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Meet the new Transporter: Ed Skrein has refueled the action franchise

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Mike Marsland/WireImage

Some actors may worry about being hostage to a franchise, but Ed Skrein is just enjoying the ride. Or, should we say, the drive. That’s exactly what he does with top-gear swagger in The Transporter Refueled, taking the wheel from Jason Statham, who played the high-demand chauffeur in three previous movies. “To inhabit this character and wear his shoes and his suit and such,” says the 32-year-old actor. “I’d say that’s a blessing.”

And while taking over the title role in the Luc Besson-produced Transporter film certainly puts Skrien on the map, it’s his role as the main villain in next year’s much anticipated Deadpool (out Feb. 12) that could rocket him into the stratosphere. The actor and musician — he’s released two rap albums — spoke to EW about the life experiences that have shaped him, including his three-episode stint on Game of Thrones, and the strength it took to refuse a rough-cut screening of Deadpool.

Entertainment Weekly: You’ve spoken about not being a classically trained actor.

Ed Skrein: Yeah, I went to school for painting. I was a teacher as well, a swimming coach, and a sports coach. Those are still passions of mine and there are overlaps between those industries and this one.

So you were a sports coach and you’d released an LP and an album. How did you find yourself even acting in a movie to begin with?

My friend Ben Drew, who I’d collaborated with as a musician, wrote a part for me in his first feature, called Ill Manors. Ben and I have known each other since we were in our teens and he’s godfather to my son. I trust him whole-heartedly, and when he said he’d written something for me, it sounded like an interesting challenge. I like to try things I’m not necessary supposed to do.

What was it like to be on a film set?

It was a huge step outside my comfort zone. I felt out of my depth. And it was a difficult shoot. It was a real baptism of fire but that was a great start for me, to now go onto bigger movies like Transporter and Deadpool, while still keeping up with the smaller-budget independent movies. When you start with a film that was incredibly difficult and dark and with a lot of tension on set, the only way is up.

And also in Ill Manors, you were a pretty bad guy. You started your movie career playing a villain.

I wouldn’t call him a villain. He was a sociopath and a drug dealer, definitely. But the reason why that project meant so much to me and Ben was that these were the people we grew up with. That character that I played, who had the same name as me, was an amalgamation of about three or four different people I’d grown up with. He’d just been beaten by society. These were people who’d grown up without the solid foundation of family structure that I had.

So did you feel like you needed to be extra authentic?

To my detriment, yes. From the moment I woke up in the morning I’d start getting into character and get really in depth about it. Whereas now I’m able to control the variables a bit more and turn it on and off a bit better, which is a much more preferable way of working.

Right, not all art is suffering.

I remember saying to Ben afterwards, “This is horrible. If I do three of these a year I’ll lose my mind.”

It’s been written about how you were stabbed by a street gang when you were 17. Is that an accurate story or has it been overblown a bit?

Yeah, there was a degree of sensationalism around that. During the publicity surrounding Ill Manors, the press kind of wanted to make us in the film out be these East London thugs. This was 2012 and there was a fair deal of unrest in London. We had the riots in 2011. The Olympics were coming and London was building million-dollar stadiums but weren’t fixing the [public housing] right close by it. Socially, it was an interesting time for the press to emphasize that aspect of me. But, yes, I was stabbed when I was 17 and it was a part of my journey and an important crossroads in my life. It helped me to become the calm, pacifist, more reflective person that I’m trying to be now.

What happened between Ill Manors and you getting a role on one of the biggest shows on television, Game of Thrones?

I thought Ill Manors would be the only movie I’d ever do. But the first assistant director was working next on a film called Piggy and they were looking for a sick bastard and he said, “I know the guy.” And so that was positive to feel that somebody would recommend you. Then I had a cameo in a film called The Sweeney with Ray Winstone and Haley Atwell. It was just a couple of scenes and I had about three lines, but it was all about development. And after that I started to go out on auditions. And from the beginning I really enjoyed auditioning and the process of it. It always felt like game time, if you’re a football or soccer player. You need to be on the pitch.

So is that how you felt when you auditioned for HBO?

