Actor and TV star Ross Kemp will never forget the first time he was shot at. It happened outside Sangin in Afghanistan and seemed to last “a very lot time”. “They hit us with RPGs first,” he says. “You know what a Mini Cooper is? It felt like having five Mini Coopers thrown at you. I did a leap backward and went into a crucifix pose [and said a prayer] for a good 30 times before anyone started firing back.”
Kemp had a moment of realisation when a sniper had him in his sights and was “zipping rounds” over his left and right shoulders – with the next round threatening to hit him dead centre.
“I remember thinking, ‘What have I got? I’ve got a Porsche and a swimming pool, no kids, no relationship with any women. What the f___ am I leaving behind?’”
The 53-year-old Englishman is now married with children, but his other legacy is his sterling work as a TV presenter and documentarian travelling to some of the world’s worst places and talking to arguably some of the world’s worst people: gangsters, hitman, mafioso, bikies and people smugglers.
Once best known for his role as Grant Mitchell on soap opera EastEnders, Kemp was chuffed last year to win the Foreign Press Association Best Foreign Documentary Of The Year for his documentary, Ross Kemp: Libya’s Migrant Hell. It’s welcome kudos and a firm rebuttal to critics who claim that his TV show, Ross Kemp: Extreme World, is testosterone-driven adventure porn or escapism for First World armchair warriors.
“It’s nice to get that sort of respect,” he says.
For a man who travelled to places like Pakistan, Mozambique, Colombia, Kurdistan and Mexico for Extreme World – covering issues such as terrorism, tribal violence, people smuggling and poverty – it seems unusual he never travels with a big security team.
“In Libya, we had a security adviser in the back vehicle. I was up in the front. I’m sure you’ve been in dangerous, hostile places …”
No. I’m a soft city dweller. Yet it must be a strange contrast to come fresh from a warzone like Libya to a five-star hotel in Sydney.
“Very much so … seeing porcelain and blueberry muffins. I think it makes you appreciate things a lot more. It’s made me appreciate my family, my friends and my life. I’ve seen people die on the battle and I’ve seen children get seriously hurt and all those things make you question the rights and wrongs of the world.
“It also makes me question if we’re not making a mess of the fact that we’re lucky to be living in democracies. The people in democracies at the moment seem to be messing them up, while the autocracies seem to be doing all right. It’s a worry, isn’t it? What does that say about our generation?”
One wonders why Kemp gave up the glamorous world of acting and its First World comforts to document the horrors of the Second and Third Worlds, a journey that began with his first documentary series, Ross Kemp On Gangs, in 2004. He says that if you know his history – “my ex-wife was a journalist, my brother worked for the BBC for 30 years, he’s made a lot of documentaries” – it’s not so surprising that he joined the Fourth Estate.
Like a proper objective journalist, Kemp doesn’t view the world in extreme black and white: rather, shades of grey.
He agrees that even the worst people don’t believe that they are evil.
“Unless they’re sociopaths. I have met sociopaths. I met a guy in Columbia – he was brutalised to the point that he became an automaton. He tortures people to find out where the cocaine is in Colombia. He scratches someone’s eyeball out first with a fishing needle, then he’ll cut your fingers off, then he’ll electrocute you and then when you’re close to giving up the information he will dismember you while you’re still alive.”
Oddly enough, after their interview – in a sex hotel in Colombia of all places, chosen because it was an anonymous location – the killer put rosary after rosary on his wrist.
“I said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ He said, ‘I believe in God, but for some reason I don’t think I’m going to heaven.’”
Kemp will tell stories from his life as well as all six seasons of Extreme World during his audiovisual show, Ross Kemp: Extreme Tales Live On Stage, sharing his tale about “how an actor carved a new career in a world where there are no scripts”.
“I don’t think many of us are plain and simply bad. I’ll talk about this in the stage show. I’ve had good relationships with people who have done quite awful things. There are other people I have met that I could not bear to be in the room any longer than I had to do the interview.”
Ross Kemp: Extreme Tales Live On Stage is at the State Theatre on February 8.