Ben Bailey Smith plays one of the villains in Andor, the new Star Wars series that Disney+ will release on September 21. This is the latest reinvention of Smith, an artist who started out as a rapper, then became a stand-up comedian, wrote several children’s books and now only receives offers for dramatic roles. Andor is a spin-off and prequel to Rogue One (2016), itself a spin-off and prequel to the original Star Wars (1977). The new show centers on the rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who is charged with obtaining the plans for the Death Star in order to one day help Luke Skywalker destroy it. The creator of the series is Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter of the Bourne saga, who made his directorial debut with the thriller Michael Clayton (2007). Disney hasn’t revealed any more details about Andor – not even its protagonists.
“Disney is so secretive. They don’t even tell us anything,” says Ben Bailey Smith from London via video call. “I never saw a complete script the whole time I worked on it. They would only show me my own scenes and then on the [shooting] day explain the context. I’ve never done a job like that before in my life or since.”
Two years ago, Smith did a casting for a military drama called Pilgrim. He was told only that his role was “a sergeant major chewing out some soldiers.” Days later, they told him that he had gotten the job – and that the project was actually Star Wars. “I was riding my bike, and I just stopped and started laughing. I couldn’t believe it. It would be a big job regardless for an actor, but I’m a Star Wars maniac. I love Star Wars and have since I was a little kid. Return of the Jedi was the first movie I ever watched in the cinema. My relationship with Star Wars is lifelong. Being in it is a dream come true. I never thought I would ever have the opportunity. I auditioned for Solo to play Lando Calrissian [who was eventually played by Donald Glover]. But that’s as close as I ever got to anything Star Wars related,” he says.
The shoot was kept under extreme secrecy. The signs in the dressing rooms had false names, the scripts were still titled Pilgrim. The daily production sheets – indicating who works at what time and when their break is – were also false. The actors walked from their dressing rooms to the set wearing large dark cloaks to prevent drones from photographing them. And not even shooting their scenes shed light on the plot of the series.
“I also struggled with the lines, because sometimes you’re just saying what seems like nonsense, sci-fi language, the names of planets and intergalactic law, and you just say, What am I talking about?” the actor recalls. “One day I was delivering a line and the director came over. He’s like, can we do it again with a bit more urgency? Because this planet is about to explode. And I was like, is it? I didn’t know. Now I know what’s going on.”
All that he can reveal about his character – or rather, all that he knows about his character – is that his name is Blevins and he’s one of the bad guys. “He’s an Empire guy. He’s a bad guy. He’s a very weaselly, slimy dude who’s trying to climb the ranks at the expense of anybody and everybody else. He’s that kind of guy who will stab you in the back if it means going up in the world. In the Empire, it’s like the mafia, because the higher up you are, the less likely it is that you might just get whacked,” he explains.
Officer Blevens has the enemy at home. Officer Deedra Mero, played by Denise Gough, has just arrived in the Empire. She’s the new kid on the block, and she wants Blevins’ job. “We’re infighting within the empire,” he says. “It really reminded me of watching the [UK] Conservative government fighting with each other the whole time when they should be fighting for the universe.”
Expletives in three languages
Ben Bailey Smith grew up in Kilburn, a working-class neighborhood in North London. His sister is the famous novelist Zadie Smith. In his house there was always access to culture despite economic limitations. “Kilburn was a mix of Irish and Caribbean. The special thing about growing up in London is that we don’t have huge ghettos like they have in certain countries. You never feel completely cut off. The area that I grew up in, is one of the most diverse in the whole of the UK. It’s a pretty crazy place in that respect. You can meet everybody. I think by the time I was 10 I could probably swear in like three languages.”
Growing up in Kilburn taught him to use his wiles to extricate himself from sticky situations, a gift he says is key to his career as a rapper and stand-up comedian. “Being smart and quick and wily is a form of self-defense. Putting those things together really helped me navigate my way through,” he says. What attracted him most to rap was its tension: none of his vinyls, which he bought second hand with his sister Zadie for 99 pence ($1.14), sounded as urgent as the rappers in his neighborhood. “I think it was the DIY element I loved. If you play the trumpet or something, that’s going to cost you £300 [$345] to get the trumpet, whereas with rap, you can just do it,” he says.
