I mentioned above, as well the Safdie brothers, Andrea Arnold, and Luca Guadagnino. But there are so many. I just want to keep on playing a wide range of character roles really. Those are the parts where I feel I get the most purchase, and if I can continue to shape-shift in this way, I’ll be happy with my career at the end of it.
Looking at the year ahead, what are you most excited for?
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, of course.
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