'Code 404': Daniel Mays says RoboCop comparisons are unfair (exclusive)

Tom Beasley
Contributor
Daniel Mays as DI John Major in 'Code 404'. (Credit: Andrea Southam/Sky)

It would be wrong to compare the part-human, part-AI police officer in new sitcom Code 404 to RoboCop, according to star Daniel Mays.

The British actor portrays DI John Major, who is shot dead in the line of duty only to be restored a year later with the help of AI enhancement as part of an ambitious trial programme.

With his long-term cop partner DI Roy Carver (Stephen Graham) in tow, he tries to investigate his own murder — despite teething problems with his new body.

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“A few people have been comparing him to RoboCop and that’s not the case at all,” Mays told Yahoo Movies UK.

“He is for all intents and purposes a walking, talking human being. It’s just the fact that, because he’s 10% AI now and the wiring is all wrong, his brilliant police instincts that made him such a maverick cop in the first place have sort of gone awry.

Daniel Mays and Stephen Graham in 'Code 404'. (Credit: Sky)

“He’s kicking down the wrong doors, he’s arresting the wrong suspects, he’s consuming evidence — i.e. cocaine — when he shouldn’t be.”

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Mays described his character as “a bit of a knob”, who is only made worse by the addition of his technological enhancement.

The 42-year-old said the show unfolds as a “comedy of errors”, with DI Major risking shutdown if he is unable to be the cop his superiors want him to be.

He added: “The stakes are high, but the writing is so funny and it lends itself to real moments of hilarity and slapstick really.”

Stephen Graham and Daniel Mays are cop partners in 'Code 404'. (Credit: Andrea Southam/Sky)

Mays said he loved the chance to work with his “dear friend” Stephen Graham and said they were often unable to get through a scene without corpsing.

He said: “There was a lot of hilarity on set. Sometimes when you’re working on shows like that and you’re finding it really funny as you’re making it, that doesn’t transpose on to the screen.

“But I think it has done with Code 404. You can see there’s a lot of enjoyment within the performances. It was a treat from start to finish, the whole thing.”

Read the full interview with Daniel Mays about shouting at old women, the possibility of a series two and his upcoming dramas White Lines and Des...

Yahoo Movies UK: I imagine it’s rare that we can have a conversation about a show and actually talk about the fact you die in it?

Daniel Mays: Yeah! I’ve died in so many TV productions and films it’s unbelievable really. So I like the fact that Code 404 plays on that actually. The even go to the extreme of saying that he was killed “in the Line of Duty” in one of the episodes.

What’s it like to be reading through a script where you’re killed on like page three?

I wanted to phone my agent back and say “here we go again”. But no, my agent approached me and gave me a brief premise of what the show is and I was like: “Oh man, it’s a comedy and it’s another policeman where I get killed. We’ve been there and done this.” But she said: “no, take a look”.

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At that stage, it was just a pilot episode. They had seen me in Plus One for Channel 4 years ago and they wanted to attach me to the project. The premise is completely outlandish. It’s completely left-field, so I was intrigued enough to read it. As soon as I read Daniel Peak’s script, it was genuinely laugh-out-loud and I could imagine myself doing it straight away. So it was a bit of a no-brainer.

Daniel Mays and Anna Maxwell Martin in 'Code 404'. (Credit: Sky)

You’re playing a character who’s 90% human and 10% artificial intelligence. What were the challenges of communicating that 10% that’s not quite human?

That is the key to Code 404. A few people have been comparing him to RoboCop and that’s not the case at all. He is for all intents and purposes a walking, talking human being. It’s just the fact that, because he’s 10% AI now and the wiring is all wrong, his brilliant police instincts that made him such a maverick cop in the first place have sort of gone awry. He’s kicking down the wrong doors, he’s arresting the wrong suspects, he’s consuming evidence — i.e. cocaine — when he shouldn’t be.

It’s a sort of comedy of errors really. The stakes are high if it doesn’t work out because he’s the first prototype and he’ll get shut down and they’ll be no more. The stakes are high, but the writing is so funny and it lends itself to real moments of hilarity and slapstick really.

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But in amongst that, you’ve also got a really interesting love triangle with Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays my wife. There are a lot of dramatic scenes in it as well — it bridges those worlds really well. And on top of that, it’s an amazing conspiracy thriller.

We were lucky enough to sit down and watch all of the episodes as a cast and crew. I was hit for six by it really because it seems to be playing on many different levels.

Definitely! One of the challenges for you, I suppose, is how big to play it. There’s a scene, for example, where you have to yell in the face of an old woman. How did you decide how big to go?

Daniel Mays takes interrogation a little too far in 'Code 404'. (Credit: Sky)

That is quite big that moment, isn’t it? When I looked at it, I thought: “was it too much?” [laughs] But if you ground the character in a truth and you play it for real then, as you come to those moments when you are a bit bigger, you’ve earned the right to do that. That moment is hilarious. You don’t really see that every day. If it’s truthful, I think you can be as big as you want to be really, within reason.