Smith created a rapper alter ego and named him Doc Brown after the scientist from Back to the Future (1985), one of his favorite films. He won over the London battle rap circuit and went on to record several CDs at home. He sold them himself to independent record stores. But back then no one could make a living from rap, and Smith retired Doc Brown. “I lost faith,” he admits. “It wasn’t a decision that I made. My daughter was born in 2005. I was not making any money and now I had a kid to feed.” Smith turned to focus on his “real job” as coordinator of a youth center in north London.
Months later, a friend asked him for help with some dialogue for a series about British comedian Lennie Henry on the BBC. The assignment was to polish the lines to make them sound more believable, more from the street. Smith got along well with the producer of the series, who encouraged him to try stand-up. “I got up on stage with no plan. I just told my story and no one laughed. I came offstage and I didn’t feel anything. I was like, whatever, I don’t care. I didn’t consider myself a comedian,” he recalls. “I chatted to the guy again and he said, you have to write some jokes. Come back next month. So I came back and I wrote some jokes and I performed them. And still people didn’t really laugh.” At some point, he must have won the audience’s favor, because five years later he was collaborating with Ricky Gervais on his series Derek.
Comedy gave Smith the musical success that rap had denied him. Alongside Gervais, he recorded a parody song, Equality Street, for a charity comedy show that went viral on social media in 2012 and ended up reaching #1 on iTunes in the UK.
In recent years, Smith has published four children’s books and created a children’s program for the BBC, The Four O’Clock Club, which won the Bafta award from the British television academy. But it is in his latest transformation, that of a dramatic actor, that Ben Bailey Smith is getting more attention than ever.
This summer the film Persuasion premiered on Netflix. The Jane Austen adaptation, starring Dakota Johnson, has outraged the strictest Austen fans: it mixes the author’s work the style of with Bridget Jones, Fleabag and Bridgerton. Johnson talks to the camera, exclaiming things like “he’s a 10,” “we’re exes” and “my sister is a total narcissist.” “Many people have been pissed off because they consider that if something is old, if you don’t take it very seriously, it’s disrespectful. We wanted to do something different, irreverent. If you want the other, go see the other version,” says Smith, who plays heir Charles Musgrove.
Specialized critics, Austenists or not, have not liked Persuasion too much. Smith prefers not to give it importance and celebrate that the film was the most watched on Netflix in the United Kingdom the weekend of its premiere. “That’s the first thing I’ve been in that’s been universally panned by critics. But a movie is a movie, man. And people will never know how hard it is to make a terrible film, let alone a good film.”
A few years ago Smith couldn’t have starred in such a film, good or bad. But Bridgerton, the period drama set in the 19th century with a racially diverse cast, has changed things. Now roles no longer indicate a specific race. The actor has noted the increased volume of offers. Smith has used both Persuasion and Andor to unleash his “posh accent,” to the point that the film’s director asked him to tone it down. “Where I come from, you don’t get to play the posh parts. I’m very posh in Star Wars as well. I saw myself as one of those officers that never fights. He gets other people to fight and die. And those guys are always posh.”
That was all the room he had to build his character, because Andor was not the place to display his improvisational talents. “I would have loved to have been able to mess around a bit more. But it’s just that Daddy Disney is not going to let you do that,” he jokes. He could, however, play with the gadgets on set. The series takes place before the original trilogy, so it had to fit in with the 1970s aesthetic of the original trilogy. This means not only that Captain Blevins is wearing “a little Afro,” but also that 80% of the sets were physical constructions, not digital. “It was overwhelming getting on the set at times. There was like a whole alien world that they’d built with houses like streets and houses and hotels and jails and offices. It felt like maybe a bit like being in Disneyland or something where everything you see has been created and you can touch it.”
After all he’s been through, Ben Bailey Smith can’t wait for Andor to be released – in order to finally understand what he was doing. “When you’re recording it you don’t know what’s going on. Now I can form an opinion. I’m looking forward to seeing it,” he says. “I am aware that this does not happen to everyone,” he adds. “So I’m going to keep doing it, I’m going to keep making hay while the sun shines. If they chew me up and spit me out tomorrow, I will be back on my computer with my pen and pad, writing jokes. In a year’s time I’ll be on stage doing stand up again.”