Johnny Harris: “Jawbone is a love letter to a period in my life”

Johnny Harris dropped out of school at 13 and fell into homelessness and addiction. But boxing was always there for him. Now he's made Jawbone – a contender for film of the year – with a little help from his friends

“You could condense most stories down to them being about someone coming home – or if it’s a tragedy someone failing to make it home.”

Johnny Harris, 43, is talking about Jawbone, a film he wrote, produced and stars in. It follows a crisis point for his character Jimmy, a 40-something unemployed man struggling with alcoholism who, after being evicted from his flat, becomes homeless and has nowhere to turn except the boxing gym he went to as a younger man, the only place he ever felt he belonged. Jimmy is offered an unlicensed fight that could either be a shot at redemption or his final round in life, but far more fearsome than any opponent in the ring are the demons he battles outside it.

Rocky meets I, Daniel Blake, the film is probably the best British boxing film ever made, aided by the people Harris gathered in his corner: co-starring Ray Winstone (playing coach and mentor Bill), Ian McShane (shady promoter Joe) and Michael Smiley (loyal trainer Eddie), while two legends from two very different worlds – Barry McGuigan and Paul Weller – serve as consultant and composer respectively.

The premiere of Jawbone

On the face of it, Jimmy’s story shares many parallels with Harris’ and the obstacles he has overcome. Harris was a great fighter in his youth, has battled alcoholism that led to him sleeping rough, before he turned things around, with roles in This Is England ’86 and Hollywood movies like Snow White and the Huntsman, gradually establishing him as one of our greatest actors.

Jawbone is not autobiographical, however I can’t deny it’s a very personal film,” Harris says. “I’ve taken a million elements from my own life, mixed them all up and jumbled them around. It was never about spilling my heart on the page, I wanted to pack it with truth and authenticity and substance and soul.”

As a child Harris threw himself into boxing at the Fitzroy Lodge club in South London, which gave him much-needed direction in life and, he believes, the best education he could get. “I left school at 13 – the truth is I was hardly going then. I went to a school in Camberwell, which in my eyes felt like it was quite rough. I felt scared so I just didn’t go. Unbeknownst to most people, I was turning up at the boxing club every day. I felt safe in there, I felt free and able to express myself. It’s only looking back I realise just how much that boxing club gave me. It went far beyond teaching me how to throw a punch, far beyond that.

“My mum was a single parent trying to control me, give me guidance. She called my old trainer Mick and said, ‘He’s not going to school and I don’t know what to do,’ and Mick got me an apprenticeship as a locksmith, which I did for a few years.”

Harris wanted to pay tribute to his former trainer Mick Carney, and Ray Winstone’s character in the film is an homage to him, and others like him, who give opportunities to kids others have given up on. From being a school dropout at 13, Harris became a junior Amateur Boxing Association national
champion at 16.

I don’t know what that is I’ve been drawn to, there’s a kamikaze element

“Many times in my life I’ve gone after things where the odds are against you – boxing, becoming an actor. I remember when I won the title as a kid, getting off on overcoming those odds. Acting is a profession where you’re destined to feel like a failure. It doesn’t mean you are a failure but you’re going to feel like you haven’t achieved enough. I don’t know what that is I’ve been drawn to, there’s a kamikaze element.”

After winning the title, a career in the sport beckoned until Harris was knocked out – by a French girl he fell in love with and followed to Paris. The romance went the way these sojourns often do, and on return to London, Harris decided he wanted to be an actor.

“There were little clues that I was able to do it. I remember realising Gary Oldman was born a few streets away from me, Michael Caine was born on the street where I went to school. I went to my first acting class and something happened. It was the same sort of feeling I had when I first walked into a boxing gym. And, in my case, when I walked into a pub.”

I begged, borrowed and stole in the name of booze. I don’t like saying that but it’s true.

For almost 15 years, Harris was “just keeping a face on things”, fighting alcoholism and depression. “It happened so gradually I didn’t see it,” he says. “Things I would have once said I’d never do, these things came and went and the bar got lower and lower. I started excusing behaviour that once would have been inconceivable, reprehensible. I begged, borrowed and stole in the name of booze. I don’t like saying that but it’s true.”

Harris became estranged from his family and like many others who find themselves on the streets, took steps that isolated himself even further.

“Addiction breaks your spirit. My mantra back in the day was, ‘Yeah, I know’. People would say, you should do this, you should do that and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know’. I needed to be saying, I don’t know. Essentially you reach a breaking point and it goes one way or another. I’ve lost friends. It’s not a game. When you’re talking about addiction you’re talking about life and death.”

What was it that saved you at your breaking point?

“It’s an elusive thing to get hold of. After years of thinking I could work it out on my own and I could beat it, whatever it was, I just got desperate enough and I asked for help. I was sick and tired of always being sick and tired. I wanted some big complicated solution for what seemed like a complicated problem, but it’s about keeping it simple. If you’re in trouble, ask for help.”

DID YOU KNOW…

In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.

Harris has poured all of this experience into his script and performance, celebrating the people who gave him guidance and offered a helping hand along the way.

“I tried to present almost a thank-you note, almost a love letter to that period of my life,” he explains. “Somewhere deep down, the hardest thing is for this character to accept love. Put him in a ring with someone punching his head in and he can take that, he’s like, ‘Great, this is what I’m worth, this is what I deserve’. That’s what can happen with addiction, you become full of self-loathing, full of shame. But tell someone that you love them, that they are a good person, that’s very hard for a person with that corrosive thread of fear running through them to take.

“I was angry when I was younger. I never really had people to sit down and converse with and say I’m feeling scared or lonely or fantastic or I’m feeling alive.”

It was acting that allowed Harris to express himself and find the answers he was looking for – or rather that there are no answers.

I’m just really starting to realise that the people who genuinely seem happier and more at peace are the people who give

“The journey seemed so long, but when I look back now it happened exactly as it was meant to happen,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing now. The world convinces you that you want more and need more but if you look around often you’ve got everything you need. I’m just really starting to realise that the people who genuinely seem happier and more at peace are the people who give.

“In interviews you’re supposed to look like you’re in control, like you have all the answers. My best days are when I know I don’t have a clue, I’m just trying my best like everyone else.

“It’s funny with the post-truth age, everything you try and say with sincerity sounds like bullshit, but your magazine does a wonderful job. I’m a regular buyer.”

If all narratives are ultimately about coming home, Johnny Harris has arrived. And his deliverance came from something that Jawbone’s title references, a passage in the Book of Judges recounting how using only the jawbone of a donkey, Samson defeated the Philistine army: “Vanquished by a sorry jawbone, the victory was not in the arm, not in the weapon, but in the spirit.”

Jawbone is in cinemas from May 12 and will be available on DVD from June 5

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