Perhaps appropriately, Gangs of London‘s Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù is on the line with us from London, speaking in our phone interview about the incredible series that took an entire country by storm during lockdown. Now that the Gareth Evans-created series is ready to make an impact on North American viewing audiences, we looked to get the scoop from the star himself, who participates in a pair of unbelievable action sequences in the gritty and compelling series.
Unsurprisingly, Dìrísù has many projects coming up after Gangs of London, including Netflix’s upcoming heavily buzzed about horror movie His House, along with so many other projects that one was announced that week and then another in the days that followed. Surely we are going to be seeing the talented and versatile Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù EVERYWHERE, so be sure to highlight the name and look out for him to become a household name in the next year, (and if you have taken in his theatre work, we are extremely envious).
The following is an edited and condensed version of our cool chat with the formidable Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù of Gangs of London.
Brief Take: Hi, Ṣọpẹ! How much preparation did you undergo to be in fighting shape for this incredible series?
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù: Well, I suppose that you never really know for what you are signing up until you start doing it. You’re like: “Oh, this is what they meant”. I did beforehand watch a couple of Gareth (Evans)’ movies, and I remember being like: “Woah! Oh! Ugh!” being all through in it, the whole time. And that was as a viewer. So to be making things that were like this job, yeah, I don’t think that what you are going to do that you can prepare yourself for.
But with that said, it was a lot more fun than it looked, maybe. We had such a great rapport on set, in terms of the cast and the crew, that I was always eager to get back into work. I was always desperate to get back on to set and be working with the people. Thankfully, it wasn’t as stressful as it looked.
BT: When you are in a role such as this one, how did you bring your physicality from your previous work and from your background as a footballer?
ṢD: Well, I suppose that every role is its own thing and given circumstances or the environment, the characters are always operating vastly differently. But I suppose when I was playing Coriolanus at the Royal Shakespeare Company, his physicality as a soldier was really important to me. It was good to have the shorthand of “this is what I want to try and achieve” and this is how I think…well, I suppose it’s different because he would have been the soldier with a sword and shield as opposed to a soldier with an automatic rifle. But there is this mentality that is shared between characters like Coriolanus, or police officers like the one I played in the BBC (Three) Drama Five by Five, that awareness of danger and awareness of what is surrounding, because you make sure that you’re not surprised by anything. I think that there is a through line in my characters for that, but obviously like I said, the circumstances in which they are operating are vastly different. And that I think that I was able to carry over heaviness of someone who has been in battle, from one job to another.
BT: What has your stage work, such as participating in One Night in Miami and Death of a Salesman and Coriolanus, brought to your work in film and television?
ṢD: It’s super important to me. If I could choose my career, I would do a play every year. I think that as much as I like working in tv and film, you can’t beat the immediacy of the audience’s engagement and reaction when you’re doing that with theatre. And also the discipline of not being able to stop and say: “Ugh, can we do that again? Yeah”. And if something changes in front of you, you have to respond to that. You have to be alive and in the moment, so if someone wants to try out something or be different today, I find it difficult when you are working with some people who are like: “Oh, that’s not how we rehearsed it, can we…? And there’s a bit of panic”. That…I feel like theatre is so alive. And that’s what I enjoy is you do all the work and you’ve created this character and now that character’s alive. Watch them live. I love theatre and I would never want to give that up. I know that scheduling isn’t always in your favour.
BT: How did you feel when this show aired in the U.K. and was really popular and how will you feel when a North American audience watches it as well?
