Aml Ameen talks The Butler, about growing up and his career behind the camera (Part 2)

Because I’m a chatterbox, and Aml is gracious, I had to split our conversation into two parts. 

Here’s the rest of  The British Blacklist’s exclusive interview with actor Aml Ameen who stars in the smash hit film ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ alongside Oprah Winfrey, Forest Whitaker, David Oyelowo, Mariah Carey, and more.

But before we get started, I get paused for pronouncing Aml’s name incorrectly

My name is pronounced Am-el. I get people coming up to me and saying they’ve known me for ages ‘Am-il’ but then I’m like you can’t do.  My parents named me Am-el and I think it’s a lot warmer than Am-il Ameen.

Agreed, Am-el Ameen flows off the tongue better…

(Laughs) yeah, cos it’s my name. It’s literally Am and an l it’s Arabic.

Okay, so Am-el, you’ve done a lot of work behind the camera with your production company AmeenDream Entertainment…

Yes, I’ve directed about 6 /7 short films. I would love to do a feature film. But it’s literally finding the right people to back me.   A lot of my peers, Femi (Oyeniran) has just done ‘It’s A lot’ (2013); Noel did ‘Kidulthood’ (2006).  I sacrificed that to be here and push my acting career. I’ve got a lot of British ideas; I’ve got a lot of American ideas. I’ve got fully fleshed ideas; I have scripts, budgets all that stuff so it’s just literally a case of pulling the right people together to get things made.


What was the inspiration behind ‘Hoorah’ your short film which recently screened at the 2013 BUFF festival…?

Hoorah was written by a friend of mine Bruce Purnell who attends the New York Film Academy. The inspiration behind it was Post Traumatic Stress and what it does to a person. The reason I decided to produce it, and direct it, and be in it was because I was very interested in this kind of character that you play all the way through; the stresses of the mind and what happens to it. The guy came and murdered his best friend and his wife and he doesn’t remember and creates an alternate reality, and it always fascinates me when the mind does that kind of extreme thing to escape the reality of a real-life horror. It’s a great thriller. I’ll probably screen it in the UK next year.

How easy is it to make the transition from actor to director, and getting people to trust you?

In the United States, if you’re successful and you’re bringing in money to the company, they don’t want to lose you. That’s how the conversation goes in the states. You get the ball rolling on one thing; they’ll do whatever they need to do to keep you. But ultimately you have to prove yourself.  As a filmmaker, my last three short films have shown that within a character based genre I’m very good.  I’ve been an actor for 20 years so character driven stuff I can do very well. I know how to communicate to actors, so all I’ve needed are the right team around me to execute my vision well.  So I’m proven to a degree. But, for example, ‘Adulthood’ (2008) and ‘Anuvahood’ (2011) were quite successful so what happens then, is that it opens opportunities for people and people wanna work with you because they’ve seen what the numbers do. It’s about the numbers, or if you’re doing a smaller film it’s how critically acclaimed was the film. With those two films, they were critically acclaimed and did very well at the box office. That’s where I’m unproven.

What was your dream growing up? Make films, be an actor or something else?

We come from an entertainment family my dad was a singer in a band called The Bitches in the Caribbean who used to open up for the Rolling Stones…

Erm… The Bitches?

Yeah, The Bitches, they opened up for the Rolling Stones, they played for Princess Margaret, they were a travelling band in the Caribbean, which consisted of my uncle, my dad as the lead singer. He then went over to Holland, played some music there. Came to England settled, got into community charity work. Then I was born. Me and Mikel my brother (a music artist/rapper). I went to stage school from 6 years old. I went to mum and dad at 6 years old and said I want to be an actor so they put me in stage school and there I became more of a dancer actually. I’m a very good tap dancer. Like very very good…

Will we ever see you in a Savion Glover / Gregory Hines inspired tap dancing film?

I have an idea for a short film around that.  But I’m trying not to do any more short films as well (Laughs) anyway so I’ve been in the business literally since I was 6 years old.

Aml Ameen on stage with Michael Jackson during a performance of the Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards

It was written! Do you remember what it was at age six that triggered this desire to act?

The story that I usually tell is watching Macaulay Culkin in ‘Home Alone’ (1990). But I don’t think that’s completely accurate. Because before that was ‘Thundercats’ (1985 – 1989). I’d run around the house and drag Mikel around and we’d play Thundercats.  Even before that, I used to watch Black & White movies with my mum – Mickey Rooney and Jimmy Stewart films. I grew up with that, my mum really pushed the film in me just by default. I always liked adventure films. So I think it’s in my DNA.  I’ve done West End plays. I played Sammy Davis Jnr when I was about 11, in ‘The Jolson Story‘ (1997).  I sang I tap danced. Then I went into a production of ‘Oliver’ (1999) at the London Palladium. I performed the ‘Earth Song’ with Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards…

OMG the infamous Brits when Jarvis Cocker rudely stormed the stage. Do you remember your reaction?

Yep, it was that one. From where I was standing I couldn’t really see, I just saw a white guy jump on stage. Then the American guys ran after him. The funny story to this was some people got hit because some of Michael’s fans were throwing bottles. Some of the kids were cut open.  I remember crying, because I wanted to get involved with whatever was gonna happen afterward. We all got taken to Brent Cross and were given Playstations and stuff to make up for it. I was young man, 11 years old (Laughs).

Did you get to talk to Michael?

Yeah, we worked with him for two days. I met Michael when they first brought him in. It was all intense; they were saying ‘Okay everybody, Michael Jackson’s coming. Don’t even look at Michael unless he talks to you’ and then these doors open, this guy walks through with this huge entourage of people. I stand next to him because I have to stand next to him. I’m the one with the red turban on my head. I remember him turning to me and saying to me in a very deep voice – no high voice ‘Hey I’m Michael’ and I’m like ‘err I know’. He taught us all a secret handshake dance which he learned when he was in Africa. So now every time I do the handshake Michael pops up (Laughs).

