I was petrified!”: Ian Wright and Kibwe Tavares on The Kitchen

Exclusive: In Netflix sci-fi thriller The Kitchen, Wright swaps the commentary box for the DJ booth. He and co-director Kibwe Tavares chat community, gentrification, the Premier League and Gary Lineker.

Good morning! You’re with the Lord. It’s 7am, you know what time it is. It’s the Lord, Lord Kitchener, live and direct, strong from The Kitchen on Kitchen Radio…”

The first voice we hear in The Kitchen – the new, London-set dystopian sci-fi film co-written by Daniel Kaluuya, and co-directed by the actor with Kibwe Tavares – is a familiar one. But instead of laying into a woefully porous defence or struggling to contain his joy at another Arsenal victory, football legend Ian Wright is broadcasting a rallying cry to an embattled community.

The all-time Gunners MVP and Match of the Day stalwart is, at the ripe young age of 60, switching things up. Ahead of retiring from MotD in May, meet Ian Wright: actor. In The Kitchen he plays Lord Kitchener, a pirate DJ broadcasting to a near-future London. He’s the voice, the soul, the conscience of the titular inner-city streets, an area purposefully ghettoised by privatisation and gentrification run rampant in the gleaming metropolis that encircles The Kitchen.

Wright stars opposite Kane Kano” Robinson (Top Boy and the Top 40) who plays Izi, a moody, motorbike-riding resident with his eyes on escape, saving to move into the boujie apartments on offer beyond The Kitchen’s walls. Then he meets an adolescent orphan (first-timer Jedaiah Bannerman), a connection that threatens to scupper his plans – as does the increasingly aggressive tactics of the militarised authorities trying to evict The Kitchen residents.

Bad news, guys,” Lord Kitchener declaims in an emergency bulletin that reverberates round the tower blocks. They’ve gone and done it. Water in the West Wing is out. Water is still available in the East, but only go if you need. Only go if you sweat in your sleep. Only go if your mattress is drenched,” Wrighty cackles in that infectious Saturday night laugh of his. You hear me?”

Back in reality, on a freezing morning in not-yet-dystopian London, fellow South Londoners Wright and Tavares are in a hotel room a football pitch length from the Thames. Tavares is wearing Labrums midnight blue, zig zag jacquard curved eyelet shirt; Wright is smart-casual in an olive-green, canvas-adjacent suit from Universal Works.

When I was younger, everybody wore suits. I know this is a different kind of suit, but back then, people dressed really well. I really quite liked that. And obviously I’ve got Chukkas,” he says patting his brown suede boots. And obviously the rollneck,” Wright adds of his signature black woollen wear.

You know what’s good, though, Kibs,” he says, addressing his director, I’ve got to a place where I can wear anything. You don’t want to wear stuff where it’s ridiculous. It’s whatever’s comfortable.”

Does Wright mean he’s got to an age where he doesn’t care what people say?

Yeah, I’m not bothered,” he says with a smile, radiating the million-watt but easy-geezer charisma that made him a fan favourite on and off the pitch. I made sure that my daughters, when they were younger, wore what they wanted – whatever colours. People used to say blue and green shouldn’t be seen’, or [same with] black and brown. Those are my favourite things!”

That’s the Wrighty we like, cheerfully contrary… Why, though, Ian, did you say yes to this film?

IW: Bro, it took me a while to say yes – I was petrified! I remember saying to Daniel and Kibwe, when we started speaking, how nervous I was about trying to remember the lines and say the lines. Because I didn’t [want to do it half-hearted]. The film is so important, and the storyline so important, and the actual character and his content is important. So I didn’t want to fuck it up, man.

Lord Kitchener is, to my mind, the conscience of the film. Was that, along with the themes of the film and what he represented, the appealing factor?

IW: Well, yeah. We’re talking about a time [that’s recognisable]. When you’re talking about communities now – even my community that I live in now – [or] Brockley, where I came from before, [these] communities have changed. Our communities are broken up. How gentrified they’re getting. Things have changed drastically.

The property ladder and the rental crisis are only the half of it…

IW: There are people who grew up in an area, and they can’t live in the area [any more]. There’s a lot of oppression. With the film, obviously, there’s a lot of similarities between present London and future London, whichever year we’ve [set] it in. It’s all about community. That’s what I loved about the film, and the role that I was playing: he’s such a cornerstone of the community.

