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“Idris Elba gave me one of the best gifts of my career, and my life”

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Aml Ameen shot to fame in the cult hit ‘Kidulthood’ before moving to Los Angeles to spread his wings in Hollywood. Aml’s latest film saw him back in London, by way of Jamaica, for Idris Elba’s directorial debut ‘Yardie’, which is released on DVD later this month. We caught up with this multi-talented man of the world to talk Method, music, and where he feels he fits into it all...

Culture Calling: Where are you and what have you been up to?

Aml Ameen: Right now I’m 48 hours into being back at my home in Los Angeles - I’ve just come from South Africa, which was really cool. I was there for two months, I just finished up on a sequel to Inside Man, which is a movie that starred Denzel Washington and was directed by Spike Lee, and yeah, I led this one with a new cast and crew - it was fantastic.

CC: Sounds cool, what’s is like?

AA: I play an NYPD cop called Remy De Bone, and it’s his first time taking on a bank heist. He’s very cocksure and confident of himself, quite fun, and he gets partnered up with this FBI agent played by Rhea Seehorn, who’s one of the stars of Better Call Saul, and we take on this heist and it’s connected to the first movie there’s a nice line running through it. It was great - and it’s one of the more fun characters I’ve played. I tend to play guys who are burdened with a lot of things.

CC: …like the character you played in Yardie, which comes out on DVD later this month - can you tell us about that?

AA: Yardie is the directorial debut of Idris Elba, the king of swing - and the sexiest man alive, I hear, which is a good start. It’s about a young man called D, who as a child witnesses his brother’s murder. His brother is his everything and he grows up with this kind of death wish, this desire to form some kind of retribution towards the people that killed his brother. He’s also a sound system guy - that’s DJ-ing and MC-ing - and that’s the last part of what his brother left him with: this desire and love for music. He sees a guy who was present at his brother’s murder and beats him to a bloody pulp, which gets him sent to London to cool off and get out of trouble, and there he also connects with his long-lost love, Yvonne. So it’s a love story between him and his brother, between D and Yvonne, and also about him trying to find out what happened to his brother and get some answers.

CC: What helped you connect to the character?

AA: Well, getting this role was a happy accident. I was getting a flight from London to Los Angeles in 2015 and Idris was on the same one - he knew me from when I did the film Kidulthood. So we end up sitting next to each other and we get talking; about Yardie, about his father, my father, the immigrant culture of London and how London has changed so much because of the contribution of the Caribbeans and Africans. I’d heard of the Yardie, the book, and he offered me the part there and then. It was one of the most magical gifts I’ve been given as an actor. And I experienced a bit of trepidation, because I know a lot of Jamaican parts are played a bit one-sided, or the accent’s a bit dodgy, so when it came time to gear up for the film, I went and lived in Jamaica for three and a half months and went to Jack’s Hill and got introduced to people that knew Bob Marley, and hung out with the Marley brothers. By the time I came to London to start working on the film, I wasn’t second guessing myself. D became a voice in my head, and that was a very interesting experience - method acting is about really changing your mind, changing spiritually. So it felt like I didn’t have to act very much when it came to it; I was just being. By the time I finished the movie it took me about 7 months to shake it off. When you commit in that way, it takes a lot of time to heal and let go.

CC: What’s the importance of music to the film?

AA: The soundtrack to Yardie is basically 50% of the film - it’s its own character. For the people that know the culture, the soundtrack will transport them right back to wherever they were when they first heard it. Music is the most powerful thing on Earth, in my opinion. Even to people who don’t know it, it’s an invitation to what it would be like to be in the film’s world. For D, music is the heartbeat of Jerry Dread [D's older brother], it’s the last bit he has of him, so he held it very dear. You see him become a soundman, which is a cathartic experience for him. When he’s doing the music he’s able to directly express his gut feelings. My own brother Mikel Ameen is a music artist, and he actually wrote all the lyrics for D in the movie, which Idris allowed us to go and do.

CC: What was it like working with Idris?

AA: He immediately demystified the celebrity and the icon that many of us look up to. He showed me he’s human, which quelled the nerves a bit. I definitely felt a need to impress this actor that I admire so much. I remember putting off showing him D and the accent until I went to Jamaica. He gave me one of the greatest gifts of my career, man, and my life - Yardie’s a very personal experience for me because I got to tap into my family’s life and call upon that ancestral feeling, and put that into art. He also physically operated a camera on this movie, which was astounding. He’s a fearless person and gave me the space to go and do my method acting. It was a great cast, and a really special movie.

CC: As you mentioned, your own family has origins outside the UK, and you’re now a Brit living in LA; what are your thoughts on the idea of belonging?

AA: I belong to the world now, I’m a citizen of the world. I’ve lived outside the UK for nearly ten years. I love London, it’s my heart home, but I left London for my dreams. When I was young I didn’t see anyone that looked like me, in England, being an actor like the ones I admired. There was no collective story that we were telling in England that I felt like I could be a part of, without sticking to one version of the truth. I was part of Kidulthood and stuff like that, which is one version of reality, but it wasn’t my reality growing up. From an artistic standpoint, America has become my home and afforded me the opportunity to be much of who I want to be. So I have a deep sense of belonging to America as an artist because America has given me the beginnings of the career I want and love. And it’s done that for every black person in the business - it’s an unfortunate truth but there’s no black person who’s had international success who has not gone to America. Your Daniel Kaluuyas, your John Boyegas, your Idris Elbas; they are all products of America saying ‘yes’ and building stories that can house us in them, not as just one subsection of who we sometimes are. One of my favourite films is Love Actually, and that shows London in 2003 - I grew up in London in 2003! I was about 18 or 19, and there weren’t only the Love Actually versions of life. That’s something that hurts me - that the collective story of any group outside the predominant one is marginalised as a single version. That’s never been my reality. So I have a sense of belonging in different places - in Jamaica now too, and South Africa… I’m definitely more of a global citizen at this juncture in my life.

CC: What do you miss about London, and what’s the first thing you do when you get back?

AA: I’m always excited to get back to the greatest city in the world. And I truly believe it is - I’ve travelled extensively, and there is no city like it, you know what I mean? I head to my family’s house and then out for a Caribbean meal… I love it man.

CC: Have you noticed there's been more of an effort in terms of inclusive casting in theatres recently?

AA: Oh yeah, I went and saw Nine Night - a lot of my friends have gone through those channels. I know there's progress. I'd love to do theatre in London again anyway. I'd probably do it with [Artistic Director of the Young Vic] Kwame Kwei-Armah, if I can twist his arm.

CC: So you wouldn't say no to a bit of London theatre?

AA: I’d love that! I’m waiting for the call - I'd love to do it next year, that would be amazing. I haven’t done London Theatre in ten years. I’m waiting to twist someone’s arm, maybe at the National or the Young Vic, and persuade them to take a chance on a young actor who wants to come home for a couple of months…