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"It wasn’t arrogance: I was so scared." | Nathan Stewart-Jarrett in conversation with Antonia Thomas

One of the finest British acting talents of the past decade, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is finally having his moment with a major role in the much-anticipated Candyman. He opens up to his former Misfits co-star Antonia Thomas. I don’t wake up and think, ‘oh, I’m black!’ 

A recurring feature of square mile this year has been the talent-on-talent interview: aka a famous person being interviewed by another famous person.

We’ve had Tom Ellis catching up with Sam HeughanDavid Oyelowo waxing lyrical to Malachi Kirby and the cover star of our latest issue, Asa Butterfield, is psychoanalysed by his Sex Education on-screen mother, the peerless Gillian Anderson. There’s another banger due for October: watch this space.

We take a bit of care in selecting a suitable celebrity interviewer, ideally one who knows the subject and will generate a relaxed yet stimulating conversation. (Joey Essex quizzing Slavoj Žižek might break the interview but not in a good way.)

When we decided to profile Candyman and Generation star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett there was only one candidate: his friend and former Misfits colleague Antonia Thomas.

Good call, us! Stewart-Jarrett and Thomas discussed everything from acting to awkward sex scenes to cultural identity and representation. They shared jokes, anecdotes, reflections on experiences both shared and individual. They laughed a lot, as old friends often do.

We invite you to join them…

Antonia: So you’ve been in America for a while now. What’s it been like? What have you been up to there? I guess the reason you originally went out there was Angels in America?

Nathan: I always wanted to live in New York, but I used Angels to take me here. Angels in America transferred to Broadway, which was just a dream come true. I basically latched on and used it to move to New York.

The last year? I don’t even know. The last year for everyone has been very emotional. Being here I’ve pined to go home. I wasn’t ready. The reckoning that happened last year with the protests was such a long time coming. Such a weird, bizarre and charged moment to be in New York.

I had no intention of going and protesting. I was scared of Covid, I’m not going to lie. The protestors marched downstairs, below my house. I stuck my head out. And I was like, ‘what am I doing? This is for me!’ And I ran downstairs! Get out there!

But it’s an interesting thing, right? Because it just came. There’s a reason why it happened while there was a pandemic. People were forced to sit at home and really have a think and really have a watch and really see what was going on.

There was a huge worldwide pandemic. There was no cure. It’s a virus. And it’s killing people. And you were still killing us! It’s like, what the fuck is going on? You can’t do that! It was a real coming together of two massive moments. This is a polarised country politically, and to be honest with you, England is the same way.

But it’s got to have been more scary because in America, everything is more extreme. We think that we’re post-racial, we know that we’re very much not in the UK, but at least in America there’s a feeling of you know where people stand. They just say it how they feel it! Whereas at home, it’s much more, “no, no, no, we’re all fine!” And you then just have to read the micro-aggression.

I attended some marches here in Vancouver. I’m sure they were much more calm than in America. There was this thing of ‘Oh God, I’m terrified of Covid, but also we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to show up.’

 We’ve got to do this. This is a real moment, we can’t shy away from it. I was trying to leave; I thought, ‘I’ll leave now because there’s a pandemic and I’ll go back to England.’ No, no, no. Then it was, ‘I’ll leave when the shelves are empty in the supermarkets.’ Didn’t leave. ‘I’ll leave when there is civil unrest.’ Didn’t leave! ‘I’ll leave when there’s a government to overturn!’ Didn’t leave!

So a part of me thinks maybe this is now home. If you stay somewhere when it’s difficult, it does make it more your home. I’ve been here and was scared and have come out the other end of that. I feel like I’ve put down roots here now, having stayed through a really tumultuous period of time.

Yeah, you’re not just there in the romantic spring of New York!

There was an earthquake in LA when I first got there. I did Generation out there. We were doing Covid tests, the sky was red, everything’s burning. It was so apocalyptic!

I was in my house. What is that? The walls are shaking! I ran next door to my neighbour’s – “what was that?” “It’s an earthquake.” I was like, ‘I’m done’. I’ve reached my limit of what can happen this year. I’m just going to go to bed.

So, having stayed through thick and thin in New York, and realising that perhaps it’s now your home, but also pining for London and Britishness – how has that changed your relationship with the UK and London?

I can’t right now. Britain right now. Are you sad about it? It feels different.

It feels really depressing… I went home for five weeks. It was kind of weird initially. It was really lovely to see family but venturing into London: I had a few meetings, I went into Soho and I was a bit like, “I don’t know how I feel about this right now!” But I don’t know if that’s because every city’s weird because of the pandemic – as I got there, it was just starting to lift. It wasn’t back to normality. But at the same time, I was just… I don’t know.

Having witnessed all of it from the outside, I think we detect a change that maybe you can’t really detect if you’ve been there the whole time. It’s weird. Let’s talk about work!

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett

Let’s talk about work. We worked together. Quite a long time ago – 11 years!

Why did you say it!

Do you remember when we first met?

