The last 12 months have been huge for Skepta. His place in the history of grime and British youth culture is already assured, but he's currently on the cusp of something bigger. Ever since the chart-topping success of "That's Not Me" last year, Joseph Junior Adenuga's world has been tipped upside down—the style world adoring his every move, Drake and Kanye co-signing his grimy beats and bars—and now, he's gearing up for what could be the biggest album of his career in #Konnichiwa, when it's released later on this year.
But that's not all: 2015 also sees Skepta making his acting debut in Anti-Social, a sprawling London crime drama with a storyline about smash-and-grab jewelry store robberies ripped from the headlines. It's a small but memorable role, with him playing a particularly vicious bad guy in a few very intense scenes. Complex met up with Skepta at The Hospital Club in London to discuss it. It was all about the film—talk about the album will come later. But he was really passionate about his role in Anti-Social.
It's taken quite some time for the Boy Better Know MC to make his screen debut, and he wanted to make sure this was the right film to do it in. When we sat down to chat, he was eager and insightful, clever and funny (he even grabbed my notepad and started interviewing himself, at one point), and opened up a lot about where he is right now in life.
So how did the film come about? Did they approach you, or were you looking to get into acting?
I’ve always wanted to do films. Just being in music videos and stuff, and enjoying the whole artform of watching films. But I was really wary. A lot of rappers I like had gone into films, and…I don’t know what happens to them. Something happens to their career afterwards. Especially grime MCs: Every time someone goes into a film, something happens to them, and I was scared of that. I didn’t know whether it was the role, or people not believing—because if you can act really well, it’s like “OK, so now you’re doing your music are you acting as well? I was really skeptical about it. But just with the people I knew who were involved in this film were going to look after me.
Had you been offered scripts before? What was it about Anti-Social that made you pick that one?
Yeah I’d been approached for other films. But it was the vision of Anti-Social. I was saying to my friend the other day that, in England, we don’t have the Ninja Turtles walking underneath the sewers or King Kong on the Empire State Building. As a kid walking through New York they would have been underneath you, in your mind—you get what I’m saying? But in England, if we saw a gorilla on Buckingham Palace, we be like: “Hmmm…is this film really on?” We have like Essex gangster films, and we have street rudeboy films. The fact that this film is a mix of the two just made sense to me.
Did you take acting lessons, or anything like that? Had you ever acted before?
I did drama at school, as a kid, but I ain’t been to like acting school or anything. I was in a couple of school plays. I think I put a picture online; me and my brother JME were some kind of shepherds in a Christmas play. [Laughs.]
What was it like actually being on set?
When I do music videos, I like to do a take, then see how it looks, so I can correct it. You don’t get that in film. You try to go around to look at the thing and they all start moaning. I had to get used to that.
"I WAS REALLY WARY. A LOT OF RAPPERS I LIKE HAD GONE INTO FILMS, AND… I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS TO THEM. SOMETHING HAPPENS TO THEIR CAREER AFTERWARDS."
Did you feel a lack of control then, compared to when it’s just you, and a producer or whatever, in control of your music?
It was weird. I was part of somebody else’s vision. It’s like when I do a music video and people come and I’m like, “Yo, I need you to stand there and wear this hat for me.” It made me feel what it’s like to be that person and trust in [director] Reg Traviss’ vision.
You play a pretty nasty character, and without giving stuff away, there's one particularly intense scene where you make some horrible things happen—what was that like to film?
That whole experience was crazy, that scene especially. All the actors, we’d go out in the morning and be like, “Yo, got a cigarette, you got a light,” just chatting. And then as soon as you get to set, you see everyone getting into character, slowly. You’ll just feel the change. And between takes it’s like, “That was good, let’s go again.” Between those “Let’s go again” moments, everyone’s still in character. No one’s talking to each other. One of the actresses actually had a breakdown after the rape scene. I can’t remember exactly. Someone was holding her, and she just really felt it and start crying, and we had to have a break. It was a mad scene for me.
My mum came to watch a screening with me…. I had to sit rows behind her, because I didn’t want to see her reaction to certain things. But after it was done, she got it. She knew it was a film, whatever. But yeah, it was crazy.
It sounds like it was pretty intense on set.
It’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. It’s mad. You do a scene, and you have to do it again. The person you were just in a scene with, he just cried. He just faked himself to cry. And he’s gonna do it again? For real? We would be out for the whole night together, 10 of us, getting drunk, catching jokes. And then the next day I’ve gotta wake up and aim a gun at this guy. It’s nuts! Obviously I know that it’s acting, but it was the seriousness of how the other actors were taking it. I thought, if these guys are method acting five minutes before they get into the role, then I’m not even going to speak to them. They’d be like, “What’s happening, Skep?” And I’d be like, “I don’t like you,” and walk off! And then you get the bus back to the hotel and everyone’s just fine again. It’s a really different experience.
You have a big shoot-out as well—was that fun to do?
It was mad, because they were real guns and I was expecting it to all be special effects. [Laughs.] But they were real straps! I watched a replay of that scene, and it really did look like a real shoot-out.
The film takes place across London—West London, Central, Shoreditch. As a guy from Tottenham, do you think it shows the London you know?
Yeah. In the hood, you’ve got like so many different types of people—you’ve got the cool, really calm ones, you’ve got the really ADHD, really loud ones, you’ve got guys who are just into girls, guys who just rob all the time. And all those different characters are in that movie. I don’t think my hood is all that different from a hood in south London—as long as all the different characters that are in the hood are represented, then I think it’s done well.
"I FEEL LIKE EVERYTHING I’VE DONE TO GET TO THIS POINT IN MY CAREER, IN THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS, HAS BEEN ABOUT BEING REAL."
