Noel Clarke: ‘I have always had a fight in me’

Actor, writer and director Noel Clarke reflects on his upbringing and breaking into the industry

At 16, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know what you could do. And I didn’t see a lot of things that I could achieve. I grew up in what was, at the time, a very rough area opposite Grenfell Tower. It is still an underfunded area. I guess I thought I would have, like, 10 kids with 10 different people. I was mostly thinking about what girl I was going to chat up. At weekends I worked at the sports centre in Ladbroke Grove as a waterslide attendant.

I knew I wanted to act but the industry felt closed. It was inaccessible, it was improbable, it was an impossibility. There was no way we could afford drama school and no one we knew was an actor, so I couldn’t ask how you access it. There was a book called Contacts in WHSmith. It said if you rang the agents listed inside you could become an actor, which was horseshit because no one got back to you. I bought it every year.

I have always had a fight in me. The 16-year-old me was very like the person I am now, who is always saying ‘you ain’t stopping me’. When my friends were dealing weed to get money, I was cleaning the sports centre. I didn’t judge them, they’re my friends. But I was busting my ass cleaning sweat off the machines and dealing with poop on the walls. The next morning, they were spotless because I was like, ‘I’m going to be the best damn cleaner there is’. That’s always been my mentality. When I started acting, my attitude was to be the number one black British actor. When I was announced as the most prolific black British actor in the business [by the BFI in 2016], I didn’t relax. As they were announcing it on stage I thought: ‘I’m not satisfied. Now what?’ 

Someone telling me I could do this was massive. And my younger self was naïve enough to think if your teacher said you could do it, you really could. I was talking about Pulp Fiction with my media teacher and Mr Jones said: ‘You can do whatever you like’. Fuck me, it blew my mind. I still speak to him now. I watched American indie films as a teenager because at least in those films I was seeing black people. So I’d watch Boyz n the Hood, New Jack City, but also Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Mallrats and Larry Clark’s Kids.

My younger self was unaware of the battles he would face. He thought he would be treated like everyone else, because if you wanted to make films, you can make films, right? I’m glad he was naïve. Going through this industry as a person of colour, there is a lack of respect and opportunities. You have to achieve 10 times more than other people to be considered near their level. I have won awards that would open a shitload of doors if I fitted the cookie-cutter mould. I’m glad my younger self didn’t know, because if he had the knowledge I have now, it might have stopped him. 

I got into this business very luckily. I was working in the gym and met a director who let me audition for a Channel 4 pilot called Metrosexuality. I got the part and it became a series. But within months I realised I wasn’t going to get where I wanted to. I got offered auditions for Thief #1. But why couldn’t I get the audition for Joe? ‘Oh, he is blond with blue eyes’. It started getting my goat, so I started writing. 

Writing and acting wasn’t encouraged at home, but not because my mother wasn’t supportive. It was because it was so alien. She came from Trinidad in 1969. How do you tell someone who went through god knows how many hardships then had people asking if she’d lived in trees in Trinidad, and who wants to give her son a better life, that you are going to be an actor, which doesn’t guarantee any wage whatsoever? It’s not understandable. When I got offered £1,500 a week to do the soap Family Affairs, my mum was celebrating because she was a nurse earning much less saving lives. Yet here I was, a buffoon, a clown, a jester, saying I don’t want the job. It is no slight to anyone that did it – Idris Elba was in it and is now the biggest black star in the world. My mum couldn’t understand it. She was upset for ages. 

The film Notting Hill was one reason I wrote Kidulthood. Because even though I lived five minutes from that blue door, I did not see anything that represented me. But I didn’t understand the importance of Kidulthood at the time. I just wrote a story that was real to me about things I had seen in the area. Consequently, the message was that if you behave like this, you could get caught up in stuff and you might die. I saw what happened to friends of mine.

I grew up with people who were affluent, people who were dirt poor, and people like myself who were in the middle. Next to the council estates were £6m houses and the kids went to the same school. It shaped me massively because it was very multicultural. Kidulthood was not a black film. The kids are mixed, because that is what I saw. All Saints Road, which now has some of the trendiest restaurants in London, was called the front line. If you were white or a policeman, you would be better served not to go down there. If you told people you were from Ladbroke Grove, they stood back. It was a badge of pride we wore as young men. 

The amount of stuff I’ve had to do to even get a modicum of respect in this industry is crazy. People forget I have got an Olivier Award, I was in Doctor Who playing Mickey Smith chasing Billie Piper down corridors, I was in Star Trek. I have done a multitude of roles. My younger self would be so proud of Bulletproof – I watched Beverly Hills Cop and Lethal Weapon so it is exactly what that younger version of myself wanted to do. 

I would tell my younger self you will meet this girl and she is the one. Just stick with her. I was working in the gym when we met. Iris is going to hate me for saying this, but before that, I was a shagger. We have been together 20 years now. So if I could flash a message up when he was sitting in the gym and this girl brings him sandwiches, I would just say, ‘that’s the girl!’ We have three beautiful kids. I go home every day and I’m chuffed, man.

Fatherhood made me more focused. I want to achieve as much as I can so they don’t have to bust their arse the way I did. I want them to know how to work hard, but I want them to have enough to go to university or put down a deposit. Fatherhood calmed me as well. There are times I would have kicked off if I didn’t have children, but in the age of the internet, they will have to deal with the fallout.  

My mum lives opposite Grenfell Tower and I was there hours after the fire. I was supposed to go to an X-Men audition but my mum texted me to tell me Grenfell’s on fire. I lived opposite it for 20 years and saw fires before. The fire brigade would come and spray it out. I got up at 6am, saw it on the news and raced down. Fuck the X-Men audition. I was there for two days, doing beds in the sports centre I worked in all those years before. I’d worked with two brothers – one of their daughters died in the fire, another friend was the first firefighter on the scene, Dave Badillo. 

I try not to get involved in politics. I am more interested in how we make women feel comfortable in the workplace and young black actors feel comfortable. Politicians are going to do what they want. I was a Labour supporter because my mum was a nurse. As you get older, you start drifting right because you start protecting what you have, but I am still very left. 

I don’t bullshit, I don’t mess around, and that makes you very polarising. I would tell young Noel to be who he is but understand people are not gonna like you. They will love you or hate you – that’s how your life is going to be. You just have to deal with it. 

Series two of Bulletproof is available on Sky One and Now TV