Interview I did with Ross Kemp for the Press Association. Ended up in The Glasgow Evening Times, Belfast Telegraph, The Mirror, Daily Gazette, Bournemouth Echo & MSN.com, York Press, Northern Echo, among others
EastEnders fans are in for a treat as Mitchell family matriarch Barbara Windsor gears up to return to the Square for a special 30th anniversary episode next month. But setting aside the hopeful rumours, Ross Kemp, who played her hard man son Grant Mitchell, says he’s too busy tackling real life drama to go back to Walford.
“I can’t join her… it’s just about space in my diary. Although I would never rule out going back to EastEnders, I owe [it] a heck of a lot. I think it’s a great show.”
Kemp is finishing filming for his fourth series of Extreme Worlds, the hard-hitting documentary strand that has seen him meet child soldiers in the Congo, investigate sex trafficking in Mumbai and last year, held at gunpoint in Papua New Guinea.
This series is no exception to events that have left the 50 year-old gob-smacked. In the first episode, Kemp travels to eastern Ukraine to meet the neo-Nazi militias whose ultra right ideology is gaining worrying influence. Next, he heads to South Africa to investigate a national rape epidemic that is claiming 500,000 victims a year, nearly half of whom are children.
“It’s not not my job to judge, but it’s very difficult to be non-judgmental when it comes to rape, or child rape. Particularly when people are openly admitting to it and high fiving about it while you interview them. You can see on my face I’m completely blown away by that.
“I keep asking them, what about the victim? Each time they bring it back to themselves. ‘Oh we worry she could go to the police. We worry we could give us HIV.’ My mouth was on the floor.”
Wrong place, wrong time
Though visibly aghast at the memory of this chilling interview, Kemp is clearly besotted by his work. He calls his production team “the real heroes”, adding that they “have a knack at being in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
“We arrive in Ukraine and I’m out of the hotel…and we’re in a march,” he recalls. “The next minute we’re in a full blown [riot], chains are being hit against police, flashbangs [grenades] are going at my feet, rocks and paving stones being broken up and hurled at the Rada (the Ukrainian government building) and I’m going, ‘Hang on, I haven’t even had my breakfast yet!’”
“That’s the excitement and exhilaration of doing a programme like this. It’s a rarity and a privilege and I’m continuously slapping myself in the face.”
‘Best war reporter of all time’
Born in Barking, Essex and trained at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, Kemp has moved on from Grant Mitchell to earn a stellar reputation as an investigative journalist. He won a Bafta for his adrenalin-fuelled Ross Kemp on Gangs series, and his work in Afghanistan was so comprehensive that the British Ambassador described him as “the best war reporter of all time”.
Now that British soldiers are finally home after 13 years of combat, Kemp is well-placed to offer some perspective. “Was the blood and the treasure worth the lives? I would suggest not. I don’t think you can ever quantify what other people have been through. It has certainly changed my life.”
“There have definitely been [improvements] in terms of education, particularly girls. There’s still chronic unemployment, the country is still divided as it always will be between certain ethnic groups. It’s great the elections have happened. I have a great admiration for the people and I would go back there if I could tomorrow.
With the extreme human trauma the actor has witnessed, it’s hard not to wonder how anyone could forget about it all. But forever muscly in his crisp blue shirt, Kemp is reassuringly smiley and composed.
“A lot of people say that I should seek counseling. I think that’s probably a good idea at some point, [but] I haven’t got time right now. I think anyone who goes through a lot of trauma should do that. But I’m not really in it, I have an escape route.”
When it comes to relaxing, Kemp says he is happiest “at home”. If he’s not filming or working furiously in the edit, his down time is spent “going for walks in the country, the odd glass of wine” and all-importantly, “sleeping!”
“How much longer I can do this I don’t know,” he confesses. “Not from my mental capacity, but in terms of the fact that I’m 50 years old now! I enjoy being with my family.”
Once married to ex-News of the World editor Rebekah Wade, Kemp has a four-year-old son with a former girlfriend. In 2012 he married Australian corporate lawyer Renee O’Brien, who he affectionately refers to as “an intelligent lady’. While the rest of his family is “quietly proud” of his work, Kemp insists they don’t allow him a swollen ego.
“My brother has made lots of films in hostile environments, my father was a soldier and police officer – there’s no bragging rights in our household that’s for sure! Everyone gets slapped and put in their place!”
Never say never
Having fallen into filmmaking “by mistake”, Kemp’s goal – alongside making great television – is to create “a wider understanding of the situation that exists in the world”. He is an active patron of Help for Heroes, but is clear that it’s not his job to change policy: “that’s for governments to do”.
If we won’t be seeing him on EastEnders for a while, could the national treasure appear on a reality show some time soon?
“Never say never”, he grins. “The answer to the Ross Kemp motto is basically, don’t decline to do anything until you’re in the situation where you desperately have to do it!”
For now, he’s relishing the opportunities that Extreme Worlds has given him, such as this series, riding a Harley Davidson with the Rebels Motorcycle Club from Melbourne to Canberra then Sydney. “Luckily I was wearing a crash helmet, or my bald head would have burnt to a crisp!”
“The freedom that we have is just unbelievable. You know what, how lucky am I, to have had a career as an actor and be doing what I’m doing now. Don’t think for a second that I don’t thank my lucky stars every day.”
Ross Kemp Extreme World Series 4 begins on Sky 1 on 22 January 2015