Pow! Take that, blockbuster comic-book misfits of Suicide Squad. Biff! Eat dirt, Jason Bourne. Boom! Feel small, BFG. Which actor is the biggest draw at the British box office? Step forward Noel Clarke, the London-born star of gritty urban drama Brotherhood – and now the leading man in ITV’s gripping new crime drama, The Level.
Not only is Clarke, 40, a star on screen, he also wrote and directed Brotherhood – a success even more impressive considering he wrote and starred in the first film in the trilogy, the cult hit Kidulthood (2006), then wrote, starred in and directed the sequel, Adulthood (2008). This run of hard-hitting crime dramas is a world away from his role as Rose Tyler’s boyfriend Mickey in Doctor Who, making Clarke something of an icon to two completely different generations of British kids.
“Yeah, people have told me that before,” the jeans-and-bomber-jacketed Clarke smiles and nods in response. He doesn’t quite wear his top-of-the-box-office status lightly. But when I meet him in central London, this self-starting actor/writer/director/producer is humbler than you might expect, and certainly less bumptious than he was “back in the day”.
When I ask why he decided to return to the seemingly played-out genre with Brotherhood eight years after Adulthood, he credits his radically changed personal situation. “When Adulthood came out, my first son was two weeks old. Now I have three sons, and the oldest is eight. In those eight years I’ve changed as a man, as an actor, as a film-maker. The reason I never did [a third film] before is, I had nothing to say. But children give you a lot of perspective. Watching my boy go from zero to eight, like that,” he says with a snap of his fingers, “made me think about things differently.”
Once known as an undoubtedly impassioned man with a slightly argy-bargy reputation, Clarke recently told an interviewer that becoming a father had made him “more docile”.
“A hundred per cent!” he says now. “I don’t get massively excited about things, or massively nervous. When I was younger, if people wrote a review and they attacked me personally, I’d be like: ‘I’m not having it. I will come to your office!’” He’s laughing as he relates this, but there’s no doubting his long-ago intent. He mentions a reviewer from Total Film magazine, who wrote negatively about 18.104.22.168, his 2010 urban chick-flick. “He said some really personal stuff about my ‘schoolboy fantasies’. I was like, ‘Mate, I’m coming to find you.’ And I was not joking. I was literally gonna wring his neck.”
What stopped him? His wife, common sense? “No! I didn’t know where to find him! We eventually spoke and he was like, ‘Thank God, this has been put to bed. I’ve been worried for five years.’ I was like, ‘Dude, I’m a different man.’ The point is, I don’t read anything. I know if my work’s good. My kids have given me emotional maturity and intelligence. I’ve grown up so much in that time.
“The Brotherhood performance is the best thing I’ve done since Adulthood. As an actor, The Level performance is the best thing I’ve done on TV.”
Clarke’s new TV drama, police procedural The Level, looks promising. It’s a straight acting gig, meaning it’s a job with a lot less to do for this go-getter whose production company is called Unstoppable Entertainment. “Nah, I love it man,” he demurs. “It’s like a holiday for me.”
Still, the description of his character, a Brighton-based copper with a mean glower and no-friends demeanour (“Dry, smart, impatient with anyone who isn’t as good at the job as he is”) could be Clarke. “Yes!” he chuckles, adding that that was part of the appeal. “He’s similar to me. Also, he’s quite solitary. You don’t know how to take him sometimes; he can be quite unapproachable. There’s definitely an air of that with me. Which I don’t mind.”
Clarke grew up in west London, the only child of Gemma, a single mum and nurse from Trinidad. “So I don’t mind being alone. As a kid, and even now, peer pressure never affected me. When boys were like, ‘If you don’t come and smoke this cigarette, we’re gonna leave you on your own,’ I was like: ‘I grew up on my own! I don’t care!’”
It was a good grounding for his professional life, he agrees, and his entrepreneurial creative methods. “You play with your toys on your own. You make up games on your own. You watch TV on your own. You write your stuff on your own.”
He alchemised that kind of existence into a successful career, but appreciates that, equally, it could have taken him in another direction. “I have friends that went the other way. At the Brotherhood premiere the other night were two of my friends. One of them was an armed robber; the other one, I won’t even go into what he did, but he got sentenced to 25 years, served less than that and is now doing a pretty good job and giving back to the community.”
Clarke was all about making his own chances, which meant writing and shooting his own films. It’s in contrast to the black actors a few years ahead of him. Early in their careers, Idris Elba, David Harewood and David Oyelowo hit a brick wall at home so looked to America for parts. “Yep,” he nods. “And they’ve all done massively well.” So why not follow suit? “Climb the wall, climb the wall,” he shoots back. “That’s how I am. I’m one of those people that sees the wall and I don’t go, ‘Ahhh, there’s a big wall, I’m going to go to America.’ I’m not having this – I got to get past the wall. I wanna see what’s on the other side. That’s how I’ve always been. So, straight through the wall, knock it down, climb over it, go under it.
“And I’m not saying they’re quitters,” he clarifies. “They have their own career paths. And they are all doing better than me, I guarantee that!” he smiles. “But I’ve just never been that person. I’m eating sandwiches over here and they’re eating burgers over there? I’m not having it. I’m getting over the wall.”
You can see why the National Film and Television School has invited Clarke to give a talk to students later this month.
“I’d love to go into schools and tell kids: ‘Ever thought about being an electrician?’ ‘No, yawn.’ ‘But did you know that if you’re an electrician, you can work on films your whole life?’ ‘Sorry, what?’ A lot of young people don’t know that. The goal is always to be the actor, the rapper, the footballer. Hold on – what about working behind the scenes? Every Stormzy,” he says, referring to the grime musician whom he directs brilliantly in Brotherhood, “has a manager.”
Is the idea of Clarke as a “voice of a generation” a heavy cross to bear? “But I don’t bear it, that’s the thing,” he insists, tapping the table firmly with his finger. “I just go about my business. I never go, ‘I’m a role model.’ I’ve got my three little boys I’ve got to be concerned about, and I’ve got my missus, and trying to do the best work I can do.”
What of that work can his eight-year-old watch? “Saving Santa, an animation that I did. And I was a little black elf, so they love it! ‘There’s Daddy, there’s Daddy!’ The oldest is starting to ask about Doctor Who, but I’m trying to be a strict, responsible parent, so not yet.”
And what about him watching Kidulthood on the fly, like my eldest daughter did at a completely inappropriate age? “Mate!” he shouts, laughing. “They will not be secretly watching that!”
The Level begins on ITV at 9pm tonight