Noel Clarke: 'I'm not the next anyone'
Friday 05 June 2009
In February Noel Clarke made a little bit of history. Beating off stiff competition from the likes of Rebecca Hall and Juno geek Michael Cera, he became the fourth winner of the Bafta Rising Star award. He also became the first black British male in the 62-year history of the awards to take home one of the coveted golden masks. Striding up to the stage, past Brangelina and the assembled cinematic elite, cool as a cat in a white cravat, he delivered a brief and quietly inspiring acceptance speech, ending with the words, "yes we can".
Today, Clarke is sanguine about his boundary-breaking victory. "I'm an actor, first. The fact that I'm the first black actor, it's shocking. But it depends how you see it – the cup's half-empty, the cup's half-full. Steve McQueen won on the same night so all of a sudden from zero there are two." It must have been exciting to win, though? "I don't", Clarke says slowly, fixing me with a stare, "get scared, nervous or excited about much."
"At the end of the day, it's all glass and marble, right? It meant a hell of a lot to win it. But the day after – it's done. I've still got to get up, change my boy's nappy, go to Sainsbury's, be a normal guy, get back to work. If I just sit back and say, 'I'm a Bafta winner, let's wait for the phone to ring', I could be working in a bar by the end of the year." Where does he keep his Bafta? "On my shelf. Next to my Olivier". Clarke winks and breaks, finally, into the broadest of grins.
It's a typical exchange with Clarke, who fairly buzzes with cheeky, cocksure self-belief – tempered, confusingly, with an intensely serious humility. It's also a gentle reminder that Bafta might have been a little slow on the uptake. Hasn't Clarke's star already risen? Since winning the Olivier for Most Promising Performer as a moody drug dealer in Where Do We Live at the Royal Court in 2002, he has built a pigeonhole-defying fanbase who follow his every move on Twitter and beg on Facebook for parts in his films. Adults know him as working-class lothario Wyman (son of Wayne) in the Noughties revival of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. Kids know him as the hapless Mickey, boyfriend of Billie Piper, in Dr Who. And teenagers know – and idolise him – as Sam, the ice-cool anti-hero of gritty, grimy urban movies Kidulthood and Adulthood. Clarke wrote and starred in both films, loosely based on his own tough upbringing in Notting Hill – "That's just the way it was. It wasn't trendy and it definitely wasn't what I saw when I watched Notting Hill..." – and also directed Adulthood, which took £1.2m in its opening weekend, the British-movie box-office success of the year, eclipsed only by Slumdog Millionaire.
It's a career that Clarke describes as "schizophrenic", though "diverse" might be a kinder word. Fresh-faced at 34 years old (he could pass for a decade younger) and sprawled in a corner of a members' club, dressed in box-fresh trainers and an unobtrusive Ralph Lauren beanie, surrounded by bags of sportswear sent to him by labels keen to bask in his reflected cool, Clarke certainly looks like he's arrived. Does he feel like it? "Definitely not. I'm not unsatisfied but I'll know when I feel like I've become a success." He's just back from three weeks pressing the flesh in Hollywood. He was determined not to go out there, "like millions of others", until people knew who he was. "Adulthood's success and the Bafta enabled that to happen. People know who I am."
For all his super-cool composure, there are signs that Clarke is secretly excited about it all. When the PR brings him some posters to autograph, he signs them with the swaggering flourish of an old-timer before politely asking if he can take one home. He sneers at critics – "Reviews? Positive, negative, you might as well talk to a wall. They don't phase me whatsoever. Somebody sitting behind a desk, writing about films when I make films? I don't care" – but then reveals that he's making a scrapbook of cuttings for his son to look back on.
Next, he tops the bill alongside lad-flick stalwart Danny Dyer and Stephen Graham (This is England) in Doghouse, a gory zombie comedy in which a boys' weekend goes horribly wrong when they arrive in a village populated by busty, blood-thirsty female "zombirds", including a grotesquely fat butcher wielding a meat cleaver and a PVC-clad dominatrix with scissors for hands. There are also remote-controlled women, orgiastic cat-fights, a plot twist centred on washing powder (because women, like, do lots of laundry) and jokes such as "what kind of virus only affects women? Bird flu". Clarke plays Mikey, the joker, who spends much of the film in a flowery dress and blonde wig. Did he find the film funny? "I wouldn't say it's completely my sense of humour. I didn't write the film, I wouldn't write it. I don't read magazines like Nuts and Zoo – not my type of thing. If you're just going to see a popcorn movie, it will be worth your ticket. If you're going there for articulate conversation, then maybe this isn't the film."
