“I’ve never really known what ‘normal’ means,” laughs Craig Roberts. For the former CBBC star who fronted a new British film wave, took on Hollywood and then reinvented himself as an indie director before he turned 24, life hasn’t felt this “normal” for a long time.
Speaking to NME in July via Zoom, Roberts is candid when he says he’s spent lockdown on the sofa watching re-runs of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. He’s not been up to much – and relaxing in his sleepy Welsh hometown of Maesycwmmer has brought back some memories. It was in this house that he found out he’d been cast in British indie classic Submarine back in 2009. It was this village that formed the setting for his directorial debut Just Jim in 2015. Somewhere in between, he spent a few wild years as a mega movie star but all that seems like a bit of a blur now.
“I’ve never really known what normal means”
He definitely once acted alongside Robert De Niro but he can’t really be sure if he met him or not. Did he really star in a Killers video directed by Tim Burton where he waltzed with a bald Winona Ryder? Wasn’t he rising up the cast lists of big American comedies like Bad Neighbours and 22 Jump Street when he suddenly decided to make his own movies instead?
Now tackling the subject of normality head on in Eternal Beauty – a confident, heartfelt and sensitive drama about mental health starring The Shape Of Water‘s Sally Hawkins – Roberts feels more comfortable charting his own course. Hollywood is fine, but it’s nothing compared to telling an honest, personal story in the place where you grew up.
“I love Wales because there’s so much going on and at the same time there’s so little going on,” he laughs, looking out of a bedroom window decorated with an NHS rainbow. “Wales is my comfort blanket. I feel safe here. It made me who I am.”
Falling into acting by accident, Roberts was encouraged to join an after-school drama club by his parents. “They only wanted me to do it to stop me playing Xbox all the time,” he says. “Then I realised that acting could let me buy more Xbox games, so I carried on. I guess it was a slightly left-field childhood… I did spend most of my summers shooting Tracy Beaker.”
“Wales is my comfort blanket – I feel safe here”
Cast as tough-nut Rio Wellard when he was 13-years-old, Roberts now looks back on his CBBC years as his “film school” – a chance for him to learn the ropes while most of his friends enjoyed their school holidays. The biggest lesson The Story Of Tracy Beaker taught him though was how one dodgy line of dialogue can haunt you forever, especially when it’s turned into a meme. The scene in question involves a wild-eyed Rio, accosting the other kids in his foster home and demanding to know “Who’s got my Maroon 5 CD?” – hardly the coolest band for a pre-teen tearaway to be into.
“I did actually think about a getting a Maroon 5 CD and then finding it… because maybe then the meme would stop!” laughs Roberts. “One of [the memes] has hundreds of thousands of views. There’s an Adele version – ‘Never mind I’ll find… my Maroon 5 CD’! So ridiculous.”
1) When someone stole Rio's Maroon 5 CD and it was the most tense moment of 2006 pic.twitter.com/1xYyd2jgYf
— Tracy Beaker (@daoriginaltracy) August 12, 2016
Other kids’ TV roles came and went, but it wasn’t until he got the casting call for Richard Ayoade’s Submarine that Roberts started thinking about making the jump to grown-up acting.
“When I got Submarine, I didn’t understand then what it would be, or what it would mean for me. To be honest, at that age, 18, I wasn’t aware of Richard’s work [in The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd]. I think it probably helped that I didn’t realise how great some of the people involved were.”
One of those people was Alex Turner – joining the film halfway through to write the music (later to form part of the Arctic Monkeys‘ fourth album ‘Suck It And See’). “I remember my friends going crazy that the Arctic Monkeys were doing the soundtrack and that’s when I started listening to all their music. Like everyone else, I thought they were incredible. I was actually listening to AM yesterday. With that, and their last album [Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino], I don’t even know what genre of music they are anymore – it’s just ‘Arctic Monkeys’. They’re so unique. When I met Alex for the first time it instantly became this weird thing of people telling me that I looked like him. It was all very strange.”
“When I first met Alex Turner, instantly people told me that I looked like him”
Stranger still was the nagging feeling that he was doing something wrong every day on set – doubting his ability to play the part as Ayoade wanted it. “I thought I was terrible!” he laughs. “I’d studied The Graduate and Rushmore and all these movies so I could do this deadpan acting, and I was convinced I was doing it badly. The first time I saw the film I was blown away by it, by what Richard had done. I was just so proud to be in it.”
Almost instantly becoming a cult classic, the film landed the same year as Four Lions, Attack The Block and The King’s Speech, opening the floodgates for a new wave of British talent in Hollywood. “It felt like a moment, and I felt like I was a part of it,” says Roberts, who quickly swapped his parent’s house in Maesycwmmer for a hotel in Los Angeles. “All of a sudden I was able to go into rooms that I’d never been able to get into before.”
