In the 2022 release of I Used to Be Famous, Leo James Long had his first on-screen role as Stevie, a young drummer with autism who connects with a pop star called Vince, played by Ed Skrein. I Used to Be Famous saw Leo record the film’s soundtrack at The Church Studios in London, and led to him being nominated for Breakthrough Performance at last year’s British Independent Film Awards. On TV, Leo played Alexander Hill in Series 2 of Professor T, alongside a cast including Ben Miller, with Leo’s episodes airing in September last year. Also having experience in theatre, Leo recently toured with Ramps on the Moon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing as Oatcake, for which he was directed by Robert Hastie. Chatting to Leo, he talked to us about playing Stevie in I Used to Be Famous, his time filming for Professor T and touring with Much Ado About Nothing.
You star as Stevie in the Netflix feature film I Used to Be Famous, can you tell us about the film and your character?
I Used to Be Famous was my debut as an actor. It’s a beautiful story about the power of music bringing people together. A depressed pop star called Vince and a musically talented young drummer with autism called Stevie find each other and create beautiful, uplifting music. It was the music that unexpectedly brings them together and slowly they build a special bond while practicing and playing gigs. The character of Stevie is similar to me as we both have a deep love of music but Stevie is autistic while I prefer to identify as neurodivergent.
It’s a very uplifting film and I hope it gives people hope in their hearts.
What was Stevie like to play and how did you prepare for filming?
It was great and I really enjoyed the finale scene when Stevie and Vince are reunited at a gig as The Tin Men. As an actor, I am also very proud of Stevie’s meltdown scene after the fight at The George pub as that really challenged me. Also, it’s not too difficult to adapt to the character as Stevie is similar in some ways to me especially as we both love to play the drums.
However, I was lucky as I had support from Access All Areas and specialist acting coaching from Tricia Hitchcock. Tricia is AMAZING! We used visual materials including scene breakdowns and storyboards during rehearsals and before shooting, helping me understand director Eddie Sternberg’s ideas.
Do you remember how you felt finding out you’d booked the role and was there anything that drew you to the script?
Yes, I was over the moon! In 2021, after a nationwide search for an autistic drummer, casting director Isabella Oddofin discovered me and put me forward for an audition for the part of Stevie. That day the stars were aligned, I got the part and my big break! However, this was a massive challenge for me as I was playing a co-lead character in a full-length feature film alongside major actors.
I thought the script was tremendous, the story is beautiful, uplifting, emotional and also, very importantly, the soundtrack matched perfectly. A few years earlier I was working on a music project that was all about opening up doorways for disabled talent to work in the creative industries, so this opportunity was perfect for me.
How did you find the experience on set of I Used to Be Famous as your first major lead role on screen?
I loved every minute of it! Everyone in the production crew looked after me so well but especially director Eddie Sternberg who always checked in on me, supported and encouraged me throughout filming. Eddie’s a proper legend and we always stay in touch. I really hope there will be other opportunities to work with Eddie in the future.
Also, while filming, I had the freedom to interact and comment on what I think of the characters and suggest my ideas, which was really nice. There was large amount of communication between all the parties to help understand expectations, it worked nicely.
Luckily, I was allowed to bring my lovely assistance dog Cashel on set, which was very nice and helped me relax when under pressure.
What was it like working alongside the rest of the cast, which includes Ed Skrein as Vince?
It was amazing working with such an awesome cast so I felt very privileged. Ed Skrein is very professional and supportive. We had some great moments together on set. Ed really inspired me, gave me confidence and was very funny too! So I must say thank you to my big bro Ed, it was inspirational working together, learning and laughing on our joyful journey!
I was so lucky to also work with Eleanor Matsuura, who is so talented, supportive and great fun to work with too. Eleanor, who played Amber, was my on-screen mum and so generous, warm and caring. We formed a very special bond!
You were also part of the film’s soundtrack, what was it like being in the studio to record the music?
Before recording the soundtrack at The Church Studios in London I was fortunate enough to have some top class drumming coaching from professional drummer Brett Morgan, who is amazing and such a nice guy! By the time we recorded the soundtrack at the famous studios once owned by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, I was feeling excited and confident having worked hard with Brett and we laid down the tracks perfectly. It was BANGING!
How did you feel watching the completed film for the first time and how has it been seeing the viewers’ response to the release?
I was invited to Netflix HQ for a special private screening with director Eddie Sternberg and my family. My family and I were so emotional as this special screening was the moment all my dreams finally came true as I combined my love of music and acting together on screen in a full-length feature film. It felt like I was dreaming. We all had tears in our eyes that day.
Also, the film made it to number four globally in the Netflix rankings with over 11 million hours viewed in 60 countries. Director Eddie Sternberg’s and producer Collie McCarthy are AMAZING! Suddenly my Instagram followers @leojlong shot up and I received lots of love and support from around the world. This made me so happy and proud.
Your portrayal of Stevie saw you be nominated for Breakthrough Performance at last year’s British Independent Film Awards, how was it hearing the news?
My first reaction 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. I felt honoured to make the top five nominees. 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!
