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Interviews

Ben Stokes on his new documentary: 'I said, I want everything in there - the good and the not-such-good stuff'

The England Test captain talks about the new film by Sam Mendes that showcases the highs and lows of his life and career

This week marks the release of Ben Stokes: Phoenix From The Ashes, a documentary on the talismanic England captain, charting the peaks and troughs of one of the most talked about cricketers in the world.
As with sportspeople of that ilk, the line between on- and off-field blurs, which lends itself to as honest a final product as you could expect. For every neat behind-the-scenes snippet that keeps projects like these ticking along, there are moments where the allrounder addresses the turmoil experienced throughout his career. The street fight in Bristol in 2017 gets a chunk of pontification in the running time, and rightly so. Much of what emanated from it - the missed Ashes in 2017-18, the return, 2019's glory, and his mental-health break in 2021 - are all linked in some way to that fateful September evening.
The most revealing aspects of the film are around those periods. Stokes opens up about a series of panic attacks - in a Nottingham hotel, the dry cleaners and a kid's birthday party - that confirmed to him that something wasn't right, leading to seeking professional help and anxiety medication. Both remain the case, something he spoke about when he took on the captaincy earlier this summer. And his level of distrust of administrators - "suits" as he puts it - emanating from a lack of support during the Bristol controversy, is a reservation he still holds. As revealed in the film, when one of those "suits", who remains nameless, asked him for a selfie after the 2019 World Cup win at Lord's, Stokes told him to "f*** off".
That might be the overriding takeaway of the film. Everything that has happened in Stokes' career and life is taken with him, and he doesn't shy away from accepting how much the tough times have forged who and how he is today. The most tragic of those was the passing of his father in 2020, which he is still coming to terms with.
Ahead of the film's release, Stokes spoke about how the film came about, how he hopes it will be received, and what it's like to present the rough and smooth of his life on his terms.
What were your thoughts when you first saw the movie?
When I woke up in the morning knowing I was going to see the first cut of the film, I was a bit anxious, a bit nervous. Because obviously I knew I'd done it, but I didn't know how it was all going to look when it was put together. All the filmy bits, all that kind of stuff they were going to do to make it look like more than an hour-and-a-half-long interview or whatever it was.
I remember when it finished, me and Clare [his wife], we just sort of sat there for 15 seconds in silence. I was like, "Wow." I was blown away by it. It was very weird watching something that was all about me, but as I've said to a few people, it was like I was watching something about someone I didn't know, even though it was me.
Did the movie feel cathartic in any way? The things you talk about, I feel this would be the first time the rest of us will have insight into all this. Those moments when you and Sam Mendes are chatting - from the outside it looks a bit like therapy.
I wouldn't say it was. Before we even started filming this whole thing, we had a few meetings with Sam and the Whisper team [the production company]. I said if we do this, I want to make sure this is very authentic, almost like realistic. I don't want it to be a PR thing where it's like, "Right, let's just make it all good, prim and proper and all about the good stuff." I said, if we do it, I want everything in there. I want it to be seen as an account for all the good stuff but also the not-such-good stuff that's gone on - obviously publicly known, but in more detail. They were very happy after I explained that because that's exactly how they wanted it to be and the direction they were seeing it going in.
So much of your story is sticking by the people you love the most and protecting them. It feels like it must have been a challenge to do something like this - to be as open as you were. There was a powerful moment when your mum discusses the story that was in the Sun. It would have taken a lot for her and for you to talk about.
I guess a great way to explain everything is, I felt I was able to speak a lot more about certain things and it was almost a way of showing that just because something has ended doesn't mean it's the end of it. My wife explained the Bristol thing very well: as soon as the trial was over and the verdict came in, people might assume that would be the end of it. But that was the end of one part and the start of something else to do with it.
Going back to that stuff about the Sun, you think of how long ago that happened, it then came up again. These things are always going to have some kind of effect on people's lives, however long down the road it is. It's always going to have a long-lasting effect on situations towards people.
