I recently had the opportunity to interview Josh Helman (X-Men: Apocalypse, Mad Max: Fury Road), star of the upcoming sports drama My Name is Lenny. Directed by Ron Scalpello, and written by Martin Askew and Paul Van Carter, My Name is Lenny is based on the true story of the larger-than-life figure of Lenny McLean, also known as The Guv’nor and “the hardest man in Britain”.
Lenny was a famous unlicensed boxer, as well as a bouncer, bodyguard, businessman, bestselling author and an actor, appearing in such films as The Fifth Element and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. My Name is Lenny explores his early life and his famous fights with Roy “Pretty Boy” Shaw, as played by Michael Bisping, the current UFC Middleweight Champion.
My Name is Lenny also stars Chanel Cresswell, Nick Moran and John Hurt in his final film role.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while playing Lenny?
I would say the biggest challenge is probably the expectation of who Lenny is by those who have either read his book or know his reputation, because he is very much an icon. He is a man that so many know about, not only in England, or more specifically the East End of London, but the whole world over. I think there are McLeans living in Australia for instance and lots of other places, and his book, The Guv’nor, sold an incredible amount of copies in a number of different countries. His reputation really precedes him in that way. I felt there was going to be a lot of scrutiny on the role and specifically my take of the role and that was probably the most challenging thing. Because you have to do justice to who he was as a person and really honor the facts, but we also didn’t want to set out to make a film that didn’t shed any new light on who he was.
I think he was a man that lived a life that in a lot of ways was defined by violence and in many ways he was a violent man – only in specific arenas and towards specific people, it certainly wasn’t something that he- he didn’t walk around, wanting to be violent all the time, but I think he knew something about himself from a very young age; that he was proficient in violence; it was almost a language that he learned to speak very early on in life. So I think the biggest challenge for us was trying to pull back the layers and get to a place where we felt we were revealing a deeper truth about who he was.
Speaking of his reputation, him being “the hardest man in Britain”, I imagine there was a lot of training and preparation, not just for the physicality of Lenny, but also the boxing. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, certainly. When I first got the role, I was working up in Vancouver at the time and there was a bit of kismet involved, because I found a boxing club up there called Sugar Rays. The owner, Bob McAdam, was British and knew who Lenny was, knew about his reputation – so for two months I trained with Bob specifically on Lenny’s style, because Lenny was very unorthodox. There’s not a lot of defense in Lenny’s style of fighting [laughs]. He was very offensive, he would just brutalize people with his power, which was immense. The boxing training was definitely a big part of it. Fortunately, when I was younger, I boxed a little bit myself – never very much, but I had the basics down, so then it was just a matter of getting comfortable with his style.
The other thing is that Lenny was from a very specific time and place, too. The East End of London in the 1970s is where the story is set, so for me another challenge, of course, is that I’m Australian and I’m playing an icon from the East End of London. It was so important to us that no one was thinking about the accent or the specific mannerisms of Lenny. We worked very hard and I spent a long time really trying to get an interpretation of Lenny that would feel very truthful.
Lenny lived a pretty sensational life. The movie deals specifically with the fights with Roy Shaw and covers parts of his childhood as well, but a lot of the other really sensational things that Lenny did don’t make it into the movie. Is there any part of Lenny’s life that wasn’t in the movie but you would have really loved to play yourself?
That’s a good question… That’s the difficulty of taking on a biopic about someone whose life was so sensational – you have to edit out so many things. You could make another two movies about Lenny and not cover any of the ground we did in this film. His life didn’t stop being sensational when we end our film, because he went on to star in movies and completely change his life. The story of who he was as a father to his children and a husband to Val – we touch on Val, obviously and their relationship is a huge part of My Name is Lenny – but his relationship with his children was a huge part of who Lenny was as a person. I feel that all the ground that we cover in My Name is Lenny is really right for this film. Lenny almost got put up on murder charges and there was a lot of run-ins with police and some of the other more well-known East End figures at the time – I think he had certain relationships with them as well – but I don’t think there was anything specific that’s missing from this film, if that makes sense.
Lenny himself was interested in the possibility of making a movie (about himself); lots of studios were looking into that as well. Of course, it didn’t happen before he passed away. It’s been something that’s been in the works for quite a while. If Lenny had a chance to see your film, what would you think – or hope – he would say about it?
Well, I hope that he wouldn’t think I was completely terrible in the role. That would be my first very selfish, very stereotypical, very self-conscious actor answer. But, you’re right, when Lenny was still alive, there was talk about him being the subject of a film and I think in many ways that was kind of a validation for Lenny, that he had kind of moved past the trauma of his upbringing, especially the violence of his youth and who he was as a fighter in many ways as well.
He did start to embrace being a part of the entertainment industry and being an actor and I think in many ways the film for him was a way that he could transcend that part of himself. I think, too, for the family, especially Jamie, his son Jamie, he just fought so hard on Lenny’s behalf; he has been tireless over the past 20 years, trying to get this film about his father made, and made in a way that Lenny himself would be happy with and be proud of. I think one thing Jamie always talked about was that he never wanted to set out to make a glorification of Lenny, he didn’t want to soften any of the violence of the Lenny. He really just wanted to capture the truth of who Lenny was.
