Aml Ameen is staring at me from across the table in the bar of the Hackney Picturehouse cinema. He’s also gazing out from posters on the wall, the in-house film magazine, adverts on every table and the t-shirts worn by the bar staff. Heck, he even gazes out from the side of the 277 bus.
The star of new cinema release Yardie – Idris Elba’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Victor Headley’s 1992 cult novel – is demonstrating the thousand-yard stare he perfected for the central role of D. It’s unnerving, the ease with which he can slip back into the character, months after filming ended.
But then, Ameen went deep for this role. More than a decade after a breakout performance in Kidulthood, he is back in London and basking in the attention.
“Boom! As you can see I am geeking out a bit,” he says, taking a photograph of the 277 bus with his face on it. “This really feels like a homecoming.”
Where has he been? Working solidly in America. A major role alongside Kathy Bates in two series of comedy drama Harry’s Law, a standout performance in worldwide sci-fi smash hit The Maze Runner, and joining Orpah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker in The Butler.
Why did he leave in the first place? On the advice of his latest director.
“I have known Idris since Kidulthood. We met in 2006,” explains Ameen. “He was just about to pop from The Wire. He was one of the first people who said to me: ‘mate, go to America. They are really loving us over there.’
“When I first moved to the States it was quite a big thing for a lot of black British actors. We met Idris as an American. Me, they knew as a teenager. So to see we can go over to the States was quite a moment.”
But another fortuitous meeting with Elba led to Yardie – a role he describes a special moment, in both his life and career.
“I was flying from London to LA, got in the lift at the airport and heard [adopts Elba’s deep baritone]: “Hey, Aml.” I turned around. Then I looked up. And there was Mr Six-foot-five.
“We were on the same flight. Idris had just watched me in the Maze Runner and said, ‘I thought you were wicked, bruv. I’m doing a film called Yardie for my directorial debut.’
“On the plane, he goes, ‘I’m going to send the script to your agent.’ I said fuck that, I want to read it right now and say what I’m going to say anyway, which is yes. One: it is you, a hero of mine. Two: the chance to play a film of that magnitude, in the vain of Goodfellas or City of God, is not to be missed.”
After joining the mile-high casting club (“I would not put it like that…”), Ameen and Elba went to work on the character. “I stayed with him in Vancouver. We crunched through the whole idea, what D would look like, the accent, the sniper stare. I based a lot of it on my Uncle Kirk.”
Before filming, Ameen also spent two and a half months in Jamaica. “My Auntie Hazel basically knows everyone. She is the connect, man. She took me to Kingston Dub Club, introduced me to Sly and Robbie. After meeting those guys I understood Rastafarian culture a lot more. I understood the essence of the true Jamaica.”
Once filming began, Ameen was immersed the character – living in the accent, answering only to D’s name, sending letters back and forth with co-star Shantol Jackson who plays D’s childhood sweetheart Yvonne, decorating his walls with posters from the time, and even waking each morning to the sound of a gunshot in place of his alarm.
“With method acting, you hold people hostage to your process. But I loved it,” he says, praising Elba for taking on so many of the pressures that come with being a leading actor.
“It can be a distraction, to be a movie star on a film set when I just wanted to be D. So Idris did that for me.”
Michael Jackson taught us a secret handshake that he said would make us successful for the rest of our lives
Ameen, who grew up all over North and East London, attended stage school in West London from six to 16.
“I had too much jazz hands,” he grins. “So I went to Barnet College and got a semblance of culture and swag.”
He recalls performing across the road at the Hackney Empire and dancing on stage with Michael Jackson at Earl’s Court at the 1996 Brits aged just 11 – best known now for Jarvis Cocker’s stage invasion.
“Mike was mad cool,” he says (yes, he really refers to the King of Pop as ‘Mike’).
“We were told no one could talk to him or look at him. He came in with eight bodyguards, jumped on stage and I was standing right next to him. You can see it on YouTube.
“He looked at me: ‘Yo, man, why is everyone so quiet?’ I don’t say anything. ‘My name is Michael.’ ‘I know. I’m Aml.’ We hung out, danced, and he taught us a secret handshake that he said would make us successful for the rest of our lives.”
Maybe, just maybe, it is working.
Future success, for Ameen, involves using the increased exposure he gets from Yardie to expand the range of black British stories being told.
“I am interested in stories of romance and hope and love and possibility and adventure,” he says, revealing a love of 1980s John Hughes films, as well as the collected works of Jimmy Stewart and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“I have written a show called Little Jamaica, set in 1976, the hottest year of last century. It is the story of my mum’s life. It is like The Wonder Years but set in what was shaping up to be multi-cultural Britain. I have a Christmas movie in the vain of Love Actually.”
For now, though, Ameen is returning to the US in September for his own directorial debut, coming of age story A Night Worth Living after he was unable to find funding in the UK.
“It is somewhat painful,” he says. “But it is no pain that everyone else doesn’t go through. I would just love the opportunity to tell my version of London.”
- Yardie opens in cinemas across the UK from September 7th