After being invited to a preview screening a few weeks ago and witnessing such a powerful story and performance from Leeshon Alexander, star of film We are Monster, I just knew I wanted to get my hands on him for an Interview to talk about the film.
Boy was I pleasantly surprised when we finally met up for our chat. Not only is he very pleasing to the eye but he is the friendliest, down to earth, loveliest and open person I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with. As you can see from the following in-depth interview we had a great chat and could have gone on for hours, I now want this man as my best friend.
As you know as you have already seen my review of We Are Monster that I truly loved the film, You play the lead Robert Stewart, but you also wrote it. What compelled you to write this story for film?
A multitude of factors, I think it was something good to write for myself as an actor that was the first thing that came into my head, as an actor I was bit fed up of the auditions, not getting them and thinking what was going on. So thought let’s find something interesting to do, Was friends with Tony as we had done a short together, know he would be a really good artistic type director and thought well, I’m into political stuff, I’m into social things so let’s try and find a story. When I came across this I just couldn’t get it out of my head because I read up about the psychiatry of Robert Stewart and his psychiatric reports and psychological profiling, there were a few criminology reports on him from various professors, So that was where I got the story from. So the story isn’t a prison drama with all these different characters it’s just focused on him. I thought he was a great character to play, it’s a dream kind of role but then once your doing the research and you get into it, you just get wrapped up in it. It’s an important story, it’s an important case, especially with working with the Mubarek family you kind of realise what it is for them, to some extent forget what happened to Zahid, it’s just the fact that nothing happened to the prison service and there still fighting all this time. That end credit where we come up and say that, quite a lot of people have laughed because they can’t quite believe it and so when you start writing and researching which becomes way before you start acting and writing the role it’s impossible not to, unless you’re a heartless… it’s hard not to get caught up into it because it’s sad and you want to do something about it and if films can do a bit of something, be a good movie and make a bit of an impact. I would rather do films like that.
Did you always intend to play the lead, which you played amazingly well I have to admit?
Yeah yeah, a few people tried to kind of say to me can we get someone famous (laughs) but I said no. I think someone suggested why we don’t get someone else to play one of the parts things like that, but from all the work I did with working with the criminal psychologist it just wouldn’t have made sense it had to be a manifestation of the same guy, so we couldn’t have got anyone else to play that part. I wanted to do it, I wrote it, I knew it I understood it better than anyone so
So was the inner voice as a physical character intentional when you wrote the film?
Yes, I mean initially I had watched a film called Hunger which was amazing, Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen first movie. So stylistically inspired some of the ideas for the opening and everything, I had discussed it with Antony, that kind of came first and then the dual character thing came because I thought I understand what this guys doing but how can I make it come off on screen, how can I tell the story otherwise it’s a 15 minute short. It just kind of came thinking about Kiss of a Spiderwoman, William Hurt back in the day and then even a small reference to Tom Hanks in Castaway, then, as I was researching and reading more and more about the psychological personality disorder things just made a lot of sense. You can’t really prove that someone is talking to someone in their mind because it’s in their mind, but that makes a lot of sense for what people believe happens and goes on. So yeah that was always the way to create a story out of it.
Was it quite difficult to play that double character?
I should say yes but no, it wasn’t really. Do you know what I think because I wrote it I was so prepped for it and I spent a month just on my own just practicing, I wouldn’t quite call method because there are so many different methods out there. What the classic thing with method, is to stay in character and I did do that for the first couple of days but I was able to ease out of it after a while. I think it was heard for the crew, I think it was hard for Antony because there aren’t many films where you can’t, for 80% of it, you can’t actually show two actors in a shot. It must have been hard for them. I didn’t mind it I just had a piece of tape on the end of the camera and I was just talking to it or I was talking to the first AD, Howard Arundel, who I love. He was just having to read this dialogue with me and I felt sorry for him saying those things. He was embarrassed at first saying those kinds of things but you kind of get over it, it’s the characters… We knew he wrote like that as we had evidence in his letters, so the dialogue was based on how he actually spoke it wasn’t just made up.
