Ashley Walters: 'Kids make mistakes. I know that now as a father of eight'

The Top Boy star on making his directorial debut, becoming a grandfather and hiding his ballet skills from the boys in Peckham

London-born Ashley Walters, 38, first found fame under the moniker Asher D, a member of UK garage collective So Solid Crew. He’s now best known as an actor, with film and TV credits including Bullet Boy, Hustle, Small Island and Top Boy. He currently stars in Sky One action series Bulletproof and recently made his directorial debut with Sky Arts short film Boys.

Boys is about best friends on an east London estate. Was it inspired by teenage lads getting unfairly portrayed by the media?
Definitely. It stems from me going through that with So Solid back in the day. We were villains in the press for a long time. That’s not to say we didn’t deserve it at times. But what I’m trying to say with the film is that kids make mistakes. I know that now from being a father of eight kids. Teenagers aren’t fully grown. They’re not cooked yet, as Judge Judy puts it. They need guidance or they can easily go down the wrong road. A lot of the negative things they do are a cry for help. I mentor kids at my local youth club who are heavily involved in gang crime. If you show them a different way, you can change people. Not everyone in a hoodie is a bad guy.

It reminded me of last year’s British drama Rocks
That’s a cool comparison because I really liked that film. Actually, I’ve been speaking to Theresa Ikoko, the writer, about maybe working together someday.

Why was this the right time for you to direct?
I wanted to make a calling card, but it became a lot more than that. It was a great platform for [lead actors] Hector [Abbott] and Jude [Chinchen], who are talking to agents now. When you’ve been acting from a young age [Walters started aged 10], you become part of the furniture. This made me feel like a newcomer again. It’s given me a lot of hunger and fire.

Were you keen to show the boys being emotionally open?
Very much. We show Hector’s character in some vulnerable places. Opening up was something I had to learn myself. My youth was all about never showing weakness, but I led a double life. I was at Sylvia Young’s theatre school doing tap and ballet but couldn’t go home to Peckham and talk about that with the boys. Although I got caught out once when someone saw me on a poster outside the London Palladium, all dressed up for Oliver!. I got dissed for that (laughs). Experience has taught me the importance of sharing your problems. We have such a high rate of suicide in young men. A lot of that is down to how they think they should behave in front of other people. Breaking down those barriers is difficult but I’m up for trying.

There’s an eye-catching piece of “I can’t breathe” graffiti in the film…
When we were filming, George Floyd’s killing had just happened. When we saw that written on a wall, it was important to include it. I’d gone through a period when I was being told by people that I wasn’t being vocal enough, wasn’t using my platform, that my silence was helping racism. So that was a way to use my art to say it.

Watch a trailer for Bulletproof South Africa.

Did you feel pressure to declare support for Black Lives Matter?
Behind the scenes, I’m fighting for black voices every day. I’ve been doing it for many years. Posting something on social media might raise awareness temporarily but I want to make real change. We need to see more black faces on screen but also behind the camera, be it writing, producing or directing. Bringing new talent to the table will give this movement longevity.

Was 2020 was a moment of change?
It woke up a lot of people who didn’t realise racism was that bad. It shone a light on how hard it is sometimes to just live your life. It’s little things, too. The other day, I mentioned to a white friend how when planning holidays, me and my wife have to choose carefully which countries we go to. We’ve had so many bad experiences where people aren’t used to seeing black families. This guy was like: “Wow, I had no idea.” Maybe change isn’t happening as fast as we’d like but things are moving forward. Long may it continue.

The latest series of Bulletproof is set in South Africa. How was it filming there?
As glorious as it looks on screen. We wanted to take Bishop and Pike [London cops played by Walters and Noel Clarke] out of their comfort zone. The vibe in Cape Town is very creative and arty but, of course, there’s also the backdrop of huge inequality. We had tight security around us but we pushed to go into townships and mingle a bit, especially when our families came over. We wanted our kids to see the reality of people’s lives compared to theirs. It was eye-opening for them.

You and Noel are close friends…
Yes, but it wasn’t always that way. It used to be normal for young black men in our industry to view one another as rivals. There weren’t a lot of us on TV, which makes you territorial. You’re always pitted against each other for roles. I’d turn up to auditions, Noel would be there and I’d be like: “Oh God, here we go.” Before you know it, you’ve developed resentment for each other. But the day we got a chance to sit and talk, we realised how much we had in common and decided to work together. Bulletproof was our first idea.

Are you shooting the next series of Top Boy? What happens with your character, Dushane?
Dushane’s back in control but, obviously, you can expect things to go wrong. He’s going to be emotionally tested. There’s devastation and tragedy in his life that affect the way he runs his empire. The story goes to the next level.

Drake was instrumental in the show’s move to Netflix. Have you met?
Yeah, he’s a good guy; it came from a genuine place because he was a true fan, long before he got involved. LeBron James and Jay-Z love the show as well. Last season made a huge impression in the States. They were making memes or posting clips of Americans attempting UK street accents. That was a dream for me. Growing up, we’d watch US shows but they weren’t interested in ours. Social media and streaming services have changed that.

Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke in Bulletproof.
Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke in Bulletproof. Photograph: Coco Van Oppens/©Sky UK Ltd

How have you passed the time in lockdown?
Exercise has kept me sane. I’ve been reading a lot. I’m an Arsenal fan, so it’s Ian Wright’s autobiography at the moment. I’ve also been cooking a lot: lamb stews, butterflied lobster tails, honey-glazed pork chops. My wife wants me to go on Celebrity MasterChef but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Maybe in a few years.

You’ve also been writing scripts. What about?
I tend to write what I know. Right now, that’s fatherhood. Much as I might try to write about different things, somehow it always comes back to that. I’m writing a story about a young kid who’s put in the custody of a dad he’s never met before. I first became a father at 17 and didn’t have a clue what a dad was because I didn’t have one myself. So I mashed together all these different role models, some good and some bad, to make up my idea of a dad. I made a lot of mistakes but that’s how you learn.

Have you been home schooling?
My poor wife’s taken the brunt of it because I’ve been filming on and off. But when I can, I do an hour or two. I have newfound love and respect for teachers. They teach 30 kids. I’m just teaching my six-year-old daughter and that’s difficult enough.

You just became a grandfather. How does that feel?
It’s a beautiful thing. A very different feeling. And, finally, after all these years, I have a child I can give back at the end of the day.

Bulletproof: South Africa and Boys are available on catch-up on Sky On Demand and Now TV


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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