There are few people who don’t know who the award-winning actor (stage, screen and TV), screenwriter (screen and TV), director (film) and comic book writer Noel Clarke is. He is young, gifted and black, and has not only managed to get the mainstream to take notice of him and his work, but he has earned both critical acclaim and box office success.
Brotherhood, the last in his ‘Hood Trilogy’, which started with Kidulthood in 2006 and continued with Adulthood in 2008, went on general release on August 29th, 2016. It dominated the UK box office, taking £1.98m in its first seven days from just 220 screens. As of last week, that had climbed to £3.35m! Whilst considered a ‘surprise’ summer hit from a ‘spent’ genre, it should be pointed out that Adulthood took £1.2m from 157 screens 8 years ago! Such is the power of what, and who, audiences decide is relevant to them.
If you thought that that was the big news of 2016 as far as Trinidadian-West Londoner Clarke was concerned, think again. By the autumn, he will be back on our TV screens as lone-wolf detective “Gunner” Martin in ITV’s The Level.
When Clarke does TV, he goes BIG – Wyman Norris in the rebooted Auf Wiedersehen Pet (14 eps 2002-04), Mickey Smith in Dr Who (15 eps 2004-06, 08, 10), DCI Carl Pryor in the major mini-series Chasing Shadows (2015). You wouldn’t have thought he’d have had time, what with the 10 screenplay/producer and 4 movie director credits he’s racked up over the exact same time period! He is a product of drama GCSE at school, media and theatre studies at the University of North London, followed by acting classes at the London’s Actors Centre and…
I didn’t realise that not only have you done some theatre, but you earned the Laurence Olivier award for Most Promising Performer in 2003
I do have one, yeah.
That was for, Where Do We Live? By Christopher Shinn (2002, The Royal Court). Directed by Richard Wilson, it was about a young, white, gay man and his black neighbours set against the social effects post 9/11. Clarke played one of the neighbours, Shed, a coke dealer full of glowering reserve and symbolic impotence who despises his trade, and his performance was universally praised. It can’t have been your first play…?
It wasn’t my first, it was about my fourth. The third one was at the Oval House called Talking About Men (2000), where I played a gay man [Sam]. The whole play was set in a sauna, and I was naked on stage. Now, that was the scariest thing I ever did. Being nude on stage and having people see you, coming from where I come from, that was the scariest thing in the world! [But], that play enabled me to be able to go in to any other audition and be quite confident. Then I got the Royal Court play, and that was really big for me, directed by Richard Wilson. I remember a lot of people partying and I wouldn’t go out, I was quite focused, and then I got the Olivier, which is still on my shelf now. It’s amazing.
Then a few years later, the BAFTA Rising Star award. What does that mean to you? Two major awards as a beginner, on your shelf…
6 years later, yes. I’m immensely grateful to have those awards. I don’t let awards define me, or who I am. They were definitely things that I enjoyed. But I just put them on the shelf and get back to work. I’m not someone who says, by the way, here’s my Olivier, and pulls it out of my bag. Have you seen my BAFTA? I’m just not into that, because its fleeting isn’t it? It means everything, but it means nothing at the same time. What matters is the work that got you there, and the work you do afterwards to maintain your status. That’s what I’ll always try and do.
I find your TV work particularly interesting. Leading up to your previous ITV production Chasing Shadows it was reported that people admitted that they hadn’t really seen you on TV since Auf Wiedersehen Pet, suggesting there are people who don’t watch Dr Who…
I definitely feel that people have missed the fact that I’ve done quite a bit of TV in the past. It’s funny, when you do a lot of films, people either think that you don’t want to do TV or [they] don’t want to put you in TV. But I really like television, if it’s the right [project]. I was very happy to get back in the saddle and do Chasing Shadows.
I guess, the expectation for a British actor might be that you should have done A LOT of TV. Then, when you’re 57, you’re ‘suddenly’ discovered ‘overnight’. But, you starred alongside Reece Shearsmith and Alex Kingston as DCI Carl Pryor. Was he your first detective role?
I think so, yes. I did do an episode of The Bill (2000, ‘A Gathering Storm’), as a mentally challenged youth [Lenny]. I actually did that episode with Reggie Yates! Also, Channel 4 did a Dogma Season and I did a thing called Snowman where I was a regular police officer. But that seems to have disappeared into the ether!
This is what I love about your career – you are constantly progressing. Character evolution is one of the things that you were credited for with your character in Dr Who. Critics felt that you matured over your 2 series, with the gorgeous Freema Agyeman by your side…
[Smiling] Oh yes, indeed. Thank you.
Clarke is particularly well known as a screenwriter, film director, and star, obviously – short film Lick (2002), Kidulthood (2006), Adulthood (2008), short film Hammered (2009), 4321 (2010), Fast Girls (2012), Storage 24 (2012), The Knot (2012), The Anomaly (2014), Brotherhood (2016). But… I’m not sure that people know that you have actually also written for TV!
I wrote a pilot called West 10 LDN , which was made by Kudos… It was really weird for [Britain] to do a Pilot Season, and it did well. But, in the Pilot Season, it didn’t get picked up… then, I wrote an episode of Torchwood (2006) which, coincidently, and weirdly, the director of that episode, was Andy Goddard, who directed the first 3 episodes of The Level! I don’t know if he knows that I wrote that episode, or if he’s forgotten. I didn’t remember until I saw it the other day and I’m like, wait a second! I worked with that guy for about 3/4 months!
