Star of ITV drama Vera, Noof McEwan, recalls growing up as part of the only ethnic minority family in a notorious Leith housing estate
FOR more than five decades, the ominous russet spectre of Fort House dominated the north Leith skyline.
The future of housing when it was built in the 1960s, by the 1980s it had descended into a Trainspotting hell as residents found their community infiltrated by junkies, dealers and the violence and crime that accompanied them.
By the 1990s, the estate, referred to in hushed tones as simply The Fort, was notorious for its gang culture and antisocial behaviour.
New star of ITV crime drama Vera Noof McEwan moved there with his mum and siblings at the age of 11.
Of Moroccan descent (his parents Fatima and Ahmed were “100 per cent Berber” he states proudly), they were the only ethnic family in the scheme and, within two weeks of moving in, the Leith Academy pupil discovered the local youths had a special “welcome” planned for him.
“Looking back, ours was the only ethnic family there, and we just got by. It wasn’t easy,” reflects McEwan, who makes his debut as DC Hicham Cherradi in Sunday’s episode of Vera, which stars Brenda Blethyn, on STV at 8pm.
“I got my fair share of beatings but I had to move on and show them nothing could knock me down. It was just part and parcel of living in the area.
“When I was jumped, they probably just saw me as the new boy.
“Six of them, all about 15 or 16, grabbed me and tried to strangle me with the key chain I wore on my belt... they stretched it around my neck.”
Luckily his mum saw what was happening and intervened, the gang scarpered, but after she reported the incident to the police there were repercussions.
“In the morning, they’d covered her car with white paint,” he recalls.
More problems followed. A time later, McEwan was called to the hospital bedside of his middle brother, Mohamed.
“He’d been out celebrating the fact that he was starting a new job in London the next day, and got back about three in the morning.
“He found himself surrounded by a gang of 40, who were all drunk. They beat him so badly with a For Sale sign they left him in a coma for three days.
“I was at Army Cadets at the time and got a lift to the hospital. His face was unrecognisable.
“The gang regretted it though, my brother had the most loyal friends who were all nutters. When they found out what had happened, one by one they came to The Fort, looking for the boys who did it.
“They’d messed with the wrong person. When they realised that, it was their turn to be scared and they never picked on him again.”
At the time, a life in the Army beckoned for McEwan, but a chat with his brother one evening as he walked home from Cadets persuaded him to pursue his other dream, acting.
“I was never focussed at school because I never really wanted to do anything but act,” he admits.
“I loved watching movies. I’m a big film buff, still am, and love films about the Second World War – I joined Cadets to see what the Army was like.
“I loved it. I was excellent at my drill and always picked for the best Drill Team and I represented Scotland twice in shooting competitions – I had a very accurate shot over 400 yards.”
He continues, “I nearly joined the army, even signed up to do the training, but after my brother had been jumped, he was walking me back from Cadets one night when he asked why I wanted to join.
He asked, ‘Why would you risk your life for someone who would mug you in the street?’
Until then my plan was to go into the army for a few years and then do the acting when I came out. Because of what happened to Mohamed, I changed my mind.”
In the Cadets, McEwan was about to be promoted from Sergeant to Staff Sergeant when he got his first real taste of acting, at the age of 16.
“I was cast in Richard Jobson’s film 16 Years of Alcohol, but my role had to be cut down because they thought I was 18. Still, I got a nice little line and a couple of scenes.”
McEwan’s desire to act came from his love of movies, movies that allowed him an escape from his life in The Fort.
“My dad watched films all the time, he loved Westerns. So as a kid I used to watch them with him. I never read books, just watched films and went out to play.
“I watched everything I could. My brothers are older than me, so when I was five, they were already in their 20s. They would rent films like Maniac Cop and Nightmare on Elm Street.
“I’d be watching 15 and 18 certificates at five... I supposed I became desensitised to horror, that’s probably why when I got jumped, it didn’t really shock me. I wasn’t scared, it just seemed surreal.
“Then I remember watching Star Wars. It blew my mind and I announced, ‘I want to go there.’ My brothers thought it was hilarious.
“It was all escapism. I’d been bullied at primary school, had to look out for myself outside of school, so watching a film was two hours of pretending my life didn’t exist.”
Through after-school drama clubs, McEwan learned that acting too, was a way of escaping.
“I wanted to teach myself how to act and learned everything I could from films. I believe nothing is new in acting. George Clooney has taken from De Niro, De Niro has taken from Brando, Brando from Bogart...
“I’ve watched thousands of DVDs now, went to the cinema every night, watched three films a day when I had a day free.
“I’d bash them out and whether they were good or bad, there was always something I could take from them.”
Eventually, however, McEwan wanted to take the next step, going to Telford College to study an HNC in acting and performance. From there he applied to drama school around the country.
His parents – dad Ahmed was a waiter and mum Fatima worked in Burton’s Biscuit Factory until her retirement last year – remained to be convinced of his career choice.
“Actually my dad was cool with it but I don’t think either of them paid much attention when I said I wanted to be an actor.
“My mum was the one who was like, ‘No you’re not. You’ve got terrible grades. You’re going to be a garbage man,’ laughs the 31-year-old.
“She was a hard mum back in the day and I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t believe me.
“That changed when I got into Telford, she realised I was taking it seriously.
“One day, I mentioned I needed to pay for an audition at Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. I wanted to do it on my own, but she just came into my room and gave me a cheque for £30 with RSAMD written on it.
“It blew my mind. She started crying and that was when I realised that she knew I was being genuine and that acting was what I wanted to do with my life.”
Drama school proved illusive, however, and having failed to get into RSAMD and later London’s prestigious RADA, McEwan decided to take things into his own hands.
“I thought ‘F*** it’ and started from scratch. I e-mailed every agent I could find. Got an agent.
“Got an audition for a play, Jamie the Saxt at the Finborough, a pub theatre in London. Got it.
“Then I did another play, a short film, a TV show, I did a Taggart, played a gangster in River City. Slowly I learned just by being around people, and by doing it.”
In 2014, he starred in the award-winning film Leave To Remain, opposite the new Captain Mainwaring, Toby Jones.
Still the big break continued to elude him, however, until he changed his agent last year... and his name.
“Noof is short for Naoufal, which means generous in ancient Arabic. My full name is Naoufal Ousellam.
“It had been on my mind for years that my surname was holding me back, people see it and don’t think I’m Scottish.
“I mentioned it to my agent. She agreed. In fact, a few years earlier I had been up for Scotty in Star Trek and they’d cancelled seeing me because of my name.
“My new agent asked what I wanted to change it to, I hadn’t really thought, but said McEwan.
She asked why, I replied ‘Because there’s a McEwan’s Brewery in Edinburgh and it always smelled nice when I drove past’.”
The change worked, a short time later ITV producers decided McEwan was indeed the “best buy” and cast him in Vera, adapting the character to reflect his Moroccan roots and giving him McEwan’s mum’s maiden name, Cherradi.
“I can’t tell you how pleased that has made her,” he beams.
Despite now being based in London, McEwan still considers himself a Leither (“That’s what it says on my driving licence,” he laughs) and looks back on his teenage years in The Fort with unexpected fondness.
He may have been subject to racist abuse and life may have been difficult at times, but it was home.
“I suppose I became so used to that being my life, that it became a doddle.
“I started playing football and got really good at it and that allowed me to build friendships. Eventually a mutual respect developed.
“Even though, when my mates came around, they’d be so scared they’d get a taxi home.
“It sounds crazy, but I do miss it because of what it taught me; the things I saw most people will never see. It is a big part of who I am.”
Vera, STV, Sunday 8pm