You may have seen Frank Martin in his previous Jason Statham incarnations, but now this franchise is being refuelled with Ed Skrein at the helm. In The Transporter Refueled the English actor portrays the former special-ops mercenary, who here enters into a mysterious job with a femme fatale looking for revenge against a Russian kingpin. We took part in a roundtable interview with Skrein to discuss stepping into a remake, his career path and priorities, advice for disadvantaged young people, upcoming Marvel film Deadpool, and much more.
Jason Statham has played the role for so long. Did you step into his shoes with trepidation?
No. From the beginning of the whole audition process this felt like a very natural role for me to take on. I felt very relaxed about it, you know? This doesn’t mean I didn’t prepare intensively and work really hard before the auditions and the film, obviously, but I concentrate on myself. I concentrate on working hard, doing the best I can, and putting my best performance in. If you’re in athletics, you don’t think about the person next to you; you think about your form, your technique and your breathing. There’s no point becoming preoccupied with things that are not helpful. So I really didn’t feel any pressure or trepidation or anything like that. It really wasn’t in my mind.
So you had no doubts going into it?
Yeah, I definitely didn’t have any doubts going into it. When I go to an audition I try my best; after that I might not get it, I might learn something, and after that I’ll move on. My priority is the wellbeing and health of my family and friends. There are real things happening in my life and my friends’ lives that are sad things – that’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what fills me with worry and trepidation. This? No way, man! The franchises I’ve been a part of, the big things I’ve done – none of them are bigger than that.
Also, all of it is art. I have this selfish need to create and express myself but after that… it’s yours. The shoot is mine and the pre-production is mine, but as soon as we cut it’s yours now. It’s for you to digest and interpret in your own way and decide. Of course I want things to be a success, so that I can continue to work with interesting filmmakers, writers and cast members. But that’s not how I judge everything. I want to make work that I’m proud of and helps me to grow as an actor and human being. So I had no trepidations stepping into it. If this works, great!
Why did the role feel natural for you to take on?
It felt like a role that I could explore, that fitted with my make-up and sensibilities, and that I could take on.
In what way did it fit with your make-up and sensibilities?
Well I suppose the opposite would be playing a role that is so far away from me, like an alien that never speaks and lives on another planet and everything is upside down and I speak through water coming out of my fingernails! That would be like ‘What the?… OK, I really need to work hard on this.’ When I saw the synopsis for Frank Martin and when I checked out the other movies I thought, ‘Well, OK. I think I can do this.’
You hadn’t seen the other Transporter movies before?
No. I felt it was very important for me to watch them to gain an understanding of what had been created and what the fans would expect. At the same time after that it was important for me to just look forward, be present and live in the moment.
It’s the same if you’re preparing for a big dialogue scene that’s very emotional; you prepare all of this stuff, you think about your motivations and do all of the research. I work super hard on that stuff. But as soon as I come on set I leave all of that behind. And with the fighting you build all of this stuff up into your muscle memory. You train and train and train, but then on the day… you just fight. You forget all of that stuff and you just live the fight.
It was exactly the same with this. I tried to digest the previous movies, understand them and tried to see what the fabric and the texture of them was. After that I tried to leave it behind and be as emotionally honest in each scene as possible.
While there are typical action movie elements in The Transporter Refueled – girls, gangs, cars, speed chases and action – you have a sidekick who is your dad; how did you enjoy interacting with a father figure? Also how did you make this character different from other ‘action’ characters?
The interaction with Ray Stevenson was brilliant. I love spending time with Ray and you can see the chemistry on-screen. We’re such good friends! In every job I go into I just want to learn from the people around me. Ray is a lot more experienced than me in the craft, so it was clear I was going to be able to learn from him and grow around him. And that was a wonderful thing.
In terms of the movie, I wasn’t really thinking about it as an action movie. I was thinking about [Frank] as an emotional character, and his emotional make-up and content. That’s kind of the way I approach every character. It just happens that he fights a lot of people along the way and does some crazy things on jet-skis and in cars. But it was the emotional content that led to his style of fighting and led to all of those things. I was fighting for an emotional reason rather than just fighting for an action movie as such.
