To celebrate 10 years of Joe Cornish’s genre-smashing classic Attack The Block, Empire reunited the main cast on Zoom with the writer-director, reminiscing about their time shooting the film, its continuing legacy, and teasing the upcoming long-awaited sequel. Originally published in the June 2021 issue of Empire Magazine.
"Long time, bros! Long time!"
When Empire gathers the five stars and director of Attack The Block for an hour-long Zoom call across three time-zones — marking ten years since the release of a landmark sci-fi-action-comedy that had the audacity to pit aliens against a teenage street gang from a South London council estate — the first ten minutes of the call are just pure nostalgia. After the above salutation from Alex Esmail, it’s a happy, noisy torrent of catch-ups, in-jokes, Zoom high-jinks (“Is it more dramatic if I turn my camera on and off?” asks Joe Cornish, the aforementioned director), and comments on how long some people’s hair has got. When they last saw each other, they were kids; now one of them, Franz Drameh, has kids.
They’ve come a long way. For nearly all of the gang — John Boyega (who played gang leader Moses in the film), Esmail (fireworks-loving joker Pest), Drameh (pizza delivery boy Dennis), Leeon Jones (cool-headed swot Jerome) and Simon Howard (Biggz, who spends much of the film in a skip) — it was their first experience of ever being on a film set. Most were straight out of school or college; some grew up a stone’s throw away from the estate where filming took place. A lot has changed in the decade since. Boyega, of course, became a lightsaber-wielding A-lister (he’s Zooming in from Atlanta, where he’s filming They Cloned Tyrone with Jamie Foxx). Drameh, who’s in Vancouver, became a DC superhero in Legends Of Tomorrow__. Cornish collaborated with Spielberg and made a follow-up, Arthurian adventure *The Kid Who Would Be King*. Esmail is now a chef.
But for all of them, Attack The Block still looms large. Despite its humble beginnings, it has become a much-loved British film, with its nifty cinematography (making a brutalist block of flats look like a spaceship), iconic alien design, and razor-sharp script that’s as funny as it is subtly political. Plus, of course, those five lively performances as friends defending their turf from intergalactic invaders.
So, a decade after they discovered a species hitherto unknown to science (and kicked its head in), all are ready to re-live their big adventure. Believe.
How long is it since you were all together?
John Boyega: I think it was the  Empire Awards, you know.
Alex Esmail: Crazy, man. Ten years, boys.
Leeon Jones: It’s mad.
Joe Cornish: It’s really more than ten years, isn’t it, because I think we filmed over the Christmas of 2009 to 2010. We took all of 2010 to do post-production. And then the release was delayed until May 2011. Which means we would have met each other and auditioned in 2009, which is officially a hundred years ago.
When Attack The Block arrived, where were you all at in your lives?
Jones: For me, it was right after secondary school. I had to drop out of college because they didn’t allow me to [star in the film]. They weren’t really that supportive. Later on, down the line, they asked me to do pictures for the [college brochure]!
Simon Howard: [Casting director] Lucy Pardee, she came into my college lesson. We was doing drama, and she told us all to do a couple of monologues. Afterwards she said to me, “I think you’re really good.” She paved the way for me. And then it was the audition process after that.
Cornish: Franz, out of everybody in this group, you were the only person who had ever been in a film or TV show before, correct?
Franz Drameh: Yeah, I’d done a couple things before that. I think I did my first thing when I was about seven. I did one TV series called Parents Of The Band, when I was, like, 13.
Cornish: I think that’s your best work so far, to be honest.
Drameh: Still waiting for my Academy nomination for that.
Esmail: I was basically the same as Simon. Lucy Pardee came into my drama lesson, and asked me to go to an open audition. My college didn’t really support me either. I wasn’t doing coursework, I was learning lines!
Boyega: I was on my first ever job on stage, and at the same time I was going to college. My college was actually quite supportive. My tutors were actors in real life.
Cornish: You were with Identity [School Of Acting] back then?
Boyega: Yeah, I’d just signed to Identity. I’d got my first little gig on stage, basically as a stand-in, in a small cast in three plays at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn.