I felt grateful to all the people who have supported me on my journey, too many to mention but each and every one is so important. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
In Series 2 of TV crime drama Professor T, you played Alexander Hill, can you tell us about your time working on this show?
What an adventure! I travelled from London St. Pancras International to Antwerp in Belgium by Eurostar, which was so exciting. I really enjoyed my time on set playing the part of Alexander Hill and working with the director and other cast members. I made some nice friends and we stay in touch. I also got to meet the super actor Ben Miller, which was brilliant. Ben was so nice.
It was very different to shooting a movie though as the director needed to meet tight TV show deadlines so my scenes for the episode The Family were filmed over a busy few days. I recommend watching it if you have the chance, it’s a thrilling episode.
My acting coach Tricia Hitchcock from Access All Areas accompanied me throughout. Tricia always makes sure work is safe, rewarding and fun. It’s a recipe for success. We had great fun off set too and I tried some very strong Belgian Beer at a local restaurant and got a bit tipsy!
On stage, you’ve recently finished touring with Much Ado About Nothing, what was the play like to be part of?
Just amazing! This Ramps on the Moon production directed by Rob Hastie kicked off in Sheffield and toured the UK visiting Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Ipswich, London and Salisbury.
What made this production special was that every performance features the use of integrated creative sign language, audio description and captioning. Ramps on the Moon is the pioneering initiative committed to putting deaf and disabled artists and audiences at the centre of their work.
Touring the UK with the cast and crew is something I will never forget, we had so much fun and performed in some of the UK’s most historic and beautiful theatres. We also managed to do some sightseeing on days off too. We all bonded really well and supported each other day in and day out like a team as the cast members all had different disabilities. After each closing night, we would celebrate and let off steam in town with some drinks and karaoke until early in the morning. Great memories!
What did you enjoy most about playing Oatcake and touring with a William Shakespeare production?
I was very fortunate to be cast as Oatcake for this groundbreaking Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon production directed by Robert Hastie. It’s a pioneering initiative committed to putting deaf and disabled artists and audiences at the centre of their work.
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 the evening before the wedding of Hero and Claudio when the very funny party planners Dogberry and Verges select two of their staff, Seacole and myself (Oatcake) to act as security for the evening. It was hilarious and I loved the audiences’ reaction. Also, I really enjoyed the jolly hoedown dance scene with the full cast as music and dancing are passions of mine.
How different do you find acting for stage opposed to screen?
Great question. When on stage I really enjoy interacting closely with the live audiences at the various theatres across the UK such as Sheffield, Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, Ipswich, London and Salisbury. Every audience is different and I always enjoy seeing their reaction and the feedback helps me improve my acting. It feels great to be under the spotlight on stage! During theatre work I need to stick strictly to my lines unlike screen work when I have more opportunity to improvise. I found this is the main difference between performing on stage and screen. Also, in theatre I need to project my voice more and exaggerate my movements etc while on screen I need much more attention to the finer details. I like to do both though and I feel I have so much more creativity to give on stage and screen so really hope other opportunities will come soon. This is my dream, fingers crossed.
Where does your love of acting and performing come from and how did you get started in the industry?
Well, before I became an actor, I was already an experienced performer. I have always been a passionate folk musician and play various instruments including the bodhrán, banjo, bouzouki, orchestral percussion including timpani, tom-toms and a wide range of drums. From a young age, I have been a member of various orchestras and ensembles including National Open Youth Orchestra, National Orchestra For All, Up Orchestra and London Youth Folk Ensemble. I was fortunate to perform across the UK at The Royal Conservatoires, prestigious concert halls, arenas and outdoor festivals. Also, I really enjoy composing music in my spare time.
But I always had an interest in acting too. I used to take some drama lessons when I was at college and made a few performances in variety shows and pantomimes with my college friends. But I never had any proper focused drama or acting training until casting director Isabella Oddofin discovered me and put me forward for an audition for the part of Stevie in the Netflix feature film I Used to Be Famous directed by the brilliant Eddie Sternberg. I got the part and my big break and that’s how I started in the film industry.
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I like a variety of films, TV and theatre from all over the world. I love to watch comedy including Rowan Atkinson in Johnny English and Mr. Bean, that’s a classic. I like action films too like James Bond 007 and also Bollywood films such as RRR starring Ram Charan and Sooryavanshi starring Ashkay Kumar. I watch TV when I have time and enjoy Strictly Come Dancing as well as all kinds of sports programmes.
But I have a particular love for theatre, particularly Shakespeare’s plays including Macbeth, King Lear, Henry the 5th and Titus Andronicus. Also, I love musicals including Lord of the Dance.
My other hobbies include swimming, mountain biking, travel and taking my dog Cashel for long walks.
What are you hoping the upcoming year brings for you?
As far as the coming year 2023 is concerned, 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, that would be amazing as I really enjoy it. I want to challenge myself and expand my horizons to be the best and most versatile actor I can be. I am working hard every day to achieve my dreams!
Of course, I intend to continue with my voluntary work for charity and good causes thereby helping other disabled musicians and actors like myself and so become a leader breaking down barriers for others!
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