ONCE UPON OUR TIME
There is a timely and serious side to this Disney blockbuster one of its stars tells James Wigney
Ed Skrein has never played a part quite as fantastical as he does in his new blockbuster Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil. For his role as the dark fairy Borra in the sequel to Angelina Jolie’s billion-dollar 2014 hit, the UK rapper turned actor sports wings, horns and claws as he flies and fights in a quest for war and vengeance.
But strange as he knows it may sound, Skrein insists there is a serious side to the Disney blockbuster, and hopes it will start conversations between parents and their children about “togetherness, cultural diversity and inclusion”.
“It felt very real and very grounded,” he says on the phone from LA ahead of the world premiere, “which is a funny thing to say when I have wings and horns and exist in this fantasy world.”
London-born and raised Skrein has continued the great Hollywood tradition of British villains in recent years, thanks to scenery-chewing turns opposite Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool and the cyborg bounty hunter Zapan in this year’s Alita: Battle Angel. But, as much he says he’s always someone who cheers for the antihero — “Joe Pesci in Casino is always going to be the character that I am most drawn to and interested by” — he’s loath to lump Borra in with those out-and-out villains. He’s not all bad, Skrein says; he’s just scared and misunderstood.
“I have played a lot of bad guys and villains in my time but I don’t think he would be described as a bad guy or as a villain,” he says. “However I think he would be described as an antagonist, which is an interesting, delicate fine line. He’s someone who is operating from a position of fear.”
Which is where Skrein’s assertion that the fantasy film has real world implications and inspiration comes in — his character firmly believes he is doing the right thing for his oppressed and shunned people, just as the humans led by Michelle Pfeiffer’s icy queen believes she is serving hers by wanting to exterminate the dark fairies.
“All this leads to is this notion that we are all fighting for the same things and with empathy and love and respect for each other’s differences and values and diversity, that we can live together and coexist and we will actually realise that we have so much in common and we can learn so much from each other,” Skrein says.
“It echoes some of the troubling realities that we are seeing worldwide from the global refugee crisis to the closing of the borders in America and the rise of nationalism all around the world and this fear of otherness. It’s worrying and it’s troubling.”
While Skrein says he doesn’t think it’s the role of actors to stand on soapboxes, hitting the audience over the head with their agendas, he believes that art has a way of connecting opposing views and encouraging dialogue in a way that polarised social media and politicians can’t.
“It feels that we are so camped in our opposing bubbles — and these data bubbles that we are all sort of forced to exist in online — and that means we never really get to have these conversations,” he says.
“There is stuffy, repetitive, rhetoric that we hear from our politicians in an age of apathy and mistrust, but art is able to penetrate the consciousness and hearts and minds of people in a way that politicians will never be able to.” To transform into the terrifyingly striking Borra, Skrein endured 3am starts and four-and-ahalf hours in the make-up chair — plus another hour at the end of a long shooting day to take it all off again.
But he says the very act of arduous transformation helped find the feral physicality of the character, as well as bring his A-game to act alongside an A-list cast of Oscar-winners and nominees that included Jolie, Pfeiffer and 12 Years A Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor.
And then there was the demanding wire work that enabled him to soar through the air for elaborately choreographed fight scenes, which look spectacular but Skrein remembers as “a whole lot of chafing”.
Skrein, 36, grew up in culturally diverse north London, where he started out in music releasing his first EP in 2004 ad his debut album in 2007. He’s since travelled the world as an actor — from Morocco for Game Of Thrones to The Transporter: Reloaded In Paris, as well New York City for the romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk and Hawaii for the coming World War II blockbuster Midway. But his home remains dear to him and he says it shaped him into the person and the artist he is today.
“I grew up in a very culturally diverse, multicultural community and it was beautiful, it is beautiful and I hold it dear and it’s why I feel I will never leave that community as much as I love this wonderful diverse world I get to travel in,” he says.
“I thought everywhere was like my community when I was growing up and the more I have travelled, the more I have seen that’s not the case.”
MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL OPENS ON THURSDAY
“It echoes some of the troubling realities that we are seeing worldwide
Ed Skrein and Chiwetel Ejiofor are terrifyingly striking in Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil.
Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent.
Ed Skrein at the world premiere of Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil.