The first thing we do in life is learn to fall. We take our first steps, and stumble until we stand. When we get older, falling takes on different forms. We fail, we fall in love, we push against the fates and faceplant. It’s the jump we have to master. The art of living is learning how to land.
Taz Skylar is brilliant at falling. “The only thing I’ve ever had a proclivity towards is being mid-air.” I’m not just talking literal falling, although that’s kind of his thing. He surfs, he skateboards, he’s a skydiver. He’s filled to the brink with life. There’s nothing he can’t fall from. But Skylar wasn’t always this way. In fact, he used to be quite the opposite. “You’d never think I’d end up how I am now if you saw me as a child.” Let me take you back to the first fall.
Skylar’s dad is Arabic, born in Sierra Leone to a Lebanese family. He left school when he was young to travel the world. He ended up in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, visiting a friend who was working in the hospitality industry. He ended up staying there, got a job at the same hotel his friend was at.
Skylar’s mother is British, born in Barnsley, Yorkshire. She was a single mother, caring for a seven-year-old daughter when she decided to take a trip to Tenerife. The legend holds that when Skylar’s father locked eyes with his mother, he turned to his best friend and said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Luckily for Skylar, his father was right. They were engaged two weeks later. “My dad was a charmer, innit.” And so the story goes. She stayed. A few years later, and a boy was born to the island.
I desperately need things to make sense. I need to completely understand why.
Skylar’s upbringing was a blessed one. He describes the feeling of being raised on the island as a kind of “safe freedom… you could explore without any worry of getting robbed or kidnapped. You could get lost in the mountains at night without getting scared.”
But in the beginning, Skylar didn’t like being outside. He was an introvert, afraid of most things. He’d spend the day, “inside on a laptop Googling what the specs of the new Nokia phone was.” He was stuck inside himself, with little interest in the world around him.
He didn’t find himself inclined towards something like his classmates. They all had talents and passions, while Skylar had none. “I was bad at football, bad at basketball, a slow runner, I was scared of the water…I remember being so frustrated: ‘Why am I not good at anything?’”
School proved no different. It wasn’t the learning he didn’t love. It was the pointlessness of it all. “To this day, something I’ve maintained is that I desperately need things to make sense. I need to completely understand why. ‘Do it because I said so’ never flied with me.”
A few years into school, Skylar would learn he had dyslexia. “Things just wouldn’t make sense to me.” His father started studying with him. They developed their own unique way of intaking information. “We would draw pictures of what different things meant and what the story was. I could read but instead of huge chunks of text it would be a word or a symbol.”
He made his own form of shorthand hieroglyphics. He’d even draw the images on pens when he took tests. One quick look, and he’d remember. But while Skylar began learning how to work with his own brain, things at school still weren’t working out.
He started getting bullied. Even though he was born on the island, and Spanish was his first language, to those around him he was an outcast. The kids at school started called him ‘guiri.’ The equivalent to gringo, meaning not from this place. They’d say, “You can’t sit with us cos your guiri,” and “You can’t play with us cos your guiri.”
He didn’t see himself in the world. And then he found surfing. He wasn’t particularly great at it, but it was the first thing in Skylar’s life that was all his. It wasn’t a sport, it was an identity. Surfing wasn’t mainstream back then. It was a home for misfits. There was only six or seven of them. When he found his crew, his shell started to crack. They all began to push one another to try new things.
When one person started something, they’d all jump on it. Soon, Skylar was pushing his limits, experimenting with the extreme. They surfed, they skateboarded, they hiked mountains to find plane ruins. They got a tattoo together to solidify the time they spent together. He finally felt his place.
The contrast between this world and the one he was used to made school seem dispensable. He put his efforts elsewhere. He turned surfing into a side hustle. The few surf shops that were around Tenerife were always looking for people to repair boards.
Skylar thought: “OK. Let me figure this out. So there’s some fibreglass, and some resin, you put those two things together and then you sand it down. There’s a few things in between, but that’s the basic element. That’s not complicated.”
