Noel Clarke: "I read the Vagina Monologues when my friends were still laughing at the word vagina."
Upon graduation and realising my degree hadn't really brought me any closer to a career path, like many graduates I perused endless job sites and signed up to countless (useless) recruitment agencies. In the process of one of these job-hunting sessions I came across an unfamiliar magazine which I sadly can't remember the name of - but on the front page was the bad guy from Kidulthood and the writer of the upcoming sequel, Noel Clarke.
I was fascinated by the article and the magazine which appeared to be low budget with a relatively small audience. It seemed to emit a raw honesty which endeared me to it and subsequently led to me to enquire as to whether they had any jobs going. Unfortunately, they didn’t - but the idea had lodged firmly that I wanted to be able to do this kind of interview.
Naturally when the opportunity presented itself to interview the person whose honest and opinionated views on film and the youth of today had struck me years ago, I was intrigued to discover if the fame and success had affected him and whether media training had reduced his willingness to now be quite so frank.
When Kidulthood came out in 2006, which Noel had written and starred in, the film was criticised for being voyeurism for the middle classes and I asked Noel if he saw any truth in this:"I know exactly who said that and the guy is a dickhead." (No, he hadn’t lost his honest touch.)
He went onto explain how that was the only comment that had affected him, as the reason people reacted negatively to Kidulthood was because they simply didn’t want to believe it could be real.
“It's someone who just doesn't see it, living in an area where it just doesn't happen, or happening to people they just ignore. So, of course, they would say it is pandering to middle class voyeurism 'coz to them it's like looking at the lower classes."
Over the years we've seen more and more cases of teenage deaths making the news:"The weird thing is that when people were like "This doesn't happen" and we were like "It does happen" and they didn't pay attention, but things have only got worse. "
”Not saying things could’ve been saved but if politicians had paid attention maybe things wouldn’t be as bad as they are now, you see all these young people being stabbed. It’s weird because Kidulthood came out in March 2006 and people were like “This is ridiculous”, but we shot it in 2004 and it was written in 2001. This stuff was happening long before they just chose to ignore it until it was good enough to sell papers.
So, what would he do about it? "I'm not a politician but they're not paying enough attention to it 'coz they're too busy arguing about manifestos. You watch them and it's like a playground. If I had lottery money I would open Media Centres, get kids active. I really didn't start excelling until things became practical. School wasn't the most stimulating experience and all of a sudden at Sixth Form College it was like - so this is the button I've learnt about for five years and now I can push it. There are so many things - like Music Schools - they're so expensive they're unobtainable. I couldn't afford Drama School so how do people from my kind of area get into these things?"
Noel was raised by his mother living on an estate, and although he never got involved with drugs, gangs or crime he was certainly exposed to it. "I had friends who were in jail and there are people that are not around anymore. I was raised from a young age to be an individual and consequently to make my own decisions. It wasn't about being right or wrong but making my own choices. One time I remember my friends were having trouble with some guy. We all got in a car - I think I'd just started acting - we went to find this guy and when we all went to get out of the car my cousin said to me "No, you stay downstairs!", and I was like "Why, why?", and he said "You might be something some day man, and if this happens now you might mess that up". So, I stayed downstairs."
His mother's influence ensured he respected women, particularly strong women. His new film, '220.127.116.11.' follows the story of four girls as they inadvertently get involved in a diamond heist that they must navigate their way out of as the elaborate plot follows each of their paths until they ultimately unite.
"It's hard to do it justice 'coz it's quite a unique film. It's a new genre. I wrote it because I was always wanting to do something different like Quentin Tarentino, I love those types of film. The idea of doing something different scared me. The idea of writing for girls came because I had a meeting with a guy and he told me I didn't write women too well, so, I sat there, then I went home and wrote for girls.”
"I wanted to show I could do it really. In this country, it's like, once you're doing something in film then that's what you do. I don't get that. I'm one of those guys who likes women. I like women as I was raised by my mum who managed on her own. I've seen what women go through and I respect them for that." I read 'The Vaginia Monologues' when my friends were still laughing at the word 'vagina'. I told them to read that. I'm drawn to strong women, like my mum, people that have their wits about them. Like my missus, if I'm going out, she's then like "I'm going out with my mates." I like that - I like that when I come home she's not on the couch 'n like "Can I come?" Y'know that's what I think comes across in the film. It was never about exploiting women - yeah, there are moments for the boys, but without being overtly misogynistic or sexist."
