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Nemesis writer Adam Stephen Kelly on the ‘difficult’ debate around LGBTQ representation on screen

Kelly's new film is one of the first to be shot and commercially released during the pandemic.

By Thomas Stichbury

Words: Thomas Stichbury

British writer and director Adam Stephen Kelly refused to let a pesky pandemic stop him from making his latest film, Nemesis, a gripping gangster thriller starring Billy Murray (EastEnders) and Nick Moran, of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame.

Ahead of the movie’s release, on 29 March, the former journalist-turned-filmmaker dives into the challenges he faced in getting the project – directed by James Crow – off the ground and his thoughts on the future of cinema.

In what turned out to be his first interview for an LGBTQ platform – “you were the first to ask!” he jokes – 30-year-old Adam opens up about not wishing to be defined by his sexuality, LGBTQ representation on screen and the ongoing cultural conversation around who should and shouldn’t play LGBTQ roles.

Adam also lifts the lid on his side hustle as a pro wrestler; regrettably, we don’t have any shots of him wearing a singlet.

Give us the lowdown on your new film, Nemesis. What is it about?

Nemesis is a thriller centred around gangster John Morgan (Billy Murray). Living overseas, he returns to London on business and quickly finds himself the target of his long-time rival, disgraced cop Frank Conway (Nick Moran). But Conway isn’t the only one trying to bring Morgan down; there are other forces conspiring against him. It all comes to a head inside a penthouse apartment where the darkest of secrets are uncovered and the past comes hurtling back to harm him and his family.

Brace yourself for a rather rubbish question… who is your biggest nemesis in life and why?

Me, myself and I. Being a filmmaker, a lot of difficult questions are thrown at you pretty regularly and sometimes making the best decision is like assembling a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Being a writer, too, is especially tough mentally. I don’t think people who aren’t writers quite understand just how mentally gruelling a process it can be. There is no shortage of pressures. I am riddled with anxiety and self-doubt whenever I write and I’m basically blind to whether anything I come up with is of a good quality or not… these days I’ve learned to deal with it and I’m much better with my self-doubt issues.

The film is one of the first to be filmed and released during the COVID-19 pandemic. What spurred you on to forge ahead with the production under such difficult circumstances?

Back in March 2020, we were on the cusp of beginning production on Nemesis, like just a couple of weeks away, and then we had to pull the plug because of COVID-19. It was so defeating. Before we made the difficult decision to postpone filming, the producer Jonathan Sothcott and I had discussed the pandemic – back before it was even classed as such – and he was really starting to get the impression that it would prevent us from shooting. I remember saying that I didn’t believe that at all and it was most likely the media sensationalising everything and making it much worse than it was. How wrong was I? When the UK first started opening up again in the summer and film and television productions were allowed to continue, we got right back in the saddle and started putting the pieces back together to make this movie happen.

© Shogun Films

What challenges did you face during filming?

Face masks, social distancing and temperature checks have been very odd things to get used to in real life, let alone on a film set where somehow they feel even more alien. These safety measures aren’t particularly conducive to making a film but they’re there for a reason. It’s very bizarre to observe actors wearing masks, taking them off to film their scene, then putting them back on again. It’s a tough process to adapt to.

Coronavirus has hit the film industry hard, with the forced closure of cinemas nationwide and around the world. Do you think cinema can and will bounce back?

Most definitely. Who isn’t clamouring for a trip to the cinema right now? I haven’t seen a film on the big screen since The Rise of Skywalker. I think the home premieres we’ve been seeing with the studio movies has worked well and has really been the best solution possible to preventing an endless queue of massively delayed movies. They’ll most likely become a little more commonplace once the pandemic’s over because that’s the way we are leaning anyway, but even in this climate of convenience with Netflix and Amazon and such, there really is no comparison to going to the movies. It’s an experience that you can’t replicate on your sofa no matter how big your TV is.

How have you been affected by lockdown? What are your coping mechanisms?

When lockdown started it wasn’t all that bad at first – sitting around and watching Netflix all day is quite alright with me – but it did get old pretty fast. Not being able to see loved ones was devastating. I thought I had the virus at one point but fortunately didn’t. I never feared getting it though, I feared giving it to others. I was constantly worried about family members contracting the virus. It sounds awful to say, but I quite often found myself thinking that it’s just as well my dad is no longer around as he suffered from COPD, which is a terrible degenerative lung disease, and so I know for sure that he wouldn’t have survived it and the prolonged anxiety he would’ve felt would’ve been horrific for him to endure. In terms of coping with it all, I effectively surrendered myself to the situation. Everyone is in the same boat as far as the lockdowns go. I just decided to keep myself busy and deal with it head-on.

© Shogun Films

This is your first interview for a LGBTQ publication. What took you so long?

