Ed Skrein a former Fine Art student an experience that profoundly led the beginning of his self expression, from painting through out his teen years, a deep love and appreciation for artists such as Jean – Michel Basquiat developed, and an expansion of his dedication to the visual arts.
Following the Fine Art years, a musical direction emerged that saw Skrein travel across Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Lithuania, Norway and play the World Music Stages at Glastonbury more than once - he continues to selectively choose his musical collaborations these days with Nathan 'FluteBox' Lee and Asian Dub Foundation recently performing with them at The Royal Festival Hall -
As an evolving visual artist, his work has naturally directed him towards film in one of the most already talked about British films of 2012: iLL MANORS (6th June 2012) After spending considerable time getting to know him as he discussed his evolving life and his mission to produce work that is always varied together with work that moves towards breaking down existing representations of our generation, that our films continue to reaffirm.
I asked him to tell me about his experience of being involved in one of the most controversial roles in a film this year so far and how does our angry generation respond to dismantling negative representations.
Marcella Karamat: How did you and Ben Drew come together for ill Manors?
Ed Skrein: Me and Ben met at a community studios in Camden, called Tribal Tree when we were 16 years old. I was a brash young rapper, Ben was a shy, aggressive singer, long before he even started rapping. Straight away we clicked and had a good friendship, it grew from strength to strength, we are each other’s confidantes ; if I’ve got a real problem something bad that has happened, he’s the first person I’ll call, and that’s aside from our creative working relationship and vice versa. Whenever the phone rings, instantly we know when it’s going to be positive, through the tone we know it’s either going to be ‘hey look come down this amazing thing is happening’ or ‘I need to talk’.
We’ve built up a real closeness over the years, as close as you can be without being family. He lived with me for about 9 months, he’s now the Godfather to my son; alongside this we’ve had a working creative relationship over the years, we have a whole album written titled ‘Film’s For The Blind Project’ it is an audio film concept - without the visuals just sound, which in a way led to the early themes and ideas for ill Manors.
As you get older you know more people, but have less friends and it’s definitely that way I feel with us
We’ve always had a long exchange of creative ideas across the years, we’ve always had a mutual respect for each other’s creative feedback for each other’s work. As I’ve spent years, choosing to collaborate with thought provoking artists such Asian Dub Foundation, Nathan Flute Box Lee, on Dented Records, Foreign Beggars etc and touring Europe playing the WOMAD festivals and Glastonbury for four years in a row, it’s been an eclectic musical journey. As they say, as you get older you know more people, but have less friends and it’s definitely that way I feel with us, I feel we’ve been blessed and lucky to have such a relationship.
I will say that moving into film was a continuation of our creative relationship, a completely new realm and experience, it’s very natural, organic, a beautiful process.
MK: The film’s central message is that: We are all products of our environment, how important is that message in understanding the film?
ES: I think it is central to it, to understand why these people have become so apathetic and so full of hate, with their lack of remorse and cold heartedness; because ultimately all we are, is products of our environment, reflections of our surroundings, and these characters that feel this way, because of the cards they have been dealt in life; they have had no choice over that life; for example just as David Cameron had no choice about the way he was raised, he was born into this world, to whom ever his parents are and by default was sent to Eton went to Oxford, moved into politics and has walked along that path of life, and was set on a specific path in life, yes he worked hard during that path – but this isn’t a film about that path, those that have that right of passage as it were.
This is a film about the complete opposite, the people that are stuck in the flats, that haven’t got people looking after their best interests; instead have been told that they are nothing or worthless from the start of their childhood or beaten into their apathy.So they have the feeling of no sense of belonging and so the question we must ask ourselves today is: Why do they not have that sense of belonging?
And the answer is that, they have been backed into a corner, with no hope or self worth having self worth is the most important point here. I have always had the arts: music and sports to give me a sense of self worth, even though I was never traditionally academic. So yes, it’s just so important to find a way for children /teenagers to find a positive feeling and work towards a positive outcome.
