This month sees the release of Hollywood blockbuster Midway,
with Ed Skrein leading a starry cast and taking on the role of real-life hero Dick Best. The story follows the U.S. response in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbour, and the subsequent decisive battle that took place over the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.
Skrein is best known for his action roles, including Deadpool, Alita: Battle Angel, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. But in Midway, alongside the banter and bravado, the sheer jaw-dropping manner in which death was reckoned with every day – we also get the bravery in the bedroom, the tender, tense, before-the-battle scenes.
We’d arranged to meet in a quiet little corner of north London. Skrein was born in Camden, a north London boy made good, whose love of and commitment to his hometown is palpable. I’d been prepared to meet Ed Skrein, energetic action guy, handsome hero/villain. But the sensitive, art-loving rapper-at-heart took me by surprise and far beyond all that.
Trisha D’Hoker: I saw Midway, and it was pretty powerful, all guns blazing – you were great, really fun to watch.
Ed Skrein: Thank you. I’m really proud of it. People always ask me if I’m tired of playing villains and bad guys. But I don’t care if someone is a bad guy or a good guy, as long as they’re an interesting character. And I don’t want to play no cookie-cutter good guy, some little goody-two-shoes who’s as boring as fuck.
TDH: It’s not very genuine or satisfying to watch.
ES: Yeah, and I don’t want to play some cookie-cutter villain either. I’m just keeping it nuanced, keeping it interesting, picking up on the merit of the character and whether they are interesting, and Dick Best was truly that. He kinds of operates in this grey area, he’s a great character.
TDH: Even though we know the general story, we don’t know how each of the characters will fare.
ES: I think when you first meet him, you think, I’ve got his card marked, he’s proper cocky, and you know he’s one of those guys, alpha male. But it was the fragile, intimate scenes with his wife, Ann Best, (played by Mandy Moore) that really resonated with me and brought me to the character. Shooting with Mandy was amazing. I just felt so much truth from her eyes; I felt that I’d met my professional match on screen.
It’s such a weird exciting thing being on set. It’s like a Petri dish. You throw us all in and something happens. And sometimes it’s awful but sometimes it’s fucking lightning in a bottle. I don’t even know how much it matters if you don’t like the people you work with. I’ve worked with people, and I will not say any names, but I’ve worked with people who do not like each other, and I’ve watched the movie and thought, they are dynamite. So I’m not sure how much difference it makes to the performance, but it makes it a lot nicer, and a more pleasurable experience. And that’s why shooting those scenes with Mandy were some of the best ones I’ve ever shot.
Like the scenes in the workshop with Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool, that was amazing to shoot. He’s someone who could have lorded it above me but was so generous with his energy. He met me as an equal, and that was great.
TDH: I’ve read you two got on quite well.
ES: We did. We had a great relationship, but he’s so lovely, if you don’t get along with Ryan Reynolds, you’re an asshole. I hope people would say the same about me, but me and him are kind of the same. Like our manners; he’s got Canadian manners, and I’ve got English manners, so we say hello to everyone, shake everyone’s hand, say please and thank you.
And try to be gracious on set. So yeah, I respect Ryan and learned a lot from him as well.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with people who are generous with their energy, but I always go into these things…
TDH: It must come from you as well, you’ve got to approach it with the right attitude too.
ES: I think so. Because I hear about people being fucking assholes and I think they were lovely with me, and other people say, yeah, well they would never act that way around you.
And I don’t really know what that means, but long may it continue.
TDH: What was it like on the set of Midway, with all those alpha-male characters?
ES: There were so many men on set, I was worried that it was going to be a bit of a sword fighting competition. But it wasn’t.
TDH: Everyone wants to do a good job?
ES: Everyone wants to do a good job, yes, and then you’ve got people there like Luke Kleintank, who’s really not there for the ego, and Luke Evans, who’s just the sweetest man, Nick Jonas, sweet man – all of them, even the more experienced guys, like Woody Harrelson. No one was competitive that way. And you know I learned a lot from Ryan, in how you lead a set. You lead by example. If there’s no ego coming from number one in the call sheet, then that filters down. Plus, the nature of Midway is all about camaraderie and brotherhood. So we wanted to create that. My character, Dick Best, said, not in the movie but in real life, that he would fly into the gates of hell for his brothers. So it was really important that we represented that, and not just lorded it around like a bunch of fucking millennial actors.
TDH: I’ve seen your film, Little River Run, and I loved it; I loved the story and it was beautiful to watch.
ES: I’m so proud of what we did with that. The energy of the piece is exactly what I wanted it to be.
The short film is Skrein’s directorial debut. He also wrote it. It’s a beautifully crafted piece that won the Teen Choice award at the Baftas last year. It follows two teenagers, living in inner-city London, over a few hours one day. It speaks eloquently and honestly about a society where young people are still misrepresented and misunderstood. It’s something Skrein feels passionately about. The project came about partly through his involvement with The Big House, a theatre company working with young people leaving care homes.
TDH: How you portrayed the young people, the way you chose to tell this story – it feels like you’ve captured something real about today…
ES: When I spend time with these young people, when I speak to them, I feel optimistic about the future. I feel pessimistic about the support they’re getting from our local councils and government and housing associations, and of course that makes me feel negative; we can’t get away from that. Of course it makes me sad that they’re not getting the therapy or cognitive and emotional support they need, so they self-medicate, and of course that doesn’t help. And so many of them are getting caught up in violent circles and crime. And that makes me sad, because mostly they’ve got no choice. My point is, when I speak to them, I feel so optimistic because they’re so much more open-minded and balanced than when I was that age, as a teenager, and I was quite a balanced teenager, and had great parents and role models. But these guys are so open-minded when it comes to sexuality or are so much more clued-up about nutrition, or spirituality; I see a much more balanced set of young people.