In that weird house, for the auditions [for Misfits]? We had these weird auditions where we’d go in different group formations to work out the chemistry. It was really odd and I was really quiet. Then two days later we had a chemistry read together.

All I remember was you were really nice, we had a chemistry read and I think we walked together to the station, chatting and stuff. But you stayed in character the whole time! Then we both got the job and we were on set together and you were then yourself. You were very different!

I was like, ‘I am getting this job! There is nothing else that is going to happen here!’ Even on-set, two weeks in, I was like, ‘I will now be myself’. But then I’m like, ‘they could fire me!’ So I stayed in character until they couldn’t fire me.

How long had you been a working actor when you got that job?

Two years.

It was my first job. So I was not aware that not every job was going to be that way.

Neither was I. It was my first big TV job. At the time it felt like I’d been an actor for so long! ‘It’s been two years! Finally!’ Everything was so swift and we were so young, but I remember feeling I’d been working for a really long time. It was misguided. It wasn’t arrogance: I was so scared.

We all were. I know that you and I were. There are lots of scary things that we in particular had to do in it. Having to sit in that room, looking at each other, with the camera on our faces! [Referring to scene in which their characters masturbate in front of each other.]

Also we were on the floor and all these men were stood around us!

It was kind of mortifying. There’s something about being so green, you’re just like, ‘just go with it. Just gonna do it!’ Now I think I’d be like, ‘I can’t do that.’

Weirdly, I think I would be OK.

Nah, I’m joking, I would. The main thing is the writing was so good on that show.

The writing was good, but I would query that scene. Did we need to? Also, we did it more than once!

We did it more than once, which was uncomfortable. But thank God it was the two of us. Luckily, for the record, we’ve always been pretty close.

I feel very lucky that it was you. Because I know there’s other people I’d be like, ‘this is the worst thing!’

We both pushed through it together and had a laugh afterwards and felt awkward.

We felt really awkward! No, it was great. It feels so long ago.

Misfits cast

It feels so long ago, but people still reference it, stop me on the street. I didn’t realise, because it was my first job, that not all jobs are as great as that. It was a really fun, creative experience. You just think, ‘God, this industry is cool!’ And then you get cast in a few other things and you realise that was one of the unicorn jobs.

That just happened to be a job that we go onto and it won a bunch of Baftas and it was really critically acclaimed. There’s something about that job: everybody that was part of it feels connected. I’ve not seen Lauren, Robbie or Iwan for a very long time but we’ll always be connected by that formative job.

Oh yeah. Forever. And Joe as well.

And Joe! Don’t miss Joe Gilgun out. Joe was incredible. Obviously it was very formative but it has now been 11 years. How do you feel that you have changed as an actor? Or do you feel that you’ve changed?

From a friend’s perspective, you have grafted. This feels like a really crucial point in your career. You’ve worked so bloody hard and then Angels came along and it seems like things just started moving – in a way they should have been moving for a long time!

I was thinking about this the other day. You go through periods as an actor and an artist – singers definitely do with albums – where you’re free, and other times you’re restricted. I don’t think anything is owed to me, but I’ve definitely worked.

I feel calm in the work. But I also think that might have been feeling calm in myself. Something about that graft, that work, that is slightly more relaxed. I could easily get stressed out in a couple of years! Not to be too pretentious, but we are our work. Those two things co-exist and influence each other.

You put in the hours. There’s a self-assuredness in who you are as an actor and a creative, in how you approach a job and what you can bring, and knowing you’re going to bring what you want to bring and do the job that you want to do.

It’s that time. I watched you in Small Axe – amazing by the way – I feel like you’ve changed as a performer. There’s a roundness, confidence. It happens to most actors.

It’s like a muscle. The confidence of being on-set all day, every day. Having the confidence in your choices and your abilities. Small Axe for me, though – I was not a massive part in that but I was scared. I was scared because of Steve McQueen and I’d always wanted to work with Steve McQueen.

 What was it like to work with him?

Everything that you would want it to be. He’s a creative in every sense of the word. He curated an environment that was completely for the artist, for the actor, and made you actually feel like artists and not feel wanky about that. He’d clear the set, get everybody off, and make sure we had as much time as we needed to get it right. The crew was wonderfully diverse, which was a real first for me at home. He was just amazing.

I want to ask about Generation, your new HBO show with sexually non-conforming teens and you as the councillor – no longer the teen! TV has changed a lot, hasn’t it?

It felt so current. The writing is so amazing: Zelda Barnz wrote it, she’s just a superstar. She wrote it with her father Daniel Barnes and Daniel’s husband Ben Barnes produced it. She’s 19! It just rang true.

My first meeting I did it incredibly wrong! I got the tone really wrong. But it was amazing. Being the adult was hard! I had to be slightly removed because I was meant to be in this position of authority.

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett

You couldn’t have all the fun?

I wanted to! There was a couple of times when music was put on, I couldn’t not dance. But I had to be slightly removed. It was really amazing, the freedom not just the characters had but also the actors themselves had. In themselves, on set. I watched one of them do this monologue about Disney and she played with it in such a way that I was like, ‘how are you even doing that?’ Just subtle differences, every take. She’s 19.

