On your marks
Noel Clarke couldn’t find the roles he liked as an actor – so, almost grudgingly, he decided to write them himself, then star in them, then direct them . . . But he’s no auteur, he tells TARA BRADY
WHERE DOES Noel Clarke find the time? Today, sitting in a Soho hotel, he’s here to talk Fast Girls, an Olympics fable and the talented movie hyphenates latest venture as a screenwriter and star. He might, just as easily, be here to promote Storage 24, an incoming summer sci-fi, or The Knot, an incoming honeymoon comedy. Both films star and were written by Clarke. Naturally.
Between these projects he has voiced a pro-Christmas critter for Saving Santa and popped up in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek sequel.
I can’t talk about it, laughs Clarke, as we make our best wounded puppy face. Not even a little bit. “I can tell you I had a great experience. I can tell you I went out there and worked with JJ Abrams. And now I’m back again and I’m not allowed to say a word.”
That’s just as well, Clarke reckons: “It’s a weird thing with fans: they want to know, they want to know, they want to know. But they don’t want to know because of spoilers.”
Professional, matter-of-fact and articulate, Noel Anthony Clarke is a guy who gets things done. Following the 2004 release of Kidulthood, his breakout directorial debut, someone at a meeting told him that he didn’t write women very well. He responded with 4,3,2,1, a female crime caper, written inside of a month. Fast Girls is Clarke’s second feature to focus on a feminine quartet. This time, the foursome form Team GB’s relay hopefuls at the Olympics (ersatz).
“I don’t try to write women or men,” says Clarke. “I just write. Afterwards I sit down and think, would a girl really say that? But I write characters first. Then think about the details later.”
He’s keen, too, that we don’t think of the new film as a sporting Spice World. The London Olympics, which are never mentioned by name for copyright reasons, provided a timeframe for Fast Girls, but were not the primary motivation for writing the screenplay.
“It’s only opportunistic in that this is when the distributor is putting it out,” insists Clarke. “But for us for myself and the producer, Damian Jones, this idea of making a movie about a female relay team has been kicking around a long time. He has been asking me to do this since 2005. He’s even had the title all this time. I was always busy doing other things but then he pushed forward because of the Olympics and then the studio, who picked it up, pushed forward because of the Olympics.”
It’s typical that Clarke would respond to criticisms of his female writing simply by proving the dissenter wrong. His entire career is a testament to a strong work ethic and can-do spirit. Born to London Trinidadian parents – dad is a carpenter, mum is a nurse – Clarke was raised by his mother, a lone parent who infused him with a strong sense of self-worth. When other kids were up to no good around the West London council estate where he grew up, Clarke was the kid training for karate contests and run meets.
“I was always someone who said no,” he recalls. “I never had any problem saying ‘no, I’m going off to do this’ or ‘no, I have to run’. That’s the only way you can get through your teens without getting distracted. You have to know your priorities and stay in control.”
Unsurprisingly, Clarke has never been drunk, drugged or merry. “I’m constantly doing stuff,” he says. “But in a way that is my downtime because I enjoy what I do. I still have time to sit down with my sons or take them to the cinema. But because I love writing, I never find it a chore. I’m on it. But I don’t necessarily think of myself as a workaholic. I’m sitting here taking about Fast Girls but in my head I’m four films down the line.”
He found work as gym instructor alongside the aerobics-instructor-turned-playwright Rikki Beadle-Blair and Clarke’s future wife, Iris.
“I wanted to be an actor since I was five,” he says. “I don’t know why. It’s really weird because I have a four-year-old at home and the idea that he’d know what he wanted to do for a living is crazy. We couldn’t afford drama school, but I just kept working toward it anyway. If it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen, whether you’ve been to drama school or not. Whether you’re working in a gym or not.”
Clarke had already made it as a Doctor Who regular and won the 2003 Laurence Olivier Award for Most Promising Newcomer when he set his sights on the big screen. Sadly, the young actor soon found that the British film industry wasn’t making the kind of movies that he wanted to see – or that he was likely to find work on. He eventually bypassed the system by writing his own screenplays and struck out on his own with Kidulthood, a teenage misfits drama. Adulthood, a 2008 follow-up, grossed £3.4 million in the UK and beat out Sex and the City 2’s opening weekend take. Clarke won a Bafta for his efforts.
“There are a lot of films out there that make things hard for themselves,” says the 36-year-old. “See there’s this goat and the goat can’t walk and there’s a goat competition and the entire village comes out and the goat loses. You can’t sell goat movies. And that’s fine. I don’t think we should be making only commercial films. But it’s weird. I did find myself agreeing with David Cameron a few months ago when he talked about making quality unpopular films. Ultimately, films are supposed to entertain people. I like genre films. There is too much money getting handed over to goat films and not enough going to new people coming up who want to make something new and exciting.”
In a sector that likes to wash dishes in Ken Loach-brand kitchen sinks, Clarke dares to be different.
“What I’m trying to do is to make exciting films,” he says. “I want you to leave the cinema and think, man, that was entertaining. When I was a kid and I left the cinema after Indiana Jones or Star Wars, I’d be like ‘I’m Luke. I’m Han Solo. I got a light sabre. I’m just escaping the rolling boulder.’ To me, that’s what its all about. It’s inspiring someone to pick up an imaginary sabre. It’s smiling because you thought they were going to lose but then they won. I don’t see that making popular forms is a bad thing or bad ambition to have.”
Clarke is certainly on to something. His films, in turn, have prompted others toward a new British-based genre picture.
“Joe Cornish cited me a bit around the time of Attack the Block,” says Clarke. “I think it’s important. We have to be able to make films that travel. We need to make genre films because that’s how most audiences understand. Otherwise we’re stuck.”
4,3,2,1, he notes, did not perform as well as the record-breaking Adulthood at the UK box office, but it did sell in more territories. Fast Girls, meanwhile, has sold in the PRC and looks set to grab a chuck of China’s lucrative cinema change.
“With Storage 24 they’re not buying me for China and Japan; they’re buying the monster,” says Clarke. “And that’s okay. Because I come with the monster. We’re a package. So now I’m in Japanese and Chinese cinemas. How cool is that?”
He started writing and making films as a means to an end. It was almost embarrassing, he says: “I just wanted to act but I learned pretty quickly that wasn’t going to happen automatically. So then I was like, ‘don’t worry. I’m still an actor. I’m just doing a little bit of writing.’ I was writing, but almost grudgingly. But, you know, once I embraced it I learned to love it.”
Doesn’t the fact that he writes, directs and acts in his own films qualify him to be an auteur? “Not me,” he says. “I only started directing because the guy who did Kidulthood wasn’t available. So the producers said, ‘it’s your vision’, and that was that. Cool. I love directing. I had to do a test shoot and passed it. And I had great people with me.
“A director is just the captain of a ship. Even Spielberg depends on a lot of people. That’s why his credits take 10 minutes.” He laughs. “Ours are still a bit shorter, but were getting there.”
Fast Girls is out today.