For most of your scenes in this, you’re working alongside Stephen Graham, who’s one of the finest British actors we’ve got. How was it to work with him?

Stephen is a dear friend of mine. We worked together in a show called Top Buzzer about 15 years ago. It was on MTV and written by Ed Allen — son of the late, great Dave Allen — and Johnny Vaughan. It was the world’s first “dope opera”, with Stephen Graham and James Lance as weed dealers and I played Carlton — their sidekick, annoying friend. We had an amazing time on that and I’ve always stayed in contact with Steve.

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When they approached me for Code 404 and I read it, the first thing I said when I had a coffee with the producer Tom Miller was: “Who are you thinking of for the other policeman?” He said it was really early stages and they hadn’t thought of anyone, so I said “what about Stephen Graham?” because we’d always been looking to do something together. Tom said that would be an amazing piece of casting if we could get him.

I sent Stephen the script and he loved it. He was in the same ballpark as me in the sense that we wanted to try and just do an outlandish comedy. He’d come off the back of The Virtues and The Irishman and Line of Duty and he’s predominantly known for his serious, dramatic acting. So I think it was a real breath of fresh air for Steve and indeed for me to play outside the box a little bit and play in the comedy world. I think he’s a brilliant comedic actor just as much as he’s a tremendous dramatic one.

Daniel Mays and Stephen Graham in 'Code 404'. (Credit: Andrea Southam/Sky)

You mentioned how strong the scripts were. Did you two have much room to improvise on the set?

I don’t think we improvised that much, as I remember. The scripts were so brilliantly written that if it’s not broke, you don’t have to fix it.

What we did do a lot on set was just corpse. Sometimes we’d add 20 minutes to a day because we just couldn’t get through the scene with one another. It was a really joyous experience to work with him, and indeed all of the actors. You’ve got Rosie Cavaliero and Richard Gadd and Anna Maxwell Martin is a brilliant comedic actress as well.

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So there was a lot of hilarity on set. Sometimes when you’re working on shows like that and you’re finding it really funny as you’re making it, that doesn’t transpose on to the screen. But I think it has done with Code 404. You can see there’s a lot of enjoyment within the performances. It was a treat from start to finish, the whole thing.

I haven’t seen the whole series, so I don’t know how it plays out, but is there the potential to return to these characters for a second series?

We don’t know yet. We’ll have to see how the audience gets on with it and how the ratings are. But from my point of view, I’d love to come back and play the character again. Where we leave it at the end of the first series is such a cliffhanger. I think hopefully the audience will love the characters and want to come back and revisit them. I think there’s a lot of mileage in the show. Put it that way.

Daniel Mays in 'Code 404'. (Credit: Sky)

He was a maverick copper. He had the best arrest record. Him and Roy are the cream of the crop — the top of the tree. He’s always been sort of full of himself. He’s a bit of a knob but, with this upgrade and everything else, he’s even more pretentious. So that just lends itself to some great comedy.

We’ll have to see if it comes back for a second series. I hope it does.

What do we see you in next? Is it the Dennis Nilsen drama with David Tennant?

No, I’ve got this amazing show called White Lines for Netflix. I’ve never done a Netflix show before, so this is my first for them. It’s a new 10-part show set on the island of Ibiza. If ever there was a show made that’s the antithesis of what we’re going through now with lockdown, White Lines is it. It’s very difficult to describe because it’s like a murder-mystery drama where a superstar DJ — sort of like a David Guetta character — went missing 20 years ago.

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His body is discovered in the desert in Almeria and his sister, played by Laura Haddock, goes back to Ibiza to investigate his disappearance and found out the truth of what happened to her older brother. He had left with a group of friends from Manchester who were all aspiring DJs. She goes to work and tries to found out what actually happened to him.

It’s an absolutely banging show. It’s got an amazing soundtrack, score, performances and it looks beautiful. We shot for six months in Madrid, Majorca and Ibiza last year. It’s a great show.

Then it’s the Dennis Nilsen drama?

David Tennant as serial killer Dennis Nilsen in ITV drama 'Des'. (Credit: ITV)

Yes, it’s a complete change of direction for Des with David Tennant. It was obviously an incredibly serious and infamous subject matter. It was quite a dark piece of drama to work on. I play DCI Peter Jay — playing a policeman again — who was responsible for the conviction of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen.

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It was quite difficult to pore over the research really because it was such a horrific and sad case. But I felt honoured to be working alongside the brilliant David Tennant and indeed Jason Watkins. He plays Brian Masters, who was the biographer of Nilsen and wrote Killing for Company. It’s an amazing read. I’d recommend it to anyone.

It’s very much told through the point of view of his biographer and the policeman. I’ve seen it already and it’s a really stand-out piece of work.

Code 404 is available on Sky One and NOW TV from 29 April and White Lines hits Netflix on 15 May.