Devlin also makes his acting debut in the film. Did you and him share acting tips or anything?
Not really, no. I don’t really see Devlin as a musician like that, I just think he’s a cool guy. I was happy that he was in the film, not because he’s a rapper, but because it’s him. He’s an integral part of the movie.
You also recently collaborated with him—did that come out of the film?
It’s crazy because me and Devlin, we obviously do the same type of music, but we’ve never really crossed paths. And I think he’s like me, in the sense that I don’t really like reaching out to someone by emailing them a tune and saying let’s do something together. He’s not that kind of guy. But because we were away filming together, every night we’d go into a hotel room and just chill and talk. Me and Dev got talking over time, and one night, I just brought out my laptop, and we made a beat and spent the time writing and smoking, writing and smoking. So when he came back and asked me to do “50 Grand,” it was more like a reminder that we were going to do something for the film, so let’s do it now.
You’re bringing London and the U.K. to the world with grime at the moment. Is this film part of the plan?
That was the whole agenda we started two years ago when I was making Blacklisted. We just wanted to put Britain on the map, so that we’re respected and held up on a pedestal like everyone else is. On “Ace Hood Flow,” when I said, “I've been keeping my ear to the streets/Everybody doing covers of American beats,” and lyrics like that, me shopping in Sports Direct for my stuff—that was me wanting to just put the whole vibe and feel on the map. If people are wondering why I’m going so hard for this film, it’s because this film means a lot to me. Anti-Social is going to back my album. This film is going to be another thing to go like, “Yes! England! Real British shit!”
You said you’ve seen rappers and MCs fall off after being in films—are you worried that acting could change how people think of you?
I wouldn’t say I’m worried, but I am wary. Every day I wake up and I’m waiting for this thing to go click and it’s: “Ahh! You’ve fallen off now.” There’s so many MCs in the game, as soon as they do a film, no one listens to their music anymore. Why? The conclusion I’ve got to, is these gangster roles—you play them and then you go back to telling your true story, and because people see you as an actor, their story has become an act to people. I trust myself to make good music. But despite everything I’ve learnt over the years, there’s still things that I’m learning. I’m prepared to learn if no one listens to my music again because of films. I can get popular in music again; I’m not scared of that.
"I’M FROM THE STREET, BUT I’M NOT A STREET HEAD. I’M NOT ONE OF THOSE GUYS WHO BELIEVE THAT LIFE IS ABOUT THE STREET. I’M NERDY AT HEART, MAN."
Have you thought about writing or directing a film yourself?
I wrote a film, man! I was speaking to Vertigo Films, but they told me some ridiculous money to get a script written. I’m not looking to put that much into that, it was just an idea. Most actors, or footballers, or musicians, we all aspire to be all of them. It’s an art thing, and it’s something where you trust your body. It’s this thing that you get in school and you’re like, “Hold on! I can do things.” Some people never come to that, they never get that thing where they know what they want to do, but I always wanted to do all of them.
What was the script about?
It was about sleep paralysis. Like Inception, but a bit better than Inception! I think Inception was a sick idea, but they didn’t do it correctly. That’s all I’m giving out right now. [Laughs.]
Considering that the mainstream media can be highly critical of grime for glamorizing violence, did you have any concern that by playing a gangster you could end up feeding those lazy stereotypes?
That’s a good question…. Firstly, no. I didn’t think what it would do to grime; you just made me think about it. But at the same time, I feel like it’s real. And I feel like everything I’ve done to get to this point in my career, in the last couple of years, has been about being real. So I don’t think I’m in a place where the media can crush me. So whether they want to shut off grime and stuff like that, I don’t know about that. I know that by this role that I played in that movie, it’s not going to prevent me from doing anything I want to do in life. I don’t live within the media’s bubble. I’m not under their submission.
Are these gangster roles the main parts you get offered?
Yeah, yeah…. It’s typecasting, innit. Which is why I’d want to do something else. Because I’m not like a fucking…street guy. I’m from the street, but I’m not a street head. I’m not one of those guys who believe that life is about the street. I’m nerdy at heart, man. I grew up in Tottenham, in a place where I knew that people are going to do something to my little brother, JME, if I didn’t toughen up. If we lived in somewhere that wasn’t a bad place like Tottenham, I’d be free to get as nerdy as I want to. I understand it why people want me to play those roles, though: I’m tall, 6-foot, bassy voice—I get it. But I just need to push myself out of that, otherwise I will end up just doing those kind of roles.
What exactly are you nerdy about?
I’m nerdy about everything that I see! Like, you gave me this earlier [picks up the dictaphone on the table], and you just put it down—I’m trying to find the mic, so I can face it to me—you know what I’m saying? I’m an observer. I like to make stuff. I always try to be the best. I would be the first one to balance all of these cups on the table…. I’m just one of those guys who’s interested in everything. I just want to show that intelligence, show that brain power, and I think I can show it in a different role than just shooting people. I’m gonna make a conscious effort to not make that my next role.
What film do you think captures London the best?
I like Top Boy, even though that’s not a film. I think it’s is a good representation on what’s happening in London….
Would you have worked on that?
No. No, I wouldn’t. Just because I think that’s what everyone would expect me to do. Even though I played this role in Anti-Social, you can see by the poster it’s not concentrating on some black rudeboy thing. This is a smash-and-grab movie! It’s marketed completely different. But Top Boy is a straight road thing that would put me into that box.
What would be your dream role, then?
I’d like to play a homeless person. I haven’t seen the Will Smith one where he’s homeless with his son [The Pursuit Of Happyness], but that type—where you’re homeless and you’re striving to do something better. I’d like to play that. Just because I feel that I’m in touch with having nothing and then having something.