Interview: Sheldon Shepherd On the Beautiful Vibes of ‘Yardie’ and Idris Elba

With the release of Idris Elba’s debut feature “Yardie“, authentic Jamaican culture gets a rare showcase on the big screen. Among its cast of British and Jamaican actors, actor/musician Sheldon Shepherd stands out as someone who fully embodies the island’s distinctive spirit. On the eve of the film’s arrival in US theaters, I spoke with Shepherd about the experience of making the film and his creative process. Read below for an edited version of our chat.

Shane Slater: How did you get cast in “Yardie”?

Sheldon Shepherd: They came to Jamaica and I heard through the grapevine that they were doing auditions for a film involving Idris Elba. Other actors like Everaldo Creary (my brother from The No-Maddz) and Kadeem Wilson (my biological cousin) live with me in the same house. It’s an actors’ house. So they all got calls and it was strange to me that I didn’t get a call. And I just said, okay fine. Maybe this one is not for me. Then I heard that Everaldo got a role in the film. And I thought, well at least one of us got the role and Everaldo is one of the best.

I was minding my own business when my phone rang. Cecile Burrowes called me and said, Sheppy, there’s a role here and I think it is yours. You need to come and claim it. So, I said send me the script. And I read the whole thing in an hour. The last film I did was “Better Mus’ Come” and that was like 2008. We first shot it in 2006, then we finalized it in 2008. Then it premiered and I won the American Black Film Festival’s Best Actor award in 2012. So you can just imagine, we’re all here in Jamaica hungry for another feature. So I was so excited, you know? I called her and said, wow this is amazing.

I went through my closet and found some clothing that would match the description of the character. The character walked with a limp and I found a cane in my closet and I went to the auditions at the Courtleigh Hotel. And I got out of the taxi limping and people who knew me thought I was actually sick.

So I went in and was waiting for a while and Idris and Gina Carter walked into the room. They had me just chat with them and then they asked me to give my interpretation of what I read in the script. They gave me a scene to perform, then they gave me another and another. I was a bit nervous, to tell you the truth. But afterwards, when we were in London, Gina told me that actually, when we saw you Sheldon, we gave you the role instantly. We just liked watching you. So that was a great vibe.

Slater: What was it like to work with Idris Elba? Especially considering he’s such a highly regarded actor himself.

Shepherd: He’s an actor’s director, man. He knew what he wanted and they awarded me the role. So the hard part is done. The minute I become a character, I can do no wrong in my opinion.

The moment I really realized that I dove into this character was when I was doing the ADR (Automatic Dialogue Replacement) in Los Angeles. I went into the room and they gave me the scenes. And I was sitting in this amazing studio and started to try to redo King Fox and I couldn’t find the character. I couldn’t find his nuances, I couldn’t find his rhythm and vocal texture. That’s when I realized that I had placed this character so far out of my natural reach.

I had to really reenact my environment on set. So I remembered that on set I was drinking black coffee, smoking some herb and also eating dark chocolate. I tend to eat chocolate and drink coffee when I’m doing a film.

So I needed to recreate the scene. I went outside and I had a little spliff in LA. It’s not as good as Jamaican herb, but it’s okay. [Laughs]. I drank some coffee and had a dark chocolate bar. And then I was there knocking at it until I found that perfect nuance of the character. Everyone saw it. Idris saw it, the line producer, the guys in the studio. After I was finished, the line producer came over and shook my hand and said he never saw anything like that before.

Slater: One of the most impressive things about the film is how authentically Jamaican it feels, especially since neither the director nor lead actor are Jamaican. Did you get a sense that they already had a strong grasp of the culture, or was that something that developed over time?

Shepherd: Idris is a London boy, he was born in Hackney. London is high on Jamaican culture. The walk, the talk, the lingo, the slang, the music. The urban culture is Jamaican. Even the grime scene is a real Jamaican vibe they’re pushing. And Idris did “One Love,” which was also a Jamaican film. So he’s into it and he’s very open. He asked my advice for authenticity purposes on numerous occasions so that the vibe could be right. Me, Everaldo and Shantol Jackson were pretty much the reference for the other actors, including Aml Ameen. Aml watched my natural persona and developed some of his character traits from it.

Director Idris Elba on the set of YARDIE (2018). Courtesy: Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal

Slater: Both you and Idris have a strong connection to music, which also plays a significant role in the film. I imagine this would have created quite a lively atmosphere on and off set. How was it?

Shepherd: It was beautiful. Interestingly enough, Idris is on my new album. We did a collaboration together, we recorded that track in Los Angeles. It’s called “Beat Them Down”, with one of his friends from Sierra Leone named Shadow. So the track is “Beat Them Down” and my album is called “Heaven on Earth” from The No-Maddz. I’m looking forward to seeing what the world will think of this collaboration between The No-Maddz and Idris Elba.

Slater: Now that you’ve completed your second film, are there any dream roles you’d like to play?

Shepherd: I wanted to play James Bond once, but that was when I was younger. I’m a character actor, really. I admire the role of Sméagol in “The Lord of the Rings”. I like when people see me on the street and don’t recognize me. In London, I was in the after-party and people were just coming up to me. So I thought it was because of the film. But apparently, it was because I was wearing a nice suit from Kenzo. [Laughs]. They didn’t recognize me from the film. My locks weren’t out in the film and I was an older guy, with a grey beard. So it was really impressed on me that they didn’t recognize me. It made me feel like I did a pretty good job.

“Yardie” is now playing in select theaters.