Ashley Walters has noticed that, much as day slides into night, his greatest career triumphs are followed, often at alarming speed, by his most humbling derailments. He arrived in the early 2000s as a rapper, Asher D, with the 30-strong London garage collective So Solid Crew. He was a lead vocalist on their No 1 hit 21 Seconds, and they won a Brit award in 2002, a prize perhaps overshadowed by the altercation they had with the Irish boyband Westlife’s table on the way up to collect it. A month later, aged 19, Walters was convicted of possession of a converted air pistol loaded with live ammunition and sentenced to 18 months in a young offender institution.
Asher D returned not long afterwards as the electrifying actor Ashley Walters. He brought a powerful, lived intensity to his roles, especially in Top Boy, a drama about drug gangs in east London that is the closest British television has come to matching the detail and ambition of the landmark US drama The Wire. But then, in 2014, Channel 4 dropped the show after two series with no official explanation. Next, Walters teamed up with the actor-director Noel Clarke to make the buddy-cop action comedy Bulletproof. Its first episode in 2018 had a record audience for that year on Sky One, but after three successful series, that show, too, was cancelled after allegations of bullying and sexual harassment were made against Clarke by 20 women, as reported in the Guardian.
We’ll return to Clarke later, but Walters, 39, seems to accept that his path will never be a totally straightforward one. Even now, he often can’t take roles in big American films and TV shows because his conviction makes it almost impossible for him to secure a visa. “I expect something crazy around the corner, that’s just how my life works,” he says. “I’m a sceptic on my own journey, and I get warned about that a lot, because you attract certain things when you think certain ways. But personally, I think it’s healthy to have a little bit of fear about what’s next.”
Walters is sitting in a restaurant in Whitstable, on the Kent coast, on an apocalyptically rainy morning in February. He is compact, muscular, quick to smile and disarmingly open. He first started coming to the area on weekends – in part because he really likes oysters – and moved here from London with his wife, the actor Danielle Isaie, and their two young children in February 2021. It might look like a classic, Covid-lockdown, escape-the-city play, but Walters, an only child who was raised by his single mother on the North Peckham estate in southeast London, says it has been something he has wanted since he was young.
“I’ve always had that dream of a big house, gates, just away from everything,” he says, sipping a cup of mint tea. “But it predominantly started when I came out of prison in the early 2000s. I saw London in a different light at that point. I’d had some amazing times with So Solid, a lot of success, but I realised how damaging it could be to you as a person, especially as a young Black man. And just understanding how people saw me a bit clearer. Having that prison experience and reading the papers about yourself, I was like, ‘Oh shit, I’m not as loved as I thought I was!’ It was a big ego dent.”
This corner of Kent isn’t the most “diverse”, Walters notes, but the family are settling in well: the kids love the space and this morning Danielle, who played Candice in Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum, is horse riding. “As soon as we moved in, we had cakes being brought to the door,” marvels Walters. “After the recent storm checking that we’re OK: ‘We noticed your gate’s blown off, do you want us to help you fix it?’ And for us, it’s like, ‘What do they want?’ Because you are just so not used to that in London.”
Careerwise, the pieces seem to be falling into place again for Walters. Top Boy was revived by Netflix in 2019, initially at the somewhat unexpected behest of the Canadian musician Drake, and returns this month for a much-awaited fourth season. Walters takes the lead again as the astute drug kingpin Dushane, alongside on-off partner Sully, played by Kane Robinson, aka the rapper Kano. Walters is now in demand as a director, following an assured debut short film Boys, made last year for Sky. He’s also working on music again.
Things are going well, in short, but maybe that’s what is making Walters nervous. “Like I said, my life has pretty much always been a boom-and-bust situation,” he says. “I have a real high and then I’ll be like, ‘What’s the next low?’ I know it’s coming, but I’ll enjoy this for now. Whatever comes, I’ll deal with it.”
Growing up, Walters often felt he was living a double life. In the week, he’d hang out with friends in south London who had no idea that at weekends he was going to Marylebone to learn acting and dance at the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Walters kept the two worlds totally separate until he was busted when someone he knew was passing the London Palladium and saw him on the poster for Oliver!
Walters joined So Solid Crew at 17, but even as a member of the most notorious band in Britain, there was an unlikely duality that only came crashing down when he was arrested. “For anyone, it would be a big wake-up call to have those jail doors slammed on you,” says Walters. “Looking at my mum’s face, she had no clue I was in such a bad place. And I was like, ‘Hold on, I was little Ashley at Sylvia Young, doing tap and ballet, making my mum proud. How have I ended up becoming the UK’s number one gun-toting gangster on the front page of the papers?’”
When his sentence ended, Walters was reluctant to go back to being a rapper. “There was just problems everywhere,” he reasons. “People going to jail left, right and centre. Guns, drugs, this, that, whatever.” He was interested in acting and had a lucky break in 2004: the British director Saul Dibb was making a film, Bullet Boy, about a kid from London just out of prison who is desperate not to get sucked back into a life of crime. Walters poured his life experiences into the role, winning “most promising newcomer” at the British Independent Film Awards.
From that, Walters was cast in Get Rich or Die Tryin’, the 2005 movie starring 50 Cent, which was shooting in Toronto. “When I got that job, I was on my face financially: I had two kids with my partner at the time and we were living in a council flat, mice running around,” he says. “In the space of a week, I was coming out of my apartment and Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were there and getting in a lift. I was chauffeured everywhere, money in my bank every week. It was a life-changing experience. At that point, you’re like, ‘Oh, shit. This can work!’”