Did you ever have a conversation with Luc [Besson] about why Frank had to be British, considering the French setting and production?
I didn’t have that conversation with Luc. However something that was really exciting and interesting to me was to work in France, spend time with a French crew, and learn how French crews do things. In terms of my education, the more countries I can work in the better. I’ve worked in South Africa, Morocco, Serbia, Canada, England, and so it was great for me to add France. In a way it was liberating, in a sense, to not speak French and work in a country where I don’t speak the language, because I could stay in the zone, as an island in the middle, almost in the eye of the storm. Everything was kicking off around me, everyone’s shouting at each other and trying to work out their priorities of their lighting and this, that and the other, and all fighting with each other. I’m just in the middle. I can’t hear any of it. It was actually quite a wonderful thing. I was thinking afterwards, ‘How am I going to go to a crew and understand them’? Straight after I finished The Transporter Refueled I went on to a Danish film that was shot in Paris and in Poland, so again I couldn’t understand them! So that was lovely.
Then I went on to Deadpool and I could understand them. I sometimes had to switch off because I would get caught up in people’s conversations and it would take me away. There are pros and cons to everything, because it was nice gossiping with everyone on the set of Deadpool as well! So there are positives. There’s a silver lining to every cloud.
You’ve done The Transporter Refueled, you’ve done Sword of Vengeance, and you’re in Deadpool. Do you see your career going down a more action route?
Not really, no. I suppose going from Transporter straight into The Model was kind of the blueprint for how I want things to go (and then going back to Deadpool). At the moment I’m very preoccupied with finding something interesting. I came out of independent cinema, and that’s where my heart is. That’s where my roots are firmly planted. But I love the physical side of these [action] roles; I love the challenges of it, it’s great fun, and also it’s another side.
There is nothing that says a movie about love, where there’s only two people sitting around a table, is more important than a movie that’s all about car chases and ‘silly stuff’. Both of them, to me, have their own role and place. Just like all types of food. I want to explore things that are going to help me grow, like I said, and things that are interesting stories. To go from this huge production of The Transporter to a small Danish production with Lars Von Trier’s production company, shooting Dogme style, and do all of that was fascinating. Both of them were a joy, both of them were wonderful and both of them helped me grow. Then I went straight back to Deadpool and that was an eye-opener; to work with Fox, and enter into the Marvel universe, that was a dream come true. And before Transporter I did Kill Your Friends, so I was a ‘90s music manager with Rolex watches…
Each one is important in its own way and I don’t want to place more importance on any of them. I’m not money driven. If I was then I’d certainly go down the action route, but my thing is interesting stories. I certainly don’t want to do only arthouse independent European movies, I certainly don’t want to only do action movies. I would get bored of dieting and living disciplined all year long. And by the same token, by the time I’ve finished these small arthouse projects, I’m like ‘I want something bigger, man’ or I’m ready to live like a monk again; I’m ready to live like an athlete, live with discipline and watch everything that I’m eating and drinking and stuff. I suppose it’s the Yin and Yang.
Did you have all those movies lined up when you left Game of Thrones?
That’s not the reality. You can’t have seven movies lined up. Maybe some actors do but certainly not me! In some ways it’s less interesting like that; it’s almost the unknown that is so exciting about this industry. It makes me realise that I think I’m in the right industry. I like the unknown. I like not knowing what’s coming next. I’m not fazed by these big projects. I’m not daunted by them, I’m not weighed down by them, and I’m not defined by them. Not in my eyes at least.
I’ve read somewhere that you left [Game of Thrones] because you wanted to focus on your family – does that make any sense?
That doesn’t make any sense! I focus on my family all the time. The Transporter Refueled was a four-and-a-half month shoot, and I was never more than five days without them. I spent far too much money on Eurostar tickets and plane tickets! But that’s what we work for: for our family. And when I shot Deadpool I brought them over to Vancouver for two months – so not all of the shoot, but a lot of it – and so they are my priority. They’re always the most important thing.