TDH: I love that the main character, with all her troubles, all her struggles, chose to create things.
ES: There’s a line in the movie, when she says, ‘key to the city, bro’, when her friend says, ‘thanks for today’. And that’s something I have always said when people say thanks for showing them something or somewhere in London. It’s about finding your piece of peace in the city. And that’s what Tezlym’s (Tezlym Senior-Sakutu) character does in the story. She exists in a vertigo-inducing concrete castle that is her tower blocks, and that’s why in the intro, the images are like that, vertigo-inducing. That’s how she experiences the world. That’s her view. So then, to get her release, she goes to Hampstead Heath, and uses art as therapy. Which is something I’ve always done; as well as physical training, art has always been my therapy.
TDH: It’s a real London story too.
ES: With my filmmaking, and writing and directing, yes, I’m preoccupied with London and my community. I want to tell those stories.
TDH: It’s a gift to be able to give back like that.
ES: I feel it’s a privilege. But I feel we all have gifts in that we all have our own unique lived experiences and as storytellers, we need to be as honest and as personal as we can. You can tell when something is authentic and honest and personal.
TDH: It’s so important.
ES: It’s like with politics today, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore, but the way we’re going to get past these issues, stop seeing each other as aliens or others, is by talking. It’s the same between classes and even just between certain sub-cultures. It took me a while to break out of the kind of north London hip-hop subculture I was in and to see the world for what it is, and of course, that meant I became more open-minded about things. I’ve never stopped being that British kind of hip-hopper, but I’m not defined by it. If I’m wearing high-waisted 1920’s trousers and a Brunello Cucinelli shirt, with my hair done nice, and I feel great – that’s still me too.
TDH: I’ve just been to the Antony Gormley exhibition. His sculptures have no colour, no defining features, no nationalities; the idea is that we are all just bodies, fields of energy, moving through life and sharing space.
SK: I was driving down the Euston road from the airport yesterday, coming back from Munich, and I always look out for the piece with the two characters on either side of the glass, by the underpass near Warren street. Basically, it’s two Gormley sculptures standing on either side of the glass staring at each other. And it came to me yesterday, this notion of seeing those two figures as kind of representing our primal self and our true human consciousness, with this man-made glass in between. And the fact that they are standing on this concrete with the A40 next to it, and a Pret-A-Manger across the road – and it was just that these two figures looked so confused and carried so much energy and seemed so separated, just by this piece of glass. It was the first time I’d felt like that and I’ve seen it so many times.
TDH: Art is very good at communicating difficult ideas or just getting us to think.
ES: I was in Madrid a couple of weeks ago and I got to see Guernica for the first time. It was profound. The room it’s displayed in is the perfect size, it’s curated perfectly. I didn’t want to look at anything else. It was one of the most profound visual art experiences I’ve ever had. Every time I go to Madrid now I’m going to go in and see it. It’s really special.
Another incredible exhibition I saw this year was Keith Haring at Tate Liverpool. I’ve always loved Keith Haring, he’s so kind of accessible for a young mind and as a young teenager I really got into him. But I’d never seen his work live. To see his brush-strokes, to feel his process, it just feels a lot more immediate, a lot less considered.
TDH: Tell me a bit about your life in music.
ES: It was an amazing time. From about 1998 till about 2011. It was pre-internet; there was a purity to the subculture. Everything was based around Camden really, and we would go to the Underworld, and Kung Fu was putting on hip-hop parties and the only way you found out about them was through people giving out flyers. Mix-tapes were sold outside. It felt pure, and we felt like part of a family. And when you’re young and you’re trying to find your identity and you want to scream at the man and say fuck the world and fuck everything everyone expects of me, it becomes a place to call home. And there were so many like-minded people, we just felt so passionate about it, we never wanted to be famous, we never wanted to be number one. I turned down development deals because I just didn’t want to do the commercial route, it was never an option for me.
TDH: Did you record?
ES: Yes, and we got to travel across Europe and we went up and down all the uni’s. We would go all over. Jump in the motor, and this is before sat-nav’s, so we’d all be on the maps, smoking weed and getting lost. It was a wonderful time, a very formative time, and as I say, we did it for what we thought were the right reasons. Yesterday, I was on the way to the airport in Munich, after some Midway press, and I was listening to a mixtape by DJMK called London Underground – I think it was 2003, and it just transported me.
For me, this was the golden era, my golden era. For most people, they would hear it and say it’s mixed terribly, the mikes sound awful, you’ve just stolen the beats from American records. But it speaks of a time in my life that was just so important. It taught me so much about the sacred morality of an artist and the love of the process rather than everyone else’s validation and adoration. And street entrepreneurship. You just get up off your ass and do it, and work till five in the morning then go home and come right back and do it again. And not because anyone’s telling you to, because you love it. It was an amazing time. And when I look back, it’s like a kind of distant memory. It definitely feels like a past self. You know they say every seven years we shed and become something else. Of course, it’s still very much a part of me, and I’m still friends with all the guys, still part of the scene, but just as a fan now. It was a beautiful time and prepared me well for this phase.
Skrein began acting in 2008, when a mate Ben Drew, from Plan B fame, wrote a film, Ill Manners, and asked him to be in it. In 2011, while resting with a friend on a bench near Loch Ness during a charity bike ride, he received a text from his friend saying that his agent wanted to speak with him. The text, he said, that literally changed his life.
TDH: It’s in those little moments, when life pivots.
ES: And at the time, you probably don’t even realise how much your life is going to change.
For me, I’m a bit of a romantic, but that’s what keeps me excited about life. Who knows what’s going to happen when I come out of here, when I walk down the road, what phone call is coming, what email will be waiting. I call it the beautiful unknown. That keeps me kind of optimistic about things.