Exclusives Interviews 20 January 2021

GRM Exclusive: Ashley Walters talks directorial debut ‘Boys’, season 4 of ‘Top Boy’, ‘Bulletproof’ & more

20 January 2021

There’s no doubt that Ashley Walters is multi-talented and diverse, and with Actor, Director, and Musician all within his portfolio, it’s evident that he was born to become a household name. Even at the age of ten, Ashley had a passion for acting and made sure to showcase it to the world. Making his TV debut as Omar in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Walters began to make a name for himself, and then, later on, appeared as Andy in Grange Hill at the age of fourteen. Since then, Ashley has appeared in multiple TV shows and films, such as Bullet Boy, Sket, Sugarhouse, Hustle, and Cuffs to name a few. We can’t forget Ashley’s on-going influence within the music industry as rapper ‘Asher D’ which first began when he was thrown into the spotlight at the age of seventeen, becoming a member of the garage group ‘So Solid Crew’, the youngest member of the platinum-selling collective. ⁣

Nowadays, when someone mentions Ashley Walters, you think of him as the star of Netflix’s ‘Top Boy’ and Sky’s ‘Bulletproof’, and fans are being blessed as both of those shows will be returning to our screens this year.⁣

GRM caught up with Ashley Walters over Zoom to chat about the upcoming Bulletproof: South Africa arriving this month, his directorial debut: Boys, and what to expect from the new Top Boy season.

It’s been hard for most of us during the pandemic , and Ashley explains how the news of a lockdown last March almost caused him to have a breakdown, but then used exercise as an outlet for his stress: 

“Fitness helps with everything these days! Happy? fitness. Sad? fitness. Mediocre? fitness. I try not to let it be an addiction, more of something that levels me out and drives me forward. Fitness has been my go-to throughout the pandemic, it’s actually become a stronger passion of mine and I’ve learned a lot more about it. I spent the first two weeks of the lockdown not caring at all if I’m honest with you, and borderline breaking down from the insanity of the whole thing. There was an aspect of not understanding, but once I got into my routine again of healthy eating and training it started to become a bit clearer!”

Coming to our screens soon is a special of the highly successful Sky Original series Bulletproof titled Bulletproof: South Africa, and Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke have re-visited their roles as cop friends ‘Bishop and Pike.’ The show will be debuting this evening on Sky One and NOW TV, and it sees the pair taking a trip to South Africa, but things don’t go to plan as the duo end up working on a missing child case when they are meant to be taking a break.

“The fans can expect the same as what we do in our normal seasons, the same relationship between Bishop and Pike but in a different world, a world that’s not familiar to most of us. I feel like the minute you step out of the UK or even just London, and you take a show somewhere else, it just gives it that cinematic vibe. South Africa was amazing for us. We were there when it was at its hottest, it was the summer out there and the vibe was just crazy. Not a lot of people will know but the film industry over there is booming. There’s major talent out there from actors to behind the scenes people, we utilise all of that. People should expect a banger, another great season only shorter.”

Talented actors deliver believable performances either by becoming their character, or by creating chemistry with their co-star, and Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke clearly have a bromance on-screen throughout show. There are numerous horror stories about co-stars who couldn’t stand to be around each other offscreen, but Ashley describes how over time, Noel has become part of his family.

“Noel and I have known each other for so many years now, but not known each other, just known each other. I think nearly eighteen years or something like that, we worked together and then didn’t see each other for a long time. Incrementally over the years, we would cross paths and we would go up for the same jobs here and there and have spoken to each other and then didn’t want to speak to each other because of what other people were saying etc.

We had a really interesting conversation when fate put us together. I turned up at an award ceremony dinner and Noel’s name tag was next to mine, I don’t know whether someone did it on purpose. We had to sit together that whole night. I took the opportunity to ask him questions and we spoke about not talking to each other and why people like us in the industry don’t unite anymore or enough.”

“Then the natural conversation was that we should work together and then we started meeting up and it just went from there. When we got on set for season one of Bulletproof, that was the first time that we spent any considerable amount of time together. You know when you like someone, it just just happens and you don’t have to work on it. We just have so much jokes, man. Our friendship has spilt into our families knowing each other now, Noel’s kids call me uncle. Our relationship is really good man and obviously it’s what keeps the show alive. That’s what we take onto camera.”

In terms of straight white leads versus minority actors, leading roles in films are frequently cited as being unequal, and Ashley is determined to make the film industry a more diverse place. 

“I think it’s really important to have more black lead roles, male and female, but female 100%. There’s definitely been a drought when it comes to that within the industry but there are people trying to change that like Noel and I, other actors, other producers, writers, and networks as well.

I started to really realise the underrepresentation that is out there and the disparity, but it’s going to take a long time to fix. I think we’ve all seen through lockdown, what happened with George Floyd amongst other things; that a lot of racism has come to the forefront, that I didn’t even think existed anymore.”

“Actually, you know, it makes you realise how far we still have to go but I am definitely encouraged by the forward movement that’s happening. The connection and the unity between white, black, Asian, everyone right now, it’s amazing. Shows like Bulletproof where the two lead characters are black and the producers and creators are too is only going to help! It’s done so well how can anyone else be denied? If they come up with the right goods as well. I guess that’s what it boils down to, is people being taken on and supported because they’re good at what they do, not just because of the colour of their skin.”