"Shanika, Emma and Tamsin were all offered the parts. Shanika has a killer body and needed to be strong. She needed to be really, really sexy - she's not bony but healthy.
”Ophelia auditioned for the role of Shannon. We saw loads of girls but when she came in we thought, no-one is going to top that!"
The script was written before he wrote Adulthood but it wasn't until after its success in 2008 that film producers showed interest in it thereby enabling him to turn the story into the film that hits cinemas today.
As a writer, director and actor Noel finds people have difficulty recognising he is able to be all three. "In America, the more things people can do, the happier they are. You can do everything there. Over here they're like "What?! Let me sit down and have a sip of whisky. You write, you act and you - direct?!" I can't understand that. You have to apologise for doing more than one thing. That bugs me. A lot."
"When I grew up there weren't many people like me to look up to. There was Eddie Grant and Lenny Henry was doing his thing but there wasn't really anyone who was a star, per se. So, consequently a lot of my inspiration came from American films. I would rather be regarded for doing something different than do what everybody else is doing. Negative press just doesn't bother me at all. Positive or negative it doesn't affect me whatsoever because people either like it or they don't. You can't do anything about that."
"With 'Adulthood' they were like "Can you write, direct and star in this film? 'Coz if you mess this up there's no-one else left to blame. You mess this up then it is probably career done! So I did it. I'm not scared of failure; I was a Gym Instructor, like 11 years ago...I've worked hard. I've cleaned changing rooms. I've gone into Sports Centres at night and cleaned men’s changing rooms. I've scrubbed them down and seen things like you wouldn't believe! So, I take this as a blessing. This is what I wanted to do so why waste the opportunity. I work hard.”
He felt that his character in Adulthood, Sam, had the biggest journey to go on. "I thought that if I could make people understand that character that everyone hated, then I've done my job. That was the whole point, I wanted people to be cheering for this guy by the end of the film. Yeah! - course they can turn themselves around just 'coz people do bad things, it doesn't make them a bad person. In every aspect of his life he was a bad person and so he went to jail - a lot of these kids don't realise how it'll be in there. The character realises that and he just wants to change. The biggest challenge for me was to just have him walk away at the end as there are plenty of people who just want the fight. If only more people could do it..."
He recently stated that he doesn't necessarily watch the kind of movies that he makes, so why is this? "I've written and directed what they've let me write and direct. I should know about that stuff 'coz I've lived in that environment." He'd like to be able to move on to making event films.
"The Americans come over here and make their money then go back laughing. Now though, things like 'Street Dance' are being made here so they've realised there's an audience for that type of material so the market is opening up."
Keen not to discuss future projects in too much detail in case they don't materialise, he comments that he has a couple of Sci-Fi projects in the pipeline, together with plenty of other fresh ideas.
"I don't really like to talk about it. A lot of people just talk about it and it never happens. So, I like, just do 'em."
Aware that I am his last interview of the day, I'm surprised at his enthusiasm to elaborate on everything that I have questioned him about and ask if there are any questions that irritate him.
"No questions really annoy me. What I try to realise is that it doesn't matter if I've done 50 interviews - when someone else comes in it's new to them. I respect that. Like when my son was born the midwife was a bit off so I said to her "I know you've done this a million times but it's the first time for me so, when I ask a question I'm not trying to be an annoying Dad I just want to understand what's happening. So, no questions annoy me 'coz different people have different questions."
Good attitude. It’s refreshing to hear opinions devoid of regulation, when we’re so keen to tear apart anyone in the public with a view that diverts from the mainstream. His reticence to discuss upcoming projects appears to stem from his desire not to cloud the whole process with PR and publicity and not his lack of drive. Unafraid of speaking his mind - and in the film industry this can only be a good thing - it’s apparent there’s certainly a lot more to come from the film-maker.
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