AN INTERVIEW WITH ASHLEY WATERS, STAR OF ‘OFF THE ENDZ’
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Monday, February 01, 2010.
Ashley Walters is much more than his reputation may suggest. Although he’s seen both sides of the social divide - spending time in prison for a firearms related offence in the early part of the last decade - he has never allowed that experience to restrict the range of his work. His CV includes grime MC, star of So Solid Crew, as well as accomplished stage and screen actor, music producer and manager - he runs his own independent music label and production company, AD82 Productions.
You probably saw him recently featured in the BBC’s acclaimed adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island. It’s a talent that will be on display as he prepares for Bola Agbaje’s latest work Off the Endz.
Born and raised in south London, Walters - after attending the Sylvia Young Theatre School - was soon featuring in Brit TV staples Grange Hill, and ITV’s The Bill, as well as the BBC film Storm Damage. After the influential Saul Dibb's film Bullet Boy, in 2004, for which he won a British Independent Film Award for best newcomer, he landed roles in the Hollywood biopic Get Rich Or Die Tryin', based on rapper 50 Cent's life, grime flick Life and Lyrics and Sugarhouse, playing a crack addict. He’s also starred in the BBC series Hustle, and played a bank robber in Sacha Bennett's low-budget crime caper movie Tuesday.
The 28 year old Walters, is not worried about being typecast in his upcoming role at The Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Currently in rehearsals, the award-winning actor plays a streetwise and ambitious hustler prepared to do anything to grab his slice of the riches this society has to offer. It’s a mirage-like wealth, tauntingly displayed, but restricted to very few - a paradox which is a theme of Agbaje’s second play for the theatre.
The versatile actor, who has also been an ambassador for the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, is well aware of the contradiction:
“This is about two different sides of the system. I have seen both sides. Basically what this play is saying is: ‘stick to the path you are on’. I am about inspiring other Black youths to do well. If I can play it well people will see what I’m trying to say. It may on the surface seem as if Asher’s just playing another Road Man; [but] what I’m trying to do is show the other side - that no one should be in.”
This sentiment is reflected in his experience giving motivational talks to young people, with Bullet Boy being used in schools to show how unglamorous carrying weapons actually is.
Although many performers have broken the barrier to play classic and serious roles - especially on stage - one of the longstanding problems faced by Black actors in Britain is the limited nature of the parts offered; thugs, drug-pushers, crack addicts and police informers always seem to be played by often well trained and experienced these actors. Looking at the range of his own work, it could be said that this is a problem Walters has also encountered.
Candidly describing how he selects the parts offered to him he explains: “When things like this come in we [his Management Team] all sit down and ask ourselves ‘is this the path [we want to be on]?’ We have spent the past three years trying to diversify, to do different things from what I’m usually known for doing - to avoid being typecast. We saw this initially as something I shouldn’t do. [But] I went deeper and said I reckon we should, even though its maybe one of the samey type of roles. It’s a deep subject, and I try and make sure there is something [morally] so people are walking way with something. I think you can definitely find that in this play.”
Agbaje’s debut play Gone Too Far, was performed at the Royal Court in 2007, as part of the Theatre’s Young Writers Festival, and won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement, and was also nominated for Most Promising Playwright at the Evening Standard Awards. Her other work includes If Things Were Different, In Time, Anything You Can Do for the Soho Theatre and most recently Detaining Justice, one of The Tricycle Theatre’s Not Just Black and White season.
Although Walters knows the playwright and is familiar with Agbaje’s work – with both sharing a south London heritage – he has never performed in any of her plays. He is clearly excited now to be achieving that ambition.
“I was always saying to her: 'you need to get me in something.' She’s such a good writer and very well respected - what she does well is the way her writing connects with the audience. The way people write for theatre, they water a lot of stuff down; I feel like a lot of the realism is watered down and I don’t see why we have to do that for the stage. Bola manages to make it realistic and to capture the dialogue.”
Walters' first big stage role was in the National Theatre’s Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, in 2004 - a play about football and racial tension. This was followed in 2008 by Oxford Street, a Royal Court drama about underpaid workers in London's West End. He also performed to acclaim in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In The Red and Brown Water, at The Young Vic in London. Walters is clearly relishing the opportunity to get back to a familiar venue.
“This is my second time here at Royal Court; the whole Jerwood experience is different from being upstairs; [it’s] a more intimate space. It’s going to be amazing. I am looking forward to it.”
Whilst the married father of three has achieved success in different arenas, he has a special love for film and cinema.
“Basically I am in love with the cinema - but I get a huge buzz from being on stage. There’s no doubt about it. I think because it’s very similar to my music; that instant gratification from the crowd being there in front of you. As much as you are doing the same play, things change, [and] you have to roll with it. The whole buzz is amazing.”
For the rest of the year, Walters expects to be pursuing his movie-making ambitions. He’s currently working closely with Noel Clarke of Adulthood and Kidulthood fame on a proposed film project; and expects to be in Los Angeles later in 2010. He’s seen the success of his peers such as Idris Elba, Lennie James, Chewitel Ejiofor and Adrian Lester - all of whom have found success – as well as more challenging roles - and wants to take a crack at the Hollywood Dream.
“I‘ve got an agent out there and I am good friends with Idris [Elba]; we’re talking about stuff. I wanna get out there and see what can happen [because] when you don’t do it - you think ‘what if?’”
Although, he’d never met his co-stars Lorraine Burroughs [Fabulation, The Mountaintop] and Daniel Francis [The Brothers Size, The Hounding of David Oluwale] before taking on this latest role he is focussed on the gruelling rehearsal process. As for now this street-wise, confident and emerging star is focussed on preparing for Off The Endz.
“I had a nightmare that on my first night I couldn’t remember my lines when I first went out. I actually woke up with a smile because I realised I’m going to have to be on my toes.”
Off the Endz
by Bola Agbaje
Jerwood theatre Downstairs
Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square
020 7656 5000 or online at www.royalcourttheatre.com
19 February - 13 March