The camera slowly glides up Amir Wilson's face as he Zooms in from his North London home, until there’s only his dark curly hair and a monochrome shelf visible. His speakers, globe and poster from the West End version of The Lion King, where he played Young Simba in the renowned production, tell the tale of a young boy thrust into the wild world of acting at just 10-years-old. It’s been an incredible journey so far that has taken him from the rural medieval town of Shrewsbury in England to New Zealand, Prague and plenty more. Six years on from his first foray into the profession, Amir sits with ease in front of the camera - relaxed to the point he has to catch himself slipping down the chair and away from the screen, mid-conversation.
It’s been a busy few years for Amir, who appears in three series and movies that all dropped in 2020. The Secret Garden was his first on-screen role ever, acting alongside Julie Walters and Colin Firth. Then came the adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Season Two, where he plays a young boy called Will Parry, and The Letter For The King, inspired by the 1962 Dutch novel, where he adopts the part of an aspiring knight called Tiuri. Although he’s perfectly at home in these fantasy, action-dramas - filled with parallel universes and distant lands far away - we soon find out that the real Amir Wilson is a lot more down to this earth.
At the Clapton Tram Studio in East London, photographer Sophie Mayanne turns her soft lens on Amir in intimate portraits that capture the burgeoning actor’s laid-back charm. He wears a series of oversized coats and jackets in earthy Autumnal hues styled by Rose Forde that match the moss-green interiors, where bountiful plants, vibrant green door frames, and inviting velvet sofas bring the outside in. It’s a setting that befits this period of global lockdowns, where the need for the revolutionary comforts of nature - the sweet smell of earth and fauna - are as much needed within the home as they are beyond the doors.
Tell me something about yourself that not many people know.
I have never broken a bone.
Is that something that would surprise people close to you?
I'm trying not to incriminate myself but I'm really hyperactive. People would say I'm quite clumsy as well. Dafne, who plays Lyra in His Dark Materials, would tell you I fall over on set all the time. I'd have a knife on me and all the prop guys were terrified I would accidentally fall on the knife. It's embarrassing though because I fall over fake, polystyrene rocks.
It must be a challenge for the crew to keep each shot consistent with you around.
Yes absolutely, because everything has to be the same and if one rock is moved out the way, they'll get on to me about that.
When did you start acting?
I got into it by accident. A teaching assistant for my school said, "Kids, do any of you want to play munchkins in the Wizard of Oz for the local theatre group?". I was like, nah, I don't want to do that but I gave the leaflet to my sister. We went to the auditions that weekend and these two guys that ran the company called James and Ross said to give it a go. I ended up doing it, I got in and stayed with the company for two years. I owe a lot to them because they taught me how to act and they began my love for acting. It helped me put myself in other people's shoes, to think like another person and be a different person for a bit, it was cool.
The Secret Garden was the first film set you were ever on, was that intimidating?
Yeah, definitely. I'd only done theatre before that, I was in The Lion King on the West End. But this was my first time ever in front of a camera and on a film set properly. I was quite scared at first, it was big-scale but I got to travel all around England. To create the garden we filmed at seven different places in the UK - North Wales, Yorkshire, Cornwall, South England - and we went to all these different gardens and locations and then they seamlessly edited it together. I didn't have any school responsibilities, I was still really young and didn't have any GCSEs, and I had such a good time filming this. I went to the beaches every day.
You've been busy over the last two or three years. What has been one of the biggest challenges you've encountered whilst filming?
I think one of the big things I realised when going from stage to screen is that on stage everything is really big and all flashy because you're trying to play out to the people at the back, so all your facial expressions are really wide. With the camera, it's right here in front of your face and it's so much more real. Less is more when it comes to acting, because you can say a lot with just your eyes. Acting in front of a camera feels a lot more real to me, more authentic.
Tell me about the character you play in His Dark Materials.
Will Parry is a young kid from our world - there are lots of different parallel universes in His Dark Materials. He’s grown up thinking that his dad is dead, that he went off to the Arctic when he was really young and never came back. His mum struggles with her mental health , and so he spends most of his time looking after her and keeping his life on the down-low so that social services don’t split them up. He goes to a school where some of the kids aren't really nice to him: they don't understand what life is like for him and they don't understand his struggle and they pick on him for that. A situation happens where these people sneak into his house and he accidentally kills someone and is forced to go on the run. When he's on the run, he finds this window from a distance that leads into a different world. He takes that leap of faith.
You and Nina Sosanya seem to be the perfect mother-son pairing. What was it like to work with her?
We had such a fun time filming together, she's such an amazing actress - really natural, raw and authentic. She's also happy to play someone who has a lot of things going on in her mind, and I think she depicts that really well. We would sit in the sun talking about the house we were in - Will and his mum live in a really nice house in Wales - about the trees outside and the birds, waffling.
Were you familiar with the Philip Pullman books before?
Not before filming. After I got the role, I obviously read the books and I fell in love with the world. They're such complicated stories, there's a lot to take in. I read the third book in lockdown but I'm going to have to read the third book again before we start filming season three.
How has the lockdown been for you?
Now, schools are open so it's a bit weird because everything is still in lockdown but I'm also going into college with a bunch of other people. The rules kind of contradict themselves, but I don't know.
What do you kind of think we can learn from this period?
It definitely made me realise that I take normal life and the life I live daily for granted. I think you take seeing people for granted; it's crazy how much we actually need human contact and being social. I guess that helps us thrive and helps us be us, and I think when that's taken away it's hard. It was nice when I got to see my granddad for the first time, he lives in Bradford near Leeds. He came down a couple of weeks ago and it was really nice to see him again.
