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Aml Ameen talks working with Idris and going method for Yardie

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Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie, based on the novel by Victora Headley, stars Aml Ameen (The Maze RunnerSense8) as D, a young Jamaican sent to London to complete a drug deal … but the plot thickens as he follows the trail of his brother’s killer.

Ameen spoke about his experiences working with Elba, as well as the climate for actors of colour in the UK.

Can you tell us a little about what it’s like to be directed by Idris Elba?

The infamous Idris Elba! We all love him, right? I did a film called Kidulthood when I was really young, and I met Idris then, when I was nineteen years old, and he was the first one who was like, “Aml, you should go to America - they’re loving us.” So I went over there, and it was a happy accident that three years ago, in 2015, I was on my way to LA, and he was on his way to LA, and we bumped into each other in a lift. I was standing there and I just heard this deep voice bellow, “Aml, you alright?” and I was just like “Oh, what’s going on, man?” And he said, “Listen, I just watched your movie The Maze Runner, and it was really great, and I’m building this project called Yardie  - have you heard about the book?” And I’d heard about it from my parents, because of the generational separation. So we got on the plane, had a couple of tequilas and stuff, started talking about it and about the book, and what it possibly could be. We both love Goodfellas and City of God, and so we wanted to create something that was in that world. He said “I’ll send it to your agents — have a read and tell me,” and I said “Fuck the agent — I’ll take the job now.” 

I read the script, and then it was just a two and a half year process of doing it. For a first time director, for someone that’s a busy person and is very prominent in his career, he invited me into his world, into his home, we collaborated. I spent time with him while he was finishing off another film in Canada, and we really just streamlined what we thought would be a great access into D — the trauma, the look of the time, the swagger. I kind of based it on one of my uncles — he’s just one of those guys back in the day, his mannerisms. [Idris] is a really good director, specifically for actors - his attention to detail. I had a transformative experience in this — I lost myself in it — and that was a great part to do with him. I went method for it — I stayed in the accent, stayed in mode, had that first time experience of that, and it was great for me. 

When it comes to working with someone with such a prestigious career in acting, is there a different style and approach when it comes to rehearsal or on set? Did Idris work in a different way from other directors because he’s from that background?

Yeah, I think there’s a trust. Once he cast me in the role, and once we spoke about it for two years, I think he trusted me. He said, “I’m going to insulate you in your world.” I think in his experience, a lot of directors sometimes are very hands-on, and he was hands-on in terms of his vision and what he called ‘being a sniper,’ but to me more than anything he just trusted me and Shantol Jackson to build that relationship and to build that world. To do the method approach, it really holds people hostage to how you are. In your head you’re thinking you sound like an idiot, and then after a while the process just becomes simpler and simpler — people accept it and you accept it. So understanding is the first thing I would say he had — he just understands what it’s like to really go for it and be in a world and be isolated. With the Mandela role he was always talking about that.

Did you meet your younger self? Did you work with him?

Yeah, I met him in Jamaica when we did the castings in Jamaica. That’s another thing — we actually shot in Jamaica. My family’s from Jamaica, and I never had an understanding of what the culture was from a purely Jamaican perspective, and that was so nice — to talk in the language, to understand that. But I met him, and he was just a really cool kid. I was more nervous about me not being Jamaican and him thinking “Who’s this English boy?” Yeah, he was cool, really cool. He started off the film really well, and the performances generally from all of the cast - particularly the Jamaican cast helped me so much. Shantol Jackson, who I thought was brilliant in the film — it being her first major film as well — incredible! She really helped me with the vibe of it, and Sheldon, and Everaldo, it was great — I really liked working with those guys.

This film does such a great job at representing Jamaicans, and depicting that particular group in a humanising light — something which isn’t seen much on screen.

I think that was one of the things that was very important to Idris and to everybody — to get the perspective of the Jamaican experience. “Yardie,” essentially — if you go to Jamaica a lot of people won’t know what “Yardie” is, they don’t know that term unless they’ve travelled — “Yardie” was a derogatory term that came up during the 80s and late 70s, in terms of the police and Scotland Yard calling the Jamaicans that when they were involved in nefarious activities. And all of my favourite films, like Goodfellas and The Godfather — they humanise the man and his experiences, and we see the full spectrum of love and who he is, and to me that’s one of the proudest things about this film. My mum saw it two days ago, and she was like “Phew!” Jamaicans get very anxious that we’re not the bob sleighing team with the accent, or we’re not shotters, you know, rat-tat-tat gangsters. But I think Idris and the whole team that put together the film did an amazing job at portraying us in a very human light.

Was there a reason you started working in America rather than continuing to pursue a career in the UK?

I started with Kidulthood, and I had a British career, but it seemed like a good thing to me that the normal narrative is that there is not enough work in England for people that don’t fit a particular description — and that’s not just the high brow, upper class white people, that’s other people like  people that come from different working class backgrounds, people of colour, all of that. And I found that in the last 8 years — I’ve been over there since 2010 — I really don’t feel like I’ve missed anything. I’ve missed work happening in the UK, but I haven’t missed any job that I thought “Damn, I wanted to do that.” Looking at that now, that’s quite problematic. 

Here is Yardie, which is this phenomenal role, where I get to live different eras of someone’s life — I’ve not had that opportunity before, it’s not come to me. And I think that in England, we’ve been losing a lot of our talent to the U.S., and some of the phenomenal talents, especially those of colour, they’ve done phenomenally, but they’ve done phenomenally abroad, and then they’re celebrated here. So I think for me, that’s why I went over there — to play a variety of characters instead of those in Kidulthood, street thing — the kind of thing that was available to me. I’ve played an African bus driver in Kenya, I’ve played lawyers, I’ve done a whole spectrum. To me, that’s the reason I left. And I would encourage filmmakers and people to write stories from other people’s perspectives. Not just racially, but other people’s perspectives, and create a world. There’s always a ‘one person’ in a film, a token, of any type of minority, but there’s a whole world there that is so dense. For me the most important thing is for people to see that world. That’s why I left, and I’m very excited about being here and coming back through this — a film of such a high standard. 

Yardie hits cinemas on August 24th, distributed by StudioCanal.

Images courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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