BA Drama and Theatre Studies, 2002
Born and raised in Bristol, Joe Sims graduated from Middlesex University in 2002 with a BA in Drama and Theatre Studies. In 2012 he won an Offie (People's favourite male performance) for his role as alleged Texan killer Lee Fenton in As We Forgive Them at the Arcola Theatre in London, and in 2013 he starred alongside David Tennant and Olivia Colman in ITV's critically-acclaimed Broadchurch. Joe has more than 50 radio credits to his name, including a run on the much-loved Radio 4 drama The Archers.
Why did you choose Middlesex University?
I chose Middlesex because it came with a formidable reputation. Middlesex and Manchester Met at the time were seen as the two universities where alumni went on and forged themselves successful careers in television and theatre, and that was what inspired me to go really.
What was the course like?
I did the BA Drama and Theatre Studies degree and it was quite broad and wide-reaching. The first year was a bit of everything, giving us a veritable smorgasbord of routes into the theatre and laying solid foundations from which to build our careers upon. As the course progressed it gave us the opportunity to specialise in what we really wanted to pursue.
There are people from the course who have had successful careers in lighting design and stage management because we had to do all of those things as well as acting. It also gives you a heightened respect and appreciation for all factors of the theatre as well, knowing and having done to some level each of the jobs that as an actor you often just see going on around you.
What elements of your course did you enjoy the most?
What I liked most about the course was how far-reaching and challenging it was, the culmination of which was the comedy module in our third year where we had to do a 15-minute piece of stand-up at an open mic night in Crouch End. It was really daunting but it was an excellent experience and a few of us went on to do a few comedy gigs afterwards because it went so well and was a hell of a buzz.
I don't know anyone at any of the other drama schools or universities who did something like it and I really think it's something everyone should do. You don't know loneliness until you're in a room full of 50 strangers not laughing at you.
With acting you can hide behind the lines or the character, and to a certain extent you can lay the blame at somebody else's door, but everything that you do in comedy you do yourself. You write it, direct it, produce it and perform it yourself – there really is no place to hide so the accolades, if they come are, immense because they're all yours and you've done it all yourself. At the same time, if you die on your arse you've got nowhere to hide and only yourself to blame.
What is your favourite memory from your time at Middlesex?
It's difficult to say, the comedy module certainly rates up there. Middlesex has good relations with universities in the States so in the second year we had the chance to go out to San Francisco on a full scholarship to do a year studying there. Locking horns with new theatrical processes in the US was illuminating and it gave me a real global feel for theatre.
What advice would you offer to people thinking of applying to Middlesex?
I would say embrace the brevity of the course and all of the opportunities that it provides. While you may initially have a steadfast opinion about which route you want your career to go in, it could take a very different direction when you're there because of the broadness of the course and the dedication and passion of the lecturers in their specific subjects. I would say take advantage of everything and try everything, because it is only through doing this that you realise what you want as well as what you don't.
It is important to remember though that you get out of it what you put in. You need to be industrious when graduating university and go out and grab the bull by the horns. You need to make a plan in your second and third years about what you're going to do next. If you want to act then you need to get yourself out there pretty quickly. Maybe start your own theatre company, which is something that Middlesex students have been good at since time memoriam because it gives you a self-sufficiency and reliance on yourself.
How did Middlesex help you get where you are today?
Middlesex provided a solid foundation and platform for me to spring from. If you went to drama school I imagine they would teach you how to be a better actor, but what Middlesex gives you is the chance to be a better professional and it is a lot more far-reaching in terms of your subject knowledge. We learned a lot about the pragmatics of performing, about Brechtian philosophy or Stanislavskyan technique. We got a lot more into the dramaturgy and the study of theatre rather than the study and perfection of performance.
I wasn't necessarily an academic person, but Middlesex gave me a voracious appetite for learning and reading and wanting to expand upon my current knowledge, which wasn't something that I really had before.
Did you always want to become an actor?
I always wanted to be an actor after realising I wouldn't make it as a professional footballer. From a relatively young age I was lucky enough to do a few bits of telly and a bit of presenting, so it was always something that was in my heart.
I knew I wanted to be an actor but I guess I didn't really have the direction or purpose or that hunger and drive, and that is something that I learned from spending time at University, talking to my professors or lecturers and spending three years with like-minded peers. That is an experience that money can't buy really and if you utilise it in the right way then the effects can be profound, but if you choose to squander the three years then you get what you deserve.
