There are a portion of [my] films that are f***ing unwatchable,” says Craig Fairbrass, with a typical bluntness. “[But] being typecast is better than being not cast.” The London-born actor has slugged away like a journeyman boxer since the Eighties, the grizzled face of a certain kind of British filmmaking. These aren’t your Merchant-Ivorys or even your Lock Stocks, but films with titles as blunt as a sledgehammer. Hijacked. Deranged. Beyond Bedlam. Think gory Brit thrillers usually seen by a niche but passionate crowd of fans. He’s starred in nearly 100 of them, almost always as the heavy. But standing at over 6ft 2in and bearing the stacked shoulders of a professional wrestler, Fairbrass seems born to play them.
There have been flirtations with the mainstream – playing a villain opposite Sylvester Stallone in 1993’s Cliffhanger; two years on EastEnders as dodgy Walford geezer Dan Sullivan – but Fairbrass’s bread and butter is the low-budget gangster movie. There, and thanks to the long-running Rise of the Footsoldier franchise, the 59-year-old has established a following of mostly working-class blokes. “I think there’s a neglected audience out there,” he tells me over Zoom. “I think the normal men… and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but us guys who grew up in London or up north like to watch the chaps be a little naughty and they can relate to it.”
The Rise of the Footsoldier universe is now multiple films deep. They began in 2007 as tales of ultra-violent football hooliganism, before veering into more fantastical territory as the series has gone along. There have been trips to Marbella, traumatic flashbacks to the Falklands war, even Vinnie Jones. Fairbrass has been involved since the beginning, playing a heavily fictionalised version of the real-life gangster Pat Tate. This week marks the release of the series’ sixth entry, subtitled Vengeance, though Fairbrass admits he wasn’t always hungry to return. The offer to star came after he’d earned some of the best reviews of his career courtesy of Muscle, a dark 2019 comedy about a meek office drone lured into a world of body-building and orgies by Fairbrass’s bullish personal trainer.
“I went through a weird stage where I pulled away from the franchise,” he explains. “I did Muscle and roles with more depth than I’m used to and I got these amazing reviews after wanting it for so long and trying for so long … Then I was on holiday and thinking about how difficult this business is and it struck me that I’m just an actor and I need to work.”
He’s quick to pay respect to the franchise that turned him into a Britflick legend. “Footsoldier gave me a platform, put me in the shop window, whatever you want to call it,” he says. But it’s true that Muscle is his finest hour. It’s a film that relies on his charisma and hulking physique, but also his rare, often overlooked ability to allow his face to tell a story. You don’t tend to notice it when he’s aiming a sawn-off shotgun at someone, but Fairbrass has incredibly emotive eyes, and a Ray Winstone-like ability to play the humanity behind the tough-guy exterior.
Muscle may have been a role that only came to him more than four decades into his career, but he says he’s glad he didn’t become famous as a young actor. “It took me ages to get good, to get confidence,” he explains. “It took me a while to find my niche and my style of acting, which you only find by working and working.” He also felt like he needed a challenge. “I did have something to prove because I knew I could go there. I knew I could do it. I just needed that chance.”
A word that often trails Fairbrass is “underrated”. He says he doesn’t mind it, and that it’s evidence of the “snobbery” against the type of films he appears in. He remembers somebody coming up to him after the release of Muscle and saying, “You’ll never get the credit for it because you’re Craig Fairbrass.”
Fairbrass dropped out of school at 15 before enrolling in the National Youth Theatre, his love of acting spurred by the Charles Bronson movies he grew up watching with his dad. The hardman roles he’d become synonymous with were informed by characters on the fringes of his childhood. “There were mates and family members involved in different aspects of the criminal world,” he remembers. “It was in my life when I was a child so that stuff wasn’t alien to me. It wasn’t that difficult to emulate some of the people I had met.” While auditioning for parts, he worked as a security guard, a scaffolder, and even ran a sandwich shop for a time. “Then I got a little break in a film with Denzel Washington called For Queen and Country,” he says. Washington played a British soldier returning home to London from the Falklands, with Fairbrass cast as a racist copper.
Not long after – and with his wife, model Elke Kellick, and their two young children in tow – he made the move to Los Angeles in pursuit of Hollywood. Within months of landing, he was cast as one of the villains in Cliffhanger. “That wasn’t an actor’s role,” he concedes. “I was booked because of the way I looked.” It was an interesting era for Brits abroad. The likes of Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman or Bruce Payne could be cast as weirdo villains, but Fairbrass was of a different breed: a Brit who could convincingly trade blows with American behemoths. He liked Stallone a lot. “He was next door to me in the hotel and we collided on the first day and he gave me some advice: ‘Craig, you have a lot going for you. Look in the mirror. Get out there. Sell it.’ I’ve never forgotten those words.”
His subsequent work in the US was less high-profile – nobody will remember, nor want to, the time he played second fiddle to Brigitte Nielsen in a sci-fi thriller called Galaxis, for instance. But Fairbrass didn’t mind. He calls Los Angeles “a very strange place” and somewhere he didn’t want to raise his children, so he and his family moved back to the UK by the end of the Nineties. Then EastEnders came calling.
He’s not sure if his two years on Albert Square – where, among many other juicy plots, he served as one of the prime suspects in the famous “Who Shot Phil?” storyline – helped or hindered his career, but he says the show made him a better actor. “No one’s done what I’ve done since leaving EastEnders. It gave me great confidence. If you don’t come out of that place a very together actor, you’re doing something wrong. I’ve been in scenarios where I’ve had to say to myself, ‘if you can do EastEnders, you can do anything’.”
He left the show behind partly to seek out more diverse material, which didn’t immediately come to fruition. “I have had [frustrating thoughts] many, many times,” he says. “I went through a really bad stage 16 or 17 years ago and became disillusioned with the business and felt I wasn’t getting anywhere. But you have to keep the belief. Beggars can’t be choosers and sometimes you’ll be in something that isn’t good but you’re good in it and somebody will see it and you slowly claw your way up. That’s basically what happened to me.”
Now nearing 60, Fairbrass is acutely aware that his days of smashing blokes to pieces on film sets are coming to an end. Despite his fans’ protests, he plans to “phase out” from the action genre in the near future. “People want me to do stuff and I say, ‘it’s fine, just get me a f***ing unbelievable double’ – Liam Neeson’s got three!”
In the meantime, he’s basking in the glow of the critical notices he’s received of late. Later this month he and Muscle are set to be celebrated at the British Film Institute as part of their Acting Hard season on films about working-class masculinity. “It’s lovely and it’s beautiful because I’ve wanted it for so long,” he says. “I’ve just wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. That’s my biggest driving force.”
He adds that he likes to read his reviews, and mentions a glowing notice he received in The New York Times for his work in the 2020 film Villain. “Craig Fairbrass plays [an] ageing ex-con with a pained nobility that sets him apart from the motormouthed Cockneys who typically throng movies like this,” it read. He remembers the film’s producer emailing him another rave upon the film’s release, and being bowled over in the moment.
“I was standing in my kitchen with sore eyes and I just go, ‘thank you’.”
‘Rise of the Footsoldier: Vengeance’ is in cinemas