Conrad Khan first heard about county line drug dealing through listening to rap. “Rap artists showed off about all the money they had made from it,” says the 21-year old actor, who has just been nominated for a EE Rising Star award at the Baftas for his performance in the starkly powerful film County Lines. “They joked about sending young boys off to the countryside to sell their drugs for them.”
He learned more about “the sheer severity of it” while filming. Khan plays the film’s protagonist Tyler, an introverted 14-year-old whose father is absent and whose mother is struggling financially and emotionally. Tyler has no prospect of escape. So when Simon (Harris Dickinson), a grown-up with a car, rescues him from a fight at a chicken shop, he is drawn to him.
Simon begins to groom Tyler, buying him trainers and then offering him the opportunity to earn some money, giving him pep talks about how being a man means providing for your family. With Simon’s encouragement, Tyler ends up bunking off school, ferrying drugs to dealers outside London and becoming embroiled in an exploitative and violent underworld. Director Henry Blake based the film on his 11 years working at a pupil referral unit.
Sitting in his bedroom at home in north London — a giant chalkboard on one wall, darts board on the other and his sister “who is in year 10” in the room next door — Khan speaks thoughtfully. He looks more put-together than Tyler, in a lilac shirt, and is interested in the world. This engaged attitude shines through in his performance. It took its toll though. “We were shooting every day for a month and you become the character — my parents felt the brunt of that when I came home and was erratic and not level headed at all so I apologise to them,” he says. “I hope the film can help us see that more needs to be done in terms of legislation and opportunity for young people. I live down the road from a pupil referral unit and see some of the characters who come out of it. They are loud, swearing, smoking but everyone has their story and you shouldn’t judge them by what they look like. A few of my mates went to pupil referral units. Henry wanted the film to change perceptions of teenagers — when you see a guy with his hood up not to instantly think drug dealer, that is a vulnerable kid and not every story is the same.”
Does Khan think the music he mentioned about county lines contributes to violence? “I have to admit I did used to listen to drill quite a bit and it puts dark thoughts in your mind and covertly makes you a more violent person. But blaming music, film or video games for a spike in youth violence is shifting the blame and there are other people who are more responsible than musicians.”
One of the first articles the producer sent him to read in preparation for the role ties into Boris Johnson saying that he wants to shame middle-class cocaine users by exposing the impact the drug trade has on young British people. “There is some responsibility to be held for fuelling county lines. There are ways to justify it in your head, these things happen anyway, if I don’t buy it someone will.”
We need more people in higher positions who aren’t white - casting directors, producers...
Khan is “proud to have inherited a strong work ethic” from his parents. His mother teaches fashion history and theory at Central St Martins and his father, who is half Pakistani, works in health policy. When Khan was growing up, his mother sent him to the Arcola Youth Theatre in Dalston and he played Charlie in his school production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But he didn’t think of acting as a career until he was 14 and his barber, who cut hair for film actors, suggested it. His major break was playing the young Chris Hemsworth in The Huntsman: Winter’s War in 2016. He was determined to finish school though, telling agents he could only audition after 3pm. In a year where 16 of the 24 Bafta acting nominees this year are from ethnic minority groups, he thinks acting is becoming more accessible. But “they need more people in higher positions who aren’t white — casting directors, producers.”
Khan isn’t yet getting recognised - many of his friends have yet to see County Lines - and interviews are still a novelty. At one point, when we are discussing men being unable to express their feelings, he jokes: “Well I’ve struggled for the past however many minutes this interview has been”. But his low profile is about to change with a role in Peaky Blinders. “I’m not prepared for when Peaky Blinders happens. I’ll have to get Hollywood big dick sunglasses.”
His current look is down to Peaky Blinders and he explains: “My hair is short and they’ve cut scars into it, see, but it’s not a Peaky Blinders haircut so take from that what you will about my role,” he smiles enigmatically. “I’ve had to style it so I don’t completely look like a rabbit.” As well as filming Peaky Blinders, he’s just finished crime drama Baptiste, which will be on the BBC at Easter and he is in the first year of film studies at Queen Mary University — “learning remotely has worked for me because I’ve been filming a lot and been away from home but it is a shame because one of the reasons I wanted to go to university was meet like-minded young people, so not having that is frustrating. They had online freshers events but I have to say I didn’t attend. I feel a bit distanced from it.”
Despite missing out on the university experience, Khan says he is “lucky”. “I have had work and been able to get out of the house because of work and had a stream of money when I know all my friends are struggling. But I think young people in particular have such an ability to adapt. I’m just worried about how much money Amazon is making from this. Did you see the new Amazon supermarket with no tills or cash? It’s quite Black Mirror.” And the amount of Netflix people are watching? “I’m not going to complain about Netflix,” he says.
Peaky Blinders is his biggest project yet. “I was so nervous on my first day, I was sitting in my trailer, biting my nails reading my book, Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring, trying to distract myself. I have to kill someone in it and manhandled a few guns on set, which was quite fun.” He’s yet to do a sex scene; the closest he has come to that was being naked in County Lines. “They closed the set so it was just the director of photography and the director in the room but it was still uncomfortable.”
He’s yet to make millions but has sensibly put the money he has earned into a premium bonds account — he explains how it works and that he won £25 this month. As an actor “the baseline for rejection for roles is 98 per cent” but Khan is determined to keep acting in “stories that speak to me”, like County Lines.
County Lines is available to rent on BFI Player. Public voting for the EE Rising Star Award is now open at ee.co.uk/BAFTA and the winner will be announced at the EE British Academy Film Awards on Sunday 11 April