Youth Music NextGen, Leo Long, speaks on his breakthrough Netflix role in 'I Used to Be Famous', being nominated for a BIFA Breakthrough Performance Award, accessibility when filming, and his enduring love of music.
Since then, Leo has seen his acting career take off after starring in the Netflix film I Used to Be Famous earlier this year. In the film, Leo plays Stevie, a young drummer with autism, who forms a band with former popstar Vince (played by Ed Skrein) after a chance encounter. The uplifting movie was an instant hit, but it also broke barriers by casting neurodivergent actors such as Leo in neurodivergent roles.
Not only that, but to make the filming process as accessible as possible for Leo, learning Disabled and autistic artists performance company, Access All Areas, was brought on board.
Leo's authentic and powerful performance earned him a BIFA Breakthrough Performance Award nomination, and he recently took to the stage in a UK tour of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
While acting is Leo's passion and main focus, he is also an avid music lover, and plays several folk instruments, as well as volunteering with various charities.
Congratulations on being nominated for a BIFA Breakthrough Performance award for your role as Stevie in the Netflix movie I Used to Be Famous. The nomination feels particularly important as it breaks down barriers and notions around neurodivergent and Disabled actors. How does it feel to be nominated?
Thank you very much indeed, it’s very exciting. My ﬁrst impression was, “Wow” a BIFA nomination!” I could not quite believe it’s actually happening to me as there are so many talented newcomers in this industry. But I must say, it’s great to recognise that neurodivergent people can act too and that I have done my part to break down barriers which I am very proud of. Also, having a neurodivergent actor playing a neurodivergent character is wonderful and very authentic! In the past, so many neurodivergent characters in movies were played using non neurodivergent actors, like Forest Gump and Rain Man for example. I’m glad this is changing.
What was it like ﬁlming I Used to Be Famous? What did you enjoy most about making the ﬁlm?
It has been an amazing experience. As I didn’t have any previous acting experience, everything was new to me but very exciting at the same time. I enjoyed learning the ﬁlm industry terminology and ways to work on set with cast and crew. I really loved getting to know director Eddie Sternberg, co-actors Ed Skrein, Eleanor Matsuura and importantly, my super Acting Coach Tricia Hitchcock who supported me every step of the way. But what I enjoyed most of all was ﬁlming the “The Tin Men” ﬁnale scene as I really loved playing the drums in front of an audience. The atmosphere was electric, everybody was dancing and enjoying the moment! Also, there were a few emotional tears too…
Access All Areas came on board throughout the ﬁlming process to make it more accessible for you. How did their involvement make the process better?
I was very lucky to have Access All Area’s Tricia Hitchcock supporting me every step of the way as my very own acting coach. Also Access All Area’s Darius Gervinskas supported me oﬀ set too during down time. Both Tricia and Darius have helped me cope with the pressures of being a co-lead actor on a full-length feature ﬁlm both on and oﬀ set while I was living away from home for the ﬁrst time. I gained a lot of independence with their help. Their support made the process manageable and enjoyable during rehearsals, pre-ﬁlming, ﬁlming and also during post production work including ADR’s, EPK’s and publicity commitments.
My acting coach Tricia Hitchcock made me a story booklet which I used to check the character “Stevie”'s emotional state and adapt my acting accordingly. This was great because I am more of a a visual learner. Also, Tricia was like a translator between Eddie Sternberg and me, explaining the meaning of certain scenes from time to time. Importantly Tricia helped me speak up and ask Eddie for time out when I needed some quiet time. This was so important because I was so busy during ﬁlming that I didn’t even realise how tired I was. I learnt how important it is to manage my emotions and well-being to stay fresh and deliver my best quality of acting. It’s been brilliant working with Access All Areas, I’m so grateful to everyone involved.
You’ve also recently ﬁnished a production run of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at Sheﬃeld Theatres. Can you tell us more about your role as Oatcake in the play?
I was very fortunate to be cast as Oatcake by Casting Director Jacob Sparrow for a Sheﬃeld Theatres and Ramps on the Moon production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Robert Hastie. Oatcake is one of the watchmen charged with keeping a close eye on Borachio and Conrade along with George Seacole, played by fellow actor and new friend, Amy Helena.
I really enjoyed Act 3 and also the jolly hoedown dance scene with the full cast.
How did you get into character for the role?
I have always been passionate about Shakespeare from a young age. Because I am very energetic, the character of Oatcake was perfect for me and was a lot of fun. Ramps on the Moon were using British sign language, audio description and captioning to help normalise the presence of deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people like me on and oﬀ stage. Before every performance I would do my routine warm ups etc back stage.
How did you ﬁnd performing on stage compared to on screen?
When on stage I really enjoyed interacting closely with the live audiences at the various theatres in Sheﬃeld, Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Ipswich, London and Salisbury. Every audience was diﬀerent but I always enjoyed seeing their reaction which gave me feedback and helped me improve my acting. It felt really good to be under the spotlight on stage! After each performance I felt so alive and the atmosphere backstage with my fellow actors was amazing. On our closing night in Salisbury, everybody was very emotional. What an amazing experience!.
During the theatre work, I needed to stick strictly to my lines, unlike screen work when I had more opportunity to improvise. I found this is the main diﬀerence between performing on stage and screen. I like to do both though.
Filming for screen has a diﬀerent and very special satisfaction for me. I love it more than anything. I was in character being “Stevie” from day one to the last day of ﬁlming, this was an authentic role. Every day during ﬁlming I was living the I Used To Be Famous story as “Stevie” an autistic drummer. The ﬁlming scenes were challenging and it was important to be keeping continuity until ﬁlming was wrapped. I feel I have so much more creativity to give on screen and really hope other opportunities will come soon. This is my dream, ﬁngers crossed.
You’re also a folk musician and a drummer. How are you ﬁnding balancing music with your acting career?
I still love to play my folk instruments during my spare time which makes me happy and it’s very therapeutic. I am a passionate creative person and love composing my own pieces. When I am busy acting, I often play my instruments after work to relax. It would be great to continue combining my love of music and acting together when opportunities arise. I was very fortunate to play the drums for “The Tin Men” band in I Used To Be Famous. This was a perfect debut for me as I could showcase my talents for music and acting together and impress the Director Eddie Sternberg! I also performed with my Bouzouki instrument during Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing recently. My mind is open to new music genres and styles although my favourite is still Folk music. I spend a lot of time listening to music and I learn by ear.
What are you working on next / what are your plans for the future?
I have been very busy the last 18 months working on I Used To Be Famous, ITV 4 Crime Drama Professor T which ﬁlmed in Belgium and I have only just ﬁnished Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing UK Tour.
I am doing lots media interviews and volunteer work for charities and good causes too. But for me the most exciting event [was] the British Independent Film Awards on Sunday 4th December in London. I [was] nominated for Breakthrough Performer sponsored by Netflix.
Regarding my plans for the future, I would love to continue working in ﬁlm and TV including a variety of diﬀerent genres like action, comedy, romance, musical, thrillers etc and who knows maybe even science ﬁction too! Also, if I get the opportunity for more theatre work, especially Shakespeare that would be amazing. I want to challenge myself and expand my horizons to be the best and most versatile actor I can be.
I intend to continue with my voluntary work for charity and good causes, helping other disabled musicians and actors like myself and become a leader, breaking down barriers for others! I would like to brush up my voice training next year and have applied for National Theatre Voice classes for deaf, disabled and neurodivergent actors. I always love to try new challenges!
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