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Aml Ameen and Shantol Jackson talk immigrant culture, working with Idris Elba, and '80s London life


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Aml Ameen and Shantol Jackson star as D and Yvonne in Idris Elba’s highly-anticipated directorial debut, Yardie.  Ameen explains how he got this incredible part, stating that “I was on my way to LA from London in 2015 and Idris was on my flight,and we got speaking about a film he wanted to do, on the book Yardie which I’d heard about previously. And he said, ‘Are you up for doing it?’ and I said, ‘What?’. And he said, ‘Are you up for doing it?’ and I was like, ‘…Yeah!’

“And I read the script on this flight to LA, and he gave me the part! And I made sure, I was like ‘Wait a second, Idris,” and I got one of the stewardesses to take a photo, so that by the time we land he couldn’t take it back. So that’s how I heard about it, and it was fantastic.”

As for Jackson, a Jamaican actress cast as D’s love interest, she explains that “the casting director… told me, ‘You know, there’s a film that we want you to audition for’, and I didn’t know Idris was the director on it. And two weeks after I did the tape, they told me that the director was here and wanted to meet me, and I said, ‘Sure!’.

“And when I got to the meeting, there was Idris! I had no idea it would’ve been him. He was so chill, and down to earth and I was panicking inside… And he told me it was his first project… And two weeks later I get a call telling me he’d love for me to take the role. And so of course, I screamed in his ear,” Jackson laughs.

“When I heard Shantol had got the part, I emailed her and asked, ‘Would you mind writing letters back in our characters?’. We started work about a year before, and I was lucky that she said yes, and we started a dialogue over email, imagining what our childhood together had been like, and the different seminal moments in our lives. So, by the time we got to set, it felt like we had all this backstory and this world pre-created. That’s what made it real,” Ameen emphasises.

“And she would also help me a lot with dialect and with the accent, and again when you’re communicating, it helps build a connection. And so those were some of the things we did to start to form the world of D and Yvonne. That and a lot of dancing, a lot of music, and a lot of hanging out, it was great!”

“Idris also paid a key role in it,” the actress adds, “because he wanted the chemistry in the film to be as authentic as possible. So, the day I landed it was straight into rehearsals. And he spent a lot of time with the both of us, trying to get the scenes the way he wanted them to go… And he’d said very early on that he wanted the chemistry in the film to be one of the very key points. Although it is a violent film, the love story is also very important. I think it’s more of a love story than a gangster film, to be honest. He wanted to capture that.”

Ameen had a special challenge set by the first-time director going into filming. “It was this exchange we had very early on,” he explains, “when he said that he wanted me to go method acting for it. And what that meant was that in 2017, I went to live in Jamaica and that informed a lot, from an energy perspective.

“And what I saw, and the great people in Jamaica, from my aunties to the people at Studio One that used to work with Bob Marley, to all these music artists; all of these people helped contribute to my experience of Jamaica, and that mood would come back with me to London… Idris allowed for that all to happen, he facilitated that world happening for me, so by the time I came to set he said that he trusted me to do it…

“One of the great things I admired about him was that he chose the actors, gave us our orders, and then he trusted us. And that’s not something you get all the time for first-time directors, and I’ve worked for a few. What you tend to get is micromanaging, because of a sense of fear they have about how things could look.”

Equally praising of Elba’s work, Jackson asserts that “the fact that he came to Jamaica and auditioned Jamaican actors is very telling. He wanted that authenticity… If the dialogue didn’t feel quite right, he’d ask ‘Well, how would you say it?’ and I appreciated that a lot, because of course everyone wants to respect the culture and be sure that it’s fairly represented.

“It was very true to the Jamaican culture and the British culture at the time… And Idris told me he wanted this film to be ‘1 to 5’ and not ‘1 to 10’, because usually with black characters, especially women, it’s very elaborate in terms of how they talk. It’s very aggressive and loud, and he wanted the whole film to be half of that. So, I appreciated how hands-on he was with the project, from how he wanted to cut my hair and how he wanted us to move, and how he wanted the makeup to look. Something I respect a lot about him, is that him being such a fantastic actor he also respects the actors’ part in it all,” she says, echoing Ameen’s sentiment.

As a film split between its Jamaican roots and London setting, Yardie “shows you what modern London culture has become,” states Ameen. “It’s kind of like the Jamaican immigrant influence, the Caribbean influence, married in with that London Cockney culture and grime, and that’s what we have… And I think it’s good to show how Jamaica has become a subculture that’s become the very essence of London modern culture, and so I love that.

“It shows the beginning of that… It felt great, because I think this film is going to stand the test of time. People are going to watch it, and the music – if you grew up in that era, the music takes you back, if you didn’t grow up in that era, you grew up to family members listening to it. Or if you were going to Notting Hill Carnival and you don’t know anything about Jamaican or Caribbean culture, now you’ve got context to it. It’s also a film that represents London. If you take out the gangster element and focus on the DJ and sound systems, and music elements, that represents the city I love.”

On the other hand, “coming from Jamaica, you don’t really appreciate how your culture has impacted other places,” Jackson explains. “I remember the music, I was so amazed at how Londoners were impacted by Jamaican music, from reggae to dance hall, it was just amazing to see that impact… It was really interesting to see how culture impacts other cultures.”

There’s also an educational aspect to the film, both historically and culturally, the actress states. “I’m sure it will be educational, because the reason Yvonne went to London in the first place was because of gang violence and political violence in that time. Just last night, I was watching this Bob Marley documentary with my father, and he was telling me how political violence was at that time. Knife violence, gun violence was rife in that time. You hear stories, but seeing it in the documentary was putting a different lens on it. So, seeing a film that shared those experiences from that time, what our parents and grandparents went through, it’s very educational in understanding why they interact the way they do.”

Coming from the UK, Ameen says he was “educated on how Jamaican society is a very matriarchal society. And with that, if you look in the film, Shantol plays my grandma. My grandma came over in the 60s or 70s, and that child that Yvonne and D have, that’s my mum. And so that provides crazy context for anybody from an immigrant culture. The film’s first and foremost entertaining, and it draws you in; it’s a great story that educates. Great stories put you in the place of an empath, so you’re being educated in a full circumference.”

Concluding, Ameen re-emphasised, “as you can tell, we’re very happy with the movie. I’ll be happy for this film to represent part of my career for the rest of my life, and I can’t necessarily say that about every project I’ve been involved in. That’s how special the movie is to me and to Idris, and to the rest of the cast. You’re getting a movie with heart, you’re getting a movie with spirit and soul, you’re getting that nostalgic feel, it’s a great film.”

Yardie is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand. 

Photography courtesy of Alex Bailey, via IMDb

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