Adam Deacon: ‘I was too street and too scary for directors’
Adam Deacon talks about his Bafta for rising star and his desire to be a voice for modern youth
Adam Deacon has had an incredible week. Last Sunday he became the surprise winner at the Baftas when, against the odds, he took home the Orange Wednesdays Rising Star award. You get the impression life has been a non-stop party ever since.
He arrives for his interview an hour behind schedule, four days after his victory, but still carrying the Bafta in a carrier bag. He looks exhausted but on a high, so he gets the trophy out and we all take a moment to coo at it. He will pose for photographs only if the Bafta is in the shot, which seems terribly precious. But he says: “I’ll be straight up with you. I was the outsider for this, bottom of the list. So this is huge for me.”
The category, the only one to be voted for by Orange mobile phone customers, had a crop of better-known actors nominated alongside him, among them Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd, Thor’s Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne, a favourite after his performances in Birdsong and My Week With Marilyn.
Deacon, 28, up for the gong for the film Anuvahood, a spoof of gritty urban dramas about London youth culture, which he wrote, directed and starred in, was the underdog. In his acceptance speech, he dedicated the award to all the other underdogs. “I really wanted to get that across, because for me this award is about acceptance. It’s saying, you don’t have to be in a big studio project with a mainstream audience. You can make a small film on a budget of £300,000 and you can have nobody behind you except your fan base and you can still win.”
Unlike Redmayne and Hiddleston, who went to Eton and Cambridge, Deacon was raised on a council estate in Hackney, north east London. After winning a scholarship to the renowned Anna Scher stage school – previously attended by Martin Kemp, Kathy Burke and Patsy Palmer – he won his first roles on The Bill and London’s Burning. When he was 19, he took a part as the leader of the East Staines Massiv in Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G Indahouse, but it was the character of Jay in Noel Clarke’s films Kidulthood and Adulthood that made his name.
It’s easy to see why his body of work, coupled with his dysfunctional upbringing (he left home at 15 to live in a hostel because he didn’t get on with his mother or her new boyfriend) has endeared him to an audience largely made up of “kids on the street”.
During the build-up to the Baftas he gained the support of urban music artists such as N-Dubz, Tinie Tempah and Plan B on Twitter and he has been publicly praised by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Arsenal player Jack Wilshere – figures who he suspects root for him because they too “have had to graft when things might not have always been easy”.
However, he argues that the audience for Anuvahood, a pastiche of the films he has starred in (he felt the genre became a victim of its own success because it only encouraged people to make more assumptions about youth culture) is broader than people think. “The difference with Anuvahood is that it’s a comedy,” he says, “and of course people still watch it because they are part of that world or they want to relate to it – lots of parents have told me they’ve seen it because it helps them to understand their kids. But it’s also entertainment, not just a social message. I’ve had messages from soldiers on army bases saying they were bored in camp so they put it on and thought it was funny.”
He says his experience of negative stereotyping was another reason he wanted to stray from the “urban genre”, a term he hates but still uses, and make a comedy. “When Kidulthood came out, I remember walking down Oxford Street the next day and being bombarded by kids who wanted autographs. We’d been told we’d just made one of the biggest urban youth films this country has ever seen. The schools were going mad for it, they were putting it in the curriculum, and maybe I was a bit naive, but I was thinking: ‘The work’s going to come in.’ There’s going to be a big wave and we’ll probably see ourselves in Skins. And, of course, that never happened. Instead, we came up against this wall that seemed even higher than when we first started.
“Casting directors would tell me they wanted a street kid from an estate but their response was that I was ‘too street’. My accent was too strong. I was too scary. And I found I was taken back a step. I was having to work even harder to prove I wasn’t a thug than when I first started.”
Deacon says he has been stopped by police regularly since he was 16 and now carries a copy of his own DVD in the glove compartment of his car. “It just seemed like the easiest thing, because I was sick of hearing: ‘Oh you’re an actor, are you mate? Well, I haven’t seen you in anything’.”
By his own admission, he is “incredibly focused” and has been since the age of 12, when his school head of year suggested he attend the summer acting course at Anna Scher (he worked a cash-in-hand Saturday job to raise the £80 fee). He beams when he speaks of Scher, who he says didn’t seem to spot any talent in him “for at least a week” but then “just seemed to think there was something about me”.
His acting heroes are fellow Londoners Michael Caine and Ray Winstone. Recently he got to work with Bob Hoskins on Outside Bet, a drama about Fleet Street. Next he will star in Payback Season, in which he plays a footballer struggling to deal with his celebrity. There are street gangs in it, but his character is not in a gang and for the first time he has a “proper” love interest, by which he means he is playing a character who “doesn’t have problems when it comes to sex”.
The project seems partly to want to address British youth culture, but otherwise it’s just “an entertaining London story”. It seems like a nice compromise, but would he like to veer away from urban films? “No, I love east London [he still lives on a Hackney council estate] and I still want to write about young people here, but I don’t understand why we can’t now break out of this genre, and why we can’t make a film about Notting Hill but also have a gang in it.”
As well as a leading man on screen, he wants to be a voice for youth because he feels the young are underrepresented. He is an ambassador for the Prince’s Trust and after the London riots appeared on a BBC3 Young Voters’ Question Time. It seems uncanny to think now that Anuvahood was released only months before the riots but he refuses to believe the disorder was political. “It seemed to me that kids were just taking advantage of what was going on in Tottenham and everywhere you looked there were no police.” That said, he does believe we will soon see madness again on the streets.
“Even the middle-class kids I talk to, they’re starting to realise that for the first time, you do all your work, you go to university and you get out there and there are 35 people ahead of you with the same qualification looking for a job. People are just getting more and more angry.”
He talks at length about the 1981 film Babylon, released four months before the Brixton riots, but dismisses the suggestion that Anuvahood, out last March, would have had any bearing on the London riots because it is a comedy. He feels differently about Babylon: “You know, maybe it did say, something’s got to change. And what I find really fascinating is that the actors on that film say they didn’t work after it. Why is that? Is it because Twitter wasn’t around? Because kids couldn’t talk? I’m pretty sure that people flocked to see it. And you know, at least now the kids are talking.”
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