"The key to keeping our industry going is not just to make boring 'British films'", he rolls his eyes. "But to start making movies. This is a British movie. We need to have an industry here where we can go and see sci-fis and other stuff that doesn't come from America but that we're making here. That's important." Clarke is evangelical about the British film industry. He has already filmed parts in three more home-grown movies – Heartless, a Philip Ridley thriller, Neil Marshall's Roman epic Centurion with Dominic West and a cameo in the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. "I have immense respect for all the old guard who made British films way back when", he feigns a yawn. "But sometimes new people come along and they have to pay attention to that. There's not a revolution, there's an evolution and the evolution is happening now."
And Clarke, a one-man movie-making machine, is at the forefront of it. He began writing eight years ago, unimpressed by the scripts on offer – "my mother taught me never to talk about someone's job unless you've tried it yourself" – and teaching himself from screenplays, DVD extras and a computer programme. The result was Kidulthood, a low-budget, high-octane 100mph tale of West London teens running riot with baseball bats, drugs and guns in a 90-minute assault of bullying, suicide, pregnancy and murder. It was a cult hit and became one of the most talked-about films of 2006. Clarke wasn't surprised – he knew his audience was out there. "If you talk to people instead of at them, if you engage people instead of saying, 'watch this', people will support you."
Not the industry, though. "Nobody gave me another film", grumbles Clarke. "They thought it was a fluke." So, he sat down and, under his own steam (and with his own money), wrote Adulthood. Reviews were mixed but the film shot straight to the top of the UK charts. "You don't have to like it, but I want you to talk about it", he says. "It was a British independent film and we didn't even get into the London Film Festival. Nothing", he sighs. "I don't get angry about it but you can't ignore that it happens. All I can do is get up every morning, keep working and not dwell on it."
And Clarke does keep working. He has six scripts at varying stages of production. Of those, only "two and a half" are in a similar vein. He's keen to avoid being tagged as an urban writer and is equally keen to take his young audience with him as he develops. "It would be unwise and disrespectful to keep making films about young people that portray them in a certain way. I'm sure they want to see themselves being secret agents, fighting aliens, being in rom-coms. People trying to emulate what we did with those films should think twice. If we start throwing out 10 different versions of that film, they'll be like, 'What? Does everyone have to come out of jail? Really? Does every girl have to pull her pants off at the drop of a hat?' No. You have to move on."
There's also a chance that Clarke, now a successful Bafta-winning family man living on the right side of Notting Hill, might lose touch with his original inspiration . "Inevitably I will. But not because of finances: class is about mentality. But I'm getting older. I'm not going to pretend to know what kids are talking about in a few years' time. Hopefully I've opened the doors for new people and they'll take up the mantle."
Clarke was born in West London. His mother, a Trinadadian nurse, was a "strong woman"; his father "wasn't around". He doesn't do sob stories about his upbringing but it wasn't easy. Clarke was always a good boy and wanted to act from the age of five. At school, he sang in Oliver!, "in a little tattered shirt, one of Fagin's boys" and took an A-level in theatre studies, but he couldn't afford drama school and so embarked on a media degree. All the time he was working in his local gym, first as a lifeguard and then as a personal trainer. One year in, he thought, " I've got to try this acting thing, if I don't, I'll drive myself nuts." He dropped out, met the actor-director-writer Rikki Beadle-Blair at his gym, who gave him his big break when he cast him in the Channel 4 drama Metrosexuality and has barely stopped working since.
His mother, he says, has always been "supportive but concerned" about his career. "How do you tell a woman who came here in '79 to be a nurse, who only made a certain amount of salary, who's doing everything she can to raise you on her own, to have a better life, that you're going to do a job that doesn't guarantee income? I remember four years into acting she was still telling people, 'he wants to be an actor'. I was like, 'mum, I've been doing it for years'."
He's witheringly dismissive about fame, preferring to hang out with his old schoolfriends, play on his Playstation or go the gym over "la-di-da" parties. "I just want to work. Work and pay my mortgage, feed my boy and feed the missus", he says firmly. He lives with his partner and one-year old son of whom he is chest-burstingly proud, though fatherhood meant an "adjustment" for the focussed actor. "I won't lie. I love it a hundred, million per cent but I didn't find it easy at first. We're both really hard-working, independent people and all of a sudden you've got your little man to look after", he says. "I never want him to be lazy, he's never going to get things on a plate. I'm doing what my mum did – I'm working as hard as I can so he doesn't have to go through the stuff I went through."
His work ethic, clean lifestyle and engaging personality have pegged him as a role model: it's a responsibility he's unwilling to shoulder. "I'm responsible for my son, that's all. If people want to look up to me, sure. But I'm going to live my life the way I live my life. The fact I don't smoke or take drugs is my choice." And, in case you were wondering, there's no-one Clarke looks up to either. This self-styled saviour of British cinema is very much his own man. "I don't want to be the next anyone. If anything I want to be someone that people try to emulate", he looks up, another intense stare. "I just want to be me."
'Doghouse' is released on 12 June
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