I wish I was one of those actors who could say, “I’ve wanted to do this all of my life,” but I grew up in Barnsley wanting to be a vet. I didn’t want to look after domestic animals, mind you. I wanted to work with lions and tigers and sharks – anything that could kill you, basically – but I failed all my exams, so that was the end of that! I also used to do amateur dramatics, and when it became apparent that veterinary science was not for me, I thought acting could be something to pursue. I come from mining stock: my grandfather was a miner, dad a miner, mum a housewife – dad had been down the pits since he was 16. They were shutting down, though, and my dad said to me, “You’re going to be unemployed anyway, son, so you may as well be unemployed trying to do something you love.” My dad was really supportive, so in that way my start was a little different to Billy Elliot’s.
When I became an actor I lost all my friends, apart from one. I was suddenly perceived to be gay. We were all young, and people thought that way back then. Now that I am married with four kids and have 13 years in the business I’m sure that they all think differently. And acting has given me so much. My career has sent me all over the world – to America, Tunisia, the Sahara. I’ve been on a Russian icebreaker attached to a huge iceberg in the Arctic and nearly drowned. I filmed on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where our crew was attacked by terrorists and four were shot. They survived, but we were lucky. I think that the possibility of death always turned me on. Now that I am a father, however, it has tempered my passion for these kinds of crazy adventures. That is something I think I can no longer do, at least not until the kids have got their own homes and families, and then I can do it again. If I could do anything in life I’d love to take over from Sir David Attenborough, though that would be unlikely.
My acting career also introduced me to my wonderful wife (I got off with my agent’s assistant!). We had to keep that quiet for a couple of years but then she moved jobs and became a casting assistant and then a casting director. A good weekend for us would be spent doing things together as a family and travelling. We are all very adventurous. I grew up with two sisters and had a lot of freedom. I remember I was constantly out playing football until nine o’clock at night and it felt very safe. There were lots of places to go and play and build dens and find nests. It was quite idyllic. So when I look at my kids I want them to have a full and healthy life. It’s important they get mucky and take risks. We live in a society now that mollycoddles kids and doesn’t allow them to grow properly. My family and I live in London, because that’s where my work is, but I make sure we go back up to Barnsley whenever possible. I’m a season ticket holder at Barnsley FC and two of my kids are, too. We watch every home game if I’m not working.
See more of our interview with Shaun in Issue 3 of The Hunger, out now. Shaun stars in The Hobbit, in cinemas 13th December.