Even Bristol, again, for me, it was a long time ago, but there's still going to be long-lasting effects of that. My kids are now getting older, I'm going to have to sit down with them one day and explain the whole situation, because what we don't want to happen is for other people to ask them about it and they're like, "What are you on about? I don't know what you mean."
"What people don't get to see is me being me, back where I grew up in Cockermouth with my friends, or when I'm at home with my kids or when I'm not being 'Ben Stokes the cricketer'"
You're one of the most talked about, written about cricketers in the world at the moment. Did this in some way feel like you were driving the story on your terms?
Yeah. Let's say if other people get the opportunity to do something like this, I would really encourage them to be as open and honest as they possibly could, because it's a real opportunity for you to be you and show people that you're not exactly what you do. People are going to have an idea of what I am because of how I am on the cricket field, or how I am in a press conference. But that's a very small part of me that you see. What people don't get to see is me being me, back where I grew up in Cockermouth with my friends, or when I'm at home with my kids or when I'm not being "Ben Stokes the cricketer".
That was a real nice thing for me to be able to do. Not being scripted, I'm not being told "be more upbeat" or "Actually we didn't like the way that came across, can we do this again but run it differently?" It was just, "No, you just be you, that's what we want." It was something I really enjoyed, being given the free rein to do.
It was fascinating to hear stories about your dad. From the outside he seemed to have this superhero quality about him. That schoolyard argument of "My dad's harder than your dad" - I feel like you were winning that conversation ten out of ten. Your rapport really comes across in the film. It must have been special to be able to give people a snapshot of the kind of person he was and the influence he had on you.
Yeah, I guess so. I'm sure people will look at that, even people who know me for a very long time, and get more of an understanding of the way I am because of how I am with my dad. They moved back to New Zealand when I was 21, so it's not really a case where other people can go, "Ah I can totally see why he's like that" when you meet their parents. It will be interesting to see if, after watching this, people might go, "Actually, I can totally see why Ben is how he is because of how he speaks about his dad or how his dad was when he was playing sport."
When I was watching the film back for the first time - and I've only watched the first cut - I really liked how the family stuff back home with Mam and Dad came across. It was pretty genuine. You get a good understanding of maybe why I am like I am.
When you talked about Bristol, you talked about being let down by "suits". There is an anonymous suit who asked you for a selfie after the World Cup final. Presumably he is staying anonymous?
Yep.
You touched on the demands on players in your ODI retirement statement. A lot of that is governed by people in suits. Do you think the current game has too much influence from the suits and not enough from the players? It felt like in your statement, you were taking a stand.
The word I chose to use [in the film] was "suits" because I just feel as if that was a generic way of explaining someone without going into detail of who it was. That wasn't a reflection of people who wear suits! (laughs)
I would say the one thing about the way that cricket is at the moment with the schedule is that it needs to be looked at a bit more sensibly. The three formats need to stay around. I'm not one to say we need to get rid of one for the other two to be sustainable or successful. I'm saying the schedule needs to be looked at for all three formats to be sustainable for the people who want to play all three. At the moment, that is not sustainable.
I feel when people now look at the schedule, they are looking so far down the line to see, "When can I take a break? What series do I need to miss? Which one isn't as important?" Every series should be important when you're playing for your country. But overlapping series? Like we had a Test series and one-day series going at the same time. To me, that's just mad.
Every series, every game that you play for your country, is as important as the other when you think about it. Obviously that's not the real case because some series are bigger than others, i.e. the Ashes over playing New Zealand. But you still want to be playing because you're playing for your country. Unfortunately because the way things are now, you've got to look at the schedule and go, where can I take a break, because I can't keep doing this over and over again because I want to be playing for as long as I can.
Is administration something you might consider at the end of your playing career, not the least because it needs people sympathetic to players?
No.
Not at all?
You won't see me there unless they change the dress code to "smart casual".
You don't have to wear a suit if you don't want to…
No, I can't see myself doing that in the future. You never know, I might eat these words in a few years' time. But honestly, no, I've got no aspiration to be doing that.
Ben Stokes: Phoenix from the Ashes launches on Prime Video on Friday

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo