Stephen Graham admits he had problems reading Peter Bowker’s screenplay, but not, he hastens to add, because he wasn’t gripped by its drama.

“I couldn’t get my hands on it,” he explains. “My wife, Hannah, is an actor as well. When I was reading it she was grabbing it off me all the time. I’d go off and make a cup of tea and she’d be there with her head buried in it saying: ‘You’ve got to get that part’. I’d say: ‘Give it back,’ and we’d end up fighting over it.”

When he finally got his hands on the screenplay, he knew immediately that he had to take on the role of Danny, the seemingly happy-go-lucky soldier who is drawn back to Iraq as a private contractor working with an ex-American marine.

“I knew I wanted to be part of it from the moment I read it, because the writing was so beautiful and because of what it was saying. The characters are so well developed,” he says.

Danny begins the story as part of a tight-knit group. The events that begin the story transform him – and his relationship with his fellow soldiers, Mike and Hibbsy.

“This one situation changes the lives of these three men for ever,” he says.

His character, Danny, returns to Iraq to work with an American GI he encounters during the invasion of Basra in 2003. Together they form a security operation that quickly finds itself bidding for – and winning – multi-million-dollar contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq. As Danny is drawn deeper into the murky and mercenary world, he loses his moral compass.

“It’s political without shoving it down your throat,” he says. “It doesn’t really judge. It offers you these people and says look, there are faults in everyone and there is goodness in everyone. It’s not preachy, and it allows you to make your own mind up.”

Graham is one of the most in-demand actors in the country at the moment. His tour de force in the acclaimed movie This Is England has landed him a raft of roles, both here in the UK and in America, where he has just completed a movie, Public Enemies, with Johnny Depp, in which he plays the Thirties gangster Baby Face Nelson.

It was while he was finishing a homegrown production in the weeks before joining the cast of Occupation that he met the ex-soldier who gave him the most important guidance on playing Danny.

“I was lucky on my last production that there was a very unassuming third assistant director on there, a guy called Chris, a lovely Welsh fella, who was in the Special Forces. You’d have never thought it,” he explains. “He looked more like a hippy than a soldier.”

Talking to someone who had been through an experience very much like Danny’s, Graham began to truly understand his character and what drove him to return to Iraq.

“He told me the thing that kept him out there was the fact that he didn’t have any wife and kids. He had nothing. He was just there for the camaraderie and the buzz and the thrill. He’d been doing it since he was 18 so he didn’t have any other routine,” he says.

“He couldn’t cope when he was back here at home seeing his mum and dad and his friends. They didn’t quite understand what he’d been going through. He was in the Falklands and then in Kuwait for Desert Storm. It gave me a real understanding of Danny and what made him tick.”

Danny’s wise-cracking humour at the beginning of the drama also rang true.

“Their humour is quite dark – I love that. You need that, otherwise everyone is going to be sitting there feeling very depressed. You have to find a way of pulling people out of it. That’s what Danny is like. But then he self destructs,” he says.

Like his colleagues James Nesbitt and Warren Brown, Graham came away from the production filled with admiration for the men and women who served in the Armed Forces.

“We had a military adviser helping us with some of the scenes and we did a few little exercises. He said there are no accidents, only mistakes,” he says.

“What I’ve really understood about it is that you are so dependant on other people watching your back. When it comes down to the bare bones of it, it’s your life and you are placing that life in the hands of someone else.”

Warren Brown has seen, at first hand, the difficulties young soldiers face in returning from war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’ve got quite a few mates who are in the Forces and they all say that getting back to normal life can be difficult,” he says. Brown was able to draw on that knowledge as he portrayed Lee “Hibbsy” Hibbs in Occupation.

“Hibbsy is definitely the youngest and least experienced of the three. Soldiering is all he’s ever known, and that’s what he loves,” he explains.

“When he comes back and tries to fit into normal society he finds it difficult to talk to his parents and he realises that the Army is all he’s got. He can also open up to Mike and Danny. I know that’s something that happens when you come back from anywhere with the Forces.”

Brown’s empathy for the men and women who go to war on our behalf was deepened even further during the making of Occupation.

Whilst filming in Morocco, Brown met a group of RAF pilots on a training exercise in the nearby desert.

“They were so glad that this was being made. If you don’t have any friends or family in the services it is so easy to forget about what is happening and it is so easy when it comes on the television to go, ‘It’s the war again’, click, and turn over to something else. It’s all too easy to forget. It is raising awareness of the fact that our boys are still out there and they are still being killed out there,” he says.

To date, Brown’s best known television roles have been in Shameless and Hollyoaks, where he was nominated for several awards for his portrayal of a psychopath. Occupation represents the biggest opportunity of his career so far.

“It’s certainly the biggest thing I’ve done to date. It’s been a fantastic experience for me working with Stephen Graham and James Nesbitt. It raises your game working with people like that,” he says.

Filming Occupation was physically demanding, something Brown is more comfortable with than most actors. Before joining the profession in his mid-twenties he was a world champion Thai boxer.

Brown took up Thai boxing when he was a 15-year-old growing up in Warrington. He quickly prospered, becoming a British and Commonwealth champion. One day he got a phone call from a promoter asking him whether he’d be interested in travelling to Italy for a fight.

“He said the bloke’s the current world champion and has been for years,” he explains. The fight was in Turin in front of a hostile crowd, but Brown prevailed and returned to Warrington a world champion. “I defended it successfully a few times.”

By the time he was 25, however, he decided he’d had enough of boxing. When he told friends he intended becoming an actor instead they were convinced he’d taken leave of his senses.