I’m going to make that a headline! Aml Ameen sees Michael Jackson! So you went into film influenced by your mother and your brother Mikel went into music influenced by your dad, are you two close?

I was Mikel’s boss for many years until he turned 13. I was the general and he was the solider.  Nah we are very very close. That’s my best friend man. We had a very playful household. Very fun.  Mikel is hilarious. If you speak to him in a social setting he’s a chip off the old block of our dad. He’s also very smart, intelligent, and righteous. He’s extremely gifted. I personally think he’s doing some of the best Hip Hop in the UK at the moment. I know that sounds like a biased statement from a big brother but if you listen to the actual content. No one’s doing that. Also, it’s very hard to get that content out there because of the shit that’s perpetuated. He’s more from a school of 90s American Hip Hop.

Bilal Ameen (image sourced The Voice Newspaper online); Aml Ameen & Mikel Ameen (image sourced IMDB)

It’s always refreshing when a young rapper goes against the grain and resists the stereotype to rap with a conscious vibe…

My grandfather was a political speechwriter for politicians in the Caribbean.  When we go home to St. Vincent, our original name is ‘Jacks’ they know us as The Jacks. My Grandfather is a very respected, very renowned man in the Caribbean. So we have that background and that’s been passed down to us. We’re very well read up on our history. So with Mikel as a music artist, he gets to express more easily what’s on his mind. Whereas in the medium I work in you’re facilitating someone else’s story. But as a filmmaker, you get to say what you wanna say it’s just a longer process.

The short film ’12’, I did in 2011, was basically my Hip Hop track, it’s an amalgamation of different things that were going on in my life, and also my statement on the UK film industry and what I thought of it at the time and also the riots in London. When you watch that film there are no words at all really. It’s just a guy running through London and all these different experiences. Of all my short films, that’s my favourite in terms of personal narrative and what I think.

What do you do in your downtime, are you dating and is she American or British?

I have a British lady. We’re in a relationship. It’s going well. I’m always brief about this stuff.

Is it hard maintaining a relationship when you’re the hot young guy of the moment?

I’m not young anymore. I suppose when I get to around 35, 6, 7 I’ll look back at how young I was, but in terms of the trappings and the alluring of fame, I’ve been famous back home from when I was 19/20 so I’ve experienced a good solid 8 years of not being quite a normal person. I’m not at all saying I’m the biggest star in the world, but there’s interest or knowing enough that when I step outside someone will say that’s that guy from The Bill or something so in terms of all that stuff, my uncle always said you’ve got to give a person who’s become famous about 2 or 3 months to be an arsehole because they’ve not had that much attention since they were two years old. I’ve done it, I’ve seen it.

I’m much more into the substance of what my life could be privately and in the long run. So my head doesn’t turn left and right, I’m interested in the person I have and how she holds me down. Also the difference between acting versus music, people treat you with a bit more respect, so the approach is different. I experienced music fame when I did Kidulthood’. I remember I went to watch a show with my sister in Wembley town hall; my sister was dancing and performing on stage. This is one of my first rock star moments. I walk into the building with my boys, and someone turned around, and it was like hoards of people were like ‘oh my god, oh my god’ and the show stopped whilst my sister was on stage, it was weird.

So with The Butler and your next film The Maze Runner, as much as you’ve acclimatised to the fame game, things are going to get a bit more rock starrish for you…

It’s [The Maze Runner] going to be the biggest film of my career. It’s a 20th Century Fox trilogy where I’m one of the lead characters. It will be compared to Hunger Games. It’s about these kids on this land; they’ve got no memory of who they are. The one thing they do have is their name. I play the leader of these guys, the father figure. It’s the most beautifully shot film I’ve ever been in. It’s a film that takes me back to my childhood when I wanted to be in films like ‘Hook’. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. I’m co-starring with Will Poulter (Wild Bill), Kaya Scodelario (Skins), Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Nanny McPhee), and Dylan O’Brien (New Girl). It will be out next September. Maze Runner is a book and the fans are passionate. Fox has already greenlit the second movie before the first one’s even come out. It’s my biggest American role and if it does well, then it’s going to be the big one for my career.

So you’ll be experiencing a different type of fame…

That’s the thing; London fame is bigger than fame over here. Over here there are so many celebrities so you get used to it. Everyone’s an actor. There’s no surprise. So with that said you’re under the illusion of what you’re actually experiencing when you’re in a city where you’re constantly bumping into people.

What do you want to have achieved before you relax and say you made it?

Well, a lot of what I want to do, in my opinion, is in any way what I can give to the world. What I can do through filmmaking and storytelling to shape and move the consciousness of people around the world. So the things I expect from me or I believe my life will have, will be the filmmaker really coming to the forefront and making films around the world, making great films that entertain people and inspire people, and as an actor to continue to just explore storytelling, and to do it on the biggest stage in the world. Hope for a real humble peaceful life.

Finally, could you clarify, because I don’t think I heard it right… did you say your Dad’s band was called ‘The Bitches’… as in you Bitch…The Bitches?

(Laughs) yes, The Bitches…

Oh okay, because I really didn’t want you to call me up and say erm, excuse me…

(Laughs) it got people’s attention. I think they needed to change it after a while because when they did their first album it was under the name LOB which stood for all their names. I love to tell people that because it’s a bit of a shocker.

.. and on that note thank you, Aml.

The Butler will be on UK screens from Friday 15th November. Check your local cinema screenings for times.

Read Part One of our interview with Aml here


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