Have you directed for TV at all?
I’ve never been offered any TV. I guess I have just been busy with the films. My production company [Unstoppable Entertainment] has some TV shows on the slate. So if any of those go, and a couple are looking like they might, then maybe I will do it.
So, you’re starring in ITV’s The Level, can you tell me which character you play?
I play Sean”Gunner” Martin, a detective who becomes Karla Crome’s partner when she comes to Brighton to investigate the crime that takes place. He is ambitious, and sort of a lone wolf. Even within his unit, he’s very kind of detached from everyone else, because everything is about work. He’s not married, doesn’t have kids. Everything’s about being the best at work. So when Karla’s character comes along, I don’t think Sean, or as they call him, “Gunner”, takes very kindly to it. But, he’s someone that you need to watch, because you never know where he’s sitting with things. He keeps it quite close to his chest.
Now, she’s a detective sergeant (DS), and you are also. I have to ask, because I have this thing about black representation on British police procedurals. For example, The Bill eventually stopped casting black actors as the criminals and informants and started casting them in constable roles…
Yes. Eventually! In the last episode, and then it was cancelled! [Laughs]
So you’ve taken a little bit of a demotion here – from a DCI to a DS. But, did you have to call on your previous Chasing Shadows character DCI Carl Pryor at all, or did you just take direction from the page?
I just took the direction that was on the page. There wasn’t really [much of a demotion]. He’s still pretty high up. He only answers to one person, and what you’ll see about the character is that he’s pretty solitary anyway. I feel like even when he’s getting instructions, he’s already got his own agenda, and already knows what he’s doing. He’s a much more interesting character than Pryor, because you never really know where he is with things, and that’s quite important – to provide intrigue throughout the season, which I like doing. I’ve played nice, good guys, and I’ve played bad guys, and Gunner seems, to fall somewhere in the middle.
It’s interesting that you say that, because I have seen quite a few of your non-Hood films, like 4321, Fast Girls, Storage 24, The Anomaly. I really enjoyed all of them…I love sci fi, and I don’t really understand why some people here didn’t seem to get The Anomaly, or even Storage 24.
So did I, thank you very much. Yes, a lot of people here didn’t get it. It probably did better in America than it did here.
You’ve got that look about you that’s actually quite veiled. It’s something that I think you do quite well. I found that very much in 4321 and definitely in Fast Girls where you play the wise mentor… I’ve always thought of you as quite young, so that veiled, inscrutable quality translates quite well into gravitas.
No, I’m not young, girl! But, thank you [laughs].
What’s also interesting is that this is a frontline pairing of two non-white detectives, which is fantastic! A gender-split partnering at that, which we definitely haven’t seen on British TV before! But, I’m guessing it wasn’t a specific issue – that the casting sheet was open in terms of race…?
I don’t think any of the characters were colour-specific. What’s happened here is the open-minded casting directors, producers and directors have gone, We’re just gonna go with who we think the best actors are for these roles – luckily for all of us! She’s great, Karla, the lead and when they were looking for the other people, I happened to get one of the leads as well, so I think that’s completely coincidental. But it has worked out in a way that makes the show really progressive and ahead of its time. You’re right, two of the main leads are black characters, and as her partner, I’m with her a lot of the time. I think it will be very interesting to see how the audience react to it.
Casting directors Kelly Valentine Hendry and Victor Jenkins have impressive CVs, with significantly diverse cast lists. How did the role come to you?
I was in the edit for Brotherhood, and my agent was like, you’ve got an audition for this TV show! So I prepared, went along, and it was a very interesting audition. They asked me, you direct as well. What are you like on set? [Laughs] I said, I’ll be more than happy to just chill out and let you stress about things, while I’m sitting in the back eating donuts.… I’m just gonna act, that’s what I do. It was a good audition. Went back to the edit, and about a week later, my agent called. It takes a really confident director to hire me – another director coming into the room, regardless of them being an actor too… Luckily, he gave me the role!
Was there anything in Gunner that you could directly identify with?
I think I identify with the loner aspect.
But, you own a production company; you handle and act with casts of actors…
Yes, but you only get there by being quite solitary and determined, and quite focused on what you have to do. I’ve been like that since I was young. I’ve never done any sort of drugs, I don’t drink. I’m not against people who do that, but that’s not for me. Because I’m always trying to focus on what I want to do, and that was something I definitely identified with the character. He’s focused on what he wants to do and where he wants to go, and how he can achieve it.
…And that was my 20 minutes! It’s so obvious, when you meet Noel Clarke, why he has been so productive in the last 14 years in particular and become almost a one-man film industry. He’s a do-er. He takes action. When you’re in the room with him, you can feel why people place their confidence and money with him. He might think of himself as a loner, but he’s a remarkably generous one, taking people with him on his creative ride!
When the opportunity to interview him arose, my main motivation was just to be able to sit in the same room as a great Dr Who character, and a maker of films I really enjoy. By the end, we had had a bit of a giggle and I had really warmed to him and, later that day, I found out we had something else in common – spoilers don’t spoil things for him either! Hear, hear!
I hadn’t seen the pilot episode preview at this point, or I would have congratulated him on his choice of project and his performance, as well as the massive success of Brotherhood. Knowing now that the writers may produce more stories, based on surviving characters, I’m definitely rooting for DS Gunner Martin! I will definitely be keeping up with The Level!