“People thought I was bloody mad when I said I was going to do acting. They said: ‘But you’ve never done it before’. I knew it was a hard job so I gave up everything and went to university. It took a while, but I was doing little bits here and there. I was always realistic; I knew it would be hard work.”

He got his break when a casting director spotted him and asked him to go along for a casting session for Shameless. He landed a role and went on to appear in Hollyoaks.

In contrast to well known martial arts fighters like Jean Claude van Damme, who used their fighting skills to carve a career in acting, Brown was determined to do things differently. “I don’t want to be seen as an actor who used to do Thai boxing. I want it to be the other way round. I want to be taken seriously as an actor first,” he says.

“I didn’t get into acting thinking I want to do action stuff. I have done a couple of things where there has been fighting or there has been physical stuff so it has definitely helped, and I would love to do more action stuff eventually – but only when I’ve established myself as an actor.”

There are distinct parallels between the two professions, not least the rejections that are so much a part of the life of an actor.

“I had fights which I did lose. A lot of it is about wanting to come back stronger. It’s absolutely the same with acting. In acting you get rejections. It’s something you do have to learn very early on, that it’s not personal and you will get another job,” he explains.

“The good news, though, is that it doesn’t hurt as much!”

James Nesbitt admits he felt anxious about playing the role of a British soldier for the first time in his long and varied career.

“This is the first soldier I’ve played since I was starting out as a young extra aged 16 or 17, and it was quite daunting,” he explains.

“I said to the director Nick Murphy early on: ‘I am worried about being believable’. I just couldn’t picture myself. I kept telling him to keep an eye on my military bearing and my authority.”

Once the production got under way, however, his worries quickly disappeared.

“A couple of things happened. First, Nick said to me: ‘Don’t worry too much, soldiers are human beings too’. It was really helpful, and I realised I was thinking about myself as an actor, rather than an actor playing a soldier,” he says.

More significantly, Nesbitt found that the moment he put on the uniform and joined Occupation’s fictional unit with colleagues Stephen Graham and Warren Brown, he began to behave as a soldier might.

“You put on the uniform, trust yourself and the character and it begins to fall into place,” he says.

Many of the military scenes were filmed early on in the production. Nesbitt and his co-stars, Brown and Graham, found themselves forming a tight-knit unit.

“We tried to keep in character. So they were very much my team, my unit, my responsibility.”

Nesbitt jumped at the chance of playing Mike, a military veteran approaching the end of his career in the Army who finds his life unravelling when he returns from Iraq.

“The one thing that the certain amount of success I’ve had has afforded me is the ability to be choosy about scripts. I thought Occupation was something I could be challenged by and the writing by Peter Bowker was exceptional,” he says.

He was also drawn to the prospect of appearing in what is the BBC’s first major drama on the Iraq war.

“I thought it was exciting to be involved in something which, while not necessarily ignored, has been hard for people to know what to do about, as a subject,” he explains.

Mike, a long-serving soldier drawing to the end of his military career, is transformed by his experience in Iraq. So, too, are his colleagues, Danny and Hibbs.

“He has served in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, he is in his late thirties, he’s been around a long time and he’s coming towards the end of his time,” he explains.

“In the opening scene, something happens to all of them and, from that moment, we plot their various paths and how they are interwoven – how that can separate them, how it can break them as a unit, how they find love, lose love and how their worlds are shattered.”

He admits he found the process of playing a military man, exposed to the horrors and chaos of war, an eye-opening experience.

“One of the difficult things for us was to try and imagine what it must be like. It’s impossible for us to imagine the things they see, the things they do, the impact it has on their lives when they leave their friends and families. The duality of their existence is extremely stark,” he says.

“I wasn’t surprised to discover that the marriage breakdown rate among soldiers who return from Iraq is something like 70%. Who do you share those extreme experiences with and how could your partner ever understand? In a way you need to get away from your Army colleagues, but who do you share those inner demons with if not them? Who lives those horrors with you?”

Nesbitt is honest about his attitude to the Iraq war. “I marched against it,” he says. Occupation hasn’t changed his opinion of the conflict. What it has changed, however, is his feelings towards the men – and women – who wear the military green.

“What has been extraordinary to me and all those involved in Occupation, irrespective of our own political persuasions or ideologies, is that we have come away from it with an enormous amount of respect for what they do,” he explains.

“The discipline and the commitment of these men doing this job is quite extraordinary and quite moving.”

Basra, southern Iraq, 2003. Crammed inside a Warrior armed troop carrier, bullets and RPGs exploding around them, three British soldiers head into a hostile part of the city – and a world descending into chaos.

When they emerge from their vehicle, their lives spiral out of control. Their fates – and the destiny of Iraq itself – become inextricably linked and, united in war, the three men, and their friendships, are torn apart during the peace that follows.

Written by Peter Bowker, produced by Laurie Borg, executive produced by Derek Wax for Kudos Film and TV and directed by Nick Murphy, Occupation is a searingly powerful three-part BBC One drama that spans the five years following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

It follows the lives of three soldiers and friends, first during the battle for Basra, then as they struggle to adapt to life back home and, finally, as very different forces draw them back to Iraq.

Occupation is the BBC’s first major drama set against the backdrop of the Iraq war, and is an unforgettable journey into the heart of the darkness that is conflict and its chaotic aftermath.

Starring James Nesbitt as Mike, Stephen Graham as Danny and Warren Brown as Hibbs, and broadcast in the wake of the British military’s recent withdrawal from Basra, it explores the impact war has on the lives of those who fight and what happens when cultures collide – not just in war, but in peace.


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