You were the first to ask! I don’t particularly publicise who I’m interested in as I don’t feel defined by it. If people ask what I identify as, I just say me. I identify as Adam. Who I’m interested in is just a facet of me but it doesn’t define me. People are free to be whoever they are and identify as whatever they like. They can define themselves as whatever they like. The world is far from black and white and human beings are incredibly complicated.

What was your ‘coming out’ experience like?

Insignificant. I was very fortunate. I never looked at it as ‘coming out’. I knew my parents and my brother would be accepting that my interests weren’t ‘traditional’ so it really wasn’t an issue. The biggest reaction came from my dad who shed a tear and gave me a hug. It took him by surprise, but it wasn’t remotely a problem. I’m very laid back, I don’t do drama. It was all very matter of fact. Uncomplicated. It was simply a case of me being at the stage where I felt comfortable in who I am and realising that living anything but authentically would not be healthy. I am privileged to have such supportive family and friends. I consider myself luckier, however, to be someone who hasn’t had to struggle with their identity internally nor suffered as a result of choosing to live their truth. I’ve had it very easy in that respect and sadly others haven’t and don’t. I know this too well, having lost a very dear friend recently to suicide.

Let’s talk about representation of the LGBTQ community on screen. Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin featured queer actors bringing a queer story to life and the series has generated further discussions about if and when it is appropriate for ‘straight’ actors to portray LGBTQ characters. What are your thoughts on the matter? Would you prefer to cast an LGBTQ person in an LGBTQ role?

This is a massive question and very difficult and I’m not entirely sure there is a right answer. I think the fundamental idea that an actor absolutely must share certain traits with their character betrays the craft and essentially the point of acting. You do not need to be your character in order to play your character. I would say that identifying with your character could lead to a more authentic performance – and that would certainly make the role more interesting to an actor – but it isn’t essential. Acting is pretending. A performance is effectively telling lies and doing your best to convince the audience that you’re in fact being truthful. I’ve seen the argument that straight actors shouldn’t play LGBT characters for the same reason that white actors shouldn’t play black characters, but you really cannot compare race and sexuality. They are two very different things. If you exclude straight actors from playing LGBT characters, then does that mean that LGBT actors shouldn’t play straight characters because the performance wouldn’t be ‘authentic’?

On the other side of the coin, it’s a fact that LGBT actors don’t get the same opportunities as straight actors and that is certainly an issue, so it boils down to representation and the need for more LGBT stories to be told and characters to be showcased in a meaningful way. I don’t think that it’s a must that LGBT actors, writers, directors and producers need to be behind these stories, but if it means that the goal of a movement to cast more LGBT actors in LGBT roles is to generally represent the community as a whole then that’s great. Here is another question: should an actor who identifies as gay but has kept it a secret from everyone be excluded from playing a gay character simply because no one knows how they choose to identify? As I said, your question is so difficult to answer succinctly but I think it’s far more complicated than just ‘this gay actor should play this gay character simply because they are actually gay and therefore it’s real’.

What is your favourite film?

Jaws. No question. I must have been about five when I first saw it. It’s also my brother’s favourite film. He’s nine years older than me and used to torment me by playing the iconic John Williams theme. He had this ‘game’ on his PC called Microsoft Cinemania ’94 which was basically IMDb before there was IMDb. When you selected certain films to read up on, you could play some of the music. He would do this relentlessly with the Jaws theme. The Psycho shower scene music too. Just hearing it would send me running for the hills as if a dorsal fin was about to come tearing through my bedroom floor. That film’s given me a very irrational fear of the sea and I literally won’t go in it.

Which director do you most admire?

Spielberg. He may be a bit of a cliché choice but it’s true. Not only has he made some of my favourite films of all time, but that connection he made with me with Jaws when I was a kid made me fall in love with cinema before I even realised it. Although it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do, that film really shaped me, so I have Spielberg’s art and my brother’s persistence to scare me for my becoming a filmmaker.

You also like to unwind with a spot of pro-wrestling. How did that come about?

‘Unwind’ may be the wrong word. Professional wrestling is my other great passion. I’m a lifelong fan and it has always been my dream to get involved somehow. I didn’t care in what capacity to an extent, I just needed to be involved. In 2016 I was a ‘guest’ at a local wrestling show, and I got involved in the main event. I ended up doing a big dive off the top rope to the outside onto a huddle of wrestlers and it got a pretty decent reaction. The experience got me thinking that it was now or never in terms of getting involved in a proper capacity and so the following year I looked into training.

I got started with veteran wrestler Rishi Ghosh, who now runs his own wrestling school, the Quality Wrestling Academy, in Havant and started learning the ropes, no pun intended. Stepping foot in a real wrestling ring feels like an honour every time I do it. It’s hallowed ground to me and I love every solitary second of training. It’s extremely tough on the body but so rewarding. Sadly, my training has been very stop-start due to injuries, the loss of my dad and, of course, COVID-19, so it’s been a rocky road but I’m hoping to get back to it as soon as all this madness is over.

Nemesis is released on 29 March on DVD and video-on-demand.