Based on a true story, Mangrove, Small Axe, looks back at West London in the late ‘60s, where the Metropolitan Police regularly harass Notting Hill’s Black residents by closing down community spaces. Sam Spruell, an English actor who often portrays tough and ruthless roles, has the difficult role of playing the hated PC Frank Pulley, a racist police constable.
Words Alice Harrison
So Sam, we know you from the likes of Taken 3, Luther, Snow White and the Huntsman but where did it all begin for your acting career?
My Mum, Linda Broughton, is an actor so I grew up around it, but I also did youth theatre as a child. I started at a local one in Blackheath run by a charity called Age Exchange that was set up and run for years by the indomitable Pam Schweitzer, and I then moved onto the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. I think youth theatres are fantastic for teenagers whether they want to be an actor, work backstage or just like being around the buzz of the performing arts.
How does this role compare to some of your other gritty characters?
I’d say that PC Frank Pulley is similar to other characters in the sense that he’s not a nice person - I’ve played a lot of nasty people. But he feels really out of his depth. He’s not that bright and is confused by what his world has become, and he feels pretty powerless. His detrimental and cruel actions are a way of trying to fix the numerous humiliations he’s suffered in the past.
You had the unenviable task of taking on the role of the controversial PC Frank Pulley; what did you find most challenging?
Trying to make him 3 dimensional which is difficult when someone is so obviously horrible.
This film is positioned in the Black Panther Movement; did you feel confronted as a white actor within this process?
It was hard to play someone who is so ungenerous and cruel towards the Black community in a film about the Black community of Notting Hill. In committing to playing that character fully, there’s even less chance you’ll be liked by your fellow actors who are invested in that community. You just hope that tension reads on screen.
A prevalent theme in Small Axe, Mangrove was one of a corrupt system. How different do you think the system is now?
Steve dedicated Small Axe to George Floyd who was murdered by a police officer in plain sight. I think that gives you your answer.
Most of the characters perceived themselves as protagonists of their own stories. But what do you think Frank’s story was? Did you delve much into his own motivations during your character development?
Enoch Powel and The Rivers of Blood speech became important to me when I was getting into Pulley - the imagery, the fear, the victimhood and suffering of ‘British Whites’ at the hands of the ‘Black Invader’. Despite Powel’s utter fabrication and dubious motivations that form the basis of the speech, he knew how to spin a yarn; it’s incredibly emotive and informed Pulley’s swagger, yet it also fueled his confusion and fear.
Within the film we see the stark contrast between periods of silence vs riotous turmoil, as a cast how do you maintain this intensity?
You remind yourself you’re working for Steve McQueen.
How challenging was it to portray the seemingly random acts of police violence against the Black community?
You look at the world and work on replicating it. I went to school in Kidbrooke and grew up in the shadow of the police, seeing them repeatedly failing Stephen Lawrence's family. This was (and still is) a cruelty that has left an indelible mark on me. Seemingly random… I think it’s something else I’m afraid of.
As actors on set how did you manage to maintain the sense of ‘them and we’?
Them as the characters and we as the actors? Everything gets mixed up, as it’s all so interchangeable, but yes I think we did, otherwise someone would have rightly punched me on the nose.
How true do you think that the trial judge’s verdict of there being “racial hatred on both sides” was?
That statement might be more meaningful if there was equal power on both sides - there wasn’t.
The topics covered within this film could not have come at a better time; what change would you like to see off the back of this?
A greater acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter- in the world today and in the stories we are telling.
And finally, we would like to know. What next?
I’m starting work on The North Water, directed by Andrew Haig with Colin Farrell, Jack O Connell, myself and other great actors. It’s going to be epic stuff; masculinity gone properly wrong.
Small Axe is now available on BBC One and iPlayer