This action star cut his teeth in London’s independent film scene. Today, with films like Deadpool and Transporter under his belt, he talks to sbjct about the importance of creative balance, his unabating love and respect for the art of acting, and finding peace and relaxation in a tub full of Epsom salt.
BY PHOEBE DE CROISSET
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PHOEBE DE CROISSET You are perhaps best known for your roles in action films like Deadpool and The Transporter: Refueled. You have said though, that your heart is “in the arthouse.” Was the first movie you worked on an independent film?
ED SKREIN My friends and I got £150k in funding to make the feature Ill Manors in 2010. Before that, I hadn’t done any acting and had no intention of doing so, but my best friend Ben Drew persuaded me. He had just released a very subversive hip-hop album at the time under his singer/songwriter/rapper name Plan B. Ben had written this script based on real experiences and wanted to direct it which was very ambitious, but that’s the type of guy Ben is.
PC So what was your role?
ES Ben wrote me as a co-lead which was very trusting of him as I had no acting experience! But the fact that he believed in me and the fact that I have such trust in him creatively and personally made me want to throw myself into it head first and give it my all, without any expectations of what might follow.
PC How was your experience on set?
ES It was a challenge, but the great thing was that I was surrounded by my friends – there were only a few real “actors” in the movie. The rest were just my pals and we had this amazing camaraderie and togetherness. It wasn’t about the money – it was about telling the stories of our area and our generation and representing our beautiful but dysfunctional, multi-cultural generation in a way that we felt was not being represented accurately in British cinema at the time.
PC How did this experience shape what would come later in your career?
ES I was so lucky to have my introduction to the craft be a project of such passion, love, and security. I was also lucky to have a Riz Ahmed as a co-star. His talent, generosity and energy really helped me through the process when I had no idea about the dynamics and logistics of a film set. He taught me so much and I’m so grateful for his support and mentoring. Without Ben and Riz, I would not be doing what I am doing now, so I owe them a lot.
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PC What about independent films appeals to you the most?
ES My first experiences of creativity were in the underground, so I will always feel at home on the low budget and independent projects. I love the intimacy of an independent film set, the feeling that no one knows or cares what you are doing, and that it’s up to the cast and crew to pull together and create something that contributes to the art form and elevates the genre. Generally you can be more subversive and brave in independent film, with less input from producers and executives – that can be liberating.
PC How is that different from the block-busters?
ES I have felt all the same positive things on studio movies, so by no means do I only feel at home in independent film. Deadpool was a 60 million dollar movie with 20th Century Fox but felt like an indie in ways. It was unique as we were trying to compete with the other superhero movies that had three or four times our budget. The director (and my good friend) Tim Miller had something to prove, as did Ryan Reynolds who I don’t think had the respect he deserved at the time. The rest of the cast were all relatively unknown so it had this wonderful intimacy and togetherness that felt very similar to independent cinema. I loved that project in the same way I loved doing Ill Manors or The Model with Mads Matthiesen. I realized that what I love is the yin and yang, gliding between independent and studio films, following my creative instincts and taking on interesting and challenging roles regardless of budget.
PC You’re involved with an incredible London-based organization, the Big House Theatre, that fosters the talent of young people who have been through the care system. They are encouraged to use their voices and find an outlet through theatre. What drew you to this organization?
ES I came across Big House Theatre through Ben Drew’s charity Each One Teach One and as soon as I went down to see them, I felt compelled to support them in any way I could. The Big House is run by Maggie Norris, who is such an amazing woman and an inspiration to so many. She’s more than just a mentor to these young people – she is family. She transforms lives with the care and support she offers. She is also an incredibly talented writer and director – the shows she creates are incredible. As soon as I felt the energy at Big House I wanted to be around it. The young people there are so inspiring – they have remarkable talent and energy. I really appreciate the quality time we get together. I get a lot from them as well!
PC What is the most important lesson you learned growing up?
ES My parents were very supportive in nurturing my interests rather than pushing their own interests on me. This meant I was able to experiment and find what I loved – and I worked tirelessly and with passion. The seeds sown then are still strong today. I have done many things in my life; painting, hip-hop, acting – but everything I have done has been done with passion and love for the art. I have never chased success or material trophies or accolades of any sort – the act of being immersed in the craft has always been my thing.
Everything I have done has been done with passion and love for the art. I have never chased success or material trophies or accolades of any sort – the act of being immersed in the craft has always been my thing.
PC Do you have a mantra? Some guiding philosophy that helps you stay on track in your life?
ES I believe that if you strive for self-improvement and excellence in your practice everyday, success will come. Success is a by-product of excellence, but excellence is not necessarily a by-product of success. I think if you approach your work with positivity, love, and passion, and without any cynicism or aim for material gain, you can do great things, and surprise everyone, including yourself, with what you are capable of.
PC What’s the best advice you were ever given?
ES I think it can be summed up by my favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s “If”. It is not traditional advice but it is a great code to live life by and every time I feel imbalanced or in need of clarity or perspective I go to it.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
by Rudyard Kipling
PC What are you working on at the moment?
ES I am filming a science-fiction cyborg movie called Alita: Battle Angel directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by James Cameron. We are in the midst of night shoots, so we start work at 4pm and finish at 6am. It’s hard work but so much fun. Robert is the coolest guy, he has incredible creative instincts and is so talented, and I am learning a lot from him. He is a dream to work with and the cast is so much fun.
PC What are you doing today?
ES I am going to a sensory deprivation tank. Tim Miller introduced me to float tanks while we were shooting Deadpool in Vancouver. It’s basically 1000 pounds of Epson salt water in a shallow tank that allows you to float without any effort. They are pitch black and you wear earplugs so you are completely deprived of your physical senses. It is amazing how liberating the experience of sensory deprivation is. It is great to have 90 minutes away from electronic devices and human interaction to let your mind wander, meditate, fall asleep or go over upcoming scenes in my head and run dialogue. It is very relaxing, and when you are deep into a shoot or training hard it really balances you out. Life and work can be relentless and overpowering – it’s important to take time to remove yourself from the hustle and take an enforced break, even if just for 90 minutes.
PC And finally, what was the last thing you ate?
ES Steak, eggs, avocado and tomato. Breakfast of champions.