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Interview: Ed Skrein Talks Beauty, Fame, and The Model

The actor discusses his new role and, naturally, the part his body plays in his body of work.

Interview: Ed Skrein Talks Beauty, Fame, and The Model
Photo: Brainstorm Media

Ed Skrein was all cockiness and confidence in The Transporter Refueled, but almost no one noticed. He was Daario Naharis in a few episodes of Game of Thrones before the role was recast. But this year, Skrein seems to be garnering the exposure he deserves. He was the brawny foil, Ajax, in Deadpool, and now the actor turns in a flinty performance as photographer Shane White in Mads Matthiesen’s glossy cautionary tale The Model.

In a nice change of pace from his recent action roles, the model-handsome Skrein is allowed to show more of his range as Shane White, a hotshot photographer who’s tough on his models and tender in his relationship to Emma, (Maria Palm), a Danish model who’s come to work in Paris. After being fired by the Shane, Emma meets and seduces him at a nightclub, and as their affair escalates, alongside her career, things get more complicated and out of control after a series of betrayals.

Skrein sat down with me on the eve of The Model’s release to discuss his new role and, naturally, the part his body plays in his body of work.

The Model seems to be a real change of pace for you after The Transporter Refueled and Deadpool. Can you speak to your shifting gears to play in less genre-driven work such as this?

This film is me going back to what I’m all about. I’ve had fun gallivanting about and doing silly stuff, but my heart is in the underground arts. Not to take anything away from the blockbusters, but my first movie was shot for £150, with me and my friends. I’m trying to get that feeling back. For me, at this point in my career, to be in this position, and to jump between the bigger studio movies and arthouse films—that satisfies me. I’m not your next action hero, and I’ll be doing more action roles, as I love being physical, but my heart is in the arthouse.

I was surprised to discover you never modeled. What are your feelings about your looks? Do you like to look at yourself on screen?

I’m real comfortable in my own skin. I sabotaged my looks for a long time by shaving my head. From 11 to 28, I didn’t have any hair. I wore what I wanted to wear, which was London street fashion. It was two fingers up to “the man.” Handsome wasn’t in my thoughts. I’ve always been confident. I play romantic alpha males, but I never play those guys in real life. I’ve never been smooth or suave or fashionable. But I have writers who write me lines that are suave and smooth, and costumers and hairdressers who make me look suave and smooth. So I just need to connect emotionally with the characters. It’s for other people to judge my aesthetics. I’m not an egomaniac. I enjoy having this opportunity to work with stylists who make me look pretty with textures. I’m lucky to be able to experience this sophisticated side of life. But when I get out of Saville Row suits and silk socks, I put a basketball shirt, my tracksuit bottoms, and my Nike Air Max 90s.

You play a photographer in The Model, but as an actor you’re always being photographed. On which side of the camera are you more comfortable?

I’m most comfortable when I’m in front of the camera playing someone else. When I’m being photographed as myself I feel like a fucking lemon. When they tell me to pose like Blue Steel, I feel stupid. I don’t feel comfortable. Modeling doesn’t feel right for me. I enjoy the emotion of acting, exploring sides of my or your psyche and personality, but to stand still and look interesting that doesn’t satisfy me. There’s a fucking art to it. I did some press photos for Transporter Refueled, and the girls in the film were models. They were killing it at posing; they looked like a million bucks. I would go out there and stand still. I didn’t know what to do. I was told, “Just relax, don’t make a face.” I look like an idiot making a face. Modeling is a craft I respect, but doesn’t come naturally to me.

The women in The Model are seen topless, and one male character is full-frontally naked. While you have a sex scene, you expose only your back. What are your thoughts about doing nudity?

For me personally, I feel I don’t need to. And I suppose that becomes I don’t want to do it. I want to convey emotion through my eyes and body language. I train like an animal six days a week and I eat like an athlete. So it would be an option for me to get my body out. But I told my publicist I don’t want to be known as Mr. Abs and Torso. That doesn’t define me, and not what I want to be known for. By the same token, I do take my top off. When you Google actors, you just see the images from one racy shoot 10 years ago, and that cheapens the effect of them ever playing president. Some folks are comfortable with their sexuality, and they do get their kit off, but that will never be me. When I see actor’s willies, I always look at them differently.