He knew where to find some resin. He improvised on the fibreglass: took a bunch of his dad’s old socks and cut them into patches. It cost virtually nothing, and suddenly he had an income coming in. This fact helped when Skylar sat his dad down and told him he was dropping out of school. Not any father’s dream, but hey, he did it too. “He knew I wasn’t going to waste my life. If I was given the space to find what I was looking for, I had the capacity to focus once that thing was in front of me.”
Skylar took his first leap at age 15. He headed first for Australia. He knew there were surfboard factories there, plus he liked the look of the waves. So he went. He was 15 years old and winging it. The first thing he did upon landing is go door to door. Knock, knock, “Hey! Can I work for you?”
The childlike wonder worked for him, it didn’t take long for someone to say ‘yes’. A couple gave him a job, and a spare room. The wife would cook them dinner and he honed his skills. He stayed for months. The surfboard side hustle turned into a global venture.
This time period in Skylar’s life reminds me of a quote from Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist. “Travelling is never a matter of money, but of courage.” Skylar understood this without ever having to be told. He spent his adolescence exploring different countries until he landed something stable on the coast of San Sebastián for three years.
He was making surfboards for a small brand. He wanted to work for the bigger ones, but he wasn’t able to move up until he proved he could sell the boards. He had a goal. “I wanted to sell ten times whatever someone thought I could sell, surfboard wise.”
He got creative. “I started making videos of people using the boards. I thought of themes and I started writing this stuff out. I made the limited resources I had work… There were great surfers but they weren’t world class. Something I could use more was who the person was, what their story was.”
Here begins Skylar’s great love affair with stories. This opportunity led him to deep dive into film making, he took photos and wrote out ideas on the regular. “I’d spend more time doing that than making the boards.” The instinct swelled inside him. Skylar got ready for his next jump. “I just wanted to tell stories… London made sense.” He packed his bags, and headed across the Atlantic.
The landing in London was a little different from what he was used to. There was nowhere to wake up and catch a wave. He handed in his surfboard for a sunless city. Although, he kept the factory job going for a while as a financial buffer while he figured everything out.
He came here to tell stories. But he’d never actually read much in his life, nor had he ever seen a play before. He knew there was a structure to the way a story was told. He equated it to music. He thought, ‘Music without structure is just noise. Words without structure is just the alphabet. How did other writers do it?’ He went to go find out.
The long-form novel didn’t lend itself so easily to his mind at first, so he opted for scripts. Then he started finding writers that he liked. “OK, this sounds good, who wrote this? Oh, Aaron Sorkin wrote this. OK, let me read more things that he wrote. Oh, he writes plays, maybe I should write plays. I don’t know how to write a play. Maybe I should go watch a play. So that’s what I did. I went to watch some plays.”
The first show that ever impacted him was The Father by Florian Zeller, who remains one of his favourite writers. Skylar starts falling in love with theatre, he starts trying his hand at making his own. He writes monologues and short films but they never make their way beyond practice material.
There’s something about cities that no one can ever really prepare you for. It paints itself as the picture of opportunity. You think that living in one is about movement – people always coming and going – but it’s so constant that it becomes like static. It turns to white noise. It can put your spirit to sleep.
Skylar started to feel the disconnection. He began comparing the before and after picture. “In Spain, it was normal to go for a hike and a surf and chase your friend on the beach in the meantime, and then go for another surf all in one day. In metropolitan places, that’s not the case: you go to the gym for one hour a day and then you’re done moving.”
He went on. “By virtue of osmosis, you stop doing that and start to feel this disconnection from everything without knowing that’s the reason why. I went through a few eating disorders when I moved to London. That was something that really triggered it for me.”
All this time, Skylar is working on a piece of writing called Warheads. A play based on the essence of his best friend at the time, a Spanish infantry man. The show explores a young soldier’s life before and after he goes to war, interspersed with the moments he was actually there. Skylar understood the stigma of PTSD; he wanted to explore it. But with London feeling more and more foreign, coupled with the lack of meaning and movement, he started considering other options. Perhaps it was the fact that he was writing about it, or because the set-up just made sense, but he decided to enlist himself. He signed up for the reserves.
