Ben Bailey Smith (London, 44 years old) plays one of the villains of Andorthe new series of starwars which Disney+ premieres on September 21. This is the penultimate reinvention of Smith, an artist who started out as a rapper, then became a stand-up comedian, has written several children’s books and now only receives offers for dramatic roles. Andor it’s a spinoff and prequel to rogue one (2016), which in turn was a spin offprequel to the Star Wars (1977) original, centered on the rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), tasked with obtaining the plans for the Death Star, which will one day help Luke Skywalker destroy it. The creator of the series is Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the saga Bourne who made his directorial debut with thriller Michael Clayton (2007). Disney has not revealed many more details about Andor. Not even its protagonists.
“Disney is so secretive that they didn’t tell us anything,” says Ben Bailey Smith from London via video call. “I never saw a completed script in all the time I was working on the series. They only gave me my own scenes and, once the day of the shoot arrived, they explained the context to me. About. I had never worked in those conditions.
Two years ago Smith made a casting for a military drama titled Pilgrim. The only instructions he received were: “You are an army sergeant who tells off his soldiers”. Days later they told him that he had gotten the job. And that it was actually starwars. “I was riding a bike, I stopped and started laughing. I could’nt believe it. It would be a good job for any actor, but I’m obsessed with starwars since I was a child, all my life, because return of the jedi It was the first movie I saw in the cinema. I had done casting for Onlyfor the role of Lando Calrissian [que finalmente interpretó Donald Glover]but I never thought it could happen to me”, he confesses.
Secrecy was maintained throughout the shoot. The signs in the dressing rooms had false names, the scripts were still titled Pilgrim and the production sheets with the order of the day (indicating who works that day, at what time and when is their break) were also false. The actors walked from their dressing room to the set covered with huge dark blankets to prevent a drone from taking pictures of them. And not even shooting a scene shed light on the plot of the series.
“It was a problem when it came to pronouncing the dialogues, because sometimes I had to say phrases that didn’t make sense, intergalactic jargon, and I thought: ‘What the hell am I talking about?'” explains the actor. “There was a day when the director approached me and said: ‘OK, we’re going to do it again but with a little more urgency, there’s a planet that’s going to explode.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah? Well, I didn’t know. Thanks for letting me know. Yes, it was difficult.”
What he can reveal about his character (or rather, what he knows about his character) is that his name is Blevins and he’s one of the bad guys. “He is a military man of the Empire, very sneaky and devious in his plan to climb the ranks at the cost of anything and anyone. He is the type of person who would stab you in the back if he could get higher. The Empire operates like the mafia, so the higher you are the less chance you have of being liquidated, ”he reasons.
Officer Blevens has the enemy at home. Officer Deedra Mero, played by Denise Gough, has just arrived in the Empire, she’s the fashionable soldier, and she wants Blevins’ job. “Within the Empire we are at war with each other,” reveals the actor. “It reminded me a bit of the Conservative Party, fighting each other all the time for control of the universe.”
Tacos in 30 different languages
Ben Bailey Smith grew up in Kilburn, a working-class neighborhood in north London. His sister is the famous novelist Zadie Smith. In his house there was always access to culture despite economic limitations. “In my neighborhood there was a mixture of Irish and Caribbean. It was hard, but it never seemed dangerous to me. I didn’t feel out of place until much later, when I started traveling and saw that in other regions the separations by race are much more delimited. That there are 45 kilometers of poor people and then a city of rich people. London is not like that. The area where I grew up is one of the most diverse in the UK. When I was ten years old I could say tacos in 30 different languages.
Growing up in Killburn taught him to extricate himself from sticky situations through glibness, a gift he says is key to his career as a rapper and stand-up comedian. “I learned as a child to be quick and resourceful to save my skin,” he says. What attracted her most to rapping was its tension: none of his vinyl, which he bought secondhand with his sister Zadie for 99 pence, sounded as urgent as the rappers in his neighborhood. “If you had artistic concerns, whether it was painting or music, you needed money to pay for classes or buy an instrument. but to do breakdancing, beatboxing either graffiti nothing was needed. Just yourself,” she assures.
Smith created a rapper alter ego and named him Doc Brown after the scientist from Return to the future (1985), one of his favorite movies. He won over the London battle rap circuit and went on to record several CDs at his home that he himself sold at independent record stores. But back then no one could make a living from rap and Smith retired Doc Brown. “I lost faith,” he admits. “It was not my decision. My daughter was born in 2005, she wasn’t making any money, and she had to support a baby.” Smith focused on his “real job” as coordinator of a youth center in North London.
