When I meet sizzling British star Aml Ameen in London in August, the temperature outside is 31°C. In Santa Monica, where he has lived for the past eight years, it’s a balmy 27°. In Kingston, Jamaica, where his new film Yardie was partially shot, it’s 35°.
The preternaturally affable Ameen, a youthful looking 33-year-old, hit something of a career impasse when he was 25, all too common among black British actors hoping to make a living in the UK. “I took my agent aside,” he tells me, “and I said to her, ‘Listen, I’m going round and round in circles, playing the same kind of characters. I need to leave.’ She said, ‘Darling, you can’t go out to America without heat.’” In other words, without a buzz, which he didn’t yet quite have.
But Ameen pressed the issue and she let him piggyback a work trip to LA with another of her clients, Nicholas Hoult, the Skins graduate then on the cusp of a Stateside crossover. Hoult landed X-Men: First Class, but the trip was to change Ameen’s life, too.
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Yardie, a gritty bullet opera set in mid-1970s Jamaica and 1980s London, gives Ameen his first starring film role since he debuted in Kidulthood in 2006, which disappointingly led only to a loop of guest roles in series like Silent Witness. His trajectory through The Bill was more promising: he graduated from playing a victim in 2002 to a criminal in 2004, then PC Lewis Hardy, a regular until 2007.
Now he’s back on the wrong side of the law in Yardie, and the film, in cinemas from 31st August, still feels like a career corrective, even if it meant changing continents to achieve it.
His character, “D”, a pistol-packing drug mule and aspiring reggae MC, is sent from Kingston to London to deliver a kilo of cocaine, reuniting him with Yvonne (newcomer Shantol Jackson), mother of the daughter he’s never met. A revenge saga that throbs with an authentic dub reggae beat, Yardie also happens to be the directorial feature debut of Idris Elba, a towering role model for aspiring British actors of colour, who wedged the door open when he made it in the States.
Ameen was born in London in 1985. His mum, a therapist (“the reason I’m analytical”), was born in Hendon to Jamaican parents, while dad, a self-employed immigration consultant and club owner, hails from St Vincent and the Grenadines. They divorced when Ameen was 16. He has vivid memories of visiting the Caribbean aged three and four, and “running around the veranda with my four-year-old cousin. We bumped heads – smack! – my head split open, nothing happened to him! This shows you how much tougher the Caribbean kids are.” Showing me his scar, he blames the bang on the head for his crazy decision to go into acting, aged six, when he enrolled at the private Barbara Speake Stage School in west London.
After Barbara Speake, which he describes as “an insulated world, very well spoken”, he boldly opted for two years of “normal school” at Barnet College. “I learned to sag my pants a little bit, got a bit of swagger. It really informed me as an actor.” He credits this period for landing him the pivotal part in Kidulthood, playing the tragic Trife, and remembers telling other cast members, “I’m going to America, man!”
When he finally made the move three years later, he met all the West Coast reps. They all raved about his showreel but said no – except for one, who’s still his manager in the States to this day. After reading for a part in an ABC show, he landed a main role as paralegal Malcolm Davies in Ally McBeal creator David E Kelley’s next legal drama Harry’s Law. “That changed my whole life. I’ll always remember it – it doesn’t feel exciting, or thrilling, it feels like peace.” Lodging with expat English actress Frances Fisher from Titanic, he completed both series of Harry’s Law, making a friend for life in its star, Kathy Bates (“Mate, she’s like my mum in America!”), and winning roles in The Butler, The Maze Runner and Netflix’s Sense8.
Many actors may claim to be aspiring writers and directors, but Ameen is the real deal, with a handful of shorts and a low-budget feature, The Pick Up, on his CV. As we take a selfie and prepare to re-enter the heatwave, Ameen tells me he’s developing a Christmas-themed British romantic comedy that “feels like Love Actually but with some people that look like me”. He laughs at his own cheek. Reluctant to get drawn into issues like the “black flight” still draining the British film industry’s talent pool and America’s advantage when it comes to colour-blind casting, he diplomatically concludes, “There’s hope to be had.”
And, yes, he thinks Elba should be the next Bond: “The country loves him – he was at the Royal Wedding, for God’s sake!”
Yardie is in UK cinemas now