Dave Johns talks about I, Daniel Blake

The actor was in Prague for a standup show and to introduce the film

British comic Dave Johns stars in Ken Loach's new rabble rousing film I, Daniel Blake. The film unexpectedly won the top prize at the most recent Cannes Film Festival. Johns later won Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards, and other prizes are pending. The film is now coming to screens in Prague.

Johns sat down with Prague.TV to discuss the film and his career. While Johns is 60 years old, I, Daniel Blake was his screen debut. The film follows the dealings a man has with getting social benefits after he has had a heart attack that makes him unfit for work. Along the way, he meets a single mom with two kids who is also struggling to get help from the same social system. It is not a love story in any classical sense. It is more of an indictment of a broken social system and a snapshot of what society in the UK and other countries has become.

“I have been a stand-up comic for 28 years. If you are going to do a first film you are in safe hands with Ken Loach,” he said. Loach has been making independent films since the 1970s, usually dealing with social topics.

The accolades came as a surprise. And while some people were upset in social media that the film was snubbed by the Oscars, Johns did not seem to mind. “When I first made this film to be truthful I never thought of awards at all. When it won in Cannes it was an amazing experience. What I like about awards for a film is it keeps it in the public eye, it keeps it still there. And that is why awards are important. They give it that extra weight,” he said.

“I never in thought I would get in for an Oscar, but people seemed to be upset about it. It's got five BAFTA nominations, if it wins Best Picture that would be fantastic,” he added. BAFTA is the main film award ceremony in Britain.

Johns is very different than his onscreen character. “Daniel Blake is not like me at all. I like taking the piss. I like surreal stuff. The only bit that was from me was the emotion. Ken wants you to bring your real emotion to the character,” he said.

The film had a script, but some scenes were partly improvised. “If you go to see a film you should never think somebody wrote those words. Those words should come naturally. That is why I think Paul Laverty is a great writer. All that script is written, but what Ken and him do is they let you own the words yourself. So they don't worry about one or two words. They say, 'this is the script, these are the lines, you make them your own.' That is why it comes out as so natural, because of the way they shoot the film. They don't have a big crew,” he said.

“Ken never tells you what lens he has got on the camera, so you never know how close it is going to be. Sometimes you are not aware you are in a film, and that is how Ken gets that intimate and that very real feel. It is like a documentary because the camera is just observing. That is his skill and why it works,” he added. “That is why it feels improvised, but 95 percent of it was in the script.”

Working on the film has opened Johns' eyes to what the working poor are facing. “For a lot of time, people thought that people on welfare were just wanting a free ride. And what this shows is that the system that was put in place to help people who are in need isn't working. And it is ordinary people who are becoming the victims. So that is what has gotten people angry in England. Most people are three paychecks away from needing help,” Johns said.

“And it is because the state doesn't want to help. The benefit system now is set up so hard that you give up. And you'll take zero hour contract jobs just to get out of there because they want to cut money and the easiest place to cut money is from people who are poor and disadvantaged and [who have] no voice, while they can let the banks and all the big corporates not pay any taxes,” he said.

“Ordinary people bear the brunt of all this austerity. This is why when we went to Spain and went to Italy people were saying the same thing. All the big banks were at fault for the crash, but it is the people who are paying for it. Youth unemployment in Spain is terrible, and look at Greece,” he said, recounting the conditions of how the country's debt is impacting the poor and middle class.

“It is ordinary people. It could be the people next door who get into to trouble, have a heart attack and can't work. They need help and they need money. … And [the government] makes it as hard as possible. Food banks in England in 2017 — the fourth or fifth richest country in the world. It is appalling,” he said. Before talks of Brexit, the UK has been counted as fifth richest, but has recently slipped to seventh.

“They want to punish people for being poor, and humiliate people for being in a bad situation. Ken Loach calls it conscious cruelty,” he said.

Before the film, Johns was not so involved in politics. “Ken Loach has radicalized me. It has opened my eyes to what the system has become,” he said. Johns' father worked with asbestos, and had difficulty getting any help as none of his employers could be held responsible. “I think about my dad and all those people who have been sold short. It is not about your political persuasion, it is about being a human being. It is about compassion. If you are doing well then you should be able to help people who are struggling. And to me that is a no brainer,” he said.

In the film I, Daniel Blake, there is a scene in a food bank, and the people there are actual food bank volunteers. “There are a lot of people who want to help. It is about community spirit. The state should be helping people, it is their responsibility as well, but they seem to be wanting to pass on the buck. They will help big industry and big corporates, but they don't want to help people who make up society.

So [people] rely on charity and people doing fund raising. …. There should be state help as well,” he said.

The idea that people getting benefits are gaming the system is a myth, he said. “Nobody is condoning people who fraudulently claim money. … They should be prosecuted. Fraudulent claims are less than 1 percent. Look at how many corporates cheat on taxes,” he said.

Johns plans to continue to do stand-up comedy, but he now has had more film offers. “Comedy is the day job. I have had offers. I have got scripts that I am reading at the moment. I was asked about my availability for [a big-budget monster film sequel]. I would like to do more film. If I find something good we can do it,” he said. At the same time, he is planning a comedy tour in the UK that will end up at the Edinburgh festival.

“I would love to do more film but if it doesn't happen, what a way to finish — with a Ken Loach film that won the Palme d'Or,” he said.

Before comedy, Johns worked in construction and then as a stagehand in a Newcastle theater. After seeing comedy in London, he opened up his own venue in Newcastle called Comedy Cafe in 1988. “It fast established itself,” he said. He hosted shows there, which brought him into doing his own routines.

He does not do political humor, though, which surprises people who know him from the film.

He also says that comedy does not have borders. “If you are funny and make a connection with the audience it will work. It is not a case of where you are from. The comic always has to make a connection with the audience. And if you do that then it works,” he said.

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