ṢD: It’s interesting. Being locked down as the series was coming out was a completely different way of experiencing the success of a show. Normally, you would be able to feel it on the streets, you’d see the marketing on billboards, etc. And people would come up to you and be like: “Oh my God. Are you in the thing I’m watching right now?”. But it wasn’t so much of that. I was able to share it with my family, though, we sort of binged it in two sittings. We did 1-5 the first night and then 6-9 the last night. And for me it was really their responses that meant the most. Watching my Dad be really engaged and watching my Dad be scared for me, that is when I knew that the storytelling that we were trying to get, we had achieved. And I suppose I came off Twitter a year, maybe two years ago. I’m still on Instagram, I still get a lot of love social media-wise from that, but it’s like I try not to engage with it too much. Because…it’s not really the work. I’m desperate for everyone to enjoy it and I worked really hard on it, so it’s great to know that people are really appreciating it, but it’s also like you really want to internally be proud of the work that you have done and not by swayed by—because there are lots of positive reviews, but I’m sure there are a couple out there that are negative and that can really knock you if you don’t guard yourself very well. It will be interesting to see how the American response will be in this way.
BT: There’s an intensity present throughout the show, not just in the fight scenes but in the love scenes but also the gang warfare. What is it like to do these violent and yet quite integrated within the plot scenes?
ṢD: Just to reiterate, I do think that, yes, it is violent and without the violence, you’re kind of watching Chess of London, rather than Gangs, or you’re watching The Politics of London, rather than the full experience of what the London underworld looks like that we have created. And Gareth (Evans) said: “Hey, if it’s not for you, feel free to turn it off”. [laughs] Whereas I took the stance more that if you are worried about that and that is going to prevent you from watching it, then you are missing out on a lot more than the show has to offer. Because there is an intensity like you said in the love scenes, a lot of the dialogue, the machinations are fascinating. I think that someone compared it to Game of Thrones and the political vying of power. But I had a lot of fun making those fight scenes! Like you said, you heard I played a lot of football, American football when I was younger, I did a lot of contact sports, Karate and Judo when I was younger, so the opportunity to use my body physically and actively in my storytelling was something that I really relished. And when I was younger, there was always this conflict between: “Oh, am I going to do sport or am I going to do acting and creative stuff”, it was either Drama or athletics. This was going to be an opportunity to do the two together, it’s really a blessing for me.
BT: What do you enjoy most about working with Joe Cole as a scene partner?
ṢD: So what’s really great about Joe is that we knew each other before we started. We never worked before together but we were both members of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, so we had mutual friends and we’d crossed paths before, we knew each other well enough to say hello. So we knew that when it came to rehearsing and performing, I had an idea of his background, he came from the same places I did, so I really trusted him. I was just like: “Hey, man. You do what you need to do and I’ll do what I need to do and we’ll see how it lands”. When he was pressing that gun into the back of my head, I didn’t ever think that “Ah, he’s pushing too far”, I was like: “This is great, he’s giving me exactly what I need for my performance and I’m going to give you what you need”, I really felt like we were wrestling the best performances out of each other in that scene and all the scenes that we shared. It’s actually funny because although we’re one and two on the call sheet, we don’t actually get to spend much time on the whole series together, which is a shame. But I really, really enjoyed working with him for sure.
BT: How do you feel that you have built this incredible world?
ṢD: I’m super proud of the work that we did, for sure, in creating this sub-world of London and also reflecting the honesty and truth of the city. One of my favourite parts of the job was shooting literally all over London. People would ask me: “Ah, where’s the set or where were you working?” And I was like: “Last time we were in Northeast London, today we were in Southwest London, we were in Central London for a couple of days last week” and we really do traverse the whole city and I think that we represent it quite well. It really does feature as a character in the series and also the diversity that you see on screen is representative of London. You walk down a street in London, I think Gareth has said it many times, and you can hear about seven more different languages being spoken. And so I feel like it was really important and I feel like it was great for me to be part of the series, a contemporary series, that is honest about that. You don’t have two people from the same background that are not English speaking English to each other because they wouldn’t do that in real life. With Parasite winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, I really hope that as a consumer, as an audience, we’ve really turned the corner with our relationship with subtitles and that we continue to push those boundaries with Gangs.
BT: You have a lot of projects upcoming. What is the status on those?
