Interview – Junkyard Boys: Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas on tackling The Selfish Giant
James R | On 27, Oct 2013
“I don’t think my mum were that bothered when I first told her!” laughs Conner Chapman at the UK premiere of The Selfish Giant at the London Film Festival.
Alongside 16 year old Shaun Thomas, Conner (15) makes his screen debut in Clio Barnard’s heart-rending story about two boys who grow up in poverty-stricken Bradford, excluded from school – and society.
Their performances in the film are nothing short of astounding. It’s hard to believe that neither have ever acted before. In fact, they almost didn’t end up in the film at all.
“In my school, from year 7 to 9, everyone gets put in a performing arts class and I never really thought acting would be for me. I never really tried to act,” Shaun (from Holme Wood) tells a small group of press on the red carpet. Shaun, it turns out, would sooner have worked with horses.
“The school put me on this programme called The Horse Watch where you go to stables and work with horses and stuff like that.”
Shaun almost got kicked out from school for misbehaving, he admits, but then Film4 appeared looking for people to play the two parts of loud, angry Arbor and quiet, loyal Swifty.
“One of the teachers came to me and told me Film4 were there to do some auditions and I didn’t think much of it,” Shaun, who plays Swifty, explains. “But my other teacher [Mrs. Duff], she told me ‘Shaun, this is perfect for you…'”
“I thought it were something small like a documentary or something like that,” he adds. “Luckily, I ended up doing it.”
“What were the question?” chirps Conner (from Buttershaw), who’s clearly excited just to be at the film premiere. He explains that he had no plans to act either – unless it could help him skip school.
“A mate came up to remind me about the auditions so I just thought ‘Yeah, I can go down there and get out of my lessons…'”
The teens had no training going into the movie, a fact that gives their turns a raw quality missing from lots of better-known child actors. They hadn’t even read a script before.
“We got told to sit down and read the script,” recalls Conner, speaking to Red Carpet News TV. “It were just like reading a book but with all the paragraphs that aren’t in the film and that.”
“Clio was always calm and kind and caring. I never heard her shout. Ever.”
When child actors get their first roles, they’re often cast to play something similar to themselves. Conner admits he can identify with Arbor’s situation.
“I used to get a lot of stick from people in school cos I used to go scrapping myself to earn myself money.”
But while their circumstances are accurate, the couple couldn’t be more different to their on-screen counterparts. Pushy, selfish and prone to bouts of anger, Arbor spends much of the film being, well, a dick. Conner smiles at the description.
“When I’m out with Swifty and swearing and that – that’s me and my mates on the streets,” he says. “When he’s, like, being a nob head and that,” he adds, “that’s not me.”
Shaun shares Swifty’s love of horses; a passion that gave his role an added authenticity.
“Yeah, in real life I do love horses because where I grow up, that’s what everybody does. You get middle-aged people going around collecting scrap metal to pay for food and gas and the electric, just to live really.”
Swifty spends a lot of his screen time handling horses, racing them or calming them down after Arbor annoys them. When Swifty tells local junkyard dealer Kitten, who owns the animal, to loosen the reins, that’s Shaun’s personal experience showing through.
“If horses kick off and stuff – it’s happened a few times where horses have tried running away with me and stuff like that and you just – I dunno, it’s hard to explain,” says Shaun. “You just gotta stay calm with them.”
Apart from the equine affection, though, Shaun says he’s not like his character either.
“I’m similar in the way with the horses and that,” he agrees. “When Swifty’s quiet and he’s very timid – when people have a go at him, he don’t say nothing back? That’s not me!”
So he’s closer to Arbor in real life, then? Shaun laughs. “Yeah!”
Their ability to act against type – and do it so well – helps create a believable bond between the two leads; a friendship that you can engage with, even as their conditions start to tear it apart.
Part of the credit for their performances, of course, must go to director Clio Barnard, who coaxes some extraordinary emotions out of her inexperienced non-actors. Conner seems to spend half of the film punching his bed and screaming. How did they get that kind of intense behaviour from Conner?
“They’d give you Double Deckers and just kept you up!” he grins. Then tries to find the words. “That bit at the beginning where I’m banging on the bed like I’ve got ADHD… just… I don’t know!”
It’s not based on any of his own mates with similar conditions?
“No, not really. I don’t know that none of my mates have got ADHD, I don’t think.”
When they talk about the time on set, you can hear the respect in their voices for Clio.
“She was always calm and kind and caring,” says Conner. “I never heard her shout. Ever.”
Her calm approach goes right back to the start of the project. “We had rehearsals and the director, Clio, took us out on the town for bonding sessions to get to know each other,” explains Shaun.
“I never really thought acting would be for me.”
It’s surprising to hear that they weren’t best friends beforehand. Now, though, there’s no question about it. Standing side by side on the red carpet, they don’t stop joking with each other. Even after appearing at the Cannes Film Festival, the buzz of a film premiere seems like something from another world.
“It’s well good getting told you’re a star and people coming up and telling you they loved your film and that!” enthuses Conner, who talks about how they went to a “big London studio” after the six-week shoot for ADR.
He sums up the experience in two words: “It’s different.”
The only way the occasion could be more special is if they all rode up the red carpet on a horse.
“I don’t think horses can run the full length of the M1!” laughs Shaun.
In a couple of days, though, they’ll be back in the classroom – and normal life will resume. How have their mates reacted to the whole thing? Are they now famous in the playground?
“I didn’t really see them while we were filming,” says Conner. “Then, when we went back to school after that six week, you got one or two, like, jealous ones who weren’t coming up to you. Others were just normal.”
“School have actually made a timetable to fit me…”
Now they’ve had a taste at acting, is it something they plan to continue? College, after all, is coming up soon…
Shaun’s clearly been bitten by the bug.
“I’m definitely going to try and get more!” he replies quickly. “Now I go to Sixth Form to do drama so I can like expand my acting and act a different range of characters and understand scripts in different formats and that.”
The fact that he has fewer hours in school works in his favour – and unlike Arbor and Swifty, his school sounds supportive.
“School have actually made a timetable to fit me,” Shaun explains, “so, like, if I do have to go out of school I won’t miss out on much.”
It’s a change in tune from his earlier misbehaviour too.
At one year his junior, Conner is still juggling GCSEs and his burgeoning ambition: “I’m only in Year 10 so I’ve still got to do full lessons and that. I’ve got to get a license if I want to go out of school.”
They’re not letting anything stop them, though. After going for several auctions, they’ve got a callback the following morning for a feature film.
“We’ve got another audition on Friday what’s being filmed in Ireland to be brothers,” adds Shaun.
That means that someone thinks they look alike. How do they feel about that?
Shaun pats Conner on the shoulder and adopts a butch tone. “He’s a lucky kid!”
When asked by the Associated Press what kind of films they want to do in the future, Conner says action films would be fun. Shaun says he’d “like to be like the Wayans brothers”.
It’s telling that they talk about acting together: with such fondness between them, they really could pass for siblings.
The closeness among the other actors in the cast is visible, too: when Steve Evetts, who plays Swifty’s father, arrives, he walks up behind the boys, puts him arms around them and sings what sounds like “Mahna Mahna” from The Muppet Show.
The family vibe feels even stronger thanks to the other adults standing nearby. Every time you turn around, you see a proud mum looking on, smiling at their son.
“I don’t think my mum were that bothered when I first told her!” laughs Conner. “Now you look at the outcome and that and you realise just what you’ve done.”
What have they done? They’ve created possibly the best British film of the year. And made a decision: not to be excluded.
The Selfish Giant is available on All 4 until 6th August 2020.