When you came out of lockdown the first time, was there anything you rushed to straight away?
Nando's. I sprinted to Nando's and got a half chicken, halloumi fries. I got everything. I felt like shit after I ate it... That's so sad that I just answered that. You were probably expecting some deep, meaningful answer, like going to see my grandparents. Nah - I went straight to Nando's.
Do you think the pandemic will change the way people watch films?
I'm not sure, but I was watching this scene recently where there were a bunch of people in a big club party and I was just thinking that would not happen now. I'm thinking to myself, 'you're not socially distanced! Wear your mask!'. All these people were just dancing in a room. It makes you look at films a bit differently.
How were you able to juggle your school work and acting?
It’s hard. When I was doing His Dark Materials last year, I had to prepare for my GCSEs as well. I had my mock exams at the same time. I'd go on set for half an hour and do an exam for an hour, and go back on the set and finish the exam after. It was quite hard because doing school is one thing, doing acting is another thing and they're both quite separate. But when you have to mix them together it's taxing on my mind because I want to get into the mood for acting, but then I've got this maths exam to think about that I'm going to be doing in half an hour. It was not for me, but I managed to do it and I managed to pass everything. The people around me and on set, the assistant directors and stuff, helped schedule it so it was as easy as possible for me. But now I'm at college it's so much easier because it's more chilled out. I'm at film school studying cameras and everything to do with the film industry, but I specialise in the camera side of things. But they're going to be chilled about me leaving because it's an industry based thing.
That must be quite interesting being behind the camera as well.
I wanted to get more of an idea. Obviously, I've been on sets. I know what goes on behind the scenes, but I didn’t know how much crew is needed before I started acting. All the people that don't get enough appreciation behind the scenes. You don't realise that there are so many people that are needed to make a film work and to be able to produce what ends up on the screen. I like cameras as well, so I guess that's what I wanted to do.
Would you ever want to be a director?
That's what I'm kind of finding out now; that's why I'm at this college. I wanted to see if that's anything that I want to take up on a bigger level and bigger scale.
You usually travel a lot with work, where’s the most exciting place you’ve ever been? For Letter To The King, I went to New Zealand and it was probably one of the best experiences of my life. It's so weird because it's so far from home, it's literally on the complete other side of the world, but it feels so homely because obviously it's an English-speaking country and everyone there is so nice. They're all so genuine. It's a really small community because there are like 4 million people in the whole of New Zealand - compared to the 8 million-plus people just living in London. I got to meet the locals and I just had such a good time. I learned how to horseride there, we had this cowboy trainer, this guy called Justin, who came out with buckles on his boots and a cowboy hat on and wore a jacket. That was really fun.
Where did you grow up?
I'm from Shrewsbury, this town in the West Midlands, which is where I started acting. Then I moved to London when I was 10 so I could do The Lion King. I made that leap of faith and I'm glad I did it, because it's gotten me to where I am today. I was living with my mum and my sister, and then when I got the part, I moved up to London with my oldest sister, who was already living here. Later, I moved in with my dad. He unfortunately passed away two years ago. Moving was quite a big thing for me, but it was good. I'd grown up surrounded by mainly White people, which, of course, isn't a bad thing. But The Lion King was nice for me because it was predominantly a Black cast and it was nice to see more people my colour, more people like me doing things I loved in the arts. It was like a community, and obviously, Lion King is one of the only mainly Black shows in the West End so I think it was such a good experience for me to do that as my first show.
How has your Sudanese heritage shaped you as a person?
My mum is Sudanese and my dad's English. I can understand Arabic more than I can speak it. Apparently when I was younger I refused to learn it and I really hate myself for that. I wish I was fluently bilingual.
You've said before that you wish there were more Black characters written, rather than having White characters that are played by Black actors.
I don't feel like Black people should just be given roles written for White characters just for the sake of diversity. There should be more Black written characters instead and characters that have always been Black.
Nowadays, young people with big platforms are using them a lot more for activism. Is there anything that you're particularly passionate about?
Knife crime is one of them. It's a big thing in London, and not that I've been personally effected by it but I just know people who have. I think the government needs to do more to set up youth centres and things. If you asked me where someone nearly got stabbed, I can name you a place. But if you asked me to name you the location of a youth centre or a child centre I couldn't because I don't think there are enough.
Are there any films you have seen that you would have absolutely loved to have been in?
I watched Interstellar recently, and Matthew McConaughey is one of my favourite actors. I loved his performance in that, I think it's so real. I felt really emotionally connected to this character. I would love to take on a role like that. I'm into that idea of parallel universes and space. I think that's why His Dark Materials is so good for me. Sci-fi and action, it's kind of a different normal - same but different.
Well, speaking about a different normal. How turbulent has this year been for you?
This year was a festival year, and I was meant to go to a few but they all got cancelled. This was meant to be the year when everyone was going to be teenagers, go to festivals and have fun. With the release of new projects, all of my press has been through Zoom and stuff. I wish I was doing the full thing of red carpets and events. I’m not going to beat myself up about it, but it’s just a shame to be missing out on these events and opportunities together with the cast and crew.
What do you hope for in the future?
I just hope I can take on bigger roles. I think all my roles have pushed me by a little bit but I want to take on roles that really challenge me as an actor and as a person. Hopefully I'll be winning awards and maybe have moved to America.