Aml Ameen has long been a household name in the UK …
From his stint as a policeman in cult police series ‘The Bill’ (2000 – 2003) to street hero Trife in Noel Clarke’s breakout film ‘Kidulthood‘ (2004). On the back of his on-screen popularity, Ameen set his sights on America and hasn’t looked back.
Snapped up to play a lawyer in prime time series ‘Harry’s Law’ (2011 – 12), to starring in ‘Red Tails’ (2012) Steven Spielberg’s tribute to the forgotten African American airmen of the Second World War, it’s not surprising that Ameen finds himself amongst some of the acting world’s biggest names with his current role in ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’, a story dedicated to the life of Cecil Gaines, an African American butler who served 8 of America’s presidents in the White House and whose life was affected by great political events throughout his career, notably the Civil Rights movement. Ameen plays a young Cecil, sharing his role with his personal acting inspiration Forrest Whitaker who plays Cecil during his adult years. We caught up with Ameen ahead of the UK premiere…
You’re in The Butler! Working with such an A-list cast, were you starstruck or was it business as usual?
It wasn’t business as usual; I’m doing a film with Forest Whitaker who I’ve been a huge fan of. Who I admire. But, people become your creative partners so you get over the whole starstruck thing because you want to be part of the train that’s going the right way, and not be all ‘mum I’m on TV’. You realise as well, that the only difference between me and that person is where their career’s been able to take them and that’s what I’ve learned over the years; that we’re all trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together. They’re nervous too, and they want to do a good job. Even someone like Oprah. Coming to America has been sobering to me. But, in all of that, it was great to work with Forest Whitaker in an intimate way to create the same character, that was good. An honour.
What about being a part of such an important story?
The fact that the cast and everyone who dedicated their time to tell this story, already shows how important it is. For me it was a scene on the plantation, actually imagining or feeling what that could have been like. Cecil (the butler) is a hero. The sense of responsibility for playing this role, I felt it and it was great.
How are you finding America, do you miss home or have you become an African American?
I miss home all the time. I miss London. As an actor, I miss the theatre world. I miss my family, I miss my friends. I’m based here but for now, LA doesn’t feel like home, it’s where I do my work.
In my romantic vision, I see all the British Black talents John Boyega, Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, hanging out breaking bread enjoying the trappings of Hollywood, is it like that?
When John’s in town I hang out a lot with him. John and I did a play together years ago ‘Seize the Day’ (2009), and we had a good connection back then, and he’s done exceptionally well. David (Oyelowo) I go to his house a lot. I don’t really know Chiwetel; I’ve met him once or twice, same with Idris. But those other guys we have a relationship.
You know the best time in LA is pilot season [once a year new shows put out their pilots with the intention of getting picked up by networks] because everyone from London comes out and that’s pretty fun. The American’s are great, but there’s a lot to be said about home comforts. So when they come here it feels good.
The British Black film industry network is building steadily but in comparison to African American Hollywood, there’s still a long way to go. As you’ve made the transition from the UK to America what is it they’re doing that the UK isn’t?
I think the first thing I have to stress, is that British talent is being celebrated all over the world. It’s being respected for a reason. There’s a reason why David Oyelowo is doing well, there’s a reason why myself, and Chiwetel, or John Boyega all these people are formulating their own kind of journey. To say we’re not as advanced as the American’s, theirs has been going on for a lot longer and I don’t think we should be trying to replicate that. It’s not a realistic goal. Because we’re different. I think what we need to do is harness what we have, and us being a smaller network of people, what we can bring is better quality. I think we have our own unique thing going on.
Before you went to America were you getting the recognition in the UK?
The last thing that went out in the UK would have been ‘Silent Witness’ (2008). When I left the UK I was probably one of the premiere top three black actors of my age bracket. I was getting an influx of work, I was fresh off ’The Bill’, went from ‘Fallout‘, to ‘Silent Witness’ (2008) to ‘Gun Rush’ (2009). But for me, two things happened. One my dream was always to be here (LA) on the biggest stage in the world. I remember when I did an interview when I was first in The Bill and they asked me where I would be in 5 years. I said ‘in Hollywood’, and I’ve done it in four years. I was 19 when I said that. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. Two, in the UK the stories, the content for black actors is very samey. I’ve not been on the TV in the UK for four years and I’ve missed nothing. I’ve not missed a new conversation that’s happening from the black perspective. I’d go into stuff and play characters in different good dramas, and I welcome that. But the collective black story is still talking about how we’re struggling on council estates I feel like there needs to be variation man.
Does this mean you’re just happy to solely work in the US?
It would be good to come home. There’s a core group of people who are really attached to the progress of my career and they’ve really been watching the trajectory of my career over the years. So I’d like to find a way to connect with them. It’s really important to me. I haven’t done anything in the UK for a long time you know, what’s happened is every time I’ve been offered something in the UK something’s happened here so it’s been this weird clashing.
So when are you next coming home?
I’m gonna come and watch The Butler in the UK actually, I’ll be back for the rest of the year to be with my family.
Read part two of Aml’s exclusive interview here
The Butler will be on UK screens from Friday 15th November. Check your local cinema screenings.