Cornish: I came to see you. You were very good. It was called Category B.
Boyega: You saw me in Category B? Oh, you didn’t see me in Seize The Day. That’s where I had one line. And that, I would say, is my greatest achievement.
Jones: I found it through Lucy Pardee as well, actually. Shout out to Lucy, because she was a lovely woman who helped us. Big love for her.
Cornish: Lucy was just nominated for a BAFTA, for that movie Rocks. It’s good.
How was the audition process — do you remember your first one?
Esmail: It was an open audition. There was ten of us. It was completely improvised.
Cornish: Was I there at that point?
Esmail: No, I think I met you at my third or fourth audition.
Drameh: I remember one audition, which really tripped us up. Luke Treadaway, who plays Brewis in the film, has an identical twin brother [Harry, also an actor]. They both came in on the same day. And it just tripped us all out. One had a beard and one didn’t. It was well confusing. We were like... “Did you just grow a beard?”
Cornish: John, do you remember when you got offered the role?
Boyega: I really don’t, you know. I just remember the audition before the final one, I think that’s when it felt quite warm.
Howard: I started seeing John in, like, every single audition, with different people. I was thinking, “Hold on, this guy has definitely smashed some kind of role.”
What did everyone make of the script when you first read it?
Cornish: Shall I switch my sound and camera off? [Laughter]
Boyega: I actually quite loved the script. I just thought that the language needed a bit of tweaking. We were not that hard with the slang. We actually got a moment during the rehearsal process to tweak the lines to better suit what was the slang of that time — even now, it’s changed again. But it was especially different to a lot of the scripts a lot of us were reading. I’m sure Franz can speak to this as well — the scripts that were floating around at that time, there was nothing as imaginative, there was nothing that brought sci-fi into such a grounded environment. I’d never read anything like this, and it got me excited.
"The chemistry, it was past 100 per cent" – Leeon Jones
Drameh: It was a breath of fresh air. I can definitely attest to that. At the time, especially for young Black actors in the UK, everything was extremely stereotyped. The nice thing with Attack The Block was that it was a story about these kids from the hood that was very nuanced. It had deeper underlying messages. It was just something that, as John said, we hadn’t seen before.
Jones: For me, it was the sci-fi element. It’s a London film and normally what you get with that is the same old films and it can get quite boring. It was like the first of its kind.
Drameh: We got to see ourselves represented in a genre that we never get to see ourselves represented in, basically. You have your sci-fi films, you have your action films, but they’re never in the hood.
Boyega: I’m so happy them aliens didn’t land near Big Ben. [Laughter] Aliens know about rental property rates.
Can you all remember your first day of shooting?
Cornish: We didn’t use the first day. I was a first-time director, so I fucked it up. It was basically unusable. It wasn’t bad, the angles just weren’t very good. [laughter] But was it what you all expected? Franz, you knew what it was like to be on a film set, but for the other four of you— do you remember how you felt, when you faced the reality of how you actually make a film?
Howard: Yeah, I had only done theatre before, so this was like my first step into the film industry. It was all new.
Jones: It was a big shock. I was like, “Wow.” I’d only studied media before. Doing this was like work experience. What I didn’t realise was that with filming, there’s a lot of repetition. Also, because we were all mad competitive, we were always trying to get it in one take. [Laughter]
Cornish: I remember that. If a light failed, or something else went wrong, and I called for a second take, you’d be gutted.
Drameh: It’s funny; as you grow as an actor, you want more takes. “Let me just get one more!” But our first jobs: “Nah, we only want one and done.”
How was the shoot off-camera?
Boyega: It was fun. We were teenagers, we were coming into our own and we all found independence through this film. I’m speaking for myself, but at the time, nothing was more interesting to me than shooting a movie. Everything was new. It was really, really dope.
Cornish: I loved shooting at night: it felt special and secret and private. It felt like it was after school, not during school, do you know what I mean? Did you guys feel that at all?
