EXCLUSIVE: Bohemian Rhapsody actor Ben Hardy and newcomer Jason Patel were kept apart during the pre-production phase of Unicorns, a love story between an Essex car mechanic and a South Asian drag queen.
It’s the new film co-directed by Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil) and James Krishna Floyd (The Good Karma Hospital), and they took measures to ensure that the relationship Hardy and Patel depict in the movie, which has its world premiere Friday at TIFF, was fresh.
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“All of our prep was separate,” Patel confirmed. “They didn’t want us to meet.”
Floyd said that the only time they saw each other was at the read-through, “but they weren’t allowed to talk to each other. We explained it to Ben and Jason and to the heads of department that if they spent too much time together before filming began, then it would be too familiar and it wouldn’t be dangerous. You’d lose the danger and the impact that the film needs when they’re together.”
The whole production was in on the act — even producers Philip Herd, Bill Pohlad, Kim Roth, Christa Zofcin Workman and Maven Pictures’ Celine Rattray and Trudie Styler helped police the two actors before cameras rolled. So did executive producers Stephen Daldry, Jackie Donohoe, Ori Eisen, John Fahy, John Harris, Luke Healy, Benjamin Kramer, Asifa Lahore, Ivan MacTaggart, Peter Sobiloff and Karl Sydow.
Now, the two of them are practically inseparable. There’s a genuine warmth when they’re together.
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The friendship that’s grown between them has not come as a surprise to the filmmakers. El Hosaini and Floyd told me that the chemistry read between them had been “off the scales.”
Floyd added, “They have a natural chemistry as people. It’s nice.”
Hardy concurred, saying, “It was quite apparent, really from our first reading, that we had a very natural chemistry.”
Months after filming was over, I met them for a lively lunch at The Union Club in Soho that went on for several hours and could have gone on all day except that Hardy, in town from his home in Brighton on the southeast coast, was wearing an Arsenal football shirt and had to scoot off to watch a game.
Much was discussed at the Union Club, and some of it will have to remain there behind its private walls!
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At one point I mentioned that I’d seen Hardy early on in his career when he appeared in a revival of David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss at Hampstead Theatre that starred Rupert Everett and Freddie Fox.
The production included a spot of male nudity. “So you’ve seen my penis?” Hardy inquired of me with a straight face before bursting into laughter.
Quick as a flash, Patel remarked, “That makes two of us at this table then, doesn’t it?”
Not to give away too many spoilers, but there are intimate moments between the two thespians in Unicorns.
Blushing, I note that my wife saw the play with me.
Hardy responded: “Is she all right? Hope it wasn’t winter.”
I’m not going to even pretend that I know what he was referring to.
Patel has also trodden the boards, but he played Mowgli in a touring production of The Jungle Book and all of his bits were kept firmly under wraps.
At least we were outside seated under umbrellas on a terrace so that the nature of our conversation could not be overheard — though frankly, we were in the heart of London’s Soho, so I guess our chat could be as broad as we wanted it to be.
The interview was held during the late summer, and the SAG AFTRA strike was well underway. Unicorns was shot under UK Equity rule,s and the two actors were legally obliged to fulfil contractual obligations to promote their independently financed film.
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Hardy told me that he had received an email from SAG-AFTA “saying it’s OK to promote” the film, even though he’s not at present a member of the American union.
He mentioned that it’s often the case that actors are more used to having down periods but that “crews work paycheck-to-paycheck, so for those crews without work, it’s just really,really hard.”
Both actors are here in Toronto for Friday’s noon gala at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
When we met, it was evident that the two share an easy rapport, with both finishing the other’s sentences.
Unicorns is about two people from disparate backgrounds: Hardy’s Luke plays a motor mechanic who separated from his spouse and has custody of their child. Patel plays Ayesha, who has become estranged from his family who reside in the north of England while he performs at drag queen events.
The film, as Hardy put it, ”is about inclusivity, about people loving whoever they want to love.”
I won’t give too much of the plot away here, but after the pair meet, Hardy’s Luke ends up being paid to ferry Patel’s Ayesha to his gigs and ultimately he becomes his sort of protector.
“I think for Luke in that car sequence, he’s got permission from himself to be open with the forbidden fruit because it’s work,” Hardy told me as he sipped a fruit juice mixed with soda water. “He’s kind of like, ‘Well, no one can say I’m doing anything wrong. I’m being offered this money. I’m raising money to take my kid to Disneyland, and I’m getting offered this money, so I’m going to do this.’”
Hardy observed that Luke’s “slowly breaking down those barriers within himself, perhaps subconsciously or consciously.”
Patel told me that “these two people from different worlds just get on — and what’s wrong with that?”
Hardy jumped in and said, “I think if people walk out of this movie and go, ‘That was a beautiful love story,’ then that’s the reaction that we want.”
And, he’s right. Unicorns is a beautiful love story that’s told in the age we live in now.
Although the two of them have a good laugh during our interview and get up to some high jinks, they worked hard on set because, as Hardy noted, “we’d muck around, but we are very professional. As a low-budget film, you don’t have time to mess around all the time. You want to make sure this thing is running as efficiently as possible. You don’t want to be the two people holding up filming, so we were very professional, but laughs were had.”
Hardy spent two years working on the BBC soap EastEnders, which he likens to the screen version of repertory theater.
