Joe Simpson's photo-realistic paintings of famous British actors in roles they wish they could play

John Simm as Rick Deckard from Blade Runner Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

For his latest series of photo-realistic figurative paintings, London-based artist Joe Simpson depicts famous British actors in roles that they have always wanted to play but have never had the chance.

Featuring Olivia Colman, Paddy Considine, Charlie Cox, Warwick Davis, Mark Gatiss, Matt Lucas, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, John Simm and Eleanor Tomlinson – the project is five years in the making and sees Simpson ask some of his favourite actors to reveal their hopes, motivations and dreams.

"I've been open to interpretations of the questions," Simpson tells Creative Boom. "The only stipulation is that it's something that they haven't done before – so that it's new."

The oil on canvas works are to go on tour, kicking off at the Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery from now until 3 March, before moving on to the Oriel Gallery, Theatr Clywd in North Wales and the Alfred East Art Gallery in Kettering. More dates will follow, finishing with a London exhibition at the end of this summer.

Speaking of his process, Simpson says: "I worked with each actor and discussed their ideas about the role, why they chose it, and we collaborated on what would be included in the finished piece. I took the original photographs of the actor in costume and used these as references to create the painting with an imagined background and setting, like a film still from a film that doesn't exist. I wanted to re-invent the role that they have chosen, imagining my interpretation of how that could look. I spent over two months on each piece and filmed a time-lapse of the process."

The exhibition will feature behind-the-scenes displays, with concept sketches, time-lapses and insights into the motivations behind the actors' choices. For example, Matt Lucas chose Singin' In The Rain as he grew up loving musicals, and his first screen crush was Gene Kelly.

"Initially, he was going to pick the role of Annie," adds Simpson, "which would have been a very different painting. Olivia Colman chose the Lars Von Trier movie Breaking the Waves, which she had only seen once, but it made such a profound impact on her that she has never stopped thinking about it.

"Michael Sheen said he'd pretty much played every role he wanted to play, but he was in love with Maurice Sendack's book, Where The Wild Things Are – from reading it as a child to reading it to his daughter. He even owns his own costume to wear at home. Gugu Mbatha-Ra's first professional role was a background character in the stage play of Cleopatra at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre; she said it's her ambition to play the lead role."

Olivia Colman as Bess from Breaking The Waves  Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Olivia Colman as Bess from Breaking The Waves Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Paddy Considine as R.P McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Paddy Considine as R.P McMurphy from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Warwick Davis as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Warwick Davis as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Eleanor Tomlinson as Hilts ‘The Cooler King’ from The Great Escape Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Eleanor Tomlinson as Hilts ‘The Cooler King’ from The Great Escape Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Matt Lucas as Don Lockwood from Singin’ In The Rain Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Matt Lucas as Don Lockwood from Singin’ In The Rain Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Michael Sheen as Max from Where The Wild Things Are Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Michael Sheen as Max from Where The Wild Things Are Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Cleopatra Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Cleopatra Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

John Simm as Rick Deckard from Blade Runner Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

John Simm as Rick Deckard from Blade Runner Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Charlie Cox as William Canfield Jr. from Steamboat Bill, Jr. Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm

Charlie Cox as William Canfield Jr. from Steamboat Bill, Jr. Oil on Canvas 135 x 60cm