Filmmaker Johnny Harris says his latest movie, Jawbone, is a love letter to amateur boxing. It’s also an homage to his own incredible journey from boyhood bouts to homelessness to acting stardom
“Helping others is a beautiful thing to aspire to”
“In many respects, the film is a love letter,” says Johnny Harris of his new movie, Jawbone. “It’s a love letter to all those who, for very little reward, coach kids in these anonymous little gyms, youth clubs and fringe theatres. They’re the heroes: altruistic, benevolent people who are still making a difference.”
Written by and starring Harris, and set in the back streets of South London, Jawbone is a modern-day film noir that, while as tough as a butcher’s dog, delivers an underlying missive of redemption and hope.
It tells of 40-year-old Jimmy McCabe [Harris], a solitary alcoholic who, having lost his mother, is evicted from his council flat, sleeps rough and, seeking succour, returns to the old boxing club where he trained to win the junior British Amateur Boxing Association Championships.
“He has lost everything apart from his memories,” explains the 43-year-old Harris. “The boxing club is his church – a place of faith, full of like-minded people who all believe in the same thing.”
Jawbone might be viewed as an autobiographical work; in his youth, Harris trained at celebrated South London boxing club Fitzroy Lodge – where much of the movie was filmed – and won the ABA Championship at the age of 16.
“I was a bright kid, but I was scared in secondary school and never went, so I left at 13 and joined the local gym,” reveals Harris, who was born in Lambeth. “Then my mum spoke to my trainer, Mickey Carney [who sadly died in 2011], and he fixed me up with a locksmith apprenticeship. After work, I trained as much as they’d let me, and I won the ABA Championship. If I hadn’t done the boxing, I would have been f**ked.”
“There are aspects of my past in the film, but it’s not autobiographical,” he clarifies. “It’s a personal film. I didn’t want to get bogged down with facts, but I wanted it to be parabolic: simple, easy to grasp, but also full of detail.”
Harris’ insistence on nailing the minutiae is best vindicated by Jawbone’s climactic unlicensed bout. “I’d seen boxing films that had massive budgets but got the fight scenes wrong,” he explains. “I wanted a unique fight scene that could stand next to the best.”
To achieve this, Harris turned to former WBA featherweight champion Barry McGuigan. “Barry made it work,” he says. “Not only did he immerse me in the world my character inhabited, but he prepared me for the fight scenes as he would have done for a real fight. Even though it was choreographed within an inch of our lives, we really went for it.”
“My opponent, Luke Smith, who’s a real fighter, wasn’t scared to take a good shot, or to give one. After my background as an amateur, my training with Barry, and the smashed nose and broken hand I received while sparring with Barry’s son Shane, I was ready,” he adds. “So we just went for it and made the fight as authentic as we could. The blows are real, as are my black eye, my cuts and the blood; also, Luke bust a rib. But it didn’t really matter, as that’s what we signed up for.”
Although Harris is clear that Jawbone isn’t autobiographical, the echoes of the filmmaker’s own life are undeniable – not least his character’s slide into alcoholism and homelessness. Following his exploits in the ring as a youngster, Harris drifted through life. He “fell in love with a beautiful French girl and ran away to Paris”, where he washed dishes, loafed about and began to indulge in heavy partying. On his return to the UK, he enrolled, on a whim, on a drama course at Lambeth’s Morley College, where he met Craig Snelling, an acting coach who saw his potential and helped develop it.
“After that, I began working in fringe theatre,” continues Harris. “I did all the greats: Ibsen, Pinter, Beckett, Shakespeare, Miller. Then, in 2000, I got a nice part in [British film] Gangster No. 1 and I thought I’d made it. A few weeks later, I was back working on building sites and drinking like a lunatic. I was sleeping on people’s couches, then rough, then on couches again, living hand to mouth. I felt so ashamed of myself for taking advantage of people’s kindness.”
Eventually, he divorced himself from even that kindness, becoming homeless. As he later told The Guardian, “I just didn’t want to be around anyone. I felt more comfortable not going home, which bled into me sitting out all night, which then bled into me sitting out until the sun came up, and then I was homeless. Part of me thought I was a tortured genius, but really I was just a sad fella who thought booze was my friend.” Acting work was still coming through, however. “I was doing little roles here and there,” he smiles. “I would have given up if I could have done anything else.”
Then, in 2006, director/writer Paul Andrew Williams cast Harris in his British crime drama, London To Brighton, which was released to glowing reviews.
Perhaps seeing light at the end of a hazy tunnel, three months after the film’s release Harris gave up booze for good. “I’d genuinely believed that if I quit drinking, it would be the end of my life,” he confides. “But it was just the beginning.”
Soon, Harris was being cited by acclaimed director Shane Meadows as one of Britain’s best up-and-coming actors, and he won a part in Meadows’ milestone TV series This Is England ’86. “I was working in a café when I got the call,” smiles Harris. ”I had to borrow the train fare to get to Nottingham for the audition.” Harris received a BAFTA nomination for his performance as abusive father Mick, and substantial roles followed.
In 2012, he played the dwarf Quert in Snow White & The Huntsman, alongside Ray Winstone and Ian McShane. Harris could envisage parts for the two actors in his writing debut, so he bought a MacBook and got to work. “I had to do it,” he says. “I was turning down all these scripts that I didn’t like, so I had to shut my mouth and write my own. Then synchronicity kicked in and it all came together.”
While the script for Jawbone has its own arc, it undoubtedly travels a parallel course to the actor’s own; in some ways, it would be impossible for it not to. Whether there was any catharsis involved, Harris is unsure, but he’s quick to pinpoint the lesson that both have to teach.
“In life, you get out what you put in, and helping and caring for other people when you can is a beautiful thing to aspire to,” concludes the actor/writer. “In the film, Bill [the gym owner, played by Winstone] and Eddie [the cornerman, played by Michael Smiley] don’t have to help Jimmy, but they do, and they’re better for it. I’d like to think the same has happened to me… and it’s made my life a lot happier.”