While Walters was in Canada, he was contacted by his father. He had been largely absent when Walters was growing up: either in prison or with the other families he had. But now he had lung cancer and had only a few weeks to live. He wanted to spend time with him before he died. Walters, still resentful, said he wasn’t interested. His father didn’t listen and flew out to Toronto anyway. He phoned Walters from the airport and they had two weeks together in his apartment.
“We connected,” recalls Walters. “He was on his deathbed, but he was still raving. The guy could hardly walk, he’d lost all this weight, but he was a charmer as well. There were all these Canadian women knocking for him on my apartment door that he’d met while I’d been at work during the day. I was like, ‘This guy! You’re dying, bro!’”
At night, Walters turned “journalist”, asking his father to fill in the gaps in their lives. He’d ask about specific moments, like why had his dad promised to come on his seventh birthday and not shown up? Walters started to recognise that, in some respects, the apple had not fallen too far from the tree: he himself now has eight children, aged between 22 and five, from three relationships, and last year became a grandfather.
“The more I hated him for having so many kids with so many different women, the more kids I had,” says Walters. “The more I hated him for being away from me as a child and his other kids while being in prison, I ended up in prison as well. All that resentment and hate was just killing me. At some point I had to realise, ‘Shit, what’s done is done. I can’t change the past, can’t rewrite history.’ What I can do is change what’s going to happen in the future. And how I affect my children growing up. So that was a big lesson learned.”
On the flight back to London, his father caught pneumonia and died a day later. “I’m not good at grieving,” says Walters. “I’ve lost a lot of people and it’s gotten to the point where I can’t cry most of the time. But I’m just so happy that I got to develop some sort of relationship with him.”
The tagline for the new series of Top Boy is “Loyalty Before Everything.” It’s a word that has resonance for Walters: “I’m loyal to a fault sometimes,” he says. And it’s clear it played on his mind when he heard the allegations against his friend Noel Clarke, which included sexual harassment, unwanted touching, sexually inappropriate comments on set, taking and sharing sexually explicit pictures and videos without consent, and bullying, between 2004 and 2019.
“My relationship with Noel has always been… different,” says Walters, picking his words. “We became friends while doing that show [Bulletproof]. We weren’t friends before. And not for any of the reasons that he has been accused of, but he’s just always been a difficult person. He’s notoriously a bullish businessman – and has that reputation. And we butted heads a lot throughout that experience, but I learned to love him over that period of time, and we developed a really close relationship.”
Walters is adamant that he never had any inkling of what Clarke has been accused of. “I just didn’t see any of it,” he says. “Whether that makes me a bit naive or stupid or whatever, I don’t know. But my first instinct was to question myself: ‘How could you let this happen? Where were you?’ Because I just wouldn’t be able to stomach any of that.”
The day after the allegations, Walters posted on Instagram that he was “in shock and saddened”. He went on: “Sexual harassment, abuse and bullying have no place in our industry.” Walters was surprised to find that many of the replies were angry that he hadn’t given Clarke the benefit of the doubt. “When I brought out my statement, a lot of people that I know and love said that I shouldn’t have done it,” says Walters. “How can I leave him in the lurch like that? That’s your friend, he hasn’t been arrested. Innocent until proven guilty, all that stuff.
“But my stance was, ‘Look, I don’t know whether he’s guilty or innocent, but I don’t like any of it and I don’t condone any of that stuff,’” Walters continues. “And I side with the women. Obviously, there’s a thing where women are scared to tell their story, so I applaud them for being brave enough to do this.”
Last year was a challenging one for Walters in a few ways: a cousin died from Covid; another family member was killed in a car crash. The return to shooting Top Boy came as something of a welcome distraction. Walters jokes that he finds playing Dushane almost too easy: he’s so controlled, so Machiavellian, that he almost never has to get his hands dirty any more. “He’s a really intelligent character and I’m completely bored of playing him now,” says Walters, smiling. “It’s an ongoing thing on set where I’m like, ‘I just want to go and kill people. I just want to be the guy beating people up and doing all the heavy work.’ So sometimes it’s a lot less challenging than people would think.”
Even after Channel 4 cancelled it, Walters always suspected Top Boy would return. “It never died down,” he says. “People just wouldn’t even accept I was doing something else. The minute I talk about: ‘I’ve got music coming out,’ it’s like, ‘We don’t care. When’s Top Boy out?’ ‘I’ve just had a new baby.’ ‘So what? When’s Top Boy coming out?’”
Walters is aware that he should just enjoy being in a beloved hit show, but he still can’t silence a little voice in his head that says it won’t last. He and Kane Robinson message each other constantly, fearful that this will be the series that Top Boy loses its edge. “We send voice notes all day, every day, just about the show,” says Walters. “We’re that invested in it, and that worried about it: is this going to be the one where they catch us out and everyone goes, ‘It’s shit, we knew it’?”
He stands up to leave, forgets his wife’s umbrella, remembers that she’ll be cross if he comes home without it, shakes his head. “I’m feeling good and positive about the future,” says Walters. “There will be things that crop up that are going to put spanners in the works and slow you down a bit. But it’s how I love to be.”
Top Boy returns to Netflix on 18 March
Fashion editor Helen Seamons; hair by Franklyn Nnamdi-Okwedy at F4fade barbers using Gamma Plus Tools; grooming by Tellica Roseway using Bobbi Brown; lighting and digital by Jem Rigby; fashion assistant Peter Bevan; shot at Luma Studios