PHOTOS BY VITA HEWISON
“Gritty” and “raw” are the adjectives that most prison films aspire to; British director David Mackenzie’s Starred Up surpasses both. The film, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and recently played at Tribeca, follows Eric (Jack O’Connell): a 19-year-old convict who is transferred from juvie to gen. pop two years early. Eric doesn’t look particularly threatening—he’s stocky, but on the small side, and within the first few minutes we’ve already seen him naked in a way designed to degrade and humiliate rather than to sexualize. During his first day at the prison, however, the reason for Eric’s transfer becomes apparent: he hospitalizes another inmate, destroys his cell, and covers himself in baby oil in order to better fight off the prison guards sent to reprimand him. We’re never told what crime Eric committed, but he mentions he’s got long over 13 years left to serve, so it can’t have been anything trivial.
Then Eric is sent to an anger management group led by Oliver (Rupert Friend). Things don’t change right away, but, amidst the tension (and there’s plenty of tension in the group), Eric begins to form relationships with the other inmates in the group. There is one particularly touching moment when the inmates are discussing oral sex: Tyrone (David Ajala) has never been down on a girl, and the idea makes him uncomfortable. Eric jokes that he has a long time to think about it, and it seems as if a fight is about to break out. Eric quickly tries to placate him: “You’ll be balls-deep long before me. I expect a full report.”
“I found it really interesting the way affection is expressed and the way compassion is expressed,” explains Ajala, the actor who plays Tyrone. “Because that was a very compassionate moment, and I think that was a very important moment in the film. My character lets his guard down a little bit with Jack’s character. He didn’t embrace him and say, ‘Hey, we’re buddies,’ he just let his guard down a little bit.”
Starred Up is not Ajala’s first frill-free British indie; the London-native began his career with a bit part in Noel Clarke‘s Kidulthood (2006). “I barely had any facial hair,” he jokes. “It was kind of a blink-and-you-miss-me part—I played a bully. It was only one little scene, but they brought my character back for the sequel [Adulthood, 2008],” he continues. “It was a great thing to be part of; Kidulthood and Adulthood have become cult films in the UK.”
Since working with Noel Clarke, Ajala has made brief appearances in a series of high-profile films including The Dark Knight, One Day, and Fast and Furious 6. This year, however, seems like a turning-point in his career, aside from Starred Up, Ajala will play a villain, Ibis, alongside Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, and Douglas Booth in the Wachowskis’ summer blockbuster Jupiter Ascending. Last week, Ajala’s first American primetime series, Black Box, debuted on ABC. The British actor plays Will Van Renseller, the impressively muscular, compassionate, but not soft, chef boyfriend of Kelly Reilly’s protagonist, Dr. Catherine Black.
HOMETOWN: Hackney, London.
CURRENT LOCATION: I’m a bit of a gypsy. At the moment, I’m here in London, but I’ve been living between London, New York, Chicago—Jupiter Ascending was filmed in Chicago—and Los Angeles.
ACTING = GIRLS: When I was in secondary school, my maths teacher said I had way too much energy and was too mischievous. He tried to convince me that if I did acting, I’d be popular with the girls. [laughs] I was more than happy to do that, because I wasn’t getting much luck with the girls. I was young and impressionable then—15 or 14—and I decided to get involved. Then the acting bug bit me and I started to take it more seriously, and started to work trying to carve out a career.
ACTING = GIRLS?: Did it help with the girls? A little bit. [laughs] When I went to drama school, I was so focused on working hard and making it work. When I told my parents I wanted to get into acting, they encouraged me to embrace my academics more—focus on my science, because I was good at science. So when I went to drama school, not only was it important to convince myself, but it was important to convince my parents. There were girls around, but I was so focused on working hard, I wasn’t able to entertain them. So I never really benefited… But maybe it’s helped a little bit more now. I get more hugs from females, which is very, very sweet.
AN EDUCATION: I went to drama school in London for two years, and they worked me really hard. They really pushed me. At the time, it was really tough, but I was very grateful for the experience. I played Othello in drama school at the age of 19, and that’s just the way it is. Why not play Othello at the age of 19? My voice wasn’t fully broken but… [laughs] You make it work; you push yourself. That’s where growth comes about. I’m looking forward to revisiting my inner Othello and doing my thing again.
MY FAMILY: When they [gave me their support], they did it all the way. Everything that I’ve managed to achieve, I dedicate it always to my parents. Their encouragement is what took me from one level to the next.
