First hitting screens back in 2011, the British television drama Top Boy has since gained a huge following for its authentic, gripping depiction of the lives of the people connected to the (fictional) Summerhouse Estate in East London. Seasons one and two debuted on Channel 4 to superb ratings, but then they decided not to re-commission the show. And just like that, one of our most-loved crime dramas appeared to be over in 2013.
But all was not lost. A Canadian rapper by the name of Drake, whose long-time love for London and the UK has been well-documented, watched season one and two of Top Boy on Netflix after being recommended it whilst on tour, sparking a chain of events that resulted in its return half a decade later as a Netflix Originals series, and the artist becoming one of its executive producers. Netflix reportedly spent $2 billion on marketing in 2018, with 85% of that budget spent on ‘title brands’, i.e. Netflix Originals. Top Boy billboards were recently seen in New York’s Times Square ahead of its worldwide release—a sign of things to come.
UK music and acting legend Ashley Walters, who plays ‘Dushane’, helped to connect the dots that led to the revival of Top Boy—arguably his biggest role in a distinguished career. In 2004, director Saul Dibb offered Walters a role in the movie Bullet Boy—which changed his life and opened doors for him as an actor—and since then, his performances on screen have continued to improve, and his legacy continues to grow. Ashley’s highlights include starring in 50 Cent’s biopic, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Doctor Who, Grange Hill and countless other TV shows. More recently, we’ve seen the former So Solid member take on a lead role as ‘Officer Ronnie Pike Jr’ in Sky One’s Bulletproof, alongside Noel Clarke.
We caught up with Ashley Walters to discuss Top Boy’s return, working with Aubrey Graham on the show’s revival, and what he really thinks co-star Kano’s new music.
“Drake and his camp are people of their word. I’ve never seen them say they’re going do something and not do it.”
I think I speak for most people when I say that I am gassed Top Boy is finally back! Why was there a six-year gap between the last season of the show and this new one?
We lost our commission from Channel 4. For what reasons, I don’t know, so the show didn’t have a home anymore. They just chose not to go onto season three, which was hard to deal with for all of us because, you know, we love the show so much. We were getting constant love from people who’d seen it, asking when it was coming back. It was only when Netflix put it on their platform, season one and two, that the rest of the world started to see it, and it just opened it up. That resulted in Drake stumbling across it and becoming a big fan of the show and then posting about it, which created another surge of interest. Then he got in contact with me and I spoke with his camp, we had a discussion about bringing it back, and I passed on some info regarding the right people to talk to. Cut a long story short, a year later, it was happening.
In that gap between Drake showing interest and the show actually happening, how did you feel? Did you lose hope at all?
I did. There were moments where I thought, ‘What is happening? Why has nobody got back to me?’ But I suppose I just had to trust the process. Drake and his camp are people of their word. I’ve never seen them say they’re going to do something and not do it. It was just about being patient and waiting to see what happens. As I’ve grown in the game, you understand that it’s not as easy as you think to make things happen; there’s a lot of things you have to do to get to that stage.
Gentrification is a big theme throughout Top Boy. Tell us about that aspect of it.
It’s a big theme because it has a big effect on an area. In my opinion, gentrification can sometimes affect what’s happening on the ends. You’re placing people in different places, moving them around, and you’re taking them out of their comfort zone and into places they’re not used to being in. Sometimes that can create territorial wars—it can put people that come from different ends in with other people. So, for us, it was really important to talk about that in the show because that’s what’s happening right now. It wouldn’t be Top Boy of us to make a show that didn’t involve the issues that we’re all dealing with on a day-to-day basis.
As well as gangster moments, Top Boy deals with the emotional side of what goes on very well, such as mental health, drug addiction, parenthood and poverty. How does Top Boy manage to achieve such a high level of authenticity?
[Top Boy creator] Ronan [Bennett] does that very well, because he lives in the area. He lives right bang, smack-in-the-middle of the area that Top Boy is set. He knows the community there—he’s got strong ties throughout the community. All of his stories are based on some sort of truth. That’s how it pretty much starts: him putting those ideas on paper, then us actors bringing those ideas to life when it comes to how it sounds and putting the finishing touches on it. Ronan is a very down to earth, true to his heart sort of person, and all of the themes that he puts through the series are things that are actually happening in the area we’re trying to represent. There’s a lot of consultancy that happens. We speak to a lot of people from the area, and they come on board and help us with ideas when writing. I think it takes that to make a show like this as authentic as it is.
Your character, ‘Dushane’, seems like a different person this time around. There’s a sense of desperation and it seems like he’s hit rock-bottom and has to build his way back up to the top. How did you adjust your mindset as Dushane to go from top boy to what we see in the new season?
For me, as an actor, to do that whole going from top to rock-bottom and trying to build up again, that’s the most fun. For me, as Ashley, it’s not hardship. For Dushane, the character, it must be the hardest thing in the world. Once you’ve been at the top, you’re always gonna know what it’s like to be at the top. If you’ve never been at the top, you’re not worrying about what it feels like being there. It’s always a thing of having to maintain. The one good thing about Dushane is that he’s always methodical with how he makes his decisions and how he moves forward. So it’s just about how he’s going to navigate it, and for the audience, that’s the beauty of this journey. Would you really want him to start at the top? Where would we go?
The new season is longer than the other seasons, which were both four episodes each. How will the show differ now that it’s spread across 10 episodes?
What I think you’re going to get is a much more well-rounded understanding of each character. We’ve had ten episodes to fill, so we’ve had a chance to build. When you watch season one and two, it’s straight in from the get-go and pretty much full-on until the end. What we didn’t get to see was how people are affected by a lot of the things that were happening, after they happened. What was the fallout with the police? What were the repercussions? And how did this guy’s mum feel, the guy that had been killed? We didn’t really get to feel those emotions before. We’ve got a bigger cast and introduced some new people to the show, which has given us that space to honour the characters properly.