Kibwe, why was Ian your Lord Kitchener?

KT: That character came late in the day, just before the shoot. We were looking for someone that could be the voice of The Kitchen. Ian’s name came up. I started doing more research, about his advocate work and his childhood, growing up and how much he speaks to the community… We wanted someone where you’d feel his presence, and then potentially when he’s not there, the proper loss of that. Ian had that weight, that gravitas.

But I didn’t want it to seem stunt‑y. Ian had that same nervousness and spoke so much about respecting the craft of acting. He didn’t want to come in and be like: Oh, yeah, I’ve got the job because I’m famous.”

As a novice actor, Ian, what kind of help did you get on set?

IW: [For one particular scene] Daniel tried to get me into a headspace of an oppressive thing [having] just happened. He came into the trailer and we went back to when I was really young. I remembered walking down the street and getting arrested, me and my mate. Literally just swept up – it was Ladywell police station [in South London]. I had to get into the [mindset of the] injustice of that for the scene.

How regular an occurrence was that?

IW: Things could just happen to you out of blue. You’re going about your business and then bam. Whether you get beaten up by skinheads. Whether people get nicked on the street through police using Sus [stop and search powers] at the time.

There was a lot of anger and angst around, and that’s what The Kitchen is like. That cloud of uncertainty, and [outside forces] coming in to break up this community – which is the last one standing. Which is what keeps them strong. I had to try and make sure I got to the core of that.

Kibwe, this is not so much sci-fi as near-fi. Everything you’ve created with the sets, the location, the CGI, the storyboarding, it’s tangibly real. And worryingly impending as well. How important was it that it felt that this isn’t beyond the realms of possibility?

KT: That was the core of it, really. Often in sci-fi it’s [things like flying cars], and I do love the aesthetic of that stuff. But it wasn’t about that. It was: how can we build on [what exists]? If you look at the London here, this is an old building, right? Then right across the river you’ve got all these tall towers. London is always this mad collision of old and new.

We wanted to have the present day, or past, in the future. So how can we use these layers as opposed to wiping everything? It was important to maintain that texture of London. You don’t want to lose that because that’s what the film is about.

I love the layers, too. Ian’s character’s name obviously relates to The Kitchen. But there is the added resonance of the real-life Lord Kitchener, the Trinidadian Calypso star, whose best-known song is London Is The Place For Me. Deliberate, Kibwe?

KT: [Nods] How can we name this character in a way that does both things, as you’re saying, that resonates to this actual place in the film, but also with the Windrush immigrants, [the descendants of whom] are the dominant community in The Kitchen. We wanted something that speaks to that heritage. And we’ve done that with the music as well.

Ian, how did you go about constructing the voice and the vibe of the character? Listening to historic and contemporary pirate radio, say?

IW: While I was on this [project], I was messing around with my wife and my two girls. I said they could only call me The Lord, or Lord Kitch! I’m in character!

But no. You know what I did? I watched The Warriorsremember that DJ voice in that film? I always felt like they used Millie Jackson for that, the mouth looked like her. [It was Lynne Thigpen – 70s Gangland Thriller Ed.] And I watched Samuel L. Jackson in Do The Right Thing, just to get the [feel for] the DJ guy.

How was it delivering your lines?

IW: There was one scene where I had to give some dialogue, then it stops, and I had to be solemn, thinking about what’s going on. Daniel wanted me to be somebody who can’t show weakness while he’s speaking. But you [also] have to show that you can’t deal with this no more.

That was quite easy to do. I went back to the rejection what I used to get – I got a lot of rejection when I was younger. And you have to act like you’re OK with all the people in the area: I heard that you went for the [football] trial, you didn’t get through.” And you act like: Yeah, yeah, it was fine.” But deep down, as soon as they’re gone, you go [home] and you’re just crying inside. I was trying to get to that.

I imagine it was more fulfilling and meaningful to you than the last bit of acting you did, in Ted Lasso.

IW: Ha ha! Well, I played myself! I didn’t have to do anything. I was just a pundit. And I was with [fellow sports broadcaster] Seema Jaswal, and it was the same for her. The only difference was there must have been about 300 people standing just there [onset] when we were doing it, which is always, for me, quite intimidating.