There’s a key dinner table conversation in the film about how models are inspired by magazine covers and photographs. Let me pose the question of that scene to you: What do you think about how men and women are objectified in society?

It’s the gossip magazines my girlfriend reads that criticize people for being “fat” on the beach. It’s the movies and TV that are overly sexualizing women and men, and the fashion industry that Photoshops women. That’s why I loved this film. The shower scene was perfect; the bathroom was ugly and not lit well. That’s real life. Seeing people Photoshopped all the time or celebrities with plastic surgery—we’ve becomes overly focused on aesthetics. It’s not something that means anything to me. I’m in this industry, and I’m around “beautiful people,” and I look them in their eyes and I want to know how much honesty they have with themselves and with me. How are we going to enhance each other’s evenings by having a conversation? It’s not talking about how nice you look for the camera. There are some beautiful people in this world who aren’t governed by ego and they’re as interesting as the less conventionally beautiful.

What do you think Shane sees in Emma? Is it creepy that he’s seduced by this young model?

I think Shane is looking for love and acceptance as Emma, but in a different way. He’s had a failed relationship, a kid, and is getting older. He hasn’t got a permanent relationship. He’s as misguided as Emma, and looking for love in the wrong places. Someone on this film I’m making now said, “Never get involved in a location shoot.” It’s a bad idea for the photographer to get involved in model.

What can you say about the themes of ambition, jealousy, loyalty, and betrayal in the film? Part of the cleverness of The Model is that Emma believes, or disbelieves, things people tell her but it is rarely corroborated.

I think the reason Emma believes that Shane’s sleeping with another model is because of how she got with him. When there’s a foundation of deceit, it’s easy to believe in future deceit. Our relationship began in a cycle of deceit. The film is about decision-making; it’s not an attack on the fashion industry. It’s teaching people to make the right decision. They’ll be offered drugs, or do fucked-up shit, or go down negative paths. Do it carefully. Emma’s shamelessly fueled by her ambition, which is peppered with false notions of celebrity. Our culture is blurring the lines; people are becoming famous for things it’s not sacred to be famous for. I don’t want to be famous. Hopefully this film will be serve as a reminder to make the right decisions and not be blinded by the allure and smoke and mirrors of celebrity and art and modern utopia—bubble baths and yachts. It’s about being loved and fulfilled in your work.

What reflections do you have about your career decisions?

I feel powerful. One-hundred percent. I know the word “no.” I’m early—five-to-six years—into my acting career. I know what I need to do to keep learning, and not be blinded by money. I can continue to grow and continue to improve and everything else will come. It’s like being a footballer. You should worry about kicking the ball well and not being a star athlete.

You do a little dancing and a little fighting in the film. Do you enjoy those kinds of scenes that use your body in different ways?

Yes and no. I love it so much when I do a film like Transporter Refueled and Deadpool and live and train like an athlete. I loved The Model because I have one punch in it, and I don’t have to practice Filipino knife-and-stick fighting. I thought that, because I had one punch, I was going to nail it. And Mads said, “Shane is not a fighter, it’s not a superhero punch.” So I tried to punch a little wrong, and I kept making the punch worse. I had to redo it eight times! I phoned my trainer and told him, “You trained me too well!” It was fun to do a movie without fighting, but I don’t want to do that in every movie. I get beaten up in Tau, the film I’m shooting now, so I’m about variation. I’m about growing. I need to grow emotionally and physically. I don’t want to be predictable. I won’t be. People will have an impression of me that will be crushed every two years. I won’t let myself be defined by any role.

Shane tells the models before one shoot, “I want to see your soul in it.” How did you put your soul into your performance?

I love that line, and I try to do that every scene. Real human emotion is always interesting. I prepare and study the text, so when I turn up on set, I have an instinct where I go with it so I can live the scene and be free in it—then I can convey real human emotion. If I can convey that I’m not pretending to be nervous or happy, then I’m putting my soul into it. I’m still working on it. I’m improving with every movie. Maybe I’ll never get it, but my overriding aim is to put my soul into it and get better and live the scene like Jack Nicholson, Steve Buscemi, or Dustin Hoffman. To live each scene like Marlon Brando. As I tell my martial-arts trainer, “I’m a slow learner, but I’m a learner.”

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