“We’ve got a bigger cast and introduced some new people to the show, which has given us that space to honour the characters properly.”
What was it like working with Dave and Little Simz?
They were both amazing. They both were capable of filling the roles and leaving their alter-egos at the door. Leaving Dave and Little Simz at the door and embracing their characters. That’s hard to find in actors, let alone musicians that are coming into the acting world; because they’re so used to sticking to that one character, it’s hard to direct them. But these guys had the ability to do that. If you listen to their music as well, you can hear there’s an honesty and natural truth in what they do anyway. So we shouldn’t be surprised, really. They both killed it!
All of the musicians we’ve seen feature in Top Boy have been strong additions—yourself, Kano, Bashy, and now Dave and Little Simz. How do you work out if a rapper can actually act?
As a rapper, you’re taught and you practice being hard all the time. You’re not crying on your tracks, you don’t sound like Neyo singing an R&B song about what you’ve lost or whatever. It’s always bravado, it’s always hard, and that’s kind of the image of a rapper. But to be an actor, you have to be vulnerable. You have to be willing to shed your skin and let people inside. If you can’t do that, it’s gonna be really difficult to make that transition, and a lot of rappers can’t. Like I said, Dave, who’s pretty much already been doing it in music, and Simz, their music is autobiographical. It’s always about them and exposing some of the worst parts of themselves, so it wasn’t a huge leap. Simz had already done some acting, she’s already had training, so it wasn’t a big leap for her.
You’re back working with Kane Robinson again—or to our grime fans, the emcee Kano. How did you both manage to establish such a strong working relationship?
I mean, it’s just been like that from day one to be honest. We’ve always got along. Between filming and not filming, we hardly find the time to chill together, because of his music and because I’ll be on another job. But when we are working together, that bond and tightness that we have on screen, it runs through, on and off camera. It’s easy to work with Kane because he’s a professional. He always gives 100% with anything that he does, and gives it his all. That’s all I can ask for from any other actor I’m working with, because that will make me give my all as well.
Have you heard his latest album, Hoodies All Summer?
It’s hard! What I like about it is that he’s purposefully made a conscious decision to not compromise or try and make it fit into what’s out there. He’s his own artist in his own right and makes the music he wants to make and never conforms, and we love that about him. The album is absolutely amazing. Lyrically, hardly anyone can talk to this guy in the country—let alone the world—so we all have to respect that. At the same time, he’s a brilliant actor as well.
What was the thought process in putting together the soundtrack?
The soundtrack has never been something I get involved in, but we have some trusted people that work on it and understand what’s current. There’s a few things you have to think about when you’re making the show, because you’re making it a good few months, maybe even a year before it actually hits the screens sometimes. You have to make sure you’re putting music on it that’s not gonna be old by the time it gets out. So it’s about finding music that’s timeless, music that wasn’t a number one or top ten at the time, but still sounds as good as.
Micheal Ward, who plays ‘Jamie’, is the latest ‘new’ actor to deliver a strong performance in the show. Top Boy has a history of helping new faces break through—Letitia Wright being one of them—so I was wondering if that was something you guys actively look for?
That’s what we’re all about. We’ve got some brilliant people behind the scenes. One of them is Des Hamilton, who’s our casting director. His whole way of working is about walking outside on the street and finding the part. Rather than going through books of known actors or whatever, he’s very much about going into schools and walking around the ends, sometimes dangerous places, and just finding the people for the parts we’re looking for. That’s mixed with a blend of experienced actors, like myself, Kane and others, makes it what it is. We feed off them. We feed off their raw talent and they feed off our professional side. And that combination makes Top Boy.
Where do you think the show sits on a global scale? For example, if someone in America asked me to recommend a good show from the UK, I’d automatically say Top Boy. What’s your take on that?
I’d be happy for you to recommend Top Boy too [laughs]. I’d recommend Top Boy myself! I feel like it’s open now. Because of social media, because of the internet, because of platforms like Netflix, we have the ability to export our culture a lot more. We’ve been doing it in music and it’s been working, and I just feel like this is the best time for any person around the world to watch a show like this. They’re going to understand it a lot more because we’ve been drip-feeding over the last few years already. There was a time when we tried to first sell Top Boy to the States, after season one, and they refused to have it. They said that people wouldn’t understand or like the content. But if you listen to music and listen to the way people talk, it’s kind of balancing out. It’s making it a lot easier for people to buy into London culture.
Is there going to be a season four of Top Boy?
I would love there to be a season four. All the cast would love to see a season four, the whole team would. But we’ll never know that yet. So I just advise everyone to just enjoy this season as much as possible. Talk about it. Tweet about it. Get on the socials, and I’m sure if it goes well, we’ll have no problem with pushing forward with another season.
Do you ever think about wanting to venture into Hollywood? A lot of your work is based in the UK, but is becoming a big name in the States a personal goal of yours?
I think about it every now and again. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve got to get there or do anything particular; every time you progress in your work and level up in what you’re doing, you’re always looking at what’s happening over there. I’ve got a lot of my peers out there making a name for themselves, so I’m not gonna lie and say it’s something that I don’t ever think about—but at the same time, I’m so blessed to be working consistently over here that it’s not something I lose a lot of sleep over.
Bulletproof, the Sky One drama that you work with Noel Clarke on, has been brought back for a second season—congrats on that. What can fans expect from the upcoming episodes?
Just a bigger and better season. We’ve got two extra episodes as well; it was six, but we’ve now gone to eight. I’ve written one of the episodes, episode seven, and just been much more heavily involved behind the scenes. We’re really proud of what we’ve created and we’re about to take the show to the next level. So expect nothing but greatness!