Months later a friend asked him for help with some dialogue for a series of British comedian Lennie Henry on the BBC. The assignment was to polish them to make them sound more believable, more from the street. Smith fell in favor with the producer of the series, who encouraged him to try it as a monologist. “I got on stage, I told my story and no one laughed. He had no joke. But since I didn’t consider myself funny, I didn’t care, ”he recalls. “The guy in the room told me that it was fine, but that jokes were needed. So I included several, came back the next month and people didn’t laugh either.” At some point he must have gotten the public to jump through hoops, because five years later he was collaborating with Ricky Gervais on his series Derek.
Comedy gave him the musical success that rap had denied him. She recorded a parody song with Gervais, Equality Streetfor a charity comedy show that went viral on social media in 2012 and went on to hit #1 on iTunes in the UK, which has a certain poetry to it because Smith wrote it as revenge against the record industry.
In recent years Smith has published four children’s books and created a children’s program on the BBC, The Four O’Clock Club, which won the Bafta award from the British television academy. But it is in his latest transformation, that of dramatic actor, that Ben Bailey Smith is chaining more jobs than ever.
This summer it premiered on Netflix Persuasionthe adaptation of Jane Austen with Dakota Johnson that has outraged the strictest Austenists because it mixes Austen with Bridget Jones, fleabag either The Bridgertons. Johnson talks to the camera and exclaims things like “he’s a ten”, “we’re exes” or “my sister is a total narcissist”. “Many people have been pissed off because they consider that if something is old, if you don’t take it very seriously, it’s disrespectful. We wanted to do something different, irreverent. If you want the other, go see the other version,” suggests Smith, who plays heir Charles Musgrove.
The specialized critics, Austenists or not, have not liked it too much Persuasion. Smith prefers not to give it importance and celebrate that the film was the most watched on Netflix in the United Kingdom the weekend of its premiere (in Spain it was in third position). “It’s the first thing I’ve done that has been unanimously slammed by critics. But a movie is a movie, man. People will never know how hard it is to make a bad movie. So I won’t even tell you a good one”.
A few years ago Smith couldn’t even have made this film, good or bad. But The Bridgertons, the period serial set in the 19th century with casting of racially diverse, has changed things and now calls for castings they no longer indicate a specific race. The actor has noted the increased volume of offers. Smith has taken advantage of both Persuasion What Andor to give free rein to his “posh accent”, to the point that the director of the film asked him to tone it down. “When you come from where I come from you never get offered high-class roles and I was so excited to play the rich man that I put on an incredibly pasty accent. In starwars I sound very posh because I saw my character as one of those army officers who don’t fight but send other guys to die. And those kinds of officers are always posh.”
That was all the room he had to build his character, because Andor it was not the place to display his improvisational talents. “In starwars you can’t improvise. I would have liked to play a little more, but dad Disney is not going to let you do it, ”she jokes. What he was able to play with is the gadgets on the set. The series takes place before the original trilogy, so it had to fit with the seventies aesthetic of that (today called formicapunk either mainframe chic). This means not only that Captain Blevins is wearing “a little Afro”, but also that 80% of the sets were physical constructions, not digital. “It was overwhelming to enter the set sometimes. For one sequence they built an entire alien world with houses, canteens and shops. It was a bit like being in Disneyland, you could touch everything.”
Smith was impressed to see the efficiency of the Disney machine at full throttle up close. Filming took place during the worst months of covid, so there were many protocols to follow and no time to lose. “These people know what they’re doing, let’s put it that way.” On the first day of filming, Smith saw actor Stellan Skarsgard in line to take an antigen test. They did not cross again. “The set was huge,” he says.
After everything he’s been through, Sam Bailey Smith is really looking forward to its premiere Andor. First, to upload a photo of himself dressed as Darth Vader on Instagram when he was eight years old. Second, to finally understand what he was doing. “When you’re recording it you don’t know what’s going on. Now I can form an opinion. I’m looking forward to seeing it,” he states. “I am aware that this does not happen to everyone,” he says. “So I’m going to keep doing it, I’m going to keep mowing the hay as long as the sun shines. And the system devours me and spits me out tomorrow, I’ll go back to my computer, to my notebook, to write jokes. And in a year I will be on stage counting them”. But you can always say that he went out in starwars. “Sure, I’ll take that.”