In a short film written by newcomer Jerome Holder titled Boys Ashley Walters has made his directorial debut, and the film focuses on two best friends, Noah (Hector Abbott) and Lewis (Jude Chenchin) as they embark on a journey into manhood. Ashley felt so strongly about the portrayal of children and boys in the media and decided to demonstrate that they need to be guided in life and that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.

“The main aim of the short film BOYS was to show that family comes first and foremost. I loved the script. It was written by Jerome holder, an amazing writer, we work together quite closely. I love the script for many reasons as it brought back memories of my childhood, and tv shows that I used to watch growing up.

I get sick of representation of boys and kids you know, I think that we’re taking away childhood from a lot of people these days, through whatever form of media. Representation between the age groups of 15 and 16-year old kids, especially from the world that they’re from, is that they’re always out there robbing, stealing, shooting, and stabbing. That’s not the reality of the world that I see. I think sometimes it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for a lot of these kids. If we gave them the opportunity to just be boys, then they would just be boys, you know? We shouldn’t reprimand them for just being boys and I wanted to show that in this movie. Their exterior may be hard but deep down inside, they’re just kids trying to find their way and they need a little bit of time. They’re going to make mistakes and we have to guide them, guide them and get them there. Hopefully, this short film will be a reminder to the wider audience that not everyone you see in a hoodie is a bad guy.”

Since the mid-1990s, male suicides have consistently accounted for about three-quarters of all suicides in the UK, and Ashley feels that it’s super important that people talk about their feelings, especially men:

“I think trying to hide your emotions as a man starts at an early age, and in one of the scenes in BOYS you can see one of the characters trying to hide his emotions. Sometimes, hiding emotions can lead to major problems when you’re older. We all know that there is a high rate of suicide in males and specifically between the ages of 25 and up. You know, it’s important that we break down those barriers, I feel like sharing your problems with others, which is not a “manly thing to do” is important to stay alive. A Problem shared is a problem halved.

Dealing with trauma, with help and support from others, is the right way to go. As men, I feel like we’re taught to not cry, to be strong, to protect and to provide. Actually, I feel like part of being a man is being able to practice humility and to be humble at times. That doesn’t mean humiliate yourself, I think a lot of the young guys out there confuse the two.”

As Ashley has a huge influence within the creative arts industry, jumping between acting and rapping, it’s no surprise that Ashley wanted to pursue directing.

“I’ve always been interested in directing. I think my four-year-old son could direct, and he already is directing without knowing it, he’s doing it in a way that he knows what he wants to see in front of him, and that’s what directing is. It’s just about putting your vision out there.

If I asked you to ‘think of a boat’ your mind is already thinking what colour the boat is, if there is a person on the boat, you’re thinking what gender that person is straightaway, your mind is going to tell you that. That’s directing. It’s not the craziest thing in the world or the hardest thing in the world. I’ve always been having visions about how I want to see things at the end of the day, which has made me create. I guess it helps that I’ve got a lot of experience of being in front of the camera, but I’ll tell you this, getting behind the camera is a completely different world, it’s a lot more stress. There’s a lot more responsibility technically but I enjoyed it, I relish in it!”

Ashley made it clear that it was a journey, and he learnt along the way that things don’t always go to plan, but he learnt to adapt, especially within directing.

“There was going to be change but we just had to make sure it changed for the better. I hired every department that was involved, from costume to the camera department to lighting to set designers. I brought everyone in that I thought had the same vision or the right vision. I delegated and let everyone do their work and actually, you know, the film is 10 times better than it was in my mind. That’s the way it should be, that’s what happened with Top Boy, it’s what happened with Bulletproof. It’s meant to come off that page and live in a different world and it definitely did. I’m happy.”

Although Ashley has been acting since he was a child, it’s actually directing that he has begun to surprisingly favour.

“I prefer directing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to act! I bet my PR team are wishing I didn’t say that! I enjoyed it much more. I’ll tell you what it is, it’s that people watch actors and you guys only probably predominantly see the glamorous side of it, but actually it is a lot of waiting around and there’s not a lot of creative control over what you’re doing because you’re living someone else’s vision.

Just being able to have the chance to have the freedom to be in control of the vision that was in front of me, and how things were gonna look was such a refreshing experience. I really enjoyed it, and being a part of the post production process, the editing, and the colour grading, and all the other things that go into it just opened up a whole new world to me. So yeah, I definitely enjoy the process better, but that’s not to say that I don’t love acting, because I do.”

After emerging on Netflix after a six-year absence, thanks to Superfan Drake, Top Boy returned last year and Ashley Walters and Kano returned as Dushane and Sully, while Michael Ward, a newcomer, earned international recognition for his role as Jamie, the new kid on the block. Michael went on to win the 2020 BAFTA Rising Star Award. But, what is next for Top Boy?

“Everyone saw where it left off on season three, what we do on Top Boy really well is that we continue from where it left off, we’re not trying to fake the world, so it’s more of the same, but obviously, the tensions are higher! You left with Jamie in prison, Dushane back on top after that long slog and Sully questioning himself, his humanity. That’s kind of where we start off, you know, and the characters continue that trajectory. Obviously, as you know, nothing goes to plan. You know, so there’s loads of screwed up, real and snaky behaviour that happens that ends in madness. It’s bigger and better than before, and I know it’s obvious for me to say that, but genuinely it is! and people are going to be really pleased with it!” 

Bulletproof: South Africa and Boys air on Wednesday 20th January. BP:SA is on Sky One at 9pm and then Boys is on Sky Arts at 10pm – Both on Now TV