The London-born actor talks starring opposite John Boyega in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue, and how the final Small Axe film champions the “resilience and brilliance of Black people in the face of adversity.”
Back in 2014, two things happened. Steve McQueen made history as the first Black director to win an Oscar for Best Picture with his astounding epic: 12 Years a Slave. In that same year, it was also announced that the auteur would be penning and bringing to life a drama series exploring Black experiences in Britain from the perspective of a group of friends and their families from 1968 to today, set in West London (McQueen’s own childhood stomping ground). This month, amidst a global pandemic, McQueen kept good on his promise, as we received Small Axe on BBC One, his triumphant collection of five films about the British West Indian experience. Love letters – as committed to minor cultural details you can practically smell the food through your screen and feel the music reverberate around you – as it is with making us truly understand (or remember) the harrowing true experiences and memories that perpetuate the plots. Institutional racism. Police brutality. The richness of diaspora. Immigration. The flourishing and sensual beauty of 70s-era reggae. The Black British experience, and the pain, fear and beauty passed down the generations.
Little did we know that in the summer of this year, the world would also be brought to its knees by the death of George Floyd – a black, unarmed, handcuffed man – caused by a white police officer in Minneapolis – and our feeds and streets would be flooded with such sadness, outrage and indignation, it would lead to protests and demonstrations in cities across America and all over the world. It’s hard not to draw parallels and come to the conclusion that nothing has changed in the past decades, especially when considering the subject matter of McQueen’s evocative period series (which he has dedicated to George Floyd). And Red, White and Blue, the fifth and final film from McQueen’s anthology, looks at this generational struggle: a man going against the wishes of his family, striving to repair institutional racism from the inside and make things better for the future generations ahead. It could not have come at a more apt time.
It is based on the true story of Leroy Logan (John Boyega), a British-Jamaican research-scientist, who, in the eighties, left his job to join the Metropolitan Police, where he later rose up through the ranks to become superintendent and chair of the Black Police Association for 30 years. We witness how the assault of his father by the police intensifies his ambitions to be a part of the police force, so he can work to stamp out racism from the inside, but also drives a wedge between him and his family. London-hailed actor Antonia Thomas (Misfits, Lovesick) – the daughter of a Jamaican mother and English father – plays his supportive pregnant wife Gretl, who tells him with heartbreaking conviction: “What you are doing is important, so make it count.”
We caught up with Antonia Thomas and talked about preparing for the role, George Floyd, and what she hopes viewers will take from Red, White and Blue…
Red, White, Blue/Small Axe/BBC One
Red, White, Blue/Small Axe/BBC One
Congratulations on Red, White and Blue. Steve McQueen announced the idea back in 2014, so it’s been a long time in the making. How did you get involved?
For me, Steve McQueen has been one of those pie-in-the-sky, wishful-thinking kind-of directors who I have wanted to work with as an actor since I left drama school. There was word on the ground about this project, and I had been saying to my agents, ‘tell me when you hear anything.’ It was six years in the making between it being announced and being made, so when we finally found out it was casting, I was out here in Vancouver and I thought, ‘that’s it, I’m never going to be able to do it.’ But suddenly, a last-minute audition came in, and at the time I was doing fifteen-hour days back-to-back, and I had to turn it around in a few hours. I feel exceptionally lucky to have been a part of it.
How did you prepare?
I had five days to prep which was really scary, and my main point of contact was Hazel who was the amazing accent coach. Gretl was a real person, and so the only person who could tell me anything about her was Hazel who had spent some time listening to her accent. The main chunk of the preparation was trying to get the accent perfect.
What was, for you, the most challenging day of filming?
I think the courtroom scene where we’re waiting to know what the verdict is, and we’re told they’ve just thrown out [Logan’s father’s assault case]. It really brought it home – just the injustice, you know? Even though I didn’t have much to say in that scene, Steve was just so incredible in the environment that he would create. He’d clear the set, all the crew had to leave, and we’d really have the artistic space to find the moment.
It must have been really emotional…
Leroy’s whole story. I mean it’s courageous and incredible, but wow, he had to actually go through a lot. So that moment, and also the moment where his father finds out that he has joined the police force were really heavy, and that was actually an incredible day on set because I remember there was something about the environment Steve had created and the creativity that we were allowed to play within it.
So were you ad libbing as well?
Yes, to an extent. What’s amazing was actually a lot of the actors there, I think the majority – except for John – were Caribbean, and Steve is Caribbean. Like for example in a dinner scene, [McQueen] would say: ‘what do you really think would happen in this scene, are there any cultural details that we’re missing,’ and someone would say, ‘well I think that we could do this instead of this,’ and we’d spend ages just talking about it and he’d say ‘ok lets try and implement that.’ And then we’d just ad lib and then film it. So it was a really freeing process, it was amazing.
Red, White, Blue/Small Axe/BBC One
You and John’s chemistry on screen is amazing. Did you know each other before you started filming?
No, we didn’t know each other at all. Obviously I’ve been a huge fan of his work but on the first day we met we were straight into it. I think the first scene we did was looking round the house and him talking about wanting to join the police force.
That’s a really intimate scene as well…
Really intimate scene! And he’s just an incredibly generous actor, very playful and very present in the moment, and I was obviously nervous. But the nerves immediately dissipated because he made me feel incredibly comfortable and he was a brilliant scene partner, he was great.
The film is so striking when you see all these cultural nuances. Even in the decoration and the dinner scene – was there anything in particular that really resonated with you or made you feel emotional thinking about your own experiences?
I think it was doing a scene with that food and having that be the focus. It was more about Caribbean food and the tradition around food, and that being – as you say – not brushed over, but instead really celebrated. It just felt like, this is a real moment that there’s a BBC series being made that specifically wants to get all these details very right, but the food specifically, those smells, and then the scene talking about the Jamaican food, it was really just warming.
The film explores this idea of generational racism. It also looks at a lot of things like Black excellence – where you see Leroy outperforming everyone at the police academy, but he has to do that just to be on par with everyone else. Did it make you think of any of your own experiences?
I mean as an ethnic minority watching it, I think it will resonate with people. I mean, yeah in this industry I have definitely, definitely found that there are less parts for people of my kind of background than there are for Caucasian people. You do feel that for every ten jobs you do, the one job they do will get them somewhere. It has always felt that way, and it has become an accepted thing, like ‘oh yeah cool their second job is that massive Hollywood movie and this is going to be their trajectory and that’s the way it is.’ And it feels very flippant to be comparing it to the acting industry, but I think although it’s set through from the 60s to the 80s, I think right now, it couldn’t be more relevant. I think it’s important to look at Black British history – because there’s been a lack of knowledge or a lack of education around it – and look at where we were, and where we are now, and just how far we have to go. Obviously the last six months, the terrible death of George Floyd just exploded everything and got people to look and listen, but I mean there’s still so far to go.
What do you hope viewers take from Red, White and Blue?
I mean, this film is quite particularly about police brutality and institutionalised racism. I think there’s this idea with the last six months that the Black Lives Matter movement started with George Floyd, because people are waking up to it, but no, look, this is something that’s been going on for a really long time, and Black people have been subjected to this kind of thing for a long time. And this film just looks at the resilience of these people, how brilliant Black people are, and what they can achieve and contribute. Leroy Logan in the face of all that stuff, having to be between a rock and a hard place in terms of community, feeling like he’s betraying that, and then having a really difficult time at work. He’s still managed to go on and become the Chief of Metropolitan police and get an MBE. It’s about the resilience and brilliance of Black people in the face of adversity. All the films are celebrating that.
Red, White and Blue is out on BBC One on 29 November.