Yeah, I was prepared and really confident. And that was an empowering moment for me. I could feel people were very excited and at the audition I could feel the energy changing around me. Inside my mind I still felt like I still needed to improve. Going into every job with that mentality, you just want to learn from those more experienced. If I watch every movie that I’ve done, I can spot the little epiphanies I’ve had along the way. I want that to continue.

You played Daario for three episodes on Game of Thrones and it’s been suggested that you left the show to do Transporter. Was that it?

No. I mean, it wasn’t. That’s what been reported in the press but it was a lot more political than that. My plan was to stay with Game of Thrones for the long haul. That was always my plan. I would have loved to. It was a wonderful experience, but politics led to us parting ways. And from there I just said, “Okay, look forward, be positive. Keep calm and carry on.” That’s my mentality when things go well, so I stay grounded and not get to overwhelmed by the hype, and it’s my mentality when the plans change.

Between Game of Thrones and Transporter and Deadpool, it’s interesting that you’re identified — or about to be identified — with three roles.

And what I like is that all of them are so different, physically and character wise. And that’s just something I want to keep exploring. All of these characters that I’ve been lucky enough to inhabit and wear their shoes and such, they’ve been interesting in different ways. Whether its just one dance with them or more than one with any of them, I just take that as a bonus.

Certain actors have worried of the danger of getting contracted into long franchises.

Oh, the things that we worry about. I’m in a place where I’m not gonna worry about things like that. From my experience, we worry about one thing and then something else that’s a hundred times more f—ed up ends up happening. The rug comes out from under your feet and the thing you were worried about is nothing. Plus, to be contracted to more work, I’d be wary of looking at it as a negative. If something’s meant to be, it will be.

MICHAEL MULLER for EW

One of the things I liked about the new Transporter movie is how strong the female characters are. At first it looks like Robert Palmer and his backup dancers, but the women are really running the show. Did that appeal to you?

Oh, completely. I think it’s a great thing. There’s this power struggle between Frank and the girls, but most of the time, Frank’s out of the conversation. And that’s because of the girls. All day I’m surrounded by such strong women, and I love it when art imitates life in that way. Everywhere I look there are strong women. It’s the same on a lot of the jobs I work on. There are incredible female producers and directors and there should be more. Not only that, but what about the strong dynamic mothers who have raised a lot of our leaders? It’s about time that we represented that accurately in movies.

It’s not coming out for awhile, but have you seen Deadpool​, in which you play the villain Ajax?

No. I’ve seen some of it. I’m not someone who gets overly hyped about stuff, but the footage I’ve seen has made me very excited. Especially when I saw the fight sequences. They all looked incredible.

What can you say about making it?

Well, it was great to build on the foundation of the physicality and the stunt sequences that I did on Transporter. To take it to another level on Deadpool was an absolute joy. I was able to enjoy the action sequences a little bit more because I wasn’t being so hard on myself. I could sort of live it and be free because the muscle memory had kicked in by then. Plus, the writers were on set and as we went on we got a little bit more collaborative.

It seems like exactly the movie that so many fans of superhero movies have been waiting for.

There’s a wonderful juxtaposition. It’s got the attitude of a low-budget European art film combined with the action set pieces of a huge action film. We were shooting fight scenes with 150 crew members and these huge cranes and then we’d be a tiny crew, shooting in dirty bars and strip clubs. And to be a part of that, for me, was a great learning curve. I think [director] Tim Miller helped me grow as an actor. I liked his notes, they were always interesting.

What did his notes say?

Well, that’s between us. I’m meeting Tim for dinner tonight. And he actually said to me, when I told him I was coming to town, he said, “Do you want me to screen the movie for you?” It’s a rough cut. And I was like, “Hmm, you know what? I want to wait until it’s done and dusted with a ribbon on top.”

Oh, wow, do you know how many people would’ve torn open that Christmas present?

It used to be that way for me. But I think being in an industry where nothing is certain, where you never know what’s going on, when even if you get an offer for a job, things can still fall apart — that has changed my mentality and made me a lot more of a patient person. I suppose I need to be in this industry.

Seems like a pretty sound attitude.

But the truth is, I could easily crumble and tell Tim, “I don’t give a sh-t if it’s not finished, I need to see the movie.”

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