DANIEL EZRA: Your All-American Boy from the UK
On one of the final days of the Indian summer, just before the chills of November, I rode an elevator up to the top of a building in Echo Park. This was a neighborhood worlds away from the Beverly Hills bubble I grew up in, although it’s the home of where my irreverent rebellion began. The circumstances which found me here to interview Daniel Ezra for his leading role in The All American was a significant moment of kismet. Here I was, a boy desperate to escape into the grit interviewing a Brit playing a boy from the rough streets of Crenshaw thrown into the world of excess of Beverly Hills High School.
Born and raised in the English West Midlands, the actors theater training took place in London where he would go on to take on the West End as Sebastian in Twelfth Night. This led to a recurring role in the BBC's The Missing, and the hit series A Discovery of Witches. Now crossing the pond, Ezra has been tasked with the responsibility of translating the life Spencer Paysinger; a gig which has brought the actor into the potential of being the next big thing The CW wields.
We got a moment with the theater-trained actor to discuss Cali life, getting fit for the role, and how Hip Hop helped form his accent.
Where are you guys shooting mainly? Is it in the states? In Beverly Hills?
Yeah, between Beverly Hills and Crenshaw. We’re using a lot of the real locations in Crenshaw. So we used the real barbershop that the real Spencer got his first haircut in, and the real park that he played little league in, and so we’re kind of moving between those and when we’re not on location we’re at the studios.
How did you end up with the job? I know this is supposed to be your first big US gig from the UK.
This is my first American role, my first lead role. I taped in London. My agent called me and just said, you know, there’s sort of an untitled high school pilot about American football. I didn’t really fancy my chances cause I never played it before, but luckily at the audition, they weren’t interested in football skills. It was more about the acting, so I taped in London and didn’t hear anything for two weeks, and then I got a late night call from my agent saying you need to be on a plane tomorrow morning and flew out and met the director and producers and Robbie and everyone. They told me the next day.
Where in London are you from?
So I’m from Birmingham, which is sort of the midlands, but I moved to London when I was 19 to go to theater school in south London.
I read that you actually did more theater-based work?
So I trained in theater. I trained in theater in Shakespeare and Russian classics, and things like that. So my background is predominantly theater, but since I left I’ve been doing a lot of screen work.
How do you feel you’ve been taking to adapting to a type of All-American boy.
Well luckily it’s not that different in terms of the process of filming. It’s not that different from the UK. I think it’s sort of the universal way shows are shot. It feels a lot quicker, like we get a lot more done at the days here because things move a lot faster I think, but other than that, it’s more the biggest learning curve has been just living in LA as opposed to just working in LA. It’s such a huge, sprawling city and you have to drive, where London is a bit like New York. It’s built around a sort of subway system and you don’t really need to drive if you don’t have to.
I always get too claustrophobic and scared.
Yeah, and it can be quite claustrophobic. I felt that way about New York there first time I went to there. London’s a lot similar so that was the biggest learning curve was definitely just living and getting around L.A.
Tell me about your character. He’s a kid from Crenshaw that get’s plucked up and thrown into Beverly Hills.
Yeah, he’s a kid from Crenshaw. He is a straight-A student, he’s a star athlete, and he has dreams of getting to the NFL one day. He’s one of those kids that wants to save the world in a sense. He wants to take care of his family, his brother, his mom, his friend — his best friend, Coop (played by Tiana Cooper). When we meet her she is just sort of succumbing to the gang war in Crenshaw, and is dealing with her own sexuality. It’s addressed (in episode 3) and it’s a tough episode for Coop, watching her sort of come to terms with it and face her parents, who work for the church and have their own views. It sort of goes into a lot of real life issues whether it’s race, whether it’s sexuality, whether it’s police brutality, whether it’s issues within American Football and athletes. But Spencer is sort of in the middle of that, and he’s a kid determined to get into he NFL, driven by his anger at the loss of his father. His father moved away, left the family some years ago, and it’s something that Spencer still hasn’t really gotten over. And he gets this opportunity to play for Beverly Hills and it’s something that he just can’t pass up.
I was actually trying to find out, which were the years that the real Spencer went through Beverly?
So he’s 29 now, so he’s gotta be, I’m not sure of the exact years but in our world he’s 17 when he moves so.
Wow I went to Beverly High for a bit, he was probably a few years older than me. It’s crazy.
