May 2 2012

He grew up on an estate and paid for drama lessons by stacking shelves. When the film industry shunned Adam Deacon, he made his own movie – and won a Bafta

It’s a sharp, damp April day in East London and Adam Deacon is huddling against a wall, sucking hard on a cigarette and drinking Red Bull. He is small, wiry and dressed in the street uniform of baseball cap, polo shirt, jeans and box-fresh white trainers. He doesn’t, it has to be said, have the aura of someone who unexpectedly beat Chris O’Dowd, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne to win the Bafta Rising Star award this year.

Ten minutes later, we sit down to talk in the bar of members’ club Shoreditch House. Deacon, who has just turned 29 while looking barely 20, politely sends the waitress away and continues to drink from the can of Red Bull. He turns off both his iPhone and his BlackBerry.

I congratulate him on his Bafta, which he won for Anuvahood, a low-budget spoof of urban films which he co-wrote, co-directed and starred in. He grins. “It was crazy. The other nominees have American representation. They’ve done Hollywood films. And there’s me, a kid from a council estate in Hackney.”

A small kid with big ambition, Deacon is the kind of actor who makes his own luck. He’s been acting for a decade, appearing as part of the East Staines Massive in Ali G Indahouse, then doing time on The Bill and Casualty. His break came in 2006 when he co-starred in Kidulthood, Noel Clarke’s uncompromising film about a bunch of 15-year-olds at a school in West London. Given a day off when a bullied girl commits suicide, they argue, have sex, take drugs and fight. With alarming inevitability, casual violence leads to murder.

Two years later, Clarke returned to the same characters with Adulthood, a breakout hit that grossed a respectable £3.5 million here. Deacon, tough yet funny on screen, thought he had made it. Teenagers stopped him on the street. He was convinced offers would tumble in. But they didn’t. He wondered what he was doing wrong. “I was sitting in my council flat thinking I’ve got this huge, loyal fanbase, but it felt as though there was a wall in front of me, too.”

He finishes the Red Bull and laughs when I suggest he barely needs the energy top-up. He talks non-stop in a broad East London accent, translating street words without being asked and patiently explaining that the stickers and price tags left on his New Era baseball cap are not an oversight; it’s a hip-hop thing. “You gotta keep them on. It’s about being authentic.”

Keeping it real is a big deal for Deacon. He recalls fighting for authenticity on the set of Kidulthood. “It was one of the first films that went out of its way to get kids off the street rather than from drama schools. The writers knew that world, but they didn’t know it like I know it. So I was outspoken. At one point the producers wanted to use American rap artists like 50 Cent on the soundtrack, but Dizzee Rascal’s first album, Boy in da Corner, had been out for a while by then, so I convinced them to use him and other British grime artists instead.”

It would be easy to dismiss Deacon as arrogant as well as outspoken, but it seems to be sheer enthusiasm that drives him rather than some outsized ego. Still, he insists that the mainstream British film industry doesn’t know what to do with him. “I used to go up for parts I thought were made for me and I’d have recall after recall. I’d hear from my agent that they loved me. But they thought I was too scary. I went out of my way to make my performances as Jay in Kidulthood and Adulthood real and gritty and in your face, and it has a double-edged-sword effect. People in the film industry thought I’d come on set and kick off.”

The film industry might view Deacon as a potentially wayward working-class kid brought up by a single mum on an estate, but the man I meet is well brought-up and polite. He is not, I don’t think, being paranoid about being misunderstood; the simple truth is that it’s still tougher for working-class kids to make it on the big screen than for their middle-class counterparts. Two of Deacon’s fellow Bafta nominees, Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne, went to Eton and then Cambridge.

Deacon, in turn, went to Stoke Newington School, a comprehensive in Hackney. He didn’t quite have the Kidulthood experience of school – there were “only” two stabbings when he was there – and he only made the mistake of carrying a knife once. “I was really young. My mum found out and told me off. Plus, everyone told me that if you’re carrying a knife around and you take it out then someone else will take theirs out, too. You will either use it and ruin your life or someone else will use it on you.”