What are the pros and cons of being an actor?
If you go into it for the acquisition of material wealth then you are absolutely barking up the wrong tree; for it to be financially lucrative then you need to be very, very lucky. However, to get up in the morning and truly love what you do and to be able to engage with incredibly creative people in a myriad of media – from film, to tv, to theatre, to radio – is something that I wouldn't swap for anything else in the world. It is an absolute joy and something I feel I am incredibly privileged to do as a career.
How did you get your first break?
I worked from the age of 16 to 18 for a television company called HTV West and when I graduated I went back into television production and worked as a runner. I kept telling the directors I was an actor and that they should put me in adverts and eventually they did. After that I cut my own showreel from the rushes, which is everything that you're in rather than just the bits they use, and I was able to pull something quite good together.
I cut that together myself on Final Cut, burned the DVDs and then took it to every reputable agency in London and handed them out to absolutely everybody until they called me in. From that I got representation and a good agent and then the auditions started to flow.
What advice would you offer an aspiring actor who thinks they will never get a break?
You have to be tenacious and dogged in the pursuit of whatever you want. It is not just going to fall on a plate for you and if it is something that burns you up and is all-consuming then you need to make the appropriate effort. You should always keep grafting and thinking: 'Am I at full tilt working as hard as I can?' If you're not then there is always more that you can be doing. That tenacity and drive is something that in some ways I feel indebted to Middlesex for.
We each get dealt a hand and it's about how you play that hand. The margins between success and failure are slim, it doesn't mean you're not good enough. I always tell people that I work with to trust your gut. We try to second-guess ourselves so often but it doesn't do you any good; that gut instinct that really burns you up to begin with is often the right one and you've got to learn to trust it. Combined with dogged determination and good friends who encourage you it is really important.
Did you get any knocks along the way?
Of course. It's not going to be an easy journey and everyone will experience things that make them feel lower than a snake's belly. I got turned down after an audition for a one-line part playing a Bristolian mechanic and I just thought: 'Bloody hell, if I can't get a job playing a Bristolian mechanic when I'm a 6ft 3in bloke from Bristol then maybe I'm in the wrong job'. But there are loads of reasons why you don't get auditions or it doesn't go your way and you can't take them personally. Often it's nothing to do with you whatsoever and they just chose to go another way, and you've got to be resilient to that and be prepared for it.
What was your first major part?
The first big role I got was playing a bulimic bouncer in Casualty who everyone thought was beating up his missus but actually it was his missus beating him up. That was the culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of auditions, putting the showreel together, going and doing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and badgering people for work.
Do you ever worry about being typecast in the murderous, crazy, aggressive roles?
Not even a little bit because I always find that those parts are the most edifying and they're the parts that everyone wants to play. It's quite cathartic too because you get to purge your demons on stage or on set and then go home and be nice to your gran.
What would be your top three tips for students wanting to forge a career as an actor?
My first would be: 'Be a nice person'.
Be the kind of person you would want to spend six months with. Whether it's theatre where you're going to be away together for three or four months at least, or television where you will maybe be away recording for six months, when you go into an interview with a director or casting director they are looking for people they want to spend that time with. If you are that congenial, bubbly, outgoing person and not too intrusive, arrogant or rude then that will stand you in amazing stead.
My second tip is: 'Be tenacious'.
Talent is nothing without drive. There are a million talented people who are middle-aged and bitter, telling stories about how they could have been a contender if it wasn't for this or that. You have got to be a master of your own destiny. Always ask yourself: 'Am I trying hard enough, is there more that I could be doing?' You have to make the necessary sacrifices while you're young, brave enough, able enough and maybe don't have the ties that you have in later life.
Lastly: 'Keep your eyes and ears open'.
Be receptive to everything, never reject but always accept things. When people are talking to you and offering their advice don't be dismissive, because there is so much to learn from everybody. Everybody has a story to tell and we all have lessons. The passion for learning should be an unquenchable thirst in your life.
What one piece of advice would you offer your 17 or 18-year-old self?
I would tell myself to have a stronger sense of self, to trust my own judgement a bit more and not be misled by people who try to take me in the wrong direction, because I feel like I wasted a lot of time on people who didn't deserve that level of credence and tried to lead me down paths I didn't want to go down.
We only have a short amount of time on earth so we don't have any time to waste. I sometimes wonder if I might not have made more headway in my formative years by being more dogged and determined and not wasting as much time.