Rapper-turned-actor Ashley Walters on Top Boy, fashion mishaps and (possibly) playing Ice Cube
You’re currently supporting ‘Dream To Screen’ – a project to get more British kids involved in the film industry. Which actors inspired you when you were growing up?
Probably Will Smith. There weren’t as many black actors on the screen as there are today. I was lucky when I got to 16 that Adrian Lester and Lennie James took me under their wing. It’s picking up so much at the moment: there’s John Boyega – he’s got Star Wars – Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo all making huge ground in the US. I had a casting the other day to play Ice Cube in a new NWA biopic. They are very intrigued by British actors; they see us as real actors.
Are you a big NWA fan?
I’m a fan of Ice Cube, not necessarily a fan of NWA. I wouldn’t say predominantly for his acting range or capability, to put it nicely, but more about his drive. His new one, Ride Along, is the biggest film in the US. You have to be inspired by that.
What’s the status with Top Boy? The first two series were great – will there be a third?
We had a third series in mind, which is why the second was left the way it was [on a cliffhanger], but it hasn’t been commissioned again. I was quite disappointed to be honest, but it’s just the nature of the beast sometimes.
What was Top Boy like to make? You cast a lot of non-actors and local kids, right?
Yeah, we’d plucked these kids from inner-city areas – they were involved in gang crime, but had a huge lust to be something else. So, they weren’t going to waste the opportunity they were given. We managed to pick people that were on the cusp – very raw, but at the same time, people that we could mould and work with. I really enjoyed working with Channel 4 [for Top Boy], so we’re in development now on a show I wrote about single dads.
We’ve got to ask you about your time in So Solid Crew. Do you look back on that period fondly? Do you watch The Big Reunion?
I love car-crash TV, but I’m glad I’m not a part of it. You have a moment in history, like So Solid did, but it’s best left alone where it is. The more you keep coming back, the more you crumble that memory. So Solid sparked the whole grime/UK hip-hop scene. It’s amazing to know you were a part of it.
What do you think of the UK hip-hop scene now?
I have to be careful what I say… I have love and respect for a lot of artists, but we’ve lost a bit of soul and passion in the music. A lot of things sound the same, it’s quite generic at the moment. It’s ‘Euro’.
You’re obviously known more as an actor now, rather than a rapper. Is that how you like it?
Definitely. Music takes up a lot of time and it’s a very fickle industry. You can be hot, you can be the greatest thing for three months and then… nothing. You’ve got to take it on the chin. Whereas in acting you can reinvent yourself, it has that longevity – look at people such as Morgan Freeman and Samuel L Jackson. Music is a whirlwind lifestyle. With So Solid, I hardly remember anything. We won Brits and Mobos, but I couldn’t tell you what happened on those evenings.
Looking back, do you cringe slightly at the clothes you wore?
Sometimes [laughs]. There’s one picture, when I won my award for Most Promising Newcomer at the Bifas, post-Bullet Boy, and I wore an outrageous suit. Horrendous. I looked like I was going to play golf.
You’ve guest starred in Doctor Who in the past. Would you fancy being the Doctor?
I get really worried about being tied down to serial TV. I love having a cameo. I always feel sorry for the guys who have to stay. Like with The Musketeers, they’re filming 10 months of the year; you’re away from your families and you can’t go up for [any other roles]. I like the fact that I always get called ‘Ashley Walters’ rather than the name of a character I’ve played.
Do you feel that your background gives you extra credibility for ‘grittier’ roles?
It hasn’t held me back. Obviously, with my past, there are a lot of situations where people expect me to be confrontational, really angry – the gun-toting gangster. I always find the positive in those negative situations. I’m able to show them my real self, and they are wowed by that.
Music used to be seen as an escape, a way to get kids out of trouble and off the streets. Do you think acting is now doing the same thing?
As a kid, I had to suppress that [acting] side of me to survive, actually. I got beaten up when people found out I trained in ballet tap. I got beaten up for being in Grange Hill and Oliver!. I overcompensated a lot…
Walters is supporting Dream To Screen, a competition launched by Cineworld and Media Trust and supported by the Jack Petchey Foundation to discover young film-making talent from across the UK and Ireland. Dreamtoscreen.org