After he was “jacked” (mugged) twice in one week when he was 15, he decided that, despite being “the smallest kid you’d see walking around Hackney”, he would start to stand up for himself. Mostly this meant hanging around with bigger boys who were protective – friends, he points out with pride, he still has today.

He is reluctant to discuss his upbringing in depth, but will say that his father is an absent figure. They have only met briefly – “When you’ve never seen your dad around, you don’t really care. I just felt it was me and my mum.” Young Adam didn’t really get on with his stepfather; I ask if he felt he didn’t really want him about the place. “I always got that vibe. Whatever. It’s very upsetting and sad, but it just made me want to act more.”

Did acting, which he was drawn to in his first year at secondary school, offer a way of escaping his own reality? He nods. “I think so. I spent a lot of time watching television as a kid. It got my imagination going mad. I was an only child in my own world a lot of the time.” His drama teacher suggested he apply for the summer holiday course at the Anna Scher stage school, which cost £80 for six weeks. “I think my mum would have given me the money, but my stepdad was old school and thought I should earn it myself…” He is silent for the first time. “Anyway, I got a Saturday job stacking shelves and earned the 80 quid.”

He loved the summer school, and Anna Scher offered him a full-time scholarship. He was offered a small role in London’s Burning and, at 14, was part of Fagin’s gang in the London Palladium production of Oliver! “I was surrounded by middle-class stage-school kids with their mums and dads. Not to make a sob story, but I was always there on my own.”

Instead of becoming chippy and resentful, Deacon decided to prove himself. He says, matter of factly, that he had to make the acting work because he had nothing else. When he turned 16 he left home, moved in with friends, lived in a hostel and then rented a council flat (he only earned enough from Kidulthood and Adulthood to pay his rent for a few months). He had big dreams. “I am very, very ambitious. Perhaps that’s the wrong word; I’ve got lots of ideas. I started with nothing and I’ve always had this idea of representing my generation. I am an underdog, but I want to change things.

“Jaime Winstone [his co-star in Kidulthood and daughter of actor Ray] sat me down and said, ‘Listen, babe, you’ve gotta keep doing what you’re doing. Never be in a rush to do some kind of reality show. Do good work.’ She told me how directors were scared of her dad after he made Scum in 1979. He had a tough time in the Eighties, but look at him now. He and Michael Caine are my heroes.”

Instead of sitting around grumbling, as many actors might, Deacon made Anuvahood for the tiny budget of £300,000. The inner-city kids who were gently mocked in the film loved it. Still, a Rising Star Bafta looked unlikely with such fierce competition, although tellingly it is the only Bafta voted for by the general public.

So Deacon took control, printing up hundreds of flyers displaying his face, the instruction to “Vote Adam” and the Bafta phone number, and handed them out on the red carpet at the premiere of The Woman in Black. “I wasn’t being bigged up by the mainstream press and I’m from the generation that goes out to get what it wants. Still, it was pretty much a spur-of-the-moment decision. All these kids were shouting my name as I walked down the red carpet so I just handed the flyers out. I think the PR people for The Woman in Black hated it, but Daniel Radcliffe [star of the film] was cool. He came over and shook my hand.”

When Anuvahood, which is lively but flawed, was dismissed by the newspapers, Deacon insists he didn’t care. “Critics weren’t meant to like it. I didn’t make it for them. From the outset I said the only people I cared about liking this film were the young people. I even had a battle with the producers because they asked me to use less slang and make it more international. I refused to give in. The film was basically saying be who you are. Don’t try to be a gangster because there will always be someone bigger than you who is willing to take you down.”

Deacon is savvy enough to know that having more than 110,000 followers on Twitter is more important for him than broadsheet approval. And with the Bafta, it seems he might be about to fulfil another ambition by making an impact in America. He is back from his first trip to Los Angeles. “I met Disney, Paramount, Universal. I found the film industry there warming. People seem more open-minded. They don’t seem to watch the class factor as much.”