Ben Bailey Smith plays one of the villains in Andornew star wars series that Disney+ releases on September 21. It’s the latest reimagining of Smith, an artist who started out as a rapper, went on to become a comedian, wrote several children’s books and now only gets offers for dramatic roles. Andor is a spin-off and prequel to A thug (2016), itself a spin-off and prequel to the original star wars (1977). The new show centers on rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who is tasked with obtaining the plans for the Death Star in order to one day help Luke Skywalker destroy it. The creator of the series is Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the Thick headed saga, who made his directorial debut with the thriller Michael Clayton (2007). Disney did not reveal further details about Andor – not even its protagonists.
“Disney is so secretive. They don’t even tell us anything,” says Ben Bailey Smith from London via video call. “I never saw a full script the whole time I worked on it. They only showed me my own scenes, then on the [shooting] day explain the context. I have never done such work before in my life or since.
Two years ago Smith did a casting call for a military drama titled Pilgrim. He was only told that his role was “a sergeant major munching on soldiers”. A few days later, they told him that he got the job and that the project was actually Star Wars. “I was riding my bike, I just stopped and started laughing. I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, it would be a lot of work for an actor, but I’m a star wars maniacal. I love Star Wars and have had it since I was little. Return of the Jedi This is the first film I saw at the cinema. My relationship with Star Wars is lifelong. Being there is a dream come true. I never thought I would get the chance. I auditioned for Solo playing Lando Calrissian [who was eventually played by Donald Glover]. But it’s as close to anything Star Wars as you can get,” he says.
The shooting was held in the greatest secrecy. Locker room signs had fake names, scripts were still titled Pilgrim. Daily production sheets – showing who works what time and when is their break – were also fake. The actors went from their dressing rooms to the set wearing large dark capes to prevent drones from photographing them. And even the filming of their scenes did not inform the plot of the series.
“I also struggled with the lines, because sometimes you just say what seems like nonsensical sci-fi language, the names of the planets and intergalactic law, and you just say, what am I talking about?” , remembers the actor. “One day I was delivering a line and the director came over. He’s like, can we do it again with a little more urgency? Because this planet is about to explode. And I was like, n I didn’t know. Now I know what’s going on.
All he can reveal about his character – or rather, all he knows about his character – is that his name is Blevins and he’s one of the bad guys. “He’s an Empire guy. He’s a bad guy. He’s a very weasel, slimy guy who tries to climb the ladder at the expense of anyone and everyone else. He’s the kind of guy who will stab you in the back if it means getting up in the world. In the Empire, it’s like the mafia, because the higher you are, the less likely you are to get beat up,” he explains.
Officer Bevens has the enemy at home. Officer Deedra Mero, played by Denise Gough, has just arrived in the Empire. She’s the new kid on the block, and she wants Blevins’ job. “We are fighting within the empire,” he said. “It really reminded me of watching the Conservative government fight all the time when they should be fighting for the universe.”
Expletives in three languages
Ben Bailey Smith grew up in Kilburn, a working class area in North London. His sister is the famous novelist Zadie Smith. In his house, there was always access to culture despite economic constraints. “Kilburn was a mixture of Irish and Caribbean. The special thing about growing up in London is that we don’t have huge ghettos like in some countries. You never feel completely isolated. The area in which I grew up is one of the most diverse in the whole of the UK It’s a pretty crazy place in that respect You can meet everyone I think at the age of ten I could probably swear in three languages.
Growing up in Kilburn taught him how to use his tricks to get out of sticky situations, a gift he says is key to his career as a rapper and stand-up comedian. “Being smart and quick and cunning is a form of self-defense. Putting those things together really helped me navigate my way,” he says. What appealed to him most about rapping was his tension. : none of his vinyl records, which he bought second-hand with his sister Zadie for 99 pence, sounded as urgent as the rappers in his neighborhood.” I think that was the DIY element that I liked. If you play the trumpet or something, it’s going to cost you £300 to have the trumpet, whereas with rap you can do it,” he says.
