June 6-13th 2008
Acclaimed actor (Doctor Who) and star-writer of controversial youth drama Kidulthood Noel Clarke adds another string to his bow by also directing the follow-up Adulthood. He tells Leigh Singer how council estate and single parent upbringing are no excuse for not taking your opportunities.
Don’t get Noel Clarke wrong; he believes in giving people second chances. “I’m all up for rehab - go to rehab, get better,” the 32-year old rising actor and filmmaker states forcefully. “I’m all up for apologising. But what about giving publicity to people who never mess up in the first place?”
Ah, yes, but doesn’t that go against the demands modern culture makes of celebrity trajectories? Don’t we want our stars to fall then rise again twice as bright? “And then they [mess up] again. And again,” protests Clarke. “And they get more famous and more jobs, and I think it’s just preposterous. If I have a daughter, what do I tell her? Babe, you don’t need an education. Stay stupid, marry a footballer – no, don’t even marry a footballer, sleep with a footballer, sell the story to the papers, buy Daddy a house.”
All of which makes our afternoon meet twice as interesting. Clarke himself makes no bones about the fact that he’s in the never-messed-up-in-the-first-place bracket. He mentions matter-of-factly, though with a hint of pride, that he doesn’t drink, smoke, do drugs and has never been in trouble with the police. Yet as the writer-star of 2006’s Kidulthood and now performing the same roles, as well as making his directorial debut, with the follow-up Adulthood, giving a sinner a shot at redemption is the very thrust of his current drama.
In Kidulthood Clarke played baseball bat-wielding bully Sam Pill, who accidentally ended up killing a fellow youth and going to prison. The sequel begins with Sam being released, but finding the ramifications of his actions linger on and that several people still have old scores to settle. Seems not everyone’s as willing as Clarke to give second chances.
Kidulthood became something of a tabloid cause célèbre, predictably blamed for inciting, rather than reflecting today’s teenagers’ less laudable attitudes and pastimes. The film did nail elements of modern inner-city adolescence but was also clearly sensationalist, stockpiling a year’s worth of fear mongering headlines into ninety minutes. Fortunately Adulthood, while equally hard-hitting, reins in these more lurid tendencies.
“That’s sort of the idea, to make a more mature piece,” agrees Clarke. “If Kidulthood, as claimed by some people, reflected some of the damage that youth were doing, then Adulthood is starting some of the repair.”
It’s a well-crafted epithet that shows off Clarke’s polish and just why he’s established himself in the entertainment industry so quickly. His acting ability landed him an Olivier Award as Most Promising Newcomer in 2003, leading to stints on hit shows like Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and most recently Doctor Who, playing Billie Piper’s boyfriend Mickey.
At the same time, growing up on a West London council estate, raised by a single mother, his literary aptitude enabled him to write Kidulthood and urban youth drama West 10 LDN (he also scripted an episode of Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood). Added together, it proves that Clarke not only has the smarts to express himself and his surroundings with clarity and vision, he’s also got the street cred to back it up – and he knows it.
“You get young people saying ‘Nobody understands what I’m going through, I grew up on a council estate with my single mum, how can any of these people in the industry know what I’m going through,’” Clarke notes. “I do know. So you can’t say that now. So if there’s someone who does know what you went through, what’s your excuse now?”
Talk about tough love. When probed on why he took up the offer to direct Adulthood, as much as Clarke indicates meeting the personal artistic challenge, his reasons sound more like a public mandate.
“Once the opportunity was there,” he reflects, “I thought about the career stuff and what it might mean in terms of young people who grew up in situations similar to me. You don’t have to be a MC or leave school at 16 and be a footballer, because I believe I’m doing something now that nobody else in the country is doing and not many people in the world.”
So is it about being a role model? “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about being a role model,” he counters. “But I’ll be honest with you, I’d rather my son look up to me than some supermodel who gets more and more famous the more bad things she does, or some rock star who gets off jail more and more times than humanly possible.” Clarke’s too savvy to name names but it’s clear whom he’s describing. It also seems possible that if admitting to being a role model were slightly more hip, he’d be less circumspect about that too.
Then again it’s understandable that he’s reluctant to box himself in as some kind of youth spokesman. He already regularly turns down requests to appear on news or current affairs shows, presumably to opine on bullying or knife crime. “I’m not there to provide answers,” he says bluntly. “I make films or I write or I act. I’m not a politician.” True, but if the urge struck, it’s easy to envisage Clarke giving his “council estate” pep talk in the House of Commons.
If this all makes Clarke sound oh so serious and a little bit righteous, it’s only fair to mention the easygoing enthusiasm with which, for example, he shows how his iPhone sliding menu inspired an Adulthood montage; or his gleeful teasing at this writer’s “unprofessionalism” when my mobile phone goes off mid-interview. Charm, as much as talent and drive, got him to his current position.
Next stop Hollywood? “It’s very naïve of people to think you can do two films and just jump over there,” he says sagely. “There’s no rush. I’d rather go there and sit in a room with people knowing who the hell I am.”
When, not if, the opportunity comes, it’s hard to imagine Noel Clarke won’t make it count. After all, some people just don’t need a second chance.
Adulthood is out on June 20th.