Interview with ‘Top Boy’ star Ashley Walters: ‘When this role landed on my doorstep, it was something I couldn’t turn down’
When it comes to UK rappers-turned-actors, Ashley Walters is a master who just about paved the way for most lyricists that saw fit to pick up a script. From roles in Bullet Boy to Get Rich or Die Tryin’ to Doctor Who, the former So Solid Crew member will be returning for the second series of Channel 4’s award-winning drama Top Boy.
Walters plays a streetwise gangster in Ronan Bennett’s gritty drama set on an East London estate, painting a detailed picture of inner-city gang culture, drugs, poverty and crime. Noel Phillips spoke with the 31-year-old actor about emerging from a similar world to his Top Boy character and his fear of flying insects.
I’m a little tempted to devote this entire interview to your phobia of anything that flies.
Please don’t. [laughs] I’m currently shooting [New BBC drama Truckers] in Nottingham, and tomorrow I’ve got a scene that I’m dreading. We’re filming in a place which is kind of like a wasteland on the top of a hill, and I know there are going to be many insects flying around. It gets pretty bad, especially in the evening when they all come out, but I know I’m going to find it hard to focus. I’m actually scared.
Did you have any unexpected moments while working on Top Boy?
I wouldn’t say unexpected, but instead the success and that is not because we didn’t think what we were doing was good. It’s just overwhelming to see how much people liked it – but I guess that’s just down to the show representing what it was trying to represent authentically. At the same time, it has been a while since there had been anything like Top Boy on television.
What made you want to do Top Boy?
I think Ronan Bennett is one of the best writers I’ve worked with. He doesn’t just use his own voice. He’s always willing to allow others to help him with storylines. He spent a lot of time researching and his scripts really stand out to me. I stayed well clear of doing anything like Top Boy for many years because I did not want to get caught in the trap of always playing the bad boy, but when this role landed on my doorstep, it was something I couldn’t turn down.
You really seem to have a talent for bringing things to life.
I think my job is to go in and honour whatever words that are on a page and to be vulnerable. I have to be able to not be myself and not maintain an image for myself. It’s about letting go and doing what you have to do when playing a role.
Do you think your approach has always been this way, or does it have anything to do with the experiences you encountered earlier on in your career?
The whole point of acting is not to act. I think the beauty of Top Boy, like you said, is that I’ve come from that world. To be honest, I’m not far removed from it now as I’m living in North London, so I very much understand what those sorts of lifestyles entail. I tend to draw on the environment around me through my own experiences. I’m not a stranger to being in trouble and initially at the start of my adolescence – I had to be doing things to survive. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult portraying that character, but at the same time there are different sides to him that is not your typical gangster.
Going into this series, do you feel that Dushane was in a different place than where we left him?
His aim this time round is to do something big and invest his money in something legitimate. He doesn’t want to be doing this forever, and he also doesn’t like what’s happening around him so there is progression in that sense.
Can you talk a bit more about Dushane’s relationship with Scully?
I mean as far as they are concerned, they are brothers. Scully’s character is a loose cannon. He wants everyone to know he’s got money and he wants to be seen out there living the highlife – but Dushane is not doing it for those reasons. Eventually, their relationship wears thin but regardless of everything there is still that mutual respect for each other.
After 23 movies and nearly 30 television appearances, you’ve never been nominated for a BAFTA. What’s that about?
I don’t know why, but there have been times where I’ve thought about not being nominated for anything. But I suppose in some ways it challenges me to do better things that will get me recognition. Obviously, those things will come if I continue to keep my head down and do what I do best.
You were in So Solid Crew—a group that defined garage music to the world. Has that helped or hurt you?
I think there are pros and cons to it. I try not to regret anything, because everything negative or positive has made me who I am today. Most of my So Solid experiences were amazing. I was quite young at the time and looking back I led the life of a rockstar, which few people can say they have done. I am happy that I was a part of history in pioneering a wave for a lot of young black up and coming artists.
Top Boy series one is out on DVD on 22 July, from Warner Home Video, Top Boy series 2 will air in August.Tagged in: Ashley Walters, Top Boy
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