ṢD: Silent Night we’ve done our post-production on that and we’re hoping for a release later this year, I can’t confirm that just yet. His Dark Materials I think we’ve shot as well and that will be hopefully coming out later this year as well. Mr. Malcolm’s List, which is another project for which I’m super excited, I think that we’re hopefully going into production on that at the beginning of next year, is that plan. That was just announced with Constance (Wu) and Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Sam Heughan, (and since this interview, was announced for Mothering Sunday, with Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Josh O’Connor).
BT: Did you envision that you would have this incredible run of projects?
ṢD: [laughs] Yeah, I definitely didn’t envision it. I don’t take anything for granted, I know that it’s not all on my own power. I definitely worked very hard, but I’ve been super blessed as well to have certain opportunities come at certain times. You can’t always fashion opportunities for yourself but you have to try your best to try to take them when they come and I hope that I have done that and I will continue to do that, but I will remain grateful for all of these incredible projects and also the people behind them who put their faith in me. I want to keep working hard and keep earning my stripes, I never want to feel like I’ve arrived anywhere. I think that Ian McKellen said that the definition of success is that you carry on working as an actor, it’s not necessarily important that you go off and win an Academy Award or you’re performing in films, it’s that if you have a job to which to do next, then you are a successful actor. I think that is a mantra that I have kept with me.
BT: Do you have mentors and people that have led you in the industry?
ṢD: In this moment, it would be remiss of me not to speak on Chadwick (Boseman). Because not only was his role as T’Challa in Black Panther incredible for Black people all over the world to see themselves as superheroes, he gave that to us and he embodied that regality that is often not associated with being Black. It just gave us all something to hope for and to look forward to. But also the quality of his work across his whole career has been super inspiring for me. He’s done an excellent job in film, television, embodying the Black experience in all of its guise, especially in America, from playing Thurgood Marshall to Jackie Robinson, James Brown, I’ve definitely looked up to him and I would love to emulate his body of work and how hard he worked in every single role. He’s undoubtedly someone to whom I have looked up. Denzel Washington as well for sure, growing up in my household he was my Mum’s favourite actor and all of my friends call me [laughs] Denzel in training, because he was also an incredible pillar of a man, in terms of his career and the quality of his work. I didn’t know how good he was until I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I was always watching his films. I was watching his films for as long as I can remember that I was watching films. Those two men are definitely role models for me in the industry. Also, Chiwetel Ejiofor, our paths are quite similar. We’re represented by the same agent, we’re both in National Youth Theatre, we’re both the children of Nigerian immigrants. My Dad actually asked me to reach out to him and be like: “Hey, can you be my mentor?” But I told him that it’s not really how it works. [laughs] But I’ve met him a couple of times and he went to see me in a play once, when I was in The Brothers Size at The Young Vic, and knowing that he was in the room was really heartening to me, that he had come to see my work. He’s definitely someone that I look up to as well.
BT: Why do you think Gangs of London and His House tie together so well?
ṢD: Well, I think one of the clear themes between the two is immigration or displacement. I think that a lot of the families that exist in Gangs of London are not native to the British Isles or to England, a lot of them have come from somewhere else, be that somewhere as close as Ireland, or as far as Kurdistan. I say Kurdistan and I know that it’s not a recognized country, it’s an area fighting for its own independence. But people have travelled from all over the world to come to London or to come to England and there are struggles that you face with that and there’s a path that you have to chart for yourself, you have to carve out your own space. And I think that for a lot of…well, definitely in the major cities, the country and the city is welcome to that, come and join us and make your fortune in the great city and be a part of this community. But I suppose that in His House, there is not always this willingness to accept outsiders. I think we see in Gangs of London, the characters of Ed (Lucian Msamati) and Finn (Colm Meaney), who have carved this space out in this new land. And we see Bol and Rial (in His House) trying to do the same and not necessarily being as successful. But a lot of it is a lot to do what you are willing to do to make a new home. I think that in Gangs of London, there’s a lot of exploration of the criminal aspect of that, what lengths you are willing to go to create a new and bright future for your family, and I think Bol is doing something very similar, not as criminal and not as successful [chuckles] in His House.
Gangs of London season 1 is now available on AMC+. His House begins streaming on Netflix on October 30.