Film: Rolling with the punches - actor Johnny Harris
Having battled alcoholism and homelessness, actor Johnny Harris tells Steve Cummins about growing up in London's Irish community, his hero Barry McGuigan and facing up to his past in his new movie 'Jawbone'
W hen Barry McGuigan became world featherweight champion in 1985, it left an indelible mark on Johnny Harris. Harris, who would later battle alcoholism and homelessness to carve out a career as a BAFTA-nominated actor in This Is England '86, was an aspiring 12-year-old boxer when The Clones Cyclone roared into Loftus Road, west London, and defeated Eusebio Pedroza over 15 rounds.
"I wanted to be just like Barry," says Harris, who at 16 was himself a promising amateur champion out of Fitzroy Lodge Boxing Club, not far from the London housing estate where he was raised.
"I remember buying the exact same boots that he used to wear, these blue and yellow Adidas boots. I sent off for a pair, back in the days before internet. Back then, I was quite a tall, skinny kid for a flyweight, which means you should box and move away from your opponent. But I wanted to be like McGuigan and go forward and attack, much to the despair of my old trainer, Mickey Carney, who would be screaming at me to 'box and move'."
It's now almost 30 years since a teenage Harris quit boxing and abandoned his ambition to emulate McGuigan. It led him on to a turbulent path of alcohol and anger, but it also brought him to acting, where he has channelled that rage into an assortment of dark characters.
When we speak, the 43-year-old is in Cape Town filming Troy: Fall of a City, an eight-part series for the BBC and Netflix. Warm and generous in conversation, Harris is a chatterbox. He can be wonderfully unfiltered when you catch him on the "nonsense" of celebrity; the minor roles where he was "a glorified extra, watching other actors act"; or on reading bad scripts ("some of the work you read is not always up to standard"). On other occasions, he can seem confused by his own thoughts, struggling to put into words the parts of his past you feel he'd rather not discuss but is too polite to say otherwise.
That past is partly evident in Jawbone, his debut feature film as a writer and leading man. Describing the film as "not biographical, but deeply personal", it has brought Harris, not just back to boxing, but also to confront the alcoholism that led to his homelessness in 2004. "I don't know how it happened," he says, still confused. "The truth is, it was such a gradual decline. I didn't see it happening. I've come to realise now that I'd become so self-obsessed that I didn't see the homelessness happen."
Jawbone - which co-stars Ray Winstone and Co Down's Michael Smiley - tells the story of Jimmy McCabe, an alcoholic who returns to his old boxing gym in search of hope. It's an authentically told story that has drawn in a number of Harris's heroes. Paul Weller composed the soundtrack; Daniel Day-Lewis, who trained at Fitzroy Lodge for The Boxer in 1997, read the script and provided "a beautiful, beautiful character note"; and Barry and Shane McGuigan ("now lifelong friends") were the film's boxing consultants, ensuring Harris was in peak condition for the ferocious fight scenes.
Jawbone, though, is at its hardest-hitting in the intimate details of the addict's plight. Harris knows the experience well. "I wanted to write a working-class film with poetry, and with soul and substance where we weren't running around with guns and all that nonsense," he says. "I don't think I would have forgiven myself if I'd not told this story on screen, in all its elements. It's not biographical. I didn't want to be restricted by just trying to write an ABC narrative of my life. But it is deeply personal. I wanted to write a film about the paradox of living with addiction. In any addict you have a huge, huge ego, but you also have cripplingly low self-esteem, and that's why it's so confusing to work it out. You look at most addicts and you think, well, he's got no will power. I was a champion boxer as a kid, I've got will power, but as someone very kindly pointed out to me, it was my will power that was killing me."
London born and bred, Harris grew up surrounded by the Elephant and Castle's London-Irish community. In Jawbone, lead character Jimmy McCabe is partly named after one of Harris's London-Irish pals. "My best friend was a young boy who I boxed with called Paul McCabe. His family are all Irish and that's where the character's surname came from," he says. "All of my friends growing up were of Irish descent, really. It was a big part my youth. I used to go over to Galway and Dublin quite a lot with my friend, Matthew Newell, and his family. His grandparents lived in Galway. I'd go over there with his family on holidays and drink Guinness on Eyre Square. I remember when I first went over and I said, 'you know, I feel like I've come home', and my friend's gran said 'Ah sure everyone says that about Ireland'."
Having left school at 13, Harris was 21 when he enrolled in a local acting course, inspired after learning that Gary Oldman had grown up in nearby Newcross.
"I thought, well, if he's able to do it, and he's from down the road, it kind of gives you permission to try."
Playwright Martin McDonagh, who also grew up nearby, similarly inspired him. "I remember playing football in Kennington Park and Martin McDonagh walked past with a parka coat on. He had the huge hood up and was quite mysterious, even as a youngster. My mate Matthew waved out at him and I asked who he was and he said, 'it's my cousin Martin, he's a playwright'. I just thought, 'wow'. You're looking at Gary Oldman and thinking 'flipping hell, he's from like the Old Kent Road", and it was the same with McDonagh. It kind of smashes that working-class mentality that you're not allowed to have a go."
Harris's early acting years were spent "solidly in the fringe theatres of south London". He was also drinking heavily and "moving from couch to couch". By 2004, he hit his lowest point and was homeless after shutting out family and friends. "I have memories of walking. Just walking and walking and walking. I have real painful memories of that," he says. "I think that once I disappeared and got homeless, and got to my lowest, I think it kind of really scared people around me and everyone kind of rallied around me a bit."
Oddly, it was at his lowest that he got his biggest break when he was offered a leading role in the acclaimed 2006 film London to Brighton. "On the surface, after the homelessness, it kind of looked like I was on the up," he recalls. "London to Brighton won an award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I went up there and got absolutely smashed and embarrassed myself. So, on the surface, it looked rock and roll, but I was also at the same time sitting in my flat on my own, with no electric, very lonely... very lonely. I was kind of living this double existence. I'd be in the bars buying people drinks, and yet absolutely skint. It was absolutely exhausting. I realised that all the life-and-soul-of-the party stuff really was just a mask. Inside, I was broken. I was very low. And in 2007, I just broke and asked for help. It was life and death for me. I don't think that I would have gone on for much longer, that's the truth of it."
Harris got sober, but the parts didn't flood in. "London to Brighton came and went and I ended up back on the building sites," he says.
"It was actually five years after London to Brighton that Shane Meadows (director of This is England) called out of the blue. I had to borrow the train fare to meet him. He then cast me in This is England '86 and that really changed things."
Jawbone, too, should mark a turning point. He says that although the process has been cathartic, he ultimately sees the film as "a love letter" to those "who turn up for kids with grace and to give them guidance".
"The truth is, as I've got older, I've realised how much I was held by that boxing club as a young man," he says. "This is a film about those unsung heroes, really. It's a film about the power of community, and hopefully by putting my authentic stuff up on the screen, it's also a way of me saying thank you."
Jawbone live satellite Q&A with Johnny Harris takes place in Vue Liffey Valley and Cineworld Parnell Street, Dublin on Monday and is on general release next Friday, May 12