The Den Of Geek interview: Danny John-Jules
Famous as Cat from Red Dwarf, Danny chats with us about whether there'll be a Red Dwarf movie, Guillermo Del Toro, Maid Marion and LOADS more...
Danny John-Jules made his name in the UK -and eventually worldwide - as the flamboyant 'Cat' in the cult sci-fi series Red Dwarf, but has many more strands to a busy career, appearing in the children's hit show Maid Marion And Her Merry Men, Blade II under Guillermo Del Toro, Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and a great deal more. Currently he can be found as down-at-heel fight promoter Harley in the DVD release Sucker Punch. He's a man of strong opinions too...
It's been commented that your character in Sucker Punch is very like Arthur Daley...
Who said that?!
Um, just one of our editorial staff.
Yeah, they're right. He's like Del Boy actually - bit like [Red Dwarf's]Cat , he's an anomaly; you can't put your finger on him. Cat's ethnic background is never explained in Red Dwarf - a white guy could play it. It's the same with Harley, which is what led me to the role. Everybody knows a Harley. The chances of being cast in a UK film like this is usually zero: if you're an English bloke in this kind of story you're Vinnie Jones. There are so few films with a black lead - it's a first not to be a drug dealer, footballer or athlete. It was worth doing for that fact even though it had no budget. Really the film's like Only Fools and Horses meets Fight Club - it's comedy and violence and one balances out the other. There's nothing funny about the fighting.
There is a lot of pretty explicit violence...
Violence sells. Look at some of the blockbuster movies - Sucker Punch is like Pride and Prejudice next to The Terminator. It's something that's out there; nowadays you can watch cage fighting on Sky. The film's not about the fighting, it's about someone wanting revenge - there are no drugs, no one dies...about twenty people die in the first ten minutes of The Terminator! It's a 'good old romp' and the characters are funny.
What was your experience of working with Antonio Fargas?
I actually bumped into him one day and said, "I'm doing this film and it'd be great if you could do a cameo". Two days later he was on site. It really was like that. The script was rejigged to accommodate him so he doesn't look out of place - he's a real person, not a person who's been drafted in.
Do you think not having more big Hollywood names in Sucker Punch has been a positive thing?
One of the things he [the director] wanted to do the film for was to show it can be done with no money. We changed cameras four times. One day we got to work and they said, "We're waiting for a camera to turn up" - turned out the owner had sold it! Had to get another one. You've got to remember that the film was done on the cheap; when we were trying to get the post-production done with the Film Council, they laughed at it - they said, "Action, adventure and comedy don't come together; it'll never work." Okay, think about Rush Hour 3. The British Film Council think a film like that doesn't work. £600m later and Rush Hour "doesn't work".
Did not having a fixed genre not work to your advantage, then?
Where there's a big British hit film that cuts the mustard, it had an individual person who's written and starred in it - Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, Sacha Baron-Cohen...you will see an individual. But most people wouldn't get a commission. If you've got a plot like Pride and Prejudice, you'll get funded up to the eyeballs by the BFC - they're still touting the "great British ass" and that's how they see us. Americans can't deal with our films without parasols and cucumber sandwiches...so we promise that, which is why we get no respect in other genres. It's all about the "British ass."
We've taken away the flexibility and variety in UK films so we don't have much scope. Take Kidulthood. The Film Council refused to back Kidulthood. If you want a hit film, get turned down by BFC and you're onto a winner. The Lottery gave out £100m to make films and none of them made money. Half of them never got made. They squandered the dough for 100 first-time directors. I'd rather do a film for no money that's got decent characters.
How were you treated in Hollywood?
I got the role, casting put me up for one line and I got a bigger part. The Americans knew what appealed. Something ain't right - America's supposed to have the biggest nutters out there but they're hiring British black people. Del Toro absolutely treated me like anyone else - he came to England and hired me, I didn't have to go out there. If that guy gave me the job it's my duty to make him think he hasn't made a mistake, so I was prepared for what I had to do. I built up in Tenerife for two weeks and in the first week of filming I had a fight with Wesley Snipes. It took a week to film and I did my own stunts. I've got no complaints. I was treated well, did my job, got paid.
Would you do another 'horror'-type film?
Yeah, I would do another horror. It's about the characters, you know when you're onto something. You perform better when you understand the character - if you believe, people will believe. I knew the kinds of character that Del Toro was talking about, even though the casting agent was laughing. I did no more and no less than I needed to. The fight directors were putting me through falls - I just learnt and learnt a lot. A hell of a lot. It was a good experience.
The big question: will there ever be a Red Dwarf film?
No Red Dwarf film. Typical of England - even a film with a guaranteed audience it can't get made. There's too much politics. The writers split up, falling out with the director...it's personalities. Why wouldn't you want to make it? It's guaranteed to make money! I have big trouble answering questions like this, and they get asked a lot. I never got a straight answer.