”It was my screen education, I suppose,” he said. “I felt much more comfortable going to work on films, having had that day-in/day-out training of just all the technical stuff you don’t want to be thinking about on set. It becomes muscle memory, like, ‘Where have I got to be? Where’s the camera? What lens are we on?’ All that kind of stuff.”
Although he puts down his time on EastEnders as a great learning experience, Hardy spoke candidly about why he had to quit.
“I think there’s a point where I had to leave, though, because I felt like if I didn’t leave, I’d get stuck in this. … You’re trying to make it the best it can be, but it can leave you feeling a little bit unfulfilled because the nature of the beast is they have to produce so much material in such a short space of time. So things do feel a little bit rushed.”
He continued: “For me anyway, personally, I reached a point where I felt myself starting to not try to make the best version of something, I found myself going, ‘That’ll do.’ Then as soon as that started to enter my mind, I was like, ‘I need to get out of here.’”
Hardy stressed that that situation is not ”the same for every actor in there. There are some actors on there that are still very much engaged in trying to make things the best they can be, but for me, I felt like I was getting quite downtrodden and it wasn’t getting to a place where I wanted to be. I was starting to give up, and I was like, ‘I can’t do that.’”
Hardy, who studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, knew what he could take on and what he couldn’t.
Because he starred in Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the biggest movie hits of all time, there’s an assumption that he can sing. He insisted that he can’t carry a tune.
“Let me put it this way,” he said, chuckling. ”One of my first auditions was for Les Misérables, and I was the last audition of the day, and I went in there and I probably sang two notes, and they started packing up their stuff. I just carried on singing the rest of the song, while I just watched them just packing their stuff away.”
He said the “humiliation” still stings.
Patel totally disagreed and said that Hardy has a terrific voice. ”We used to sing on set. He can sing,” he said. “He’s very, very good.”
And Patel knows of what he speaks. He studied at the Rose Bruford Drama College and has a confident singing voice that can soar. His music videos are super fun.
Britney Spears was his guiding angel. “I remember watching a music video of Britney Spears and I was like, ‘“’Oh, my f*ckin’ God. I’m going to be that bitch.’”
He told me that he would look at the mirror and practice. “I had to make my whole family do a performance with me, and they were all crap,” Patel said. “And then I would go and kill it at the end. It was great. I used to set everyone up so that I could be the star of the show in this sad way.”
His dad ran a pub, and Patel often join in when Freddie Mercury and Queen came on the jukebox. But it was watching Bollywood films with his mother and grandmother that truly sparked his love for music. Patel also remembers being “obsessed” with the movies Bend It Like Beckham and My Beautiful Laundrette, which he later found out was filmed in his auntie’s laundromat. ”I was like, ‘What?!’”
When Patel watched these films on TV, he was aware of “brown people” on the screen “that kind of represent me.”
He added: “There’s people out there actually kind of paving the way for me. … How can I make the most impact on the world? Maybe it’s not to be a prime minister or a politician or a scientist. Actually, I’m amazing at being really creative. I can make impacts that way. And I’ve never actually stopped. I think I always knew who I was and what I wanted to do.”
From what age, I wondered?
“Oh my God — since I came out of the womb,” Patel exclaimed.
El Hosaini told me that the friendship between the two leading actors was replicated throughout the crew because a lot of the team also worked on My Brother the Devil and some worked on The Swimmers. ”It was the most enjoyable directing experience I’ve had in my career thus far,” she said.
She remarked that she and Floyd wanted to set the tone for the shoot.
As did the actors. “As a foursome — James, myself, Ben and Jason — really get on, and we were a very tight foursome,”said El Hosaini. “And they’re in every scene, those two boys. So that is the foundation of the whole film.”
Floyd revealed that he first had the idea of wanting to make a film set “in the gaysian scene“ seven years ago based around what he termed “realism drag,” which apparently “is very different to the American star RuPaul drag.”
He explained that realism drag “is something that we’ve had in South Asian culture for a long, long time.”
Floyd remembers that while he was making other films, he would go out every night to different events and clubs “and that was when the story came to me … and the characters. And it was something that I could really relate to as someone who feels that identity is a very fluid thing and has been for me in many ways.
“I just felt like to set it in the context of a romance was the perfect way to do it. And myself and Sally, we’re both half-white, half-brown, and we have that kind of split identity in different ways,” he said.
I asked Floyd if any aspects of the film were autobiographical.
”I would say no in a literal sense, but I think it’s not a coincidence that one character is South Asian and Indian. One character is white. I have family who are working class from East London and Essex, just like Luke and his family. I think the idea of fluidity in all identity labels — not just sexuality but also in terms of race — is something that is very dear to me.”
Also, El Hosaini noted that their aspiration with Unicorns was to make a film “that was beyond all the labels and that took an audience on that journey to be like, ‘We’re just people. It’s just bodies. Relax. Two people love each other.’”
Floyd admits that society’s more ready for Unicorns now than it might have been a decade ago.
“I think the world has changed a lot,” he said. “And I think the new generations in particular have been sort of shouting and hollering about this idea of identity being more gray and not black and white. … It’s a very modern love story.”
As Hardy said, Unicorns “is about love transcending barriers.”
Hurray for that.
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