You’ve actually said and it was my interpretation that you wanted to show mental problems of Robert and how he was treated as a child affected him quite badly. Did you always want to show that side
Yeah I think it was a facet of it but, a couple of people have said and The Hollywood Reporter being the first big review we got from Edinburgh said it would be going too far to suggest that it was showing sympathy and it as you have said it kind of suggests it is but it is and it isn’t because even the guy who runs the Mubarek trust, Zahid’s uncle, has recognised that Robert Stewart was as much a victim of the prison system as well you know, So the family side of it is a facet of it, yeah he didn’t have a great upbringing, loads of kids don’t but you combine in the other factors as well with the teachers kind of letting him down, that was real that he sat there scribbling out his face thinking he was ugly and that no one loved him. That’s pretty tragic for a 7/8 year old kid to think that no matter what he becomes later. You know also through the prison service, he shouldn’t of even been in that place. It’s one of those films which you can pick up a lot of little things that we added in, and I think it’s actually a lot cleverer than a lot of people have actually given us credit for. There are a lot of little things that much up with the psychology of stuff, but also a lot of the true facts are in there we just don’t make a big play on them but one of the guards does say that someone from Hindley up north, but that was really a nurse who actually wrote the report and sent it down saying that, these guys need to be supervised the whole time, they should be in mental health places they shouldn’t be in prison for young offenders. The probation officers never passed on the reports about them so no previous info was passed on really, so it was just like clean slates. They may have had the info on what he did but not how he behaved, that’s a pretty shambolic way to plan it. I don’t feel sorry for him, I feel sorry for the kid who had no help along the way, because lots of people are born with problems psychologically and then had bad upbringings but certain things will determine they don’t go that way. Where he just had multitude of things that lead him down that path, he was misdiagnosed all over the place, they didn’t diagnose the personality disorder till it was too late. We present a case saying you should look at the whole thing.
Have you had any opposition from the likes of the prison authorities over the portrayal of their staff and lazy procedures? Have they even seen it?
Yeah we had the chief inspector of prisons came and watched it. He got it and I think liked it. He made a comment afterwards and some of the prison reform guys well we could do this etc. The whole state of the prison system needs to be looked at. Someone like Mubarek shouldn’t have even been inside, why you sending a kid to prison for nicking some razors? It makes no sense. On an individual case it’s hard, maybe mistakes happen you’re not able to spot things but a catalogue of errors as we said at the end, putting one guy in with another guy, making them share the same cell, the guy complains. That’s when it becomes too many mistakes. To be fair there can’t be any complaints because of the House of Lords report says it all apart from the fact that no one was punished for it. All the things we say are what the House of Lords report says, we got it all from there. Legally, we can’t just start making stuff up, there were accusations from other prisoners that went on there but because they were I guess unfounded some of them may not have been true, a lot of the dastardly things they got up to but we couldn’t afford to put that in, otherwise we could get sued and we would be out of business before we even start. Which is a shame because maybe those things are real maybe we should be listening to what some of the prisoners have to say because are they going to be able to get their message across, who’s going to believe them, probably no one. But no, no opposition but it’s early yet (laughs).
How have both the families of Robert and Zahid reacted to the film?
The Mubarek family is very supportive and lovely, very sweet, very nice. We’ve been doing some stuff with them to promote the film and hopefully get the case back out there, focusing more on the case as that will draw more attention back to it. They’ve been great, I mean it was hard being there when they watched it, it was hard seeing their reactions. I think the one thing that was important is some people won’t like the fact that we did it, but we didn’t want to make purely about Zahid, trying to tell his story, ultimately we aren’t trying to make a tribute film to him you know. Everyone knows he did nothing wrong. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The interesting part here is why the prison guards put him in that room and how it ended with being in that state. The shitty thing about it is that Zahid shouldn’t have been there it’s that simply, there’s not much else to tell. So yeah it was hard speaking to them afterwards, but it had to be done, they are supportive of it which is good.
You’re the lead, you wrote the film and you produced it too, it’s obviously your baby, why didn’t you want to direct it as well?
