Neil Maskell: ‘If me and Idris Elba got into a physical altercation, I’d last about a second!’

If you know Neil Maskell as an actor, you might fancy you’d know him as a film-maker, too. And you’d be right. But you’d also be very wrong. “I think if you see Klokkenluider it’s not really the work of … ” Maskell pauses to determine where his directorial film debut diverges from his onscreen persona. “I was gonna say a ‘tough guy’, but that’s not very fair, because I know some very intelligent tough guys. But it’s not the work of, like, a thug.”

In fact, the title alone – a Dutch word meaning “whistleblower” – sets Klokkenluider above the violent Brit-flicks Maskell once starred in. He is calling today from Antwerp, where he lives with Belgian actor Sura Dohnke, his partner of nearly 12 years, and his family when he’s not in London, and it’s here in Belgium that he’s opted to set his first film as writer-director. It’s about a couple, Ewan (Happy Valley’s Amit Shah) and Silke (played by Dohnke), who are hiding out in an isolated holiday rental, having stumbled on some potentially world-shaking government secret. There they are joined by two shifty security professionals, Chris (Tom Burke of Strike and The Souvenir) and Glynn (well-loved actor’s actor Roger Evans) to await further instruction from an unseen authority. The group pass the time with bickering, drinking and charades, and at one point Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who, Victoria) turns up for a sweary tour de force that will thoroughly scandalise her period drama fans.

Klokkenluider is a chamber-piece-crime-horror-conspiracy-thriller-comedy, then, that will have you in a state of pleasurable discombobulation throughout. Most of the cast were people Maskell had acted with before, except leading man Shah, in whom he recognised something else: “[Shah] has an almost Cary Grant sort of quality to him, where there’s a neurosis, but also a steeliness. I was interested in contradictions in the film in general. The boys [Chris and Glynn] are like thuggish clowns; Ewan and Silke are clever and stupid a lot of the time – sometimes in the same moment.” It’s this uneasy balance that interests him most: “Part of the idea was: ‘Can I write a conspiracy thriller that doesn’t take itself seriously, but where the stakes don’t drop?’ So it has a sense of its own ridiculousness, but we’re still invested.”

Maskell endeavours not to take himself too seriously either, which results in a good-humoured, grounded manner, but also a tendency to undersell his own artistry and ambition. Anyone familiar with his work knows that he doesn’t really play straightforward “thug” characters. It’s more psychologically nuanced than that. “We joke that my casting is ‘murderous manchild’,” he says. “Oh, he’s scary! … But he’s vulnerable!”

Maskell first became known as an actor through roles such as Danny Dyer’s best mate in 2004’s hooligan holy text The Football Factory and a petty villain in 2007 Essex gangland saga Rise of the Footsoldier. Then in 2011 came a turning point with Kill List, a hallucinogenic hitman horror that not only launched director Ben Wheatley into the major leagues, but seemed to revive the long-dormant pagan prowess of British cinema as a whole.

For Maskell, more star turns followed, all cultish in their own way. There was the emotionally disturbed ex-child soldier in the wildly inventive Channel 4 drama Utopia (2013-2014) and a vengeful gangster in director Paul Andrew Williams’s brilliantly brutal 2021 film Bull, interspersed with gently self-parodying hardman roles in TV comedies such as Murder in Successville and King Gary. Most recently, Maskell has been terrorising international air traffic in Idris Elba’s ruthlessly entertaining AppleTV+ thriller Hijack.

Sura Dohnke, Jenna Coleman and Amit Shah in Klokkenluider.

“Yeah, right,” Maskell says with a sheepish chuckle, when I describe the thrill of watching Kill List’s Jay square up to Stringer Bell. “It was quite funny actually, because in the show any physical conflict is [an evenly matched] 50/50, but in real life, obviously … ” the chuckle now builds to a full-bodied guffaw, “… If me and Idris Elba got into any sort of physical altercation, I’d last about half a second! Hahahaha!”

It’s all down to an unfortunate case of “resting murder face”, he insists. “Directors will give me a note, and then they’ll think I’m really angry about it, and I’ll have to reassure them that I’m not, I’m just letting it filter through. Williams was the worst. He was forever saying: ‘Can you … ?’” Maskell mimes Williams backing away in terror. “‘No, no! Don’t worry about it!’”

Indeed, aside from that authentic south-east London accent – Maskell was raised in Bexley, a few streets away from members of the Hatton Garden heist crew – the man is easily distinguishable from his characters. Not because he doesn’t look as if he could handle himself, but because he’s habitually jovial and stylishly dressed. Far from being dead behind the eyes from a three-day bender of amphetamines and ultraviolence, his expression is alive with creative excitement.

For Klokkenluider, inspiration came from the thin air of East Flanders. “We were away with a bunch of Sura’s friends and it was just watching people go off walking in little groups,” he recalls. “I started to feel there was something in the landscape that had a natural foreboding.” No less than director Oliver Stone, king of conspiracy thrillers, had similar misgivings. “Apparently he said: ‘There’s horrible light in this country.’ And, I mean, I don’t agree, but there is something about the light that you get here, something a little … sinister.”

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Neil Maskell in Hijack.

There were other influences for Klokkenluider’s mood of subdued dread, too. Maskell feels that the general stresses of moviemaking during a pandemic must have worked their way into the finished film. Plus there are the wide frames of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (“almost like a nature documentary”), the “comedy of menace” theatre tradition (“I’m a big Pinter nut”), Ken Loach (“I just absolutely worship the geezer”), and his own former director-collaborators (“I really learned that from Wheatley, y’know? What you can build into the script that helps make the film”). Maskell wears these influences on his sleeve and, in doing so, manages to come off as – simultaneously – an exciting, envelope-pushing new voice in European cinema and a fast-talking bloke you just met down the pub.

The biggest part of Klokkenluider, though, comes direct from Maskell himself. It’s his fascination with the cases of real-life whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden and Alexander Litvinenko (Maskell recently appeared as a detective in the four-part ITVX drama about the Russian dissident). “I thought, what if you had something, but you weren’t an expert in security systems? Like, how on earth would you even … ”

Here, Maskell arrives at the precipice of the nihilistic abyss that Klokkenluider is ultimately inviting us to peer into: “Power doesn’t just kill you, it has to tell you that you’ve wasted your time first,” he says, as a dark cloud seems to pass across his usually cheerful face and the temperature in the room drops about three degrees. “It has to let you know that it wasn’t worth anything, anyway.”

He’s full of awe for the resilience of people such as investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr: “I’d have statues of her up, you know? She is trying to find out the truth [and] being crushed by authority.” But viewed from a certain pitch-black perspective, those guys are the lucky ones. “There are countless people who we’ll never hear of and whose story will never be told.”

Is Klokkenluider that statue he’d like to put up, then? A monument to the unknown whistleblower? “It was like a wish to pay some sort of tribute.” He pauses again to cringe at himself. “That sounds so grand and so portentous. And so up itself.” It doesn’t really, though. Not when Neil Maskell says it. Or at least you wouldn’t dare tell him to his face.

Klokkenluider is in cinemas from 1 September.

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