Is Toby Kebbell Britain's Robert De Niro?

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A young actor who has worked with Shane Meadows and Guy Ritchie and will soon be seen in Spielberg's 'War Horse' now shines in a British thriller. Trevor Johnston meets Toby Kebbell, star of 'The Veteran'

Right then, fact fans, here’s a poser for you. Which British actor, not yet 30, has worked for directors including Woody Allen, Oliver Stone, Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, Stephen Frears and Shane Meadows? Okay, so nobody’s yet seen Spielberg’s adaptation of the World War I-themed theatrical phenomenon ‘War Horse’, and Redford’s ‘The Conspirator’, about Lincoln’s assassination, hasn’t yet played in the UK, but this guy is in both of them. If you’re stuck, the Shane Meadows reference is probably the giveaway, since our man Toby Kebbell stepped in at three days’ notice to play Paddy Considine’s abused younger sibling in ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’ and hasn’t looked back since.

Sparkling turns in homegrown offerings, like the motormouth manager in Joy Division chronicle ‘Control’, and the hyper chemically assisted title character in Guy Ritchie’s ‘RocknRolla’, have in the meantime boosted the Nottinghamshire-raised 29 year old’s reputation as a versatile and reliably potent screen presence. However, since Hollywood discovered his worth as a zingy supporting turn (see would-be blockbusters ‘Prince of Persia’ and ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’), the prospect loomed that he might miss out on more modestly resourced, somewhat edgier work on this side of the Atlantic.

Thankfully, Matthew Hope’s ‘The Veteran’ has arrived to put such notions to rest. Its story of a disturbed former British soldier returning from Afghanistan to south London – where a drugs gang unwisely thinks it rules the roost – showcases Kebbell in his first leading role, expanding his repertoire yet further with a startling performance of taciturn intensity.‘I was getting too many scripts which called for a wily crackhead or the autistic brother of an ex-soldier, and I’d been there and done that,’ explains Kebbell, taking a break from his duties as Poseidon’s demigod son Argenor on the shoot for ‘Wrath of the Titans’. ‘In contrast, what was fascinating about “The Veteran” was that Matt the director wanted to do an action film which wasn’t about the violence. Or people shouting at each other. It had a sort of gentle edge.’

Hope said to his cast and crew that ‘the audience have to be able to read the war’ on the face of his troubled protagonist. That’s evident in Kebbell’s bravura contribution, which, from the moment of arrival in the labyrinth of Elephant & Castle’s Heygate Estate, establishes a sense of simmering unease and potential psychosis. Hope says he set out to construct a British version of Paul Schrader’s 1970s ‘man and his room’ movies, and Kebbell’s bristling intent carries ‘The Veteran’ in the same way that Robert De Niro did in ‘Taxi Driver’. It’s quite something when you consider Kebbell has minimal dialogue as the plot works through undercover surveillance on an Islamist terror cell at the behest of shady intelligence officers, and escalating conflict closer to home as narcotics supplier Ashley Thomas’s footsoldiers make their presence felt.

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‘I told Matt there was no reason for Miller to say anything,’ Kebbell says of his instinct to let his wound-up physicality speak for the story. ‘Telling the audience through dialogue about what’s in this guy’s mind would have been superfluous, and I wouldn’t have been doing my job if I couldn’t convey that through silence. Of course, this being a low-budget British film there wasn’t the money to reshoot it if it didn’t come off, but Matt trusted me.’

Indeed, the non-verbal storytelling of ‘The Veteran’, not least Hope’s gift for bringing an undertow of tension to the surveillance process and close-quarters combat – something inspired, he says, by the compelling eye for detail in Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’ and ‘A Man Escaped’ – lend the film a quintessentially cinematic fascination relatively rare in British celluloid. ‘It was that idea in Michael Mann’s “Heat”, where guns are basically tools, which I wanted to pursue,’ says Hope, whose second feature marks an upswing in confidence from his post-apocalyptic debut, ‘The Vanguard’.

‘It was important to give a sense of a man following his trade, and, in the end, the appalling consequences of what one well-trained individual could do to others who were untrained and had no experience of warfare. We’re not used to seeing shootouts like that on British screens.’

Bringing authenticity to the disturbing climactic confrontation was Hope’s co-writer, Robert Henry Craft, an ex-paratrooper and veteran of 24 years of military service, who drew on his army training and indeed his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder in helping Kebbell prep for the role. ‘Just dealing with guns and bullets, and talking to ex-soldiers helps your mind adjust,’ reflects the latter. ‘You start thinking about how you do kind and decent things in your everyday life, but what would it be like if you just turned that off? Would you be able to return to that morality after you’ve taken someone’s breath from them? After you’ve crossed that line? It leaves a lot of soldiers like Bob in a certain state of mind, in a state of shame every day. That’s what helped me get to this role, but the issue, really, was leaving it behind. It’s just as well I don’t have a girlfriend, because I was one seriously grumpy bastard for quite a while. Bloody tough – but good to do. That’s what attracts me as an actor. I’m always looking for new opportunities.’

Author: Trevor Johnston



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