What attracted you to the role of Levi, who is a dangerous gang leader?
I had admired Adewale’s work as an actor for years in shows like Lost and Oz and when I read the script it felt like his was such an important story that needed to be told. I’d never played a part like Levi before, someone who seemed incredibly lonely and filled with so much anger and frustration and fear of losing his position which is literally all he has. It felt like a real opportunity as an actor to delve into some of the darker parts of the human psyche that I’d never had the chance to explore before. I’d been told for years by casting directors that I was “too nice” to play the bad guy, so there was a part of me that was determined to get it and show them what I can do.
Is it emotionally difficult/exhausting to play such dark characters?
Yes absolutely. It’s no wonder that the real life members of this particular skinhead gang had relatively short lives. That level of hate and aggression cannot be sustained. When we were in rehearsals (before I shaved my head) I found myself apologising to Damson after every scene, picking him up off the floor and wanting to hug him. We obviously had to try to get rid of that instinct which is tough when the things you are doing and saying are some of the most vile and abhorrent things you can do to another human being. Something happened after we all had our heads shaved though. That sense of having a very strong identity and almost camouflage within the group when you all look the same. I can see why that look was so appealing to them. It was a character that was difficult to get away from at the end of a shooting day. I could feel people around me acting differently, crossing the street to avoid this 6”4’ skinhead or looking away instantly if anyone made eye contact with me. It definitely made me feel very powerful but I had a few new grey hairs when my hair eventually grew back.
What kind of research did you do to re-create Lonnie Donegan who is the real life person?
Luckily when you’re playing a real life famous performer, as popular as Lonnie Donegan was, there are a lot of resources available. I watched lots of interviews with him and even more footage of him performing as I wanted to show how playful he was. He seemed to have such an ease in front of a crowd like he was always playing to a room full of friends. Aside from that i was listening to him almost exclusively in the run up to the shoot.
How was it to act opposite Renee Zellweger?
Renee is probably one of the easiest people you will ever work with. She has such a huge heart and is so kind and has time for everybody. Incredible to watch her switching Judy on and off with such ease, especially as she had such a specific manner about her which Renee captures seemingly effortlessly. Watching her perform as Judy in front of a crowd who genuinely adored her was amazing. She would kick off her heels between takes and sit on the edge of the stage and have a chat to whoever she landed in front of. Such a star and I very much hope we work together again.
Any funny on set anecdote?
Well, not funny but very special. As i was playing Lonnie I had a guitar on for most of my scenes. When they were doing a big lighting change or turn around Renee would grab a guitar and we went off to a quiet corner and sat opposite each other playing and singing together. She has such a beautiful voice. It was such a treat for me. Working with her has definitely been one of my career highlights.
What was your favourite scene with her?
I think when we all think she’s not going to make it back to do her show and I’m ready and waiting in the wings to go on and Lonnie graciously stands aside when she turns up. I then got to watch her absolutely smash it to a packed house. It was one of those moments where you’re in something on set and you can imagine how it’s going to come across on screen and you get a feeling that this could be something very special.
There has been lots of media speculation about the fact that actors who come from privileged backgrounds have an easier ride when it comes the casting process. Any personal thoughts?
I feel like we are losing out on so many extraordinary voices through a lack of opportunity. I didn’t know any actors, didn’t have an in to the industry in any nepotistic way and so the only way i could be seen by the best agents was to go to an accredited drama school. I think I’m right in saying that I was in the last year that was offered full funding. I had my fees paid for and a maintenance grant and my student loan pretty much covered everything else. I think had I been in the financial situation I was in then and applying to a drama school now, it would not have been possible for me. I had been an actor for 5 years before training with nothing really to show for it other than a terrible agent and a few non speaking low paid adverts. If drama school had not been financially possible for me then I don’t think I’d still be acting now. Despite this current government’s determination to rule out higher education in any form for anyone who isn’t wealthy I do think it is slowly getting better in the arts. Organisations like Open Door, who offer financial support and mentoring to young people from low income households are doing amazing things, bringing voices into the industry that would otherwise have gone unheard.
John can be seen in Judy now and Farming will be in cinemas from 11th October.
Interview by Lorenza Calamandrei
Photography by Andrea Vecchiato
Grooming by Sam Basham
Styling by Emily Thighe
Clothes: Shirt by Topman – Rollneck by Topman – T-shirt by Zara, Jacket by Reiss, Shoes by Converse.