Adam Deacon: Streetwise star who knows the score

Adam Deacon's eccentric publicity stunt on the red carpet helped make the Adulthood actor a surprise Bafta winner. Nick Duerden meets a savvy 'self-promotional animal'

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In the week since his Bafta win for Rising Star, Adam Deacon's world has been turned on its head. "The mainstream media didn't want to know before," he says, "but they do now. Everybody does." The win was unexpected. Everybody thought the Bafta would go to one of the more obvious nominees – Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Chris O'Dowd – but instead it went to a Hackney-born 28-year-old best known for his portrayals of vicious hooded urban youth. His victory was greeted wildly by his fans, but with suspicion, he suggests, from everybody else.

"After I won it, there were a lot of middle-class messages on Twitter from middle-class people saying: 'Who is this chav? I smell a rat here, the Baftas trying to look cool for young people!' What they didn't realise was that there's a lot of love for me out there on the street, you know?"

Bafta's Rising Star accolade is the only award voted for by the general public. While his fellow nominees allowed their screen work to do the talking, Deacon effectively campaigned to win. He printed up some flyers with his face on them, the number to call, and an exhortation to, "vote for me!" A week before the event, he was invited to attend the premiere of the new Daniel Radcliffe film, The Woman in Black. Deacon spent much time lingering on the red carpet handing out as many flyers as he could.

"That didn't go down too well, apparently," he shrugs. "People said I looked desperate. Chris O'Dowd [formerly of The IT Crowd, now the breakout star of the US comedy hit film Bridesmaids] said I was a self-promotional animal. I was just battling for recognition, if you want the truth of it."

It's four days since his win when we meet, and Deacon has just emerged from a long meeting with important film folk, meetings about which he cannot, and will not, talk. He hails a cab that will take a circuitous route back home to the council estate on which he still lives. He is talking a mile a minute, possibly more.

"I won't lie to you," he says, laughing. "I talk all the time, too much. I never shut up. Always been like this. You should've seen me at school."

He was born and raised in Stoke Newington to an English mother and a father who is either Moroccan or Egyptian, depending upon which online source you consult. The only time Deacon does fall silent is when mention of his family comes up. "Let's just say I'm mixed race, yeah?"

Hyperactive at school, he nevertheless excelled in music and drama, and at 12 his drama teacher directed him to the Anna Scher Theatre school for young actors, based in Islington. "I knew they would take any kids, rich or poor," he says, "and that a bunch of EastEnders people – Patsy Palmer, Sid Owen – all went there, and so did Kathy Burke, Gary and Martin Kemp, the list goes on. So I thought it was worth a go."

He was even smaller, and more wiry, at 12 than he is at 28, but his confidence was impossible to ignore, and his voice perpetually loud. Visiting casting agents couldn't help but notice him, and he quickly landed small roles on TV in London's Burning, The Bill and Casualty. It was by focusing on his acting, he suggests, that he was able to negotiate what was otherwise "a tough childhood". Tough how? The veil comes down again. "Well, problems on the home front, basically."

At 18, he was living in a hostel, the bit-part work keeping him busy but hardly satisfied. In 2006, aged 22, he landed a lead role in Kidulthood, a film that portrayed urban London youth as frankly terrifying. Two years later, he reprised his role for the sequel Adulthood, which informed cinema audiences that urban London youth didn't necessarily get any less terrifying with age. Deacon thought that his standout performance would open doors for him. It didn't. "I'm sure if I gave interviews afterwards in a, you know [affects plummy accent], and told them I was actually from Oxford then it would have got me loads of work. Loads. But that's not me, is it? I don't have an RP accent. Never had one."

Though employed as an actor on those films, he says he had a heavy hand in rewriting the scripts as well, making them believable where previously they had been only hackneyed and unrealistic. This might have been a source of tension between him and the films' writer Noel Clarke. "Yeah," says Deacon, "but I had ideas, loads of ideas. I changed the dialogue up, and made it more realistic. Had to be done." By 27, spurred on by the conviction that if he didn't create his own opportunities they would never materialise, he and a friend wrote the screenplay for Anuvahood, essentially a comedy spoof on Kidulthood, which further angered Noel Clarke (they subsequently entered into a war of words on Twitter, about which Deacon has been instructed not to comment). After securing funding, the upstart somehow managed to convince the producers to let him direct and star in it.

Though slated by the critics, Anuvahood nevertheless spoke very directly to its audience, prompting Time Out magazine to hail him the "new face of youth cinema".

Deacon still wasn't satisfied. He wanted to be properly mainstream now, to appear on TV shows like Celebrity Juice and Loose Women, perhaps even EastEnders. But he was considered too edgy, too scary, too "street".

"I was at the end of my tether, man," he says. Which is why he went all-out to summon public support before the Baftas, convinced that everything would change should he emerge victorious.

And it has. This last week, he says, has been "insane, crazy, surreal; loads of opportunities". He has a new film out next month, the football drama Payback Season, and while he accepts that he will continue to be offered the kind of roles that will keep him marginalised ("drug runners, criminals"), he is clearly desperate to prove himself capable of more.

"What you have to understand," he says, "is that I'm an actor. OK, I'd have to work hard to get into, say, a Victorian role, or a Shakespeare-y role, but I'll do it. Long as I remain true to myself, I'll do whatever it takes. Look at Ray Winstone. There's an actor who's stayed true to himself his whole career. I admire that. No reason why I can't go the same way."

It's dark. The cab has arrived at his flat. Before he leaves, he says this: "I read something in the paper the other day about Christina... that woman who gave me the Bafta, what's her name?" Christina Hendricks, one of the stars of TV's Mad Men. "Yeah, that's the one. It said she was about to star in a new movie playing an east London girl. Now, I've heard her talk, right, and her accent is so American. But what will she do about it? She'll spend time with a voice coach, and she will learn. Why don't people realise I can do the same? I can grow my hair out, I can learn a different accent." He shakes his head. "Too many people get written off in this industry too quick. Seriously, that shouldn't happen any more. It shouldn't."

'Payback Season' is released on 9 March