On his way to phase one of training, he gets into a car accident. It leaves him seriously concussed. He failed his medical for the TA, and went home. Legally, he had a year before he was ever allowed to be considered again. That crash made Skylar sit down and write. Sometimes life has a funny way of letting you know when it wants you to do something. Sometimes it comes in signals. Sometimes in sirens.
Skylar went back to his writing. Collaborators started falling from the sky. An acting friend of Skylar’s, Laura Rollins, introduced him to a fellow writer named Ross Berkeley Simpson. Skylar sent an email over to Simpson asking for his input on the piece. They wanted to bring the mental health effects more to the forefront. Simpson provided the research, and Skylar provided the reason. They workshopped, found a director, and did a week of read-throughs.
Warheads went up at the Park Theatre. Skylar’s feet met the floor. The show wasn’t just a critically acclaimed piece of writing. It was also his first real acting gig, a role that required work to bring to life. “I figure out while doing,” Skylar explains to me. He doesn’t get caught up in getting things perfect before he begins. He just starts. There is no Hamlet in him. No waiting and watching. He makes a choice, and then charts his course – he jumps. The amount of time it takes to fall matters little. He finds himself on the way down.
The subsequent Olivier nomination for Warheads was just the icing on top. “It was a licence for other people to take me seriously.” It opened doors, obviously. But Skylar knew he was meant to write before the recognition. “I just knew in my gut it was something I was supposed to be doing in the world. I had something to bring to the stage, or the world through that stage.” When the play was sent off to be published, it came back with “a ridiculous amount of typos and grammar errors… I have no idea how I get away with being a writer.”
Skylar’s love of language is undeniable. But it’s more than that. Words take form within him. We start to discuss language, how there are infinite ways to say things and that’s why there will always be writers. “A single quote can change your whole perspective on life.”
I ask him to share one with me. He pulls a journal from his desk. It’s a work notebook, but he fills the back pages with quotes, things he doesn’t want to forget. He begins to flip through. “Oh! Here’s one. Ready?” Be the flame not the moth.” It’s a quote from Casanova. We begin to share exclamatory sounds over the Zoom screen. “Innit! It’s so perfect, it means so many things. I’ve used that almost like a mantra.”
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Skylar begins to describe the feeling of being at a party that you don’t really want to be at. You don’t particularly click with anyone but you need to be there to keep up appearances. The awkwardness of it all makes you self conscious of how you hold yourself in the room. “Be the flame not the moth – instantly switched. You’re good, you can just be there.”
His head dives back into his notebook. “I’ll share one of my own…” I wait patiently on the other side of the screen. “If you feel like you’ve left yourself behind, go to the nearest check point that you were last seen together.” I’ll leave that one there for you to take with you.
His journal isn’t the only place he holds words within. He also uses his Twitter account as a virtual journal. Skylar never used to use the platform. “I don’t see the value of being on a place that primarily is used to argue with one another.” But when word got out that he had landed the role of Sanji in Eiichiro Oda’s first live action re-telling of One Piece, the fake accounts started rolling in. So he bit the bullet and built his own.
One Piece. The series surpasses Harry Potter in sales, if not yet cultural ubiquity. Don’t know the details? Then I will brief you. In its origins, One Piece was a story in Weekly Shōnen Jum, a Japanese manga (comic book) in the year 1997. The creator, Eiichiro Oda, started working on it when he was just a teen. The story serialised by the time he was 22. The story struck a chord. More accurately, the story struck millions of chords.
It was soon developed into an animated TV series. Now, with more than 1,000 episodes and availability in 80 countries, One Piece has a bit of a following. The comic book itself has over 515 million copies in circulation, making it the best-selling series ever printed. So the stakes are high as fans await the first live action re-telling of the narrative set to hit Netflix’s screens this summer.