I've not been asked to play Cat again and there's no new series. The BBC have lost hope - they were game to make another series. Everyone in the cast is with you on this. If they phoned up tomorrow, they'd get a movie made. It's just really...just 'don't know'. someone needs to tie Doug Naylor down and get a definite answer. He's the only person who can answer these questions, he holds the key to it all. No one's been able to do it - the only person who can answer that question hasn't spoken.
I understand you got the Red Dwarf part by turning up late to the audition and in a zoot suit...
That pink suit Cat wore was a copy of my suit from the audition. I've still got the original suit in the wardrobe. The guy who bought the pink suit from the set on eBay got me on MySpace and said, "I'm selling the suit, you should buy it." I told him, "There was two pink suits and you got number two. I've got the pink suit that that pink suit was copied from!"
Someone suggested you for the new Doctor Who: would you do it?
I would do it. I can roll my eyes and overact. With Doctor Who, with the script you have, and the history, I think that people are actually playing the legend rather than the character. I've been to sci-fi conventions, and I've met every Doctor Who and assistant.
I remember doing children's stories with Sophie Aldred, there's photos of me and Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker, I've met all of those guys. I looked at them all and thought "I wouldn't be like any of them", and they've all been different.
The great thing about the Doctor is that everyone that has watched it is always going to be like, "He was better than him, he was better than him..." - it all comes down to taste. Put a hundred Doctor Who fans in a room and they will all have a different idea. Look at the real world. Nine times out of ten a doctor would be Asian. And why hasn't there been a woman? There's never been one because 'assistant' tends to ring around your ears when women are mentioned. "Will he or won't he", that's what she's there for. "Is he going to shag her?" There are so many actors in the world that you could be more different with the casting - you could have a young guy from Zimbabwe, but it's all white and middle-class.
Let's move onto Maid Marian and her Merry Men, which is my personal favourite. They're making me review the box-set beause I could sing the theme tune from start to finish...
Really? That's cool! Tony Robinson wrote a hell of a show. A Rasta Merry Man hadn't been seen before and suddenly you've got Men In Tights with black guys. The biggest comedian on TV, Dave Chappelle, earned lot of characters in that type of role, medieval guys...and it all came AFTER Maid Marian. Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood? Tony Robinson did it first doing a cockney rasta.
Do you have a favourite song from the show?
No, but the one that's big is the outtake from 'Action' - the outake when I hit the tree, do you remember? People are always trying to buy that clip! In Holland I'm famous for that! I was out there doing some work trying to explain who I was and I said, "Red Dwarf? Blade II? Uh...rasta who hits the tree?" and it's like, "Oh yeah!". In the USA they think I'm a reggae singer doing a pop video. If you Google it you'll find they've lied about where it's from - it's actually been hyped up and made it more viewable by saying it's not just acting.
Everyone sang a song...but I think that Tony was naive. I can tell a story about how Barrington really came about - originally he was called Winstone. Tony meant it to sound mediaeval, as in 'WinSTONE', but I had a gentle chat and said, "There's about four black characters on TV and they're all called Winstone - Eamonn Walker, Lenry Henry, someone on EastEnders...actors will switch off." He changed it to Barrington because he listened and wasn't too proud to think he knew it all.
When it came to the director, he was under the impression you couldn't be funny with a beard. I said, "If you want me to play a rasta, they don't shave. If I'm playing him I want him to look like a real rasta. You're not going to play a real typical jewish guy without a dark suit and big hat and kiss curls, you couldn't do that; so you can't tamper with the rasta."
Do you think that Maid Marian would work as a show now, or would political correctness get in the way?
You know how many people say 'Bring back Maid Marian'? The problem with the PC thing is that it's like, "We've got to hire x amount of black people". What's happened is that neglect has caused them to level up to normal levels in a short space of time, so all people see is the idea of positive discrimination. If it had been done right in the first place they wouldn't have to do it now. And they can only do what they're told. Imagine if the Commissioner at the BBC was black, would people be up in arms if he commissioned a white guy? Why is it so special for white guys to commission black guys?
There are four million black people who pay the TV licence, what's that about £500m? What do we get out of it? Everyone has a right to be pissed off - they haven't even got a sitcom! The BBC are happy to take £500m, but not prepared to give value for money; that's why there's this hate-hate relationship with the media. The Film Council is publicly-funded, but they don't make 'black movies', there are no black actors and they're not funding black directors...
That's not art. Art is colourblind - the only colour that's meant to be in art is on the canvas. But if you're telling me all their decisions are artistic, they're liars. We're paying for entertainment. Many others scream about it only being £150 a year...if someone came up to you and stole £150 from you, you'd object. They up come to people like me in the street and ask when they will get a decent show, "When are you going to do a decent black show?". I say, "When are you going to stop paying the £150?"
I asked Spike Lee, "When are you going to make a film here?". I told him the same story and he was like, "What?!". He couldn't understand it, it would never happen in America, there's no way it could happen in the USA and not give value for money. There's be riots, people walking around the White House.
