As a child actor, Aml Ameen performed with Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards – yes, he was there when Jarvis Cocker famously crashed the stage – and appeared in West End productions of Oliver! and Jolson. The ambitious Londoner has since carved out an impressive adult acting career with film roles in Kidulthood, the first Maze Runner movie and Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie. On TV, we recently saw him as well-meaning City boy Simon in Michaela Coel’s zeitgeist-defining I May Destroy You.
Ameen’s latest project, Boxing Day, is a major milestone for him – after all, it’s his first feature film as a director – and for the British film industry. Producers Film4 are proudly billing it as “the UK’s first ever Christmas-set romantic comedy starring an all-Black cast” – a cast that includes Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence) and Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock, who makes her movie debut.
As well as directing and co-writing the screenplay, Ameen stars as Melvin, a British author living in America who returns to London for the festive season with his new American fiancée Lisa (How to Get Away with Murder’s Aja Naomi King). As the first trailer launches, Ameen talks about the film’s fresh point of view, stellar casting and seismic effect on his own acting career.
You’ve directed shorts in the past – was making a feature film always the ultimate aim?
“I’ve been trying to make a feature film for a decade. In that time I’ve become more known for acting, but that’s kind of the trade-off. I always knew I wanted to make a film that reflects the life I live, because the Black British films that have taken off, they’re in one genre and [don’t reflect] how I grew up. So I always wanted to redress the balance and show who we are as Black people through my POV.”
Your character’s mother is played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who we’ve been a fan of ever since her Oscar-nominated role in Secrets & Lies. How did you cast her?
“I met with her in LA and we spoke for four hours about life, family and everything. She said she loved the script but didn’t want to travel during COVID, so I just said: ‘It would be a blessing for me and to British cinema to see you in a role like this.’ And mate, as a fan of hers, you are going to be so happy she said yes. This role shows a side of her that no one’s ever seen on camera before: she’s just so fun and raucous and engaging.”
And what made you think of casting Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock?
“It was my writing partner, Bruce Purnell, who said: ‘You gotta look at this lady, man, she’s really cool.’ Before then, to my chagrin, I didn’t really know just how aware of Little Mix I was. Because as soon as we started talking about Leigh-Anne for the film, I got on a plane and heard one of their songs. But what really drew me to her was this particular interview she did with her band. I just found myself so engaged with how warm, honest and full of humanity she is. She reminded me of people I grew up on. So then we got together and went through the process of auditioning and more, and I said to her: ‘If you can find a way to be much of who you are [in this role], you’re gonna soar.’ Then she worked with a wonderful acting coach, Diana Castle, and really put her head down because she’s a grafter. And as she went through the weeks and weeks of filming, she really understood the process of acting and delivered something very honest.”
Obviously at this point the whole world knows how brilliant Michaela Coel is. But as someone who’s actually worked with her, what is it about her that stands out?
“I was actually writing Boxing Day while I was doing I May Destroy You, so I would speak to her a lot about her process and especially going between acting and directing. I was like, ‘How do you do that?’ She’s coming from a place [that has] a type of honesty and vulnerability that other people are uncomfortable with. And her attention to detail is extraordinary. To be that detail-oriented is to have a personality where you’re really able to be still and take in other human beings. Whereas a lot of us, we take in what we want to take in, instead of being patient and quiet enough to really observe the nuances of life. But when you observe those nuances and can reflect them in script form, people then identify that as real life. And so I think it’s her specificity that I was impressed by – even down to line execution. I also learned a lot from the type of set that MC keeps – that’s really important – and I saw it with Idris Elba too. On Yardie he kept an amazing set where everyone in the cast and crew really felt part of everything. He was just kind of lurking in the background, quietly, in this state of general zen.”
What else did you learn from being directed by Idris Elba?
“The importance of leadership and the way to lead. Often leadership is a position of service, especially in directing. People think you’re the boss – and obviously you are the boss in the sense that the film lives or dies with your word – but in between that, you’re not really the boss at all. You’re constantly in service to other people’s imagination and vision. I watched him do that really well – he really listens well to people.”
Has directing a film changed your criteria for taking on an acting job at all?
“That’s a beautiful, timely question for me because it has just shifted. I mean, I’ve always been really specific about the work I want to do anyway. But I’ve definitely been changed as an actor now, and I don’t know how to describe it other than by saying I’m free. I know that if a job I want as an actor doesn’t come my way or there’s a particular role I’m not sure about, I can go and make a movie I believe in [instead], even if it costs £10,000. So now I’m really being careful about where I spend my time as an actor because I’m really focused on making the filmmaker side of me a big part of the next phase of my career. It’s an aspect of me that’s been burning to be released for so long. But as an actor, something’s just come up that I can’t talk about yet. All I can say is I’ll be playing a really powerful, formidable American hero. And it was one of those roles where I was like, ‘I must do that.'”
‘Boxing Day’ is out in cinemas on December 3