So what’s all the fuss about? What is One Piece? The story centres around Monkey D Luffy, a young man whose desire for treasure leads him on a quest across the sea in search of the famous, fabled treasure known as ‘One Piece.’ Before he sets sail, he must assemble a crew. He brings ten of his closest confidants, all characterised by different skill sets, on board with him to create the Straw Hat Pirates. Skylar plays the role of Sanji: the sexy, cigarette-smoking master chef and martial artist that joins the crew.
When the audition was pitched to Skylar, it was all in code names. Something called ‘Project Panda’, and he would be reading for the role of Zinko. “I remember reading the scene they sent over and going, ‘Oh. I know this guy.’ I understood the yearning to want to go do something great, to go and find.” I can attest. Skylar could be a spokesperson for wanderlust.
This role was so much more than a big break. Skylar had been steady working the past few years. He was in acclaimed short films, did a role with Stephen Graham in the film Boiling Point. He’d been bouncing around plays in the West End. When he got the One Piece role he was actually finishing a show at The Old Vic. Despite the consistent success, this new role was different.
“When One Piece came around, I felt like I had a definite reason for being on the planet. My love of extreme sports was a real love, it wasn’t to be crazy and get out of the world early.” That being said, Skylar was OK going out at any time. “If it happens, it happens!” But landing the role of Sanji put his life in perspective. He traded in his motorbike for martial arts, and soon embarked on the journey of a lifetime.
First things first, Skylar had no prior martial arts experience before this role. I thought this man had been doing martial arts since he was five; if you see what he is able to do, you’d assume the same. When he got the role, some videos leaked online of him practising some basic martial arts movements. He went through the comments. They weren’t pretty. But his reaction to them was: “Watch. Just watch. Gimme a minute.” The training commenced.
Nobody anticipated how ambitious an undertaking it was to turn Skylar into a martial arts master in what seemed like a matter of moments. Netflix provided trainers, but they weren’t available for as long as Skylar needed to make this work. “No one thought you’d need eight to ten hours of training a day. When it became aware to me that I’d need that to achieve what they wanted me to achieve. I flew in a stunt guy called Donovan Louie to help me.” When Netflix tapped out, Donovan tapped in.
For months, all Skylar did was train. The process was gruelling. “At one point, it became evident that we were looking at it the wrong way. We saw what Sanji was and we were trying to achieve that without going through all the steps that you would normally… we were trying to do jumping 360 kicks, when I could barely do a side kick. We backtracked. I wanted to get belts, at the same time we were doing all the fancy shit.” He triple graded, he’s currently on his way to his first black belt in Taekwondo. He did this in less than two years. People spend decades advancing in their disciplines. Skylar is so disciplined he turns decades into days.
Although Netflix had an incredible stunt double for Sanji, Skylar did all of his own. “Every single fight is mine. I made it my business. In for a penny, in for a pound. I decided that would happen. My official stunt double Stewey was so proud of me. He always said if you’re able to do them, they’re yours.” I didn’t even mention the fact that in between these ten-hour training days, Skylar would go cook lunch with chefs. “We had a kitchen on set, so on my lunch breaks I’d get into Sanji’s chef costume and I’d cook. We’d try to do high-end spins on basic dishes from the anime.” By the end of his sessions, he’d have huge plates of food. He would feed the whole cast and crew. “It was all encompassing,” he says of the prep.
I admire Skylar for many reasons. I also envy him, if I’m honest. He has this uncanny ability to focus his energy towards one thing. Which seems simple, but anyone who is a semi-adult knows the difficulty of doing one thing. It can feel like we’re compensating some part of ourselves by choosing. Skylar doesn’t compensate. He just gives until it’s time for another.
A boy that’s afraid of the water learns how to ride it. He starts a business that lets him scale the globe. He falls in love with stories, and makes one that earns him an Olivier nomination. He takes up acting and ends up in the most anticipated anime live action in history. He learns a martial art, and triple grades in under two years. It’s the jump that Taz Skylar has mastered. Stay tuned for his next landing.
One Piece sets sail this summer on Netflix