FOR some actors, it’s all about the script. For others, it’s the character. Some, meanwhile, just want a nice place to film. For Shameless star Ben Batt, as he was considering whether or not to join the third and final season of Jamestown, Sky One’s drama about the New World’s first English settlers in the 1620s, it was all three. But above all, it was his character’s name.
‘Willmus Crabtree?’ he says, laughing. ‘There’s something brilliantly Jacobean about it. As soon as I saw it I thought, this is gonna be fun. He’s a well-travelled trader working on behalf of an English company and, because of the way he looks, people underestimate him but his directness knocks people off balance. We don’t know whether to trust him or what his agenda is. But we find out…’
By ‘way he looks’ Batt is referring to Crabtree’s facial scarring and his hunchback, which entailed early starts for make-up and plenty of research.
‘As the hunch goes on, the shirt, boots, buckled belt, you get into the mood,’ says the 32-year-old. ‘I researched people with curvature of the spine, severe scoliosis, and looked at their posture and how they might move. By the end of the shoot my right boot was wrecked because of how Willmus overcompensated with his walking.’
It offered a welcome change of pace for the Wigan native, wary of typecasting. ‘I spend a lot of time auditioning for detectives and soldiers and Mancunian gangsters,’ he says. ‘I don’t mind being pigeonholed because it’s hard enough getting work as an actor, so if there’s something people think you’re good at then that’s great. But to attack a character so removed from myself physically but who also had such verbal dexterity… people sometimes can just see you as a big northern bloke who can do that solid northern bloke thing really well. I’ve always wanted to show there’s a bit more going on, and this was amazing.’
He’s also just been announced in the cast list for Julian Fellowes’ new football drama The English Game — but things could have been very different for Batt, whose ambitions in rugby were cut short by injury at 17.
‘I went to Orrell and was getting scouted by Wigan and St Helens when I broke my leg,’ he says. ‘Then I came back too quickly, did my groin muscle and that was game over — but by then the acting bug had bit.’
Batt went to drama school after being introduced to acting by a drama tutor who had bought a house through his dad, an estate agent.
‘I always thought acting was this miracle that happened to people, I didn’t know it was a career with steps you could take to take it seriously,’ he says.
Leaving early for a part in Keira Knightley costumer The Edge Of Love, he did Casualty and Lewis until Shameless introduced him both to a wider audience as villainous Joe Pritchard and to his partner, Rebecca Atkinson (who played barmaid Karen Maguire). The pair now have a two-year-old son, Jack, and Batt will always owe the show debts of personal and professional gratitude.
‘As a cast we’ve mostly gone our separate ways but I have a soft spot for David Threlfall [who played Frank Gallagher] — he was always there with a bit of advice and had a lot of belief in me,’ he says. ‘We check in and speak on the phone quite often.’
For now, Batt is relishing life as a working dad. ‘Acting can be all-consuming, constantly worrying about the next job,’ he says. ‘When I was 21 my priorities were very different. Now, being home and being a good dad to Jack comes first.’
And with a CV like his, it’s no surprise to hear about his greatest remaining ambition.
‘Playing a new character on Peppa Pig would be a big ticked box,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing I’ve done that doesn’t involve swearing, so Jack’s stuck for the next 15 years, and by that time he’ll be too embarrassed by me to want to watch any of it…’
■ Jamestown series 3 starts on Sky One and Now TV at 9pm on Friday. Series one and two are available on Sky On Demand