Smith created a rapping alter ego and named him Doc Brown after the scientist from Back to the future (1985), one of his favorite films. He conquered the London fight rap circuit and went on to record several CDs at home. He sold them himself to independent record stores. But at the time, no one could make a living from rapping, and Smith retired from Doc Brown. “I lost my faith,” he admits. “It’s not a decision I made. My daughter was born in 2005. I didn’t earn any money and now I had a child to feed. Smith turned to his ‘real job’ as co-ordinator of a youth center in north London.
Months later, a friend asked him for help with dialogue for a BBC series about British comedian Lennie Henry. The mission was to refine the lines to make them more believable, more from the street. Smith hit it off with the show’s producer, who encouraged him to try stand-up comedy. “I went on stage without a plan. I just told my story and no one laughed. I walked off stage and felt nothing. I was like, whatever, I don’t care. I didn’t consider myself a comedian,” he recalls. “I chatted with the guy again and he said, you gotta write some jokes. Come back next month. So I came back and wrote some jokes and performed them. And people still weren’t laughing At some point, he must have won public favor, because five years later he was collaborating with Ricky Gervais on his series Derek.
Comedy gave Smith the musical success rap had denied him. Alongside Gervais, he recorded a parody song, “Equality Street”, for a charity comedy show that went viral on social media in 2012 and eventually reached number one on iTunes in the UK.
In recent years, Smith has published four children’s books and created a children’s program for the BBC, The four o’clock club, which won the British Television Academy Bafta Award. But it is in his latest transformation, that of a dramatic actor, that Ben Bailey Smith attracts more attention than ever.
This summer, the film Persuasion premiere on Netflix. Jane Austen’s adaptation, starring Dakota Johnson, outraged Austen’s strictest fans: it mixes the author’s work with the style of Bridget Jones, Flea bag and Bridgerton. Johnson speaks to the camera, exclaiming things like “he’s ten,” “we’re exes,” and “my sister is a total narcissist.” “A lot of people were 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, something irreverent. ‘other, go see the other version,’ says Smith, who plays heir Charles Musgrove.
Specialized critics, austenists or not, did not like Persuasion too. Smith prefers to ignore it and celebrate that the film was the most watched on Netflix in the UK the weekend of its premiere. “It’s the first thing I’ve been in that was universally slammed by critics. But a movie is a movie, man. And people will never know how hard it is to make a terrible movie, again. less than a good movie.
A few years ago, Smith couldn’t have starred in such a movie, good or bad. But Bridgerton, the period drama set in the 19th century with a racially diverse cast, changed things up. Roles no longer indicate a specific race. The actor noted the increased volume of offers. Smith used both Persuasion and Andor to release his “chic accent”, to the point that the director of the film asked him to tone it down. “Where I’m from, you can’t play the posh roles. I am very classy in star wars as well. I saw myself as one of those officers who never fights. He causes other people to fight and die. And these guys are always classy.
It was all the margin he had to build his character, because Andor was not the place to show off his improvisational skills. “I wish I could mess around a little more. But it’s just Daddy Disney won’t let you do that,” he jokes. He might play with the gadgets on set, though. The series takes place before the original trilogy, so it had to fit into the 70s aesthetic of the original trilogy. This not only means that Captain Blevins wears “a bit of afro”, but also that 80% of the sets were physical constructions, and non-digital.” It was overwhelming at times getting on set. There was like a whole alien world that they had built with houses like streets and houses and hotels and prisons and offices. Maybe it was a bit like being in Disneyland or something where everything you see was created and you can touch it.
After all he’s been through, Ben Bailey Smith can’t wait Andor to be set free – to finally understand what he was doing. “When you record it, you don’t know what’s going on. Now I can make up my mind. I can’t wait to see it,” he said. “I’m aware that it doesn’t happen to everyone,” he says. “So I’m going to keep doing it, I’m going to keep making hay while the sun is shining. If they pick me up and spit me out tomorrow, I’ll be back on my computer with my pen and notepad, writing jokes. In a year, I will be on stage again to do stand up.