Des star Daniel Mays on the bone-chilling new TV crime drama

Daniel Mays in Des. (Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Sundance Now.)
Daniel Mays in Des. (Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Sundance Now.) /

Daniel Mays previews Des ahead of its Sundance Now premiere.

Move over, LutherDes is the scariest TV crime drama on the air, and Sundance Now is bringing it to American audiences this Thursday (Oct. 15).

The three-part series stars David Tennant (Doctor Who, Good Omens) as Dennis Nilsen, the most prolific serial killer in Scottish history. The man charged with investigating Nilsen’s crimes is Peter Jay, played wonderfully by genre veteran Daniel Mays (Line of Duty, Public Enemies, Code 404).

Before the ITV show arrives on Sundance Now, Precinct TV connected with Daniel to talk about the challenges of playing Peter Jay, matching wits with David Tennant, and the experience of just bringing such an intense and shocking true story to life.

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Precinct TV: Where was the hook for you that made Des a worthwhile project?

Daniel Mays: Dennis Nilsen is probably one of the most notorious serial killers here in the UK. He was a really hugely controversial, horrendous type in British crime history. So your interest is immediately piqued with that.

But then they come to the table with a pedigree of actors in David Tennant and Jason Watkins. UK dramas, they do true crime dramas so well, and this was just a great opportunity to delve beneath the headlines and to bring the story to the screen. It hadn’t been done before, and ultimately just represented an amazing character in DCI Peter Jay.

He was a really fully formed, three-dimensional character, which was described to me [as] he was the heart and soul of the whole piece. So it was just too good to say no to.

PTV: The tension of the series has to come from the dynamic between Peter and Nilsen, so what was it like to work opposite someone as fantastic as David Tennant—especially when you have to create an antagonistic relationship?

DM: I would put David Tennant up there with one of the best performers this country’s ever produced. He’s such a versatile, chameleon-type character and he’s done so many great roles, but here was an opportunity for him to do something he’d never really attempted before. I actually think it’s his best performance.

Because he’s such a material talent he’s very explosive, and with great energy in a lot of the other roles—one thinks of Doctor Who, all the rest of it. But I think he was really channeling something very different in this performance. It was the most captivating, eerie performance I’ve ever sat across from, that’s for sure. It was an absolute master class.

PTV: Des is very intense to watch. It’s brilliant but also incredibly disturbing. So what was it like to film? Was it similarly challenging for you to make?

DM: I did have a couple of nightmares when I was doing the research. I watched loads of documentaries. I did wake my poor wife up on two occasions because I was dreaming that I was locked in an attic with Dennis Nilsen, believe it or not. So it certainly took its toll on me psychologically.

But when it actually came to film it, I had amazing camaraderie with all of the actors playing the police. When you’re filming tough subject matter like this, you do have to have a degree of levity on set, because it can get too much. [We] had great support with all of the actors, but when it needed to be serious, it was serious. And when we needed to let off steam, we did so. It seemed to produce a great working environment.

PTV: Once you did get into it, was there a scene hwere you felt particularly connected to Peter as a character? Or anything else that stands out to you that viewers shouldn’t miss?

DM: The great thing about the storytelling in this particular piece is that it literally doesn’t stop from the get-go. It’s not a classic serial killer drama, in that the police are trying to hunt who he is, hunt him down and trying to capture him. Dennis Nilsen gave himself up to the police after a four and a half-year killing spree.

They waited for him to come home from work. They waited there all day, they took him up to the top floor flat. They could smell the stench of death as soon as they walked in. And he said, the body’s over there, in the corner of the room, in the cupboard. And they took him down to the car and he said, it’s more like 14 or 15 people I killed. All of that is pretty much as it is.

Dennis Nilsen himself said he was finally able to unburden himself. He had this compulsion to kill and he couldn’t stop himself. And so it becomes much more interesting in that it’s a psychological investigation into how he did these things and why he did these things, and how he pretends to be who he was.

Here was a man that was admitting to 15 murders and yet they have inconclusive evidence. They had certain parts, but they didn’t have the proper identities of many of the victims because of the method of disposal—because he buried the bodies. So it was a painstakingly laborious, expensive, emotionally draining exercise in investigation for all of the police, and Peter had to lead from the front. And it definitely took a toll on him personally.

PTV: We’ve just revisited your stint on Line of Duty. When you’re working on a crime drama of that caliber, do you learn anything that carries forward onto another project like Des?

DM: I always try and wipe the slate clean with every performance I do. I have the mentality that you’re only ever as good as your last job. Because it keeps it fresh, but no, you’re right. I’d been the main protagonist in Line of Duty, and I’ve played a lot of policemen in the past. So the fear factor of playing a policeman per se, that was nonexistent. I didn’t worry about that.

It was about, it gives you a good springboard into playing the next policeman or whatever it is. The interrogation scene alone in Line of Duty, that was without doubt the most difficult scene I’ve ever shot. It was reams and reams ofdialogue. I think once you can play that as an actor, anything else is a walk in the park. Within reason.

PTV: You’ve been all over the crime drama genre recently. This is like the fourth show we’ve gotten to see you in, in a relatively short order. What’s that been like for you?

DM:  I did Code 404, Temple, then I did White Lines, which is on Netflix. Then I did 1917, and then I jumped straight on to Des. It was a ridiculous amount of work, but particularly with Code 404 and White Lines, the characters are so out there and funny and comedic, and just doing goofy scenes. Des was completely different. It was totally opposite to that. It allowed me to give a really mature and layered and deep performance. It wasn’t as showy as all the other stuff. So it was a great blend and mix of all the characters I’ve taken on over the past few years.

PTV: Is there anything you want to say to viewers before they start watching Des?

DM: I’m very, very, very excited about Des being released in the U.S. I have to say this, because I’ve been acting for 20 years, and it’s been received so well over here. If it’s recognized as well in the US as it has here, it would be an amazing achievement because so much integrity has gone into the making of it. And I’m very proud of the end as well.

Next. Revisit Daniel Mays in Line of Duty series 3. dark

Des streams on Sundance Now starting this Thursday, Oct. 15. Watch this and other TV crime dramas with a 7-day free trial.