It’s cool. I’ve met a few people form Beverly High school.
What was the physical type of work that you had to go through to alter your body. I remember we were talking about the styling and they said we had to accommodate for having muscles built-up.
Yes, I mean luckily my dad’s a fitness coach, so fitness has always been a big part of my life, and if you watch the pilot, between the pilot and the second episode I slimmed down and got kind of lean just to fit that more athletic build. Obviously he’s only 17 so there’s only so much you wanna do before it becomes unrealistic, but he’s a star and an amazing, incredible athlete, and so I knew I needed to look a certain way and feel a certain way. And you know, we do a lot of our own stuff on the field too, so that’s also gonna help. But the biggest transition physically was probably learning to play American football, and to be comfortable. For the pilot I walked around for a month with a football. I didn’t go anywhere without the football and they put me through drills and I had to learn all the routes, how to throw, how to catch and pass and run, and all that sort of stuff. So that was probably the biggest learning curve. Fitness-wise it was just adapting my already current schedule to one of an American football player, so a lot more explosive stuff and strength training and things like that.
How have you taken to LA, you know, culturally, and what do you enjoy doing here?
I mean, I love it. I’m vegan actually, so this is one of the best cities in the world to be vegan, I’ve realized.
Especially here on the east side of town.
Yeah, exactly, so that’s definitely one of the big bonuses. But I mean, I just love the weather, for it to be this sunny and this hot in October is incredible to me, I love the weather. I love the people and the sort of mixing of different cultures. Our crew is probably the most diverse crew I’ve ever worked with. So you’ve got people speaking Spanish and Portuguese and English, and all of these different accents and cultures and dialects all in one stage. It’s really a beautiful thing to behold and that’s one of the main big reasons I love coming to work every day.
What type of characters would you like to explore in acting. Is there something you feel like you haven’t flexed yet?
Yeah, I would love to play the kind of big suits, like doctors and lawyers. I wanna play lawyers and detectives and all that stuff. This is really cool because I love roles where I get to learn new things. So for this I had to learn obviously the accent but also an entirely new sport, and that’s the kind of thing you live for as an actor, me especially. If I get a chance where I get to learn another sport or martial art or law or those kinds of things, that’s what really excites me, keeps me wanting to kind of keep going. I like physically demanding roles, too. That’s one of the things I enjoyed about this. I want to be a boxer one day, things like that. Anything different, as long as the next thing is completely different from this I’ll be happy.
I wanted to talk about the type of culture that your character is supposed to be thrown into and the stark contrast. When I was at BHHS, it was quite intense that there were Porsches and Ferraris in the parking lot, and then there are these dinky Hyundai’s that the teachers would drive. It’s very important to convey that and the identity of it, and it’s not done in a horrible way.
No, one of my favorite things about the show is that we don’t paint any one world as good or bad. We expose the difficulties within Crenshaw, whether it’s with the gang violence, or the lower income, but you also see the beauty of it. My favorite part is in Episode 3. We go to a typical backyard BBQ in Crenshaw and we see the community come together, and in later episodes, we get to see the real beating heart of Crenshaw and how beautiful it is and how close the community is. In the same way we don’t really depict Beverly as this just horrible place where everyone’s superficial and all they care about is money. Obviously it’s so much more than that. There is that aspect to it, but with the Crenshaw characters and the Beverly Hills characters, we really get to dive deep. Four is a big episode of that where one of our main characters, who we up until this point we just think is one dimensional, Asher ( played by Cody Christian)— by this point we feel like we know him, we know he’s a bit of a dick to Spencer and comes from money— your sort of typical rich kid that sort of gets exposed, and you realize there’s a lot more beneath him. Him and Spencer have a real moment where they bond and Spencer’s the first to see that this kid isn’t all he seems and actually they’re a lot more alike and he’s not a typical Beverly Hills kid. I’m really proud of what we’re doing in the show, exposing that.
What did you watch for reference?
I know I watched Friday Night Lights because I knew that that was the biggest comparison we were going to get. Other than that I just watched a bunch of football movies: Any Given Sunday, Remember the Titans, the new paternal thing that came out with Pacino on HBO. The thing that was furthest away from me, that I knew the least about, was American football so that was the thing I surrounded myself with. I’ve actually watched The OC before, but I didn’t watch it for this. I remember and old girlfriend made me watch it.
