Noel Clarke: “I’m proud that I’ve survived”

by Adam Tanswell June 29, 2020
Noel Clarke

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Award-winning actor, director, writer, and producer Noel Clarke has appeared in international blockbusters such as Star Trek: Into Darkness and Mute, as well as a string of iconic British dramas, including Doctor Who and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. He’s been described as a ‘one-man production machine’ by critics and he’s also the brains behind the acclaimed movie trilogy: Kidulthood, Adulthood, and Brotherhood.

Clarke’s latest project is the second season of the groundbreaking British cop drama Bulletproof, which currently airs on The CW in the United States. Not only did the 44-year-old co-create the show, but he is also a writer on the series and stars as one of the leads, Aaron Bishop.

Speaking on the phone from his home in London, Clarke opens up to the HFPA about his career, his achievements and the inspiration behind Bulletproof.

What inspired you to create Bulletproof?

The impetus to create Bulletproof came from wanting to have a show from the UK that had that feeling of the American shows and movies that entertained us when we were younger. We were inspired by movies like Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, as well as shows like Starsky & Hutch and The A-Team. That’s the vibe. When you put on a show like Knight Rider, the moment the music starts you are transported into that world – but we weren’t seeing anything like that in the UK, so we wanted to create something iconic and new. We thought to ourselves, ‘How do we entertain British audiences in a different way?’

What’s been your personal highlight to working on Bulletproof?

For me, the personal highlight would be the fact that we succeeded in getting the show made. There’s never been a show like it in this country [the UK]; especially with two black leads. The fact that it sold to America and it’s playing in America is a massive highlight.

What have you learned from your work on the groundbreaking show?

I think we’ve learned that you can still be the first at something in this day and age because Bulletproof is the first of its kind from this country. There are still a lot of barriers that need breaking, but you can be that person who breaks those barriers and you can be the person who opens those doors for other people – but not in a way where you’re too late to reap the benefits. I think Bulletproof has been really important in many different ways and we’re supremely glad to be the people who brought it to the fore.

Looking back at your entire career, what is your proudest achievement?

If I’m being really honest, I think what I’m most proud of is surviving. There have been a lot of barriers and blockades. Sometimes you know they are there. Sometimes you think they are there, but you are told you’re crazy or you’re wrong or you’re angry. To see everything that’s happening in the world now makes me realize, ‘No, these things were there.’ And I knew they were there. However, I survived and I’m still here. If you think about what I have achieved, there’s been a BAFTA award [for Best Rising Star], a Laurence Olivier award [for Most Promising Performer], as well as number one movies and television shows. I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and I’ve done it all whilst being held back and whilst being blocked, and whilst being looked at differently because my skin is a different color. Imagine what I could’ve achieved if I didn’t have those barriers. In terms of being proud, I’m proud that I’ve survived.

What were the biggest challenges you faced in your career? And how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenges were not getting opportunities and not necessarily realizing why that was the case. I never set out to be a creator. I just wanted to act. A lot of people said to me, “You’re one of the hardest working men in the business.” Well, I had to be. I had to work hard because I realized that I was going to be homeless if I didn’t. I had to start writing and I had to start directing out of necessity – and that became who Noel Clarke is. I became this guy who acts, writes, and directs. In a perfect world, I would’ve just been an actor – but in this country, it was pretty impossible to survive like that. Even without realizing, I started to do all these other things. Hearing the word ‘no’ so many times became a challenge. It got to the point where I heard ‘no’ so much that I decided to do things myself.

What advice would you give to people starting out in the industry?

I think we’re in an interesting time where change is being forced and change is going to happen, so I think everyone should just look at continuing to create. Create your own brand. Create your own company. And make sure you aren’t just waiting for the phone to ring but you’re causing the phone to ring. Even if there was a level playing field, which we’re still probably a few years away from, I would tell people to have that working mentality. Have the mentality to rise up and work harder.

You’re an actor, writer, director, and producer… Which comes first?

Producing definitely comes last for me because that’s the one I can’t stand the most. It’s a nightmare! In terms of the other three, I think they are intrinsically connected, so I couldn’t necessarily pick one. Acting came first. Acting was something I always wanted to do, but writing came along second, and then I started directing. I love creating. I love directing. I love being on a set as an actor, whether it’s my own work or other people’s work. I love writing, too. They are all equal for me.

What inspired you to become an actor in the first place?

Growing up, my mother worked really hard. Sometimes I’d be at home alone while she worked on Saturdays and Sundays. I went to school on my own from the age of seven, so I spent a lot of time at home in front of the television. I always knew this was what I wanted to do, but I don’t know if I necessarily looked up to any actors in particular. In fact, I think that actually informed my style of filmmaking. I didn’t really see anyone that inspired me in the UK when I was growing up, so I started to watch American TV and American films. Back in the day, I was watching American indies. I was watching Kevin Smith films and early Quentin Tarantino. I was watching foreign films. I was into Mexican films and Spanish films. I was into world cinema long before my friends. That’s what inspired me more than any actors. People like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Alfonso Cuarón, and Kevin Smith inspired me, along with a sprinkling of Ang Lee. They are the people who informed my style of filmmaking more than anyone else.