Didn’t they ask you to say a line bigging up Tottenham?

Well, the thing is: I do love Ted Lasso, because it’s a people thing. It’s not about the football. The football’s just a vehicle. But they gave me a line, which was wrong in respect of: I would never say that about Tottenham. And I have to be how I’m gonna be. So I said: For people knowing me, to say that about Tottenham, it wouldn’t work.” So I had to change that line for them.

A theme of the film is the privatisation of community and corporations coming in and taking over neighbourhoods. We’re seeing a version that in football: sovereign wealth funds buying up English clubs. How do you feel, Ian, about foreign, oil-state ownership of clubs?

IW: Well! You look at that, and that’s the future of football. They have to do their due diligence with respect to how well they can come in and actually run a football club

I’ve got no problems with that kind of ownership if it’s going to ensure that it’s going to retain stability of the football club, and the community around the football club. [But] look at what’s happening with Everton, what’s going to happen with Forest, what’s happening with Reading. [You don’t want] an owner that comes in and just gets it totally wrong.

Because what you’re doing is, again, totally destabilising a community that depends on the football club. So those things are a worry. But when you’re talking about whole countries, whole states, owning football clubs, it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes. Because at some stage, the powers that be have to do a lot more about the people they’re letting come in. Do they understand what it means to the community of that football club to own it and run it properly?

I know leaving Match Of The Day was partly about getting your Saturdays back, and doing football-related stuff with your kids and grandkids. But is it also partly about freeing you up to speak your mind more? Obviously we’ve seen the trouble your MotD colleague Gary Linker gets in regularly with his social media posts. And you clearly care about community, about the future of football, about the grassroots.

IW: To be honest, I have it. But I don’t do it on Match of the Day because, for a start, there’s no time on the show – even if you get a major issue, whether it’s racial, whatever controversial incident you get. But I’ve got platforms now, with [podcast series] Wrighty’s House. I’ve got more than enough scope to be able to speak my mind – and it’s actually reaching a lot more people because of the streaming aspect of it.

So leaving Match of the Day wasn’t because you can’t speak your mind. It’s just time to do other stuff where I could still get my voice and opinion out.

Gary will always speak his mind. I think everybody saw that. And I thought that he was treated unfairly the last time”


How supportive are you of Gary speaking his mind as readily and forcefully as he does?

IW: Ha, the thing is, whatever happens, Gary will always speak his mind. I think everybody saw that. And I thought that he was treated unfairly the last time. You have to stick with people, you have to show solidarity… But Gary’s never going to change what he believes is right in his mind and what he wants to put out there. He’s gonna have to deal with the consequences of those decisions – if it’s not right for people, if people don’t like it.

But Gary’s a big man, bro, doing his thing. I’ve only got till May. And I don’t have to worry about it after May!

Your co-star is Kano, who also pivoted from a dayjob into acting, with Top Boy. Were you a fan of the show?

IW: I think it’s brilliant. Fantastic interpretation of what’s going on in London and England. And Kano in this film, he’s so good. There’s times you watch it, you say: Jesus, man, this guy’s got lighten up!” He’s so good. And Jedaiah as well, for his first film – unbelievable.

Chelsea fan, though.

IW: Ain’t nothing wrong with that! As long as he’s from London and he’s got a London team, I’m fine with him.

Finally, there’s a great line that Lord Kitchener has: They can only stop we if we see we as I.” That’s a perfect distillation of the soul of the film. Can you, Kibwe, remember the writing of that line?

KT: Yeah. Because Kitchener came later, we were trying to find his voice in the pages. And that did become emblematic of the whole thing. We all got jackets made with it: They Can’t Stop We”. That’s Kano’s character’s journey, from individualism to actually realising what’s around him.

Daniel come up with that. How can you actually talk about the theme in the film with something that rolls off the tongue without it being THIS IS THE THEME OF THE FILM”? That’s one of Daniel’s gifts, when you can distil something into something that’s punchy, but also something that someone would say.

In times of strife and economic hardship, like we’re in now, standing together is the only way to get through that.

IW: This is right. It’s a great line simply because it’s true. And it can go for anything. A football manager could use that!

Do you agree, Kibwe?

KT: I’d like to see Arteta use that!

The Kitchen is on Netflix now

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