Also The OC?
One of the biggest differences between us and The OC is that he never went back to his hometown, once he got to the OC, that was it, he stayed there. What I love about ours is that we go back and forth every episode. Some episodes, we’re mainly in Crenshaw, and there are others where we’re mainly in Beverly Hills, and then as the series goes on, Beverly Hills characters start popping up in Crenshaw and Crenshaw characters start popping up in Beverly Hills. You really get to see these world clash and I think that’s what sets us apart from shows that we’re getting compared to. But they’re all great shows. Friday Night Lights is an amazing show, so I’m not mad at the comparison at all.
Along with your veganism, what else do you like to do? What have you embraced in LA? Are you a psychotic hiker off of Runyon?
I mean I love hikes, yeah. You don’t really get the chance to do that in London but I’ve been hiking a lot. I’ve done Runyon, Burbank peak and the Hollywood sign.
My favorite is the Hollywood sign!
Yeah, I’ve got some more on my list but that’s one of the biggest things I’ve fallen in love with is the hiking.
Have you had the chance to stroll around the Hollywood Reservoir?
No, what’s that?
It’s kind of near the Hollywood sign but it’s just a reservoir kind of in nature but then the Hollywood sign just pops out.
Oh wow, that’s right up my alley. I’m definitely going to check that out. Cool.
What about the music scene? Have you been exploring all of our hip hop?
I’m a big hip hop fan and obviously so much incredible hip hop came out of LA, especially south central LA. So, one of my favorite things to do as characters is figure out where they are musically. So I always create a playlist for my characters and my Spencer James playlist I used to be him.
I would love to add that in the piece, if you could tell me your top 7-10 tracks you used for Spencer.
It’s basically all LA artists, a lot of south central LA hip hop. One of my favorite rappers, Nipsey Hussle is from Crenshaw right where...he’s probably my favorite rapper right now and he’s from Crenshaw. He’s what I used to help develop the accent and for the pilot, pretty much his entire album I would play back and forth just to get the whole vibe and he has a mixed tape called Crenshaw, so he was sort of my go-to, so yeah, I’m a big fan of the whole LA hip hop scene.
I was going to ask you how tapped are you into the whole UK rap scene and all that?
Oh, you mean like grime music and stuff like that? Big fan! Kano is probably my favorite rapper, one of my favorite rappers for a start, not even just in the grime genre. It was huge for a moment and then it kind of went quiet and now it’s sort of building back up again.
Is there anything else you would like to mention?
No, I just couldn’t be prouder of the show and what we’re doing, and I’m so happy that the CW took a chance with it. It’s nothing like anything they’ve done before. A lot of people come to the CW for superhero shows and it’s something they do really, really well, but it’s just cool to be in something that for them is so new and so fresh, and the fact that it’s a true story and such an important one. I’m excited for people to see because there’s so much powerful stuff coming. Episode 3 is a very heavy episode. We have the police stop, and Coop coming out to her mom, and I always tell fans when they message me is that they haven’t seen anything yet and it’s really really true.
How has the fandom been like? Let’s face it: you’re on the CW and you have this powerful amount of support by your amazing crew of people. You are about to be blown up on social media, and you’re working out so your body’s going to be everywhere.
It’s cool. For me, any good attention towards the show is good. It’s one of those shows that I think deserves to be seen.
Are you ready for all the attention?
Well, lucky for me I have a really cool support group around me. Not just in terms of family but with the show and producers. One of the producers, Ed, took me into his office and said basically that, “Are you ready for this?” He sat me down and gave me a whole bunch of tips and pointers and just how to navigate what he thinks is about to happen. I have an amazing support system, there’s people waiting in the wings if my head gets too big. I’m not worried. The crew has become such a family that, I don’t want to jinx it, but I can’t see it happening to any of us because of how close and how much of a family we are as a cast and crew so as long as that doesn’t change, I’m not worried.
Have you become really good friends with the rest of your cast members?
Huge friends. I’m actually going to Mike (Evans Behling), who plays Jordan the quarterback, I’m going to his house right now to go hang out and play video games and stuff. We’ve all become really close and we hang out outside of work, and we always try and find time to go out to dinner together and hang out together, and you can kind of see on all our Instagram’s we’re always laughing and joking. The scenes that are most difficult to shoot are when we’re all together because we’re always giggling and laughing.