After Submarine, everything changed. When he wasn’t making music videos for The Killers and Manic Street Preachers, he was starring in Bad Neighbours, 22 Jump Street and getting his own Amazon show, Red Oaks. Somewhere along the way he also, maybe, did a movie with Robert De Niro (Red Lights). “I’ve not seen the movie. I can’t put myself through the experience of hearing my first attempt at an American accent,” he laughs. “All I remember is texting Paddy Considine to tell him about it, because he loves De Niro, but I honestly can’t remember now if I met him or not. I was just excited, and I was just an absolute kid – caught up in it all and getting to work with the best people around, but it’s all a bit of a blur now”.
I first met Roberts on a film set during these blurry years and found a nervously-wired 20-year-old who filled every interview with rapid-fire talk about Batman, YouTube comedy and his hero, Eminem. “It’s so weird that someone can tell you how you were when you have no recollection of that time,” he muses, now visibly calmer, more confident and much less manic. “I do remember talking about Eminem all the time. Now I don’t dare say his name! Again, it’s all a blur. It was a crazy time. I was in America a lot and it just felt batshit crazy. A couple of years before I was in the valleys playing my Xbox – and suddenly I was sitting in a room with Seth Rogan and Jonah Hill. It just made no sense to me.”
“I remember talking about Eminem all the time – now I don’t dare say his name!”
But something else was bugging him too. As well as coming up quickly, Roberts was coming up shackled to the same kind of role in every film – quirky, intense and awkwardly deadpan – Submarine’s Oliver Tate in an American frat house, an American high school, a Killers video.
“I think there was probably a slight worry about how long I could sustain it,” he says. “How long I could keep on playing this type of character? I fit into a certain role, and that’s The End Of The F***ing World role. It became a question of decision making – I knew I wanted to write, so I just started writing.”
Luckily, he had plenty of time to do it. Sitting around on the set of Bad Neighbours for three months with nothing to do but watch Seth Rogan and Zac Efron improvise their lines, he started working on the script for Just Jim, the film that would become his directorial debut.
Fast forward a year and Roberts was back in Maesycwmmer, walking out on set for the first day of production on his own film. Pouring his heart and soul into Just Jim (as well as his own money when he needed a zoom lens that wasn’t covered by the tiny budget), Roberts shot the low-fi story of a teenage outcast around his own neighbourhood, using a Media Studies class from his old high school to help on the crew.
“Some of the post-‘Just Jim’ experience was quite taxing on my mental health”
“I had a lot of influences on that movie and I think you can tell,” he says, not cutting himself any slack. “Some of the reviews were pretty positive but not everything I’ve done has been reviewed like Submarine… I wasn’t expecting five stars across the board, but when you’ve made something and it’s your baby, and then somebody says something about it, it hurts.” Dwelling on one particularly bullish review, Roberts still hasn’t forgotten how it made him feel after putting so much into his debut. “Words are powerful,” he says, choosing his carefully. “I was angry at the time, of course, because I was 24. Some of that experience post-Just Jim was quite taxing in terms of my mental health, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to Eternal Beauty. I knew the protagonist, I’d known them my whole life, so it felt right.”
Reuniting with his Submarine mum, Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins, Roberts steps completely behind the camera to let her take the spotlight as Jane, a woman living with schizophrenia. Empowering, heartfelt, and frequently funny, It’s a deeply affecting slice of human drama that reveals Roberts as a director with something to say – specifically here about social anxiety and mental illness.
Talking excitedly about working with Hawkins, shooting on film (“because there’s a magic when you hear a real camera roll”), and micro-managing every inch of the set (“It felt like I was playing The Sims!”), Roberts seems to be settling much more comfortably into the role of director than he ever did as an actor. If this is his new normal, that might just be fine.
“I think it’s kind of pointless to watch your own films back, and potentially indulgent,” he says. “My parents love watching my stuff and if I happen to walk in when they’re watching it, that’s fine. But I’m not Kanye West – I’m not going to project Submarine on my wall as people enter the house! I’ll definitely act again. I love acting – and when that End Of The F***ing World kid is done with the role I’ll happily jump in for him! But writing and directing is what I’m excited about now.
“I’m not Kanye West – I’m not going to project ‘Submarine‘ on my wall as people enter the house!”
Whatever the future holds, all Roberts can do at the moment is ride out 2020 from his sofa – binge-watching bad TV between trying to rearrange the schedule for his next movie.
“It’s probably a good thing we’re not shooting this year now – it’s a ‘70s movie about golf, so if people were socially distancing on the golf course it would look super strange,” he laughs, referring to The Fantastic Flitcrofts – an upcoming biopic about legendary golf dud Maurice Flitcroft, with Oscar-winner Mark Rylance already signed on as the lead. “We’re hoping to shoot next Spring now, so we’ve just been doing a lot of Zoom calls and watching a lot of golf. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know Christopher Nolan is supposed to be saving cinemas [with Tenet], but I honestly don’t even know if I’m going to be going back myself when they open. It’s terrifying out there. Especially when you see so many people going around like the virus doesn’t exist.
“Right now, I’m just happy that Eternal Beauty is going to be released sooner rather than later. Especially at the moment, when people are alone with their own thoughts so much. It’s good to know that it’s okay not to be okay all the time. It’s okay to not feel normal… whatever that means.”
‘Eternal Beauty’ arrives in cinemas on October 2