Would you be the person who writes that 'black show'?
There's loads of writers out there already. Look at BBC Talent - they spend all this money, the talent was already in the BBC! They already had people writing and producing and trying to get a foot on the ladder. They're trying to run competitions to write sitcoms - there's hundreds of writers doing it! Noel Clarke, people who have ten times the experience. But he got lucky - Adulthood, number one. There you have it.
Stuff about 'it doesn't sell' is rubbish; they made the first film for £125k and it took ten million at the box office.
If you thought about it long enough, you'd get totally depressed. You keep trying to educate but, like anything, it's jobs for the boys. I watch some stuff on TV and it's like, how does it get on the telly? Then you think, "Shit, I've paid for that. Every time some crap comes on they [black people] are thinking about it, "I paid for the sandwiches at the tea break". They've got every right to be pissed off, making tripe with our money. Why do you think they keep putting adverts out about the TV licence? Those adverts aren't talking to white people because they know it's a fallacy. If the white general public were displeased there would be uproar, it wouldn't be rabble-rousing, it'd be "This is serious!". Laws would get changed. It would be done tomorrow. Granny Smith don't give a monkey's, as long as Corrie's on.
I don't wanna see some footballer swiv acting, or some crappy presenter who looks bored because it 'looks trendy'. I'm sick of the 't4 look', those presenters who haven't washed for a week and sit up there there going, "Hey groovy, Glastonbury man". Hello? Can we start with some diction and the basic stuff that makes a presenter?
You started your career in the West End. Has that now lost its importance?
The West End has lost its value. It's all game show competitors. The West End is full of game show people, every single one of them. And they know what's going on in the BBC; how can you not know? It's just the status quo and it's been run like that for so long that the BBC is crumbling beneath its buildings. They're selling off TV Centre! They downsize everything and if you don't change you will go under. They're all crying about knife crime and drugs and hoodies - why?! People have been telling them for years! Why are they closing playgrounds? We've had twenty years of selling them off.
The greed of the Eighties is coming back to haunt us. Dame Shirley Porter selling off cemetaries, there you have it. They've been writing about it for years - if you don't supply kids with something to do, this is what you find. Not too long ago, 'hoodie' was a covert name the tabloids used for black guys hanging around on street corners. They kept using it and now 'hoodie' is doing bad things. Go back and look - the black feral youth but of course, white kids wear them too. Pathetic when you think aout it. Everyone hears 'bling'. That was once was crotch-grabbing rappers. Now News at Ten readers have bling. It's just so funny, it's laughable. Everybody's 'urban' - what does that mean? I don't understand what that means. There's no 'black' music, but 'urban music'.
Does all this influence how you choose your parts?
I've been lucky to have parts land in my lap. With Maid Marian it was, "Who can we get in for Winstone, how about the guy from Red Dwarf?". And Storymakers - originally they had Derek Griffiths to do it, and he didn't want to be typecast. It was an honour to step into his shoes, and it went on to be very successful. I've been lucky. I've never had a BBC contract - Jonathan Ross gets an £18m contract and I've never been invited for cup of tea. That's the way it is. I couldn't point out the Commissioner for BBC1 or BBC2 because never been in that circle. I've never been allowed to hobnob.
Where do you think your future lies now?
I always say that my future's in good work. I've been lucky to land good shows and I'm more into quality than quality. Most people get ten shows - one good and nine duff. I've been in four, all good. Most actors are happy with one hit show. Looked at like that, if I never worked again, I've done great TV that people will remember.
You know Sucker Punch has got 9.1 out of 10 on IMDB?
Has it really got that? Wow. We had no budget, no PR firm, we haven't got the machinery so that's amazing. I'm going to go and look at that - I'm going on there as soon as I get off the phone! When you've got a low budget, just a simple thing like a great review...I'm really proud of the film, I'd put it up against anything made with massive bdgets. I want this film to be like the Rocky Horror Show - not everyone's cup of tea, but if they're watching in thirty years' time I would consider it cult. I wanted it to be cult rather than film industry 'slap on the back' - I want people to have to find it, have to hear about it from a friend rather than TV, not push for a month and then gone. I want them to be buying DVD in three years' time, fighting for it on eBay.
I say to people, "Don't take my word for it, have a watch and tell me and your friends what you think". Everybody knows where the bits are that could have been better; that is not lack of art, that's lack of money. Take away the money and lack of picture quality and ropey sound, whatever. If you take it all away and judge it on an artistic level you get a different judgement.
Malcolm, who wrote it, the producer...talk to them, they will say the same thing. I was the so-called 'name' who could give the character a realistic edge, not just a bigger actor who was used whether they were right for the part or not. I was right for the part because I understood, not because I was black. I want it to have a cult following. Joe Public can feel part of it. Everybody knows a Harley.
Danny John-Jules, thank you very much!
Sucker Punch is out now