GOOD MORNING, C—: It was fun learning that language—that prison language for Starred Up. I’m not used to calling my friends “cunts,” but in this world, it’s a form of affection. Especially the way my character refers to his best friend, Hassan, played by Anthony Welsh. When we were preparing and getting ready to do the shoot, we would text each other and greet each other by saying, “Good morning, you cunt. How ya doing?” And we would finish the conversation by saying it. At first it was really uncomfortably using that language—very, very uncomfortable. Because it’s such a specific word. And then we really did just have to get used to it and just use it and let it be… cunt. Did we continue after the film? No, no. We finished the shoot and then we just dropped the language.
STARRED UP SHENANIGANS: We had time to play and to enjoy. I think at times we had a bit too much fun, on and off set. There was great camaraderie between the actors and that really helped the group scenes. You see us in the movie and you see how we interact with each other—how everyone’s in sync with each other. Similarly, when we were out and about, we all went partying and just enjoyed the town. But when we were on set, everyone was switched on and in the zone. It was very intense sometimes; there was nothing glamorous about this job. We didn’t have dressing rooms or trailers; because we filmed in an actual prison, our dressing rooms were in the cells. We had our breakfast, lunch, and dinner in our cells. I’ll never forget how cold the cell walls were—they were freezing cold, they were so cold it felt like your hand was wet. This prison was old and disused, and it just wasn’t a nice place to be. [laughs] It took your smile off your face in the morning—trust me.
THE PRISON WORLD…: Is very, very different. It’s almost like showing any form of affection is a weakness. And these people are in a situation—are confined in a building—where they have to be strong. Being weak isn’t an option; you have to survive. So any time a character shows any affection, they’re taking a very, very big risk. It’s almost taken for granted when you’re outside in the real world. In prison, every move is calculated. Everything is thought about. There’s always intention behind everything, and I found that very interesting.
Because they wanted it to be as real and as authentic as possible—we weren’t trying to glamorize anything, we were just trying to tell a story as well as we could—we had two ex-prisoners on set with us. They were actually featured in the film. What was really cool and humbling, was when they were telling us some of their stories that they experienced in and out of prison. It just put it into perspective. Yeah, we’re actors doing our thing, but when you hear these stories, and you hear the firsthand accounts, it really changes the way you think.
JUPITER ASCENDING: The Wachowskis are amazing to work with, and I was just completely pleased and chuffed when they put me on board to play one of the villains in the film. It’s a really special film that has a really strong story and through line, but, being a Wachowski film, it’s gonna be something out of the box. It’s going to expand your thinking; it’s going to expand your imagination. They’re really passionate, amazing people.
BULLETT-DODGING: [laughs] Oh, there’s plenty of that. There’s one scene—I’ll say a little bit—where my character is sent on a mission. On this mission, he sees Channing Tatum’s character, and goes to try and kill Mr. Tatum, who was a wonderful, wonderful guy to work with. I go to kill him, and then we have this gun-fight action sequence, which was… amazing. You read it on paper, and then you actually do the scene. And [Channing] did his own stunts. There’s one stunt in it—I won’t spoil it—I couldn’t believe that he did it himself. It was an amazing stunt. I’ve worked on a few really cool films with great action sequences and whatnot, but as stunts go, this is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
BLACK BOX: What was interesting was trying to find a balance between a guy who was very loving, and wants to help this lady out, and a guy who’s very strong at the same time. I think the challenge throughout the shoot was finding where this guy’s strength comes from: Will is a guy who is physically very able to handle himself but, at the same time, he has a nuanced sensitivity, which comes out more and more in the relationship.
I AM NO SUPERMAN: I don’t think Will draws his strength from the right place. In the episodes, you’ll find out stuff about his father. His father was an alcoholic who let his mother down, and his mother was by his father’s side for years. She stood by him through thick and thin. She never gave up on him, but his father gave up on himself. Will, being the only child, had to be the man of the house. He wanted to be everything his father wasn’t. So now this relationship with Catherine has become an addiction: he’s addicted to trying to make it work—be loyal. It’s crazy how someone can have an addiction like that.
What advice would I give him? I would say, “Bro, with all love, my brother from another mother, you don’t have to be Superman. It’s not required of you.”
THE SECOND EPISODE OF BLACK BOX AIRS TONIGHT, MAY 1, ON ABC. JUPITER ASCENDING COMES OUT JULY 18. STARRED UP COMES OUT IN NEW YORK AUGUST 29.