MK: How do you think we can even begin as a society , to help our new generation of people that feel lost and angry or as though they should be protesting about what our government does but again afraid of doing so because of being convicted as ‘terrorists’? You’ve done a lot of community work with under 18’s.
ES: Yes, it’s about mentoring positively and practically and providing positive role models. I believe strongly, that it takes just 1 or 2 examples of positivity or strong people in your life to be able to see the right path; you may not see the right path straight away, it may be necessary for you to walk the negative path, to learn and evolve, so you can come out of it on the other side and reflect to say; ‘ I think they were right, that positive voice I heard back then, and I’ve never forgotten, I didn’t listen because I was 15, but I’ll always remember their example’
For some teenagers, they can turn away from that negative path in life, and are therefore okay, as they find their light of way; and it’s about having those positive people there. But if the person they look up to is the local 35 year old drug dealer who is already living that negative path, who is in no way going anywhere but a negative place – ultimately this means we must focus on our societies children and those teenagers, by focusing on finding their talents otherwise we find a generation of young people lost to the negative and un able to even protest about what could be wrong.
Ultimately all we are, is products of our environment, reflections of our surroundings
Through out the years I have taught at community projects, MCing courses, coached athletics to 9 to 11 year olds and swimming and have tried to be a positive role model for children. So I’ve tried to say, that you don’t have to be what society thinks you should be, that straight Torie person, you can just be yourself.
We all have something we can offer our society and the fact that you have come from a different position to those that run our society, at the moment, in fact, you are actually far more interesting, because yours are the stories that we are not hearing today.
I have always had my role models in sport and music. The music studios that Ben Drew and I spent our youth in made that difference to us; the studio just encouraged us to be there and to make music, so were weren’t on the streets doing negative things and that’s because we were in the studio, it’s as simple as that.
So we had self-worth, we were creative and those endorphins were flowing from the creative process and when we went home, we would start writing music.
So I just wonder how many sports people, talented musicians or in fact how many docters or teachers we’ve lost of over the many years and impact upon everyones lives, but we’re lost and we’re losing them , because no one and we’re not giving them that chance. More importantly just point them in the right direction, to say to them, that ‘you don’t have to be that person they want you to be’
After all, that teacher in that class room has 30 kids to look after, she didn’t or couldn’t see that individual talent or that sparkle in your eyes towards a subject.
So I say to those kids: You don’t have to self-fulfill that negative prophecy that you think is waiting there. So by the time you reach you reach 35 years old you ask yourself ‘Why did I do that?’
I believe strongly, that it takes just 1 or 2 examples of positivity or strong people in your life to be able to see the right path
So I say, let’s get them young before they become adults and before they start the negative process.
Charities such as KidsCo do amazing things for children and teenagers for which I cycled the length of Britain in August 2011 (Lands End to John O Groats in 14 days)
MK: Tell me about your character in ill Manors
ES: Well, my name sake ‘Ed’ is nothing like me, but possibly exactly like the way I would be, if I had grown up in his surroundings and had his start in life. My start in life was very different than his.
MK: In what way?
ES: He grew up in a children’s home, he had no real family; he has a very brutal outlook on life, cold, it’s weathered , insensitive towards everybody, no empathy and that’s the crucial difference, that he has no empathy towards people at all. And so, within my preparation for playing this character, I’d go from being a humorous, playful fun loving person to telling myself: ‘Right, I now hate everyone, I hate you, I hate every single person around me, and this is why I hate you…’
So going into a dark mentality and being the complete opposite of how I look at things in life. I’m probably a little bit of a romantic about life and sensitive towards things, but ‘Ed’ the character, is the complete opposite, an absolutely nasty piece of work. He cares not for anyone or anything; but I suppose there is one person he cares about, and that is Aaron played by Riz Ahmed; but Ed is so frustrated by his inefficiency at being a drug dealer, so he is not the type of person you would want your daughter to marry and not the type of person you would want to meet on a dark night or even a light day to be honest. So yes, he’s a very nasty piece of work.
MK: So how did you research for your character?
ES: My character is basically a combination of people that I’ve known over the years, based upon two people in particular; so as soon as I was sent the script, I started to write my notes all over it.
