Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje wrote what became his first film script in the hope it might help him to get a good night’s sleep. The 51-year-old actor, best known for roles in Lost, Game of Thrones and Suicide Squad, wanted a way to process his painful childhood. Farming – the film, not the occupation – became his therapy.
“I think I’d attained a certain amount of success in my career and life, but was plagued by some feelings that I’d not really resolved,” he says. “I used to write at night just to get to sleep, just to let it out of me. By the end of two weeks, I had a 500-page manuscript.”
Eighteen years later, a film evolved from these reams of writing and premiered to considerable acclaim at the Toronto film festival. It focuses on his life as a boy whose Nigerian parents “farmed” him out to a white, working-class family in Tilbury, Essex, in the hope of giving him a better future. For a while, this “better future” looked less than certain: the area was strikingly white and his new mother was often cruel and unloving. Plagued by self-loathing, Akinnuoye-Agbaje took an unusual route out of isolation: he joined a local gang of racist skinheads.
This plot is not the only surprise about Farming. Another is its casting. As the illiterate, emotionally abusive, racially insensitive Essex foster mother of nine, we have … Kate Beckinsale, best known for toned action heroines and withering upper-class comedies. “I still don’t know why Ade cast me,” she says. “It was such an odd move.”
“I remember driving to the read-through and thinking: ‘I’m so glad I’m old, because at the beginning of my career I’d be being sick out of the window,’ because everyone else in the film was proper except me. I was the posh girl from Chiswick coming in.”
What could have been a gruelling shoot was, says Beckinsale, anything but. “Very low budget, very short amount of time, incredibly ambitious film, fucking tons of kids, could have been a nightmare. I went into it eating lots of chips [she put on weight for the role] and worrying: ‘Oh my God, there’s going to be nine children in this tiny living room.’ You didn’t know if they were ever going to say their lines, or if they were going to punch you in the face. And they were angels. Unbelievable.”
The tiny living room was one of many spaces painstakingly recreated from Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s childhood home. Such intimacy, says Beckinsale, made both the shoot and the finished product feel unusual.
“It was very different from anything else I’ve ever done because you were always aware that this was Ade’s story and some of it was incredibly upsetting. You felt very privileged to be in this incredibly vulnerable space.”
Damson Idris (star of John Singleton’s TV series Snowfall), who played Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s teenage self, was shipped off to Tilbury for full immersion. Idris would encourage the actors playing skinheads to hurl abuse at him, fasted on three apples a day to remain lean and called himself racist terms three times in the mirror before each scene. “I tormented myself throughout this movie,” he says.
For Akinnuoye-Agbaje, too, the shoot could have been emotionally tough, but budgetary constraints meant there was little time to grieve about the past. And, watching the results, he says was – happily – “surreal but also cathartic”. He and Beckinsale concur that, at its heart, the film is, in her words, “an incredibly fractured love story between mother and adopted son”.
“You did get the urge to say this was a villain, given some of the stuff she would say and the way she spoke to the kids,” says Beckinsale. “But if the parent is 100% evil, it’s almost less damaging because it’s the ambivalence that’s so jarring and difficult and really messes up children.”
Realising how much of Ingrid’s behaviour came from ignorance – and the context of the time and place – was key. “She couldn’t read or write, she had no real self-awareness about why she wanted to adopt seven, eight or nine kids. It’s such an extreme thing to do without self-analysis. She just was going with her instinct,” says Beckinsale.
Akinnuoye-Agbaje says he was drawn to Beckinsale for the role, in part because he wanted someone with charisma, a star who could be “a relatable, lovable rogue”. “I wanted to create this fractured, lovable Fagin-esque type of woman because my mother was a product of her time,” he says. “Her ignorance had a real searing impact on me as a child, but I had to address what had created her.”
Yes, he says, the film contains a lot of racist abuse – but these were terms normalised by primetime sitcoms of the day. And, yes, Ingrid and women like her were admirable in taking in children from completely different cultures. But: “They didn’t know they had to grease a black child’s skin because of their ‘ash’ or put oil in their hair. They didn’t know so many things.”
As well as mainlining chips, Beckinsale – who specialised in linguistics at university – sought to perfect an authentic 1980s Tilbury dialect. She sent Akinnuoye-Agbaje sample clips of accents she had unearthed – none of which he felt were quite right. The accent that finally got the thumbs-up, in fact, was one Beckinsale says she based on “lairy mates”. “Chiswick is very different from Tilbury. But I have been exposed to other types of people,” she explains, grinning.
One aspect of Ingrid’s character she certainly shares is a striking honesty, which she admits hasn’t always served her well, calling it her “least helpful quality”. “I didn’t realise until I got to Hollywood that there was even a possibility that my opinion might be slightly less counted because of being female or being young. And that was really odd. I’ve never gone in anywhere and forced my opinion – but it’s literally the having of one at all that can be difficult in certain situations.”
She refers to the “old misogyny” that she feels continues to pervade the industry. Last year, she shared her story of being greeted by Harvey Weinstein in a bathrobe when she was 17 and the many expletives he fired at her when she turned down future collaborations.
“You hear all these things about actresses being ‘difficult’,” she says. “Well, to me, ‘difficult’ is someone who won’t come out of their trailer or who is late or uncooperative or doesn’t know their lines or treats people rudely. Having an opinion and saying, ‘I do think there’s a problem here’ isn’t difficult.
“I’ve worked with quite a few women about whom people have said, ‘Oh, she’s difficult’ and then I’ve found them actually rather rigorously professional and totally on time and on top of it. So, just as I’d like to get rid of ‘bossy’ for little girls, I’d quite like to get rid of ‘difficult’ for actresses.”
Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s background as an actor helped with on-set shorthand and sympathy. For him, the motivation behind the film wasn’t just personal catharsis – it was also professional opportunity. “There was the creative frustration of not actually getting roles that really explored the layers of who I was as a human being. They were limited to me – as a colour or a size – and I did what I could with those, and injected what humanity I could. But I wasn’t prepared to wait around for the role to come down the pipeline or place my destiny in the hands of an external factor.”
His decision to break out on his own seems to have paid off. Soon after the premiere, Farming was picked up by Lionsgate. The early reactions to this intricately personal and specific story have already had a big impact on Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
“What [the response] says to me is that we’re all human and the things that our protagonist goes through are just human trials that everyone faces in their own life,” he says. “OK, in the movie, they’re extreme, but it is about triumph over adversity, challenges and obstacles, finding a sense of belonging, finding self-worth, learning how to love one’s self and these are things that everyone can relate to.”