IN SHARP FOCUS a conversation with actor Steve Wraith

How did you get involved in acting ? My first acting role was King Canute when I was at school, from that moment on I always wanted to be an actor. I’d fallen behind at school and I couldn’t read or write so my parents put me into private education. I was entering poetry competitions in the Durham area and doing well, that’s where I learned reading lines. The school were impressed so encouraged my parents to push my stage work further.

So I went along to The Peoples Theatre in Newcastle on a Saturday morning, the exercises built up to putting on a play 3 times a year, it was a fantastic training ground. I met new people and got the chance to play some good parts. I think that’s where I got to play the villain like I do now, they just cast me in them roles from day one. I really enjoy them, I played the Artful Dodger and never looked back (laughs).

I was there until I was 16 and did two trips abroad with them, 3 weeks in America doing Under Milk Wood in places like New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia. Then we went to Russia where I played the Artful Dodger it was fantastic, we were there as communism was starting to fall, the whole western influence and McDonalds being built.

Then I went to Newcastle College and I was all set to be an actor because I never stuck in at school really, before I left school they asked me what I wanted to be and the headmaster laughed when I said an actor.

That’s a great incentive though isn’t it…..Yes, funny I regularly meet one or two teachers still, we go for a coffee now and then. But I packed in college when I was promised a certain amount of money plus an Equity card to do a panto, by the end I had done 54 shows but what I was promised never materialised. I was involved in not only doing 2 shows a day but putting the set up and taking it down then travelling to the next venue, really when a promise is given you should be rewarded. The guy who was responsible for the production shall remain nameless. Looking back I thought if that’s acting you can stuff it, the one thing I wanted to do I was walking away from.

But I’ve come back to it after a break away, it happened after my experiences meeting with the Kray Twins and actors Mike Read and John Altman (both ex-Eastenders). John was doing a play called Bouncers by John Godber at Sunderland Empire. He rang me up ‘I’m coming up to your neck of the woods do you want to meet up ?’ We arranged for him to do a night on the door of the nightclub where I was working at the time. On the night he was watching my mannerisms, everything I was doing on the door, even when there was a fight on.

6 months later I took my mother and my wife to see the play he was in with Nigel Pavaro and Chris Connel who I knew from college. We were walking up to the Empire and lo and behold who was standing on the door in his doormen gear…it was John and nobody recognised him.

Afterwards we went on a great night out in Newcastle and the conversation got round to me being an actor years ago and John recommended that I should get back into it. I was happy working on the doors but fellow Geordie Chris Connel passed me a number for Janet Plater who was setting up an extras agency. He said there will be a lot of sitting around but give it a go so I met up with Janet and signed up, that was around 15 years ago.

What was your first job as an extra ? My first job was on a new TV series called The Night Detective, later became 55 Degrees North. It was a speaking part which Janet wasn’t sure I would get, so I went to The Mitre in Benwell, where they used to film Byker Grove. Thing was I had been singing a bit too hard at the Newcastle match the previous night, they had won so I had a few drinks and ended up with a sore throat and thick head.

When I got to The Mitre I met the director who to be fair, was also looking a bit rough. He said ‘You’re looking a bit ropey Steve’. I told him where I’d been and he laughed ‘So was I’. We spent the next 20 minutes talking about the match. Finally I started reading the script and was playing a wheel clamper who clamped the villains car. When we had finished I left the Mitre and 20 minutes later Janet called saying ‘You’ve got it, you’ve got the part’.

Filming on that programme felt great I thoroughly enjoyed it. The script arrived in the post I had 2 scenes to film that’s 2 days work at £750 a day. They sent a car to pick me up, I had my own caravan with ‘Wheel Camper 1’ written on the door, I could have been sitting smoking a cigar thinking I’ve finally arrived (laughs). Then it was sitting waiting for the phone to ring from Hollywood. Janet rings ‘I got you a part in Byker Grove, you’re playing a security guard, just a background artist. Get to the Monument for 7am’. Well I was back to earth with a bump, welcome to the world of the extras. That was where I was gonna have to cut my teeth really.

But I enjoyed it and I got to say Ricky Gervais absolutely nails what being an extra is all about in his TV series. You hear people saying ‘I’m an actor really I’m just doing this in between jobs’. It is funny but I networked a lot mostly with the techies on camera and sound, lighting guys, a lot knew me and we got on really well because of my love of Newcastle United.

Then after 3 years of extra work I wanted to give acting another go because the lads I got to know were contacting me about work coming up. I rang my mate Steve Melville Head of Drama at Gateshead College he suggested a course which I did and enjoyed it, we done a play at the end of the year and I got the buzz back.

Have you had any magic moments on stage ? You know you’re in the zone when you’re words are perfect and you let the character do the talking. I can’t remember much about it just applause at the end and thinking this is what I want to do. I never finished the original college course all those years ago so I done a full time degree at the age of 37. I learnt a lot about myself, the craft and proving to myself that I’ve trained properly and turn up at an agents door and say right I’m ready.

I went back to Janet Plater but she didn’t share the same enthusiasm and didn’t take me on as an actor so I put my notice in as an extra. Meanwhile I saw an acting job for a low budget film based in the North East called ‘In Our Name’, the role was a Sergeant Major playing scenes with Joanne Froggatt from Coronation Street. I went to the casting and got the part. The Scottish director Brian Welsh was struggling for contacts to venues like a boxing ring and nightclub, with my contacts I provided that for him and we hit it off really well. At the wrap party he said ‘What can I do for you?’ I was looking for an agent so he hooked me up with Sam Claypool and in 2011 I done a cast for her, she said ‘You’re raw but I think I can do something for you’.

How did working on the TV series Vera come about ? Sam got me the part in Vera, I’d cast 5 times for the TV show and in 2015 I was lucky to get it. That was 3 times self-taping and twice face to face. The process at first isn’t face to face it’s self-taping where you pick a blank wall behind you and with a camera or phone you do your bit and send it to the director. The part in Vera was called Big Pete who wasn’t a nice character and ran a restaurant. He was running illegal immigrants through his kitchen and paying them in food. It was a great opportunity, six and a half million viewers, being on a big show like that is great for the cv.

From that I was cast in The Rise of the Footsoldier working alongside Shaun Ryder in his first and last acting role (laughs). Also working with people I’ve watched on films over the years and suddenly now I’m in the green room with them and on set. Fantastic to work with them, we choreograph the fight scenes a week earlier then go down to film.

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What you got planned for 2020 Steve ? It’s an exciting year Shirley Lewis is representing me in London for other acting parts where she can put me in front of directors. I have other interests like my publishing company working on various books and an Event Management company where we promote boxing events, in March we have Floyd Mayweather up here again so there’s tickets to be sold for that, yes an exciting year with plenty to look forward too.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  January 2020.