James Floyd first read the screenplay for My Brother the Devil in the summer of 2010. “Every actor says this, so you’re just going to have to trust that I’m being honest,” he prefaces, sitting in a café located among a parade of decrepit shops under a housing project around the corner from his London flat. “It was the best script I’ve ever read. You could see the film on the page—the voices were there. It’d actually be quite impressive to fuck them up.”
As Devil’s lead character, Rashid, Floyd does anything but. He plays the son of hard-working Egyptian immigrants, a lost soul embroiled in the fractious estate violence of East London, dealing drugs while exploring his sexuality. At the heart of the film is Rashid’s relationship with his younger brother, Mo, whom he tries to steer away from the seductive gangland rites of passage. Devil contains echoes of My Beautiful Laundrette, the 1985 masterwork centering around a British-Asian subculture. As that movie featured a star-making turn from Daniel Day-Lewis, Floyd’s staggering portrayal was easily one of the highlights of the performances from young actors at Sundance last year. It also won him the Most Promising Newcomer award at the 2012 British Independent Film Awards, landed him a U.S. agent, and pivoted him into contention for parts later snagged by Robert Pattinson, Daniel Radcliffe, and Jake Gyllenhaal. “I’m losing roles to ridiculous names,” Floyd says. Still, his own fame now feels like a given.
Floyd was born in the outer reaches of suburban North London to an Indian mother and British father. His neighborhood, he fondly recalls, went by the poetic name Fortune Green. He left a place at the prestigious London School of Economics, where he was studying philosophy, logic, and scientific method, after his first year, lured by the stage when he scored a lead at the British National Youth Theatre. He found an agent at 20 -- the same one he has now, seven years later -- but getting jobs was an uphill battle. “I struggled for years,” Floyd says. “I had no money and worked in the Strand Theatre for a long time, ushering and cleaning toilets. I taught math to kids until recently.” He considers his first major lead role a gift, adding that every actor of every ethnicity his age wanted it. “It’s very difficult to get your hands on a character like Rashid,” he says. “There aren’t that many being written.”
To pen the story for My Brother the Devil, first-time British-Egyptian director Sally El Hosaini schooled herself for three years in gangland ethos, going native in the underworld. She’d planned to street-cast the movie, in the manner of the 2002’s masterful Brazilian crime drama City of God.
“But she found out,” Floyd explains, “that all the boys in this world were homophobic -- extremely -- and there was no way she could get one to play my role.”
Taking the director’s cue for authenticity, Floyd spent six months palling around with gang members. “The only way to do it was to go ‘method’ on it,” he says, remembering one afternoon near Ramadan, sitting in an illegally occupied Dalston council flat watching the cartoon Family Guy. When a male character began playfully rubbing another’s nipples, “the whole room went schizo,” he says. “ ‘Faggot!’ this, ‘faggot!’ that. ‘What the fuck?!’ They turned it off and didn’t watch it again. They felt violated.”
But what he learned from this experience chimed exactly with El Hosaini’s script in ways he couldn’t have conceived. “This world is also the most homoerotic world,” Floyd says. “These men are constantly flirting with each other, all over each other physically. There’s only boys -- no girls. I knew Sally had hit on something truthful. It’s not contrived at all.” Other ironies surfaced, he explains: “I saw that a good 20% of the hipsters these guys are dealing to are camp and/or gay. Sally went into the gangs, got to know them, and understood they’re just like anyone else. They’re happy; they’re sad. They’re scared that they won’t get a job because of the economy. They’re terrified they’re not going to fall in love.”
The resulting work feels like a classic, swerving from the dank atmospherics of the gangster genre and flooding the screen with color, passion, and a poetic commentary on the constraints of modern masculinity. Floyd shines in a role he believes he was born to play.
On the back of My Brother the Devil, Floyd was cast in the BBC biopic Best Possible Taste, about the anarchic ’70s and ’80s comedian Kenny Everett, one of Britain’s first prominent figures to die of AIDS-related complications. He played Everett’s friend, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Queer roles continue to fascinate him. “Many of my friends have fallen in love with people of both genders,” he says. “I have -- whatever ‘love’ means. I feel like I’m in love with my best mate. Ultimately, what difference does it make that somebody is making love to someone of a different gender than you? There is no rational way of starting that argument.”
Watch the trailer for My Brother the Devil below: