Noel Clarke interview: On new thriller series The Level, how his Doctor Who fame lives on, and how life has changed

From a TV obsessed only child growing up on a council estate in North Kensington, Noel Clarke has forged a career as an actor/director/producer, and crossed the tracks to posh South Kensington

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From the innumerable invitations that Noel Clarke receives to attend Doctor Who conventions – those gatherings where fans pay to meet past and present stars from the BBC sci-fi series – the 40-year-old actor who played Mickey Smith, the boyfriend of Billie Piper’s character Rose Tyler and The Doctor’s first black ‘companion’, accepts just two a year; one in the UK and one in America.

“I feel I don’t need to do them, personally, but also the less you do the more people want to see you”, he says when we meet in a trailer parked along Brighton’s seafront (more of which later). “I do know people who literally go to every single one, they’re hawking their pictures and I’m not really interested in that. People pay to get in and I’m not really interested in trying to squeeze more money out of people’s pockets.”

Apart from the picture this paints of down-at-heel former Doctor Who actors making a modest living from travelling the world and flogging photographs of themselves, it should also be noted that Clarke can afford to pass up on the extra cash. Now a successful actor/producer/director, he earns far more than his mother, Gemma, a former NHS nurse originally from Trinidad, could have ever hoped to take home. “My mother saved lives, and probably never cleared more than 26 grand... it’s disgusting”, he says.

Clarke has even moved across the London borough of Kensington, from the council estate in Ladbroke Grove (“Ladbroke Grove before it was trendy”) where he grew up as a TV-obsessed only child, and into a house in salubrious South Kensington, which he shares with his wife and three young sons – “near to good schools and Holland Park”.

“Doctors and nurses get paid peanuts and here I am a minstrel... a court jester”, he says, before adding that: “I’m not complaining because I feel like I’ve worked really hard to achieve what I have, so of course I want to be paid well. But so should they be.”

And what Clarke has achieved, especially for someone with no formal training in either acting or directing, is undeniably impressive. He won an Olivier Award for Most Promising Performer in 2003 for his only professional stage role to date, in Where Do We Live at the Royal Court, and a Bafta six years later. Over the course of a decade he wrote, starred in, and later produced and directed three films (his so-called “hood” trilogy, Kidulthood, Adulthood and now Brotherhood), all of which performed healthily at the box-office as well as being well-regarded for its urgent and vital representation of contemporary urban youth culture. And he’s enjoyed a rich variety of film roles, from Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll to Star Trek Into Darkness. Not bad for a man who blagged his way into his first acting job.

“I was working in a gym as a personal trainer and I met a director in there who was auditioning for a Channel 4 show, so I asked him if I could audition”, recalls Clarke. “And he said, ‘It’s for a 16-year-old and you’re 21 so you’re too old’. So I shaved everything... legs, everything... and I went down prepared fully, as I always do, and I got that job, which was Metrosexuality [a 1999 comedy drama about a group of sexually and racially diverse friends living in Notting Hill]. I’ve been doing it ever since”.

Indeed, and here he is now, in the aforementioned trailer on a rainy seafront in Brighton. He’s filming The Level, a murky new, female-led ITV crime drama (think Marcella, but less bonkers) in which he plays a police colleague of the show’s leading character, a compromised murder detective played by Karla Crome. Clarke’s character, Sean “Gunner” Martin, is a tough, unsmiling loner who’s “good at reading people but he’s hard to read himself”, which I suspect wasn’t a huge stretch for the actor.

The Level, which takes its title from the Brighton park of that name as well as the idea of ‘being on the level’, begins with the murder of a haulage company owner (played by Philip Glenister) with a sideline in importing cocaine. This is Clarke’s second go at playing a copper, the first being two years ago in Chasing Shadows.

“I play it down a little bit more than I usually do”, says the 40-year-old of impersonating a police officer. “What the police are very smart at when they’re talking to you is that they disarm you by just being quite pleasant. And they’re trained to see body language and stuff like that”.

Which makes it sound as if Clarke has personally experienced the long arm of the law. “No, never have”, he says. “I’ve been in court a couple of time but always as the victim.” He doesn’t elaborate, but a quick Google search reveals that the second of these court appearances was last year, when a former actor friend was convicted of trolling Clarke, or “harassment without violence”.

Anyway, The Level is an acting job, pure and simple. “It’s a lot more relaxing”, he says of wearing his directing or producing hats. “It takes a confident director to hire me because they can’t be intimidated by the fact that I do it as well – or worry that I might see through them if they’re not very good. But Andy [Goddard] is not like that – he’s great and he’s confident and he knows what he’s doing.”

In a recent interview Clarke stated that he had no interest in following fellow black British actors Idris Elba, David Harewood and David Oyelowo to America, after they hit a brick wall in this country – that he was more interested in “climbing the wall”. The Level is one of a growing number of colour-blind British TV dramas (BBC1’s recent Undercover was another) that suggest that the wall may not be so monumental any more. “I would agree with that”, he says. “The world’s changed, and these stories could change more but it takes time.”

Clarke says that he too has changed – that he has mellowed since fatherhood began seven years ago – and if he once had a reputation for combativeness then it’s understandable given the once-patronising attitude of his peers. “When I first got into the industry, there were quite a few people who went, ‘Great... you’ve done your little film, now canter off back to your housing estate’,” he says, adding that this was the reason he called his production company Unstoppable Entertainment. “It’s just something I knew would annoy people... get under their skins.”

If there is any vestigial defensiveness, it’s over not having been to film school. “When I direct and I make my own notes I don’t always show people because they’re my chaotic kind of way. I don’t want a film school guy to go, ‘That’s not the way we do it’.”

And if he “canters back to his housing estate”, as it was so demeaningly put, these days it’s to see his mother, who, although immensely proud of her son’s success, apparently has very little idea about what his job entails.

“In Trinidad in the Sixties and Seventies, acting didn’t exist; it’s not like being in the UK where your parent would be proud and at the same time they would understand it. She’s always happy to see me doing stuff and tells all her friends, but still doesn’t get it... ‘Is everything all right? Have you got enough to pay the bills?’ ‘Yeah’, I go, ‘I think I’m alright, mum...’”

The Level starts on ITV at 9pm on Friday, 30 September