Conrad Khan couldn’t wait to share the news: it was the spring of 2020, and he’d just been cast in the sixth and final season of Peaky Blinders. But then the non-disclosure agreements arrived, alongside the minor inconvenience of a global pandemic, which pushed production into lockdown limbo. A full year of secrecy ensued. Yet when the big reveal finally dropped last month, the 21-year-old Londoner still wasn’t quite ready for the reaction.
“My phone was just 'kaboom', for 24 hours,” he tells me over Zoom, during a rare break from his film studies course at St Marys University, London. The announcement came from series director Anthony Byrne, who posted a portrait of Khan’s first day on set to the show's Twitter account; within seconds, friends, family and fans were bombarding him with messages. “I had to power it off and put it in a dark space far away from me,” he says, looking flustered.
The Peaky faithful immediately started to piece together who he would be playing, with only a cravat and a vintage overcoat to go by (I was hoping to find him sporting a Shelby gang undercut – what a scoop! – but the best he could offer was a scar above his right ear. “The hair and make-up team cut my hair with razors and knives,” he says. “It was a good look.”) More than anything, Khan was blown away by the strength of support he was already receiving. "[The fans] have been so embracing of me, despite not knowing anything about me. I'm shooting until May, and I'm really excited to do it."
The film that convinced series creator Steven Knight to cast him, and the film that compelled Cillian Murphy to propose a meet-up, is the same film that has now earned him an EE BAFTA Rising Star award nomination: 2019’s County Lines. A gritty British coming-of-age story written and directed by Kiwi filmmaker Henry Blake, it follows a 14-year-old boy (Khan) who, like tens of thousands of other children in the UK, is groomed into the dangerous and deadly world of cross-county drug trafficking.
The young actor admits that there are few parallels between his life and that of his character, Tyler, and that he felt a huge pressure to accurately reflect the grim reality of a teenage drug mule.
“The director worked in the social care sector for eleven years prior to writing and making the film, so the honesty was there right at the start,” he tells me, adding that young girls are increasingly being drawn into class-A drug trafficking too. “If I did get it wrong, and if we did glamorise things, then it would be an injustice to the people whom this script was founded upon.”
It’s all a far cry from his film debut, playing a young Chris Hemsworth in 2016’s The Huntsman: Winter's War, alongside bonafide A-listers like Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt. “It's really nice because at that age you're always treated like a child, but coming onto a film set where the stakes are so high, you're treated like an adult,” he says of the big-budget production, which pulled him away from his Tufnell Park comprehensive. “For someone who's 14, aside from all the intricate costumes and sets and six months of fight training, being treated like an adult was really lovely.”
Khan's path from the mythical kingdom of Tabor to an East London pupil referral unit is an unconventional and somewhat inverted one, but kitchen sink dramas have always been closer to his heart.
"I love British film, probably more than Hollywood," he says. "I think that's where it's at, British independent film. So to be a part of that fabric is a pleasure, a privilege." The young actor is passionate about the work of Ken Loach and Mike Lee, and reels off Quadrophenia, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Scum, This Is England and Kes as some of his favourite British movies. "I've got loads, so many. Hundreds."
There may be another reason why he isn't exactly clamouring for a role alongside some off-duty Avengers. When I raise the topic of the inevitable exposure that will come with starring in the final season of one of the world's most beloved dramas, he winces. "Fame isn't really something I've come into contact with, because all this movement around the awards and Peaky Blinders has come in at time of isolation," he says, with tangible relief. "I don't look forward to it. A few people have stopped me in the street to say 'Hi', and I find that a bit weird. I'm not sure what I'll feel when that's on a larger scale."
He calls himself a private person, and his sparse social media accounts bear that out. The young actor's last Instagram portrait is a couple of years old; Khan, wearing an England 1998 away shirt, in a gallery that features a vintage shot of the late manager Bobby Robson, track-suited and sitting in front of an Egyptian pyramid. So which football player, past or present, would he choose to play in a film? "I think it'd have to be David Beckham," he laughs. In another reality, where his barber didn't push him to pursue acting, or where his rejection from the National Youth Theatre dented his confidence, Khan's ambitions might have led him to a very different place.
"As a child, if anyone ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, 'own a stationery shop'," he tells me. "That was my answer for a long time. I love stationery." But now he just wants to find the right balance with school and his burgeoning career – and finally enjoy the social element of uni that Covid has robbed from him. "Acting is quite a lonesome career. You do the auditions by yourself, you learn the lines by yourself, you do everything by yourself. I think if you don't have something running parallel, it can get quite lonely," he says. But there's more to it than that.
"And I just love learning. I just love learning. I could see myself in fifty years learning every day. Just being in that environment, I cherish."
The EE Rising Star 2021 Award is announced on 11 April. Vote here for the winner.
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