I think Lenny did a lot of things he regretted, you know… because his alcoholism. Lenny’s alcoholism was a big problem for him for many, many years and something that he struggled with and I think that caused him to… Lenny’s violence and his alcoholism often went hand in hand and so when he gave up the alcohol and was able to move past the violence, I think he really did become a different sort of person. I think the scars of the time before that were always there, but I think it was really important for him to find an identity that was beyond that.
I’m really proud… I’m just so happy for Jamie, because this is something that he’s been fighting for for decades and it’s not an easy thing to get a film made, at any time, but especially a film like this that really deals with these kinds of themes and I think it’s vindication for Jamie and for Lenny, in a way, that this film was made, so I’m really pleased for them.
Would you be interested in possibly reprising the role, if more movies were made about Lenny?
I certainly wouldn’t say ‘no’ to that. It was incredible… it really was a privilege to play him. It was an incredible challenge. It was possibly the most challenging role I’ve ever had, for a number of different reasons, but it was also one of the very best experiences I’ve had ever making a film and these sorts of films… if the right group of people are involved, you come out with almost like a new family. You come out with relationships that could last possibly for the rest of your life and I do feel like this with My Name is Lenny. I feel really honored to have been a part of it and if I was asked back, if they were willing to have me, I would certainly love to consider it, yes.
You’ve been in a couple of really big-budget, ensemble movies: X-Men, Mad Max – which you were great in-
-how does that compare to My Name is Lenny?
There’s a difference just in terms of the film size. Mad Max: Fury Road and the X-Men films; they’re enormous, enormous films that have hundreds of millions of dollars behind them, so the process of making those films is very different, just because it’s a much bigger machine. It’s kind of like the machine itself is just gonna keep firing and I think all of the crew, the actors and all the creatives involved have to just keep up with the machine. I think some really wonderful things have come out of that and I’m enormously grateful to have been a part of those films. My Name is Lenny is very much an independent film – independent films, by nature, especially ones of this size and scope, they live and die by the people that are involved with them.
Obviously, too, I’m the lead in My Name is Lenny whereas I’ve been a supporting player in all of the other, bigger films, so my experience was definitely changed as well. All those bigger films, I know that I’m there to do a job, to come in and try and do my best to make this character come alive and to also tell the story that I’m there to tell, but with My Name is Lenny, just by virtue of being the lead, there’s much more… a much bigger creative conversation that I had the privilege of being a part of. That was another great thing – I felt like there was the directors, the producers, the writers and myself and we were all there to get on the same page together and make this film that we all believed in, so in that way it was just a very- it was more fulfilling in a sense, because you’re really there almost from the beginning and you really get to build this thing with these other people that you really trust. That was an incredible thing to experience.
Feel free not to answer this next question. Sir John Hurt tragically passed away in January and his role in My Name is Lenny, albeit small, is one of his final, if not the final film role. What was it like working with him?
They almost don’t come as legendary as John Hurt, Sir John… it’s just a gift for an actor, any time you get to work with someone… whose work you have known about since you were a child, since you ever wanted to be an actor. There are certain actors that you grow up and whose work you respect and he’s obviously one of them and also… it was just an incredible privilege.
I was very, very nervous to meet him, because he’s Sir John Hurt and I’ve followed him as an actor for decades – and I’m only three decades old! – so meeting him I was so nervous, I was just crapping myself and also I’m the lead of this film, too. I just had this overwhelming sense when he walked on set that I was unworthy to be there, because I’m the lead in this film that John Hurt’s a part of and it’s a very nervous thing for many actors, but it was especially for me, too.
He could not have been more lovely and more supportive and he was just such a gentleman. He did a film in Australia called The Proposition about ten years ago and I know one of the actors who was also in The Proposition, whose name was Tom Budge and I’d heard just the most wonderful stories from Tom about working with John Hurt. I just couldn’t believe that I was getting a chance to work with him myself.
It’s so tragic, his passing… I heard about it from Jamie McLean, who texted me and told me and it was very sad to hear. I’ll always be grateful for the experience of having worked with John, but I’m so sad that he’s left us.
One final question, so that we don’t leave it on that note – what would you say is your favorite thing about Lenny, either playing him or him as a person?
I think the real gift of the role was trying to get underneath a lot of the assumptions about Lenny and a lot of the public version of Lenny. Because he’s an iconic person, there’s a part of Lenny that I think now exists almost in myth; he’s a very mythic character now that’s he passed away and there are so many stories about him.
He was this incredible, tower of a figure at this very specific time in England and so to be able to play a character that has this very mythic quality to them and yet at the same time have the opportunity to try and get beneath that and really discover who he was – that was a real gift for me as an actor and a real challenge and something that doesn’t come along often, so I was really stoked to have that opportunity as well.
My Name is Lenny is out on DVD & Blu-Ray today.