Because Antony is good, really good. He has a great eye for stuff. If it wasn’t for me he probably could of made an even better film but I was so bloody minded with certain things in the script. Hopefully in his next film he will do an even better job as he won’t have me to badger him. I just knew he would be great for it and it just made sense to have him direct. We had the same ideas, we care about the same type of things, and he’s a very sensitive guy as well. He is actually an artist, some of the shots in the corridor and the opening segment where it’s kind of theatrical looking and stuff are quite beautiful and I think he did a great job on it. Plus I feel very comfortable with him, knowing I was going to be acting 80% of it, he’s got a great way of just… You know I did a lot of work myself but then his ideas and suggestions and prods, he just gentle guided me, because it’s one of those things when it’s that intense of a role you don’t want someone coming in and just telling you no no rip this up and try this again and do something different. He liked what I was doing and just guided me in the right places. Before I even wrote it I told him about it and said look if I write this do you want to do it? He said 100% a lot of the ideas in the script were incorporated with him talking with me in mind so it’s both of our babies. You know were partners we both work at the same company together now, whether its me writing and directing or us both producing something, fledgling careers.
When it comes to British Independent Films I always find, your’s isn’t a prison drama as such but it’s based in a prison, it’s the British prison drama’s which stand out, why do you think we are so good at producing these kind of films?
I don’t really know, I guess probably because a lot of our rough and ready dramas are always our best. Period films are not my cup of tea but going back looking at things that Ken Loach would do or Mike Leigh would do or what Shane Meadows has done and then looking at that whole rough kind of side of society, those films have always been the best we can bring out. Yeah if you look at films such as Hunger, Starred Up they are all brilliant films, going back to Scum and other films like that. So yeah I don’t know I just think we have people that are good at telling those stories we have people that are interested in that kind of subject. Looking at society’s kind of class system I guess. I think we have filmmakers who care about good subjects; maybe here we have a problem with our prisons which we can tap into. I remember watching the screenwriter for Starred up, he was on BBC film review night with a couple of the guys and I think it was based on some of his own experiences and knowledge, I’m not sure if he had been inside. For me I just kind of care about this subject because I’m interested in it, I wanna know more about it. You look at Steve McQueen with all his films; he’s obviously a guy who is interested in social impact, political stuff. We also seem to have people who fund those kinds of movies. There should be a lot more being made. We also get a lot of not so great independents being made which are purely made for commercial things, which is fine. Another thing about Prison films and one thing I love and it doesn’t get mentioned a lot is The Escapist with Joseph Fiennes, I think it is brilliant, It was Rupert Wyatt who did it who went on the make the first Planet of the Apes remake. I think because we don’t do that many, that every few years there’s one so it hasn’t become saturated yet. Although in the last 3 years you’ve had Offender, then Starred Up and us.
Doing my research I couldn’t actually find that much on you, yes I was doing a bit of stalking! Can you tell us a bit about your acting background, where does the name Leeshon come from? I’m just intrigued to know more about you.
There’s not much to tell (laughs) I’ve been acting for a while, for about 7 years or so. For the first couple of years I did a bit of work, did a few bits and bobs on your modern day repertory of television. In the old days you would go off and do your theatre for two year. I did a couple of bits on The Bill and Doctor Who, did a couple of shorts things like that, learning my way. It didn’t work out with the agent I was with at the time. I just thought I’m just going to go off and write some scripts, I like filmmaking, I love acting but I also love filmmaking. It’s not just writing it’s actually the whole story making process. I kind of just had a sabbatical for four years or so, and then came back with this. I’ve got 5 or 6 scripts written, ready which I am at various stages with. I’d like to work with other Directors and writers of course but I think if you can have your material, your own stuff that’s the best way as your in control, well at least it’s very good for you. It may not be good for other people but you know you really like it and I think that’s the most important thing.
Where does your name come from, It sounds quite French (which I tried to say in a very bad French accent)? Where do you come from?
It is, I have been told it’s a bit Indo-European or something; I am a mixture of a lot of different things. I was born and raised in Surrey, Live in London now. My family have kind of been from London so I kind of see myself as a Londoner. I’m a bit of a Grammar school boy, the thing is with Grammar schools are they are free so you get a mixture of people. A lot of my mates are from working class families, I always think I talk more like they do but people also say no you sound at more well spoken, Which I say do I really. I can slip into talking like them. There weren’t really any posh kids at my Grammar school, but being Walton on Thames you have that kind of Surrey kind of RP voice you know.
You can read our review of WE ARE MONSTER here
You can follow Leeshon on twitter @LeeshonAlex
WE ARE MONSTER is released in cinemas 1st May, and available on VOD on 4th May and on DVD from 11th May.