Every job is taken on individually. Of course you wish you could do everything and things don’t go the way you think they’re going to go but I look back with fondness, happiness and I’m thankful for the journey I’ve had; for all of the ups and downs and bumps and bruises. It’s been a great ride and I don’t get too excited or too low about any of this. My favourite poem is Rudyard Kipling’s If. There’s a part that says “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same… you’ll be a Man”. I feel that in this industry that’s so true; that triumph and disaster are just complete imposters. A small project like The Model means the world to me. The first movie that I ever shot, Ill Manors, means the world to me because of the stories we were telling. Most people haven’t seen it and won’t see it. We shot it for £300,000. But I don’t place less importance on that because I just shot a Fox movie for 60 million. When I see Deadpool in its entirety I’m sure I’m going to love it. But I’ll judge it then.
Was your female co-star’s revenge story line in The Transporter Refueled something that attracted you to the project?
It was great! I mean, in my life I know so many strong women. I know so many driven, dynamic, independent leaders… fearless women. The amount of cowardly men that I know… it’s unbelievable! But it’s not represented like that in cinema and it’s time that we addressed that. It’s time that we reflect what we’re seeing – this is 2015, this is not the old days. Let’s represent women in their right way; in an ugly way, in a beautiful way, in a driven way and in a weak way. Because they are all of those things; they’re not just wives and girlfriends, and not just a function for stories and such. It’s the same with ethnic minorities. Look at this wonderfully diverse country that we live in, the wonderfully diverse world we live in. But somehow we only represent ethnic minorities in a tiny portion. I think these things are starting to be addressed. It’s a wonderful thing, and I champion that all the way.
If you were a transporter in real life would you break the third rule? Would you look inside the package, or would you be able to resist temptation?
That’s a great question! I think this is interview 63 of the last two days and no one asked me that. Yes, I would look in the package. I remember when my missus was pregnant with our son, she didn’t want to know the sex and I was like, ‘I have to know, I need to know!’ We went to the midwife appointment and she said to the midwife ‘Is there any way you can tell him and not tell me?’ The midwife told me and I kept it a secret, you know? I didn’t need to tell anyone else but I needed to know myself. Yes, I would definitely check.
Young British actors are doing very well at the moment but the great majority of the actors come from a privileged background. Actors like Judi Dench have said that there are not a lot of opportunities for young people to become an actor. What do you think of that? Did you get a good start?
I talked about this beautiful multicultural city that we have in London, which is great and other places could learn from that, but what we certainly have here [in England] is a class system, which is a very elitist system. And there’s a lot of nepotism in this business and yes, a lot of the time when I join crews there’s a certain demographic of society.
I didn’t go to private school. I went to a good state school, but I wasn’t educated in private schooling and there’s quite a difference between the two a lot of the time. I think naturally when you have the best start in life, i.e. private schools, you are going to have great opportunities and more opportunities and that’s just the way it goes. I’d like to see more opportunities for people in every walk of life. Anything I can do to champion that I will, but at the moment I feel like I haven’t got much power over that, and I just have to try my best and fly my flag. If I can inspire anyone then that’s a beautiful thing.
It’s no secret that when you were a teenager you fell in with the wrong crowd and you got stabbed. Do you think you’d be here if you hadn’t gone through that experience? Did that bad injury change your path?
Definitely. Like I said, everything has been a contributing factor to the fact that I’ve gotten here. They always say it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. My journey has been unorthodox in a lot of ways but it’s all helped me. It has all given me the emotional cannon fodder to be able to approach these roles with the different emotional content and varying emotional angles.
I’m a very positive person now; I’m a very calm person now. I wasn’t back then. I used to enjoy the craziness and stuff, like most teenagers. So I’m glad I went through that stage then, because now I can be the most professional person on set, the most polite person on set, the most positive person on set. It is beautiful timing. I don’t think it would be a good idea for it to happen the other way around. I’m glad that this came to me later on in life. I’m 32 now. I didn’t think about acting until I was 26 – I had already formed a lot of my opinions as a human being and formed my place in society. I’m a normal guy.
Did you see yourself more as a rapper as a younger man?