Esmail: Yeah, it was like a secret hang-out. Because we all formed a friendship throughout the rehearsal process, it was just like going to a midnight hang- out with your boys doing some craziness, and that craziness just happens to be shooting a movie.
Drameh: The camaraderie that you see on screen, we’d really actually built that. Even though I’d done a few things really and truly, it was everyone’s first, even with Joe as a first-time director. It felt like everyone was in it all together. We were just teenage boys hanging out, all day, all night. We had a green room where we’d play Xbox. So the love that is conveyed [on screen] between the gang is real.
Howard: I think that made the chemistry together as a group solid. We were literally just teenage boys, laughing at Buzz Lightyear and Woody. [Laughter]
Esmail: Do you lot remember Franz’s impression of the kid from The Incredibles? “That was totally wicked!”
Boyega: Funny, man. Banter.
Jones: The chemistry, it was past 100 per cent.
How did you find the action? You were chased by aliens, riding mopeds, blowing stuff up with fireworks...
Jones: We didn’t want stunt doubles!
Esmail: I remember Simon saying, “Let me do it! It doesn’t look that far!”
Cornish: You’re talking about the jump that Biggz does, from a walkway into a stairwell. Who actually did that, Simon?
Howard: It was a stunt double. And he looked exactly like me. [Laughter]
Cornish: But you were so desperate to do that jump yourself.
Howard: I was. I was even contemplating whether to lie just now, and say I managed to do it. I really wanted to do it.
Drameh: John, how did you feel, hanging from the block [at the end of the film]? Because that one was hot.
Boyega: That was dope. I remember that day. My dad came to set that day. I remember him looking up, giving me a thumbs up, and me giving a thumbs up while holding onto the Union Jack.
Cornish: We should say to the readers that that really was you, hanging off the block.
What was it like seeing it for the first time?
Cornish: We had a screening just for these guys, and it was not the reaction I anticipated. They just laughed. They thought seeing themselves on screen was weird and funny. I was like, “This is my masterpiece. Why are you laughing?” [Laughter]
Esmail: You know what it was, though, Joe — every little scene, we had, like, a hundred little memories of everything that happened that day.
Cornish: No, I liked it. It was joy. I was pleased you were laughing. You were laughing with excitement, I think.
"It could be an interesting time for a sequel." - John Boyega
It has quite a cult following now. Do you still get quotes thrown at you?
Esmail: Simon’s line, “I wanna go home, lock the door, and play FIFA”, I hear that quite a bit.
Jones: I do hear, “This is too much madness for one text,” but that’s usually my friends. It’s really funny thinking about it because now we have unlimited texts! It’s like: that would never happen now. [Laughter]
Cornish: It is amazing how it’s stuck around. That’s the great thing about movies — if people enjoy them, they do tend to stick around. And here we are ten years later. It’s brilliant. It’s a testament to all of your work.
When’s the last time you watched it?
Drameh: Five, six months ago.
Jones: I haven’t watched in a long time to be fair, because I watched it so much back then. It was on Film4 all the time! When I watch it, I know it word for word, and that’s really annoying. So that makes it quite difficult.
Esmail: I reckon about six months ago. Quite a few of my friends, anytime it’s on, they text me.
Howard: Last night, I was just flicking through Sky Movies, and it was on. I just thought, “I’m gonna get a packet of crisps and watch this.” As it goes, I enjoyed it!
Cornish: How many stars out of five would you give it, Simon?
Howard: It’s a bit of a biased question, Joe. [Laughter] Always for me it’s a five.
Cornish: Anything with Howard in it gets five stars from me.
Finally, we have to ask about a sequel. What’s the latest with that?
Cornish: Well, I think there hopefully will be an announcement quite soon... [pause] I think that’s all I’ll say. But yes, Mr Boyega and I have had some conversations. Right, John?
Boyega: Yeah, we have. I was over at Joe’s. We had a little chat. We had some ideas flying around. It’s just about making it make sense. It could be an interesting time for a sequel. When you take into account British history, the riots, and the uproar, that was touched on very intelligently in Attack The Block — we’ve just been thinking about that, me and Joe. Ideas here and there...