I based some of my character on two former friends of mine, however it was the bad side of those people not the good, they had very negative circumstances in their life that led for them to be like that, very much like ‘Ed’ so that was my initial inspiration.
And once we had been through rehearsals, it was then that the character really became alive; whilst bouncing off Riz’s character ; as then the character became a life and alive; following that it was just about a sequence, developing ‘secrets’ that were not in the script for the character, and that Ben didn’t know. I decided to create the idea of having secrets for the character, for example things that had happened to him as a kid, things that would turn me into a cold individual that would put me in a dark place; so I could go straight into the film shoot to be that person. So it was the idea of having those ‘secrets’ for the character that enabled me to represent him properly.
MK: How did you find the process of working with such an experienced actor as Riz Ahmed?
ES: I think that if the character of Aaron, had been played by another nonprofessional actor such as myself, then I wouldn’t have put in that level of intensity within my performance.
I knew Riz already from the underground music scene, so it was good that we already had the relationship; but most importantly working with someone that could give me the right advice, little pointers and that was frank with me; we clicked straight away and were making each other laugh from the beginning. So before we even said anything nice to each other we would be taking the mickey out of one another; so that kind of relationship really helped with establishing the brotherly bond between our two characters.
Also, just from a craft perspective, that is where Riz was very helpful. His process of rehearsing and his process of acting really helped me to learn the craft.
For example, during rehearsal we would go through an entire scene, without words, instead focusing on the emotions of the words, so we would work through the thought process via the emotions and then go back to looking at the words that would trigger an internal mental reaction; that would make the characters become alive. So within the two projects I have done since ill Manors: Sweeney with Ray Winstone and Piggy, I have taken this technique and used it within those films; and that has probably been the most helpful thing about understanding the process of acting, I think that was the challenge for me, to step into the realm that I was not necessarily comfortable or confident within previously. It was the learning process and that’s what was exciting for me, the drive for learning a new craft and Riz really helped with that.
You just have to make sure you don’t give him any E numbers, because if he has can of Coke or Skittles he’ll go absolutely mad.
MK: And are you fine with a can of Coke?
ES: I’m absolutely fine with soft drinks, but I don’t drink them unless it’s got Jack Daniels in them
We must focus on our societies children and those teenagers, by focusing on finding their talents otherwise we find a generation of young people lost to the negative
MK: So what’s your tipple?
ES: Jack Daniels. So with Ben and I, it would be completely fale to say that our relationship is based on Jack Daniels and Coke, but the amount of times would meet in the studio especially across the years and the amount of litres of Jack the two of us have gotten through together, and the amount of truths we have spoken together it’s quite revealing really.
Last year Ben and I went to the Jack Daniels Distillery for the 125th Birthday; now it would be incredibly disrespectful of me to compare it to a religious experience, and I wouldn’t want to but, it was, for us amazing to go there to the place where they make all of it.
MK: So, going to the Jack Daniels Distillery was a religious experience was it?!
ES: No, I said I couldn’t say that as that would be far too disrespectful now!
MK: Oh that’s even worse!
ES: It was an amazing experience!
MK: Okay I’m sure we can continue talking about whisky and music but let’s get back to your film Ill Manors, how difficult did you find playing the character of ‘Ed’?
ES: The experience of playing Ed was the most intense and possibly the most uncomfortable. It was fun for about two weeks, but after that I felt it spilling into my every day existence; to be honest I became so thankful that I haven’t grown up in that existence with the life that Ed in ill Manors has got; because it’s not a nice place to be; to be angry and aggressive and to not have empathy and love. I would get home feeling hollow because I had spent the day hating people, being a horrible bully and a thug – and it is the character, it is just not me. So, to be that character on set for 12 hours some times more, it was a very difficult experience, and a real journey, I enjoyed it a lot. It just wasn’t fun.
I have done a lot in my life, especially sports related, I know I’ve become a stronger and a more experienced person because of the sports and hopefully a far more rounded person; I think everyone especially me, needs to become more evolved.
Ill Manors is out on 6th June 2012
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