When I started out it was all about painting. Painting was my passion in school. It was the only thing I was good at. I had a school teacher Miss Snowsill, and she was incredible, she really believed in me. She believed in me more than I believed in myself and that was the beginning of my creative path and creative expression. She pushed me to go on and do further education, and painting. I did that and it was wonderful.
Then after that I got involved in the underground music scene in London and that was incredible, the underground hip-hop scene was incredible. There were all of these street entrepreneurs and there was a unity in the scene that felt so vibrant. London has this incredible thing where it keeps recreating these subcultures and subgenres, and it started with jungle and then it was 2-step garage and then the UK hip-hop stuff and now grime, dubstep… It’s very exciting. When you’re a part of them while they’re taking off, it’s a beautiful thing.
I also think that to now be in this commercial position, in the limelight- it was such a big help to exist in the underground for so long. I had no need to come out of the underground – we were underground romantics. It was all about the underground for us. We didn’t want to be commercial. We wanted to be as underground as we could be. I suppose being a sort of underground romantic back then made me prioritise the creative side of things and the craft rather than adoration or false adoration, smoke and mirrors, and the glitter and the jazz. That doesn’t excite me at all.
All of this was preparation for this craft. There are so many transferable skills learned back then that I now realise are so helpful here [in acting]. But I didn’t know at the time that that was what they were all gearing up to, and I suppose I don’t know what this is all gearing up to either. Whether there’s another lifetime after this, or another craft I may move into… I’m not sure. I do feel more settled in this craft than ever felt in any other. I feel better at this than I did at all the other creative crafts. I feel like my best work is definitely to come. Moving on from now, the next two years, I feel like I’m really going to be able to create something that I’m proud of.
It’s been a great start but I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface – that I’ve so much more to give and so much more to learn. I have this ferocious appetite, hunger, and ambition for myself, so this is really unfinished business. I’ve only just started.
I’m staying put in this for the moment but I don’t think too far into the future. I just try to be positive about today, make the most of today and do the best I can do today.
Is there any particular actor who has inspired you?
Oh, there are lots of actors who’ve inspired me over the years – Jack Nicholson was a real favourite. Stephen Graham is an incredible British actor who I really look up to. Mads Mikkelsen is an incredible actor who I really look up to. There are so many.
If you could address someone in the same position you were in when you were younger or in a disadvantaged position – perhaps disabled, LGBT or an ethnic minority – who wanted to do something in the creative business, what advice would you give them?
The only thing I could say is to do it for the love, because it won’t be what you expect it to be. There will be negative sides to it, but if you love it then you’ll still enjoy what other people perceive as the negative sides. Also, do as much as you can for the love of it and as much as you can for free. The amount of things that I’ve done in my different careers for free because I loved them, because I’m passionate about them, because I believe in them!
The money comes later. Alex Ferguson used to say to his players: ‘Don’t worry about the money now, concentrate on football… get better at the game and the money will come’. Don’t focus on the end things, don’t focus on trying to see your name on a poster, and don’t focus on being a ‘star’. Focus on your craft, focus on your love of the art and do things that you’re passionate about and that you love. And be prepared at any time to drop it because it’s not working, and be realistic about it. I’ve always looked at it that way, and I still feel that way about it today.
What was your favourite scene in The Transporter Refueled? My favourite scene is just you in a small room at the back of the club with four guys you get into a fight with.
That’s my favourite scene – the one with the drawers.
How did you go about filming that scene? Is it in a number of takes? Was it done in one day or a couple of days?
That was definitely not one take! That was really chopped up. That was Luc’s idea. We did that in a reshoot – that was added on afterwards. Luc directed that and that was a brilliant scene to do. All the other guys in that scene that I was doing it with… we’re beating the hell out of each other, but we’re all brothers, man. We had a great time rolling around and a wonderful time shooting that.
But it was cut up really short. It would just be one move, or maybe two, or maybe three – it was quick, quick, quick. I love that scene because it is so unique. It has echoes of Eastern martial arts movies and movies that I love and grew up watching, such as the Jackie Chan stuff – you know, quite preposterous, fast and fun. Also The Raid and The Raid 2 – they’ve managed to be very imaginative in their choreography. So that’s definitely my favourite action scene without a doubt. It’s so short and quick! My other favourite scenes are with Ray Stevenson. I just love the quiet dialogue scenes that we have, the relationship between us, his lightness, and the fact that he’s like the kid and I’m like the dad. It was really nice, I really liked that side of it and they were great to shoot as well.