In terms of the world, isn’t it just incredible that that is happening? I can’t wait to reach a point where that isn’t even discussed. It’s just a character. People are just people. It’s not the topic. And I don’t think it is the topic of this show. They’re talking about parents, siblings, all the teen stuff, in among a group of teens that isn’t the typical group of teens we’ve seen previously.

Watching them was really amazing, really warming. How kind they were and supportive to one another. There was no competition. When there’s competition in the scene, unless it’s part of the scene, it’s not good.

No, it’s weird. Why are you not doing what serves the scene right now? Why are you making it about you?

I do like the whole ‘actor chewing the scenery’ thing, I think that’s quite funny. When I did Dracula I was so camp! I was chewing that scenery! I think it was fine because that was the tone.

Do you write yourself? Are you interested in producing?

I am and do. I’m in the process of trying to write a book right now. I’ve always written. You want to see yourself represented. And I do want to see myself represented, but more so I want to see different people represented. It doesn’t necessarily have to be me or someone who speaks directly to me. But I don’t want to see the same thing I’ve already seen my entire upbringing.

It doesn’t have to be a ‘black man’ or the ‘black experience’ but there has to be something different in the texture of the story. And I really believe Generation sits there, I believe Small Axe sits there. That’s what’s exciting about film and TV right now, although British films needs to do a lot of work there.

Film is terrible back home. There’s nothing. As a British actor of colour, or just a diverse British actor, if you want to be in the film industry you certainly still have to go to America. TV is getting better but there are no films being made at home.

We’re in the golden age of television, we both do a lot of television. But I’ve been acting now for something like 15 years and the amount of films that I’ve done…

Like, none!

So looking for those stories – I don’t want it to be about the black experience. I don’t wake up and think, ‘oh, I’m black!’ I want to find characters where they are layered with texture, with quality. They are not upholding something, they are not judging something. Just existing, living, in a situation.

I think it’s important that all people are able to recognise every facet of themselves within culture. I don’t think we’re there yet.

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There’s something about representing people and culture the way that we are, but there really is something important in knowing a little bit about where we came from, too. If you’re black in Britain then your history is going to be a very difficult, complicated history. But at the same time, I love a period drama! I grew up watching Merchant-Ivory. Obviously not seeing myself reflected in them but there are those stories to tell.

Small Axe is only going back a little way, but historically the UK has been a very, very diverse place since the Tudor times. At least! I know that young people are like, ‘why would I want to engage with that period story where I don’t see myself reflected?’ You could see yourself reflected! Understanding our past helps us understand our present: how far we’ve come, how far we still have to go.

You’ve just touched on the difference between America and England. I keep saying ‘black experience’ and there has to be a different phrase because I don’t like it and I’m doing it in quotes. But here, the bloodied, disgusting history – with enslavement, with slavery – is still knowledge of one’s history.

There is a voice here that is strong, that is part of this country, that built this country, that is basically the bedrock of wealth in this country, still is. Whereas in the UK, we can’t have that claim – even though we do.

I think Britain’s done an amazing job of scrubbing a bloodied history, and scrubbing our history within the country and how the country was built. There was an empire! It was built in a certain way.

I don’t want to be the writer, and hopefully at some point the filmmaker, that is just telling those stories. It would be nice if we could get to the point where we’re just talking about people. But I also really feel the need to know, and for other people to know our history, in a real way.

 I was learning about things that I should have learnt in school in my twenties. You told me the other day about oysters...

That TV show High on the Hog on Netflix. It’s about the history of soul food and it tracks the food all the way back to Africa and how African slaves brought all these different ingredients to America. It’s a fascinating watch.

When you mentioned this the other day, I thought we should do a show. I got really into cooking over the pandemic. I really don’t know enough about Caribbean cooking. I got my family to give me recipes but I still don’t know enough. Maybe we should do a show!

Let’s just do a cooking show where we go to Jamaica!

Let’s go to every island! We could do a little cooking on the boat, have a personal trainer so we don’t get fat!

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I’m just going to bring us to Candyman. Were you a fan of the original movie?

I’m not a fan of the original movie because the original movie scared the shit out of me. I loved it but honestly one of the scariest experiences of my life. Being in the remake, you’re part of the history of horror.

It’s about gentrification, it’s about being black in America. There’s more to Candyman than just a horror movie but essentially it is. I’m really proud to be in it.

The character is OTT and I love that. It’s so not me! It’s a big movie, it felt like an indie in a sense. This movie speaks on a different level.

Is there a premiere for it? Can I be your date if there’s a premiere?

I think Covid might have got us there. We’ll see. If there’s not, I’ll dress up in the living room and mark the moment.

As your friend, it’s really great to see that things are finally clicking into place. It feels like people are finally recognising you. I’m very proud of you.

That’s really sweet. I’m really happy with this period. It’s nice. 

Candyman is in cinemas now.

Generation is available on HBO Max

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