Do you do most of your stunts?
I think you can pretty much see that it’s all me, in terms of the choreography. I think there was one time I get thrown across the room when they put in someone else on a wire and smashed him against the wall and threw him on the floor. Thankfully!
I did all of the fun stuff.
Do you love that sort of thing?
I do love it and I love the challenge of it. I love that when I read the script the first time I couldn’t do them. I thought ‘I can’t do that’, I was thinking ‘I need to learn that’. It’s not daunting; it’s just being fully aware, being completely honest that there is a lot of hard graft and preparation that’s going to go into this. I just had to be the best student for Alain Figlarz [the fight choreographer] and his incredible team. So, I love it but yes it was bloody hard work. But when you love something, like I say, when you’re passionate about something, it’s not hard. I’m thankful for the education.
So five years ago – in 2010 – your friend [Plan B] asked you to star in a film. Did you ever think you’d be starring in two big franchises [The Transporter and Deadpool]?
No. I definitely didn’t. Like I said, I just do one thing at a time. When Ben said that he wanted me to act in his movie [Ill Manors] I was just like ‘Wow, OK, I’ll try.’ I’m a confident person. I’m a creatively brave person in that I don’t mind falling flat on my face. I tried, it was fun trying. But I was stepping into that with trepidation – thinking ‘I’m a fraud’, ‘I don’t have a clue what I’m doing’, ‘I’m just going to try my best’. So I finished that movie and I said to Ben, ‘I don’t really think I’m going to do this acting stuff, man’ – I was like ‘this is just messing with my head too much.’ The movie was obviously so brutal and dark, I maybe put too much pressure and lived it a bit too much. I got into that mindset and it was a very dark, hard shoot. I said to [Ben], ‘I’m going to lose my marbles, I’m going to go mad if I do three of these a year.’ And he said ‘just wait and we’ll see.’
Lo and behold, a month later my current agent saw a screening of it and wanted to meet me. After that everything’s kicked off really fast and I’ve loved it. In a lot of ways it’s just got easier and easier from there. I suppose when I talk about learning and education I’m just trying to be able to not be affected by the variables and trying to make it easier for me and more fun for me; to make me able to just cut through it like butter rather than it being a real challenge like it was that first time. But I didn’t look this far ahead. I actually remember people saying to me ‘You could do this, and you could do that’ and thinking to myself ‘Yeah, right, mate, of course I can, what a stupid idea, I have no right to do that – I haven’t studied, I didn’t go to RADA or any of these places, so why should I be able to do that’?
By the same token, sitting here now, with these two franchises coming out and three independent movies coming out, I’m not preoccupied with where this might go and what the possibilities are. The only way I look forward is to find that interesting filmmaker with the interesting script, and the interesting story to tell, and an interesting cast that I can grow and learn from. I’ll continue this creative journey and this creative process in the same way: one day at a time, follow my instincts, and step into everything with positivity.
I take it that in Deadpool you’re the bad guy, Ajax. Can you tell us anything about the film?
Yeah, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It’s rightly been described as the first postmodern Hollywood superhero movie, and it truly is that. You’ve seen so many Hollywood superhero movies that were interesting in a lot of ways, but possibly didn’t make you feel the same way you felt when you were 12, reading these crazy comic book characters doing things that you just couldn’t dream of and wouldn’t dream of because they were so violent, brutal and irreverent. And we’ve made that movie. We pushed every boundary, and credit to Fox for letting us make it.
Is it a hard R-18?
It does not get harder than this. We pushed it. If there was anything stronger than R-18, then we would have received that as a rating. They’re going change it and make it a 35 or something, or X-rated or whatever!
The Transporter Refueled will be in UK cinemas September 4th. A big thank-you to Substance PR and Icon Film Distribution for organising this interview.