“‘We’re going to set you on fire! We’re going to throw you down the stairs! We’ve got to find the worst things we can do to you!’” Typically, when you’re the lead in a successful TV show people are nice to you. You get a bigger trailer. You get more assistants. You can be a bit demanding about your on-set snacks. Not so for Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù. After one series of Gangs Of London, the brutally violent drama in which he plays undercover copper Elliot, Dìrísù says everybody just wanted to hurt him more than last time.
“There was this thing in the stunt team of ‘How do we make it worse?’” he says. “Why?!” Because it’s fun, as the opening scenes of season two illustrates. We find Elliot battling his way through a laundrette full of people trying to kill him, culminating in a fight with an enormous bad guy, played by Žydrūnas ‘Big Z’ Savickas, four-time winner of World’s Strongest Man. “They threw the strongest man in the world at me!” laughs Dìrísù. “Literally. Several times.” At least he didn’t actually get set on fire.
Dìrísù partly brought this on himself. He’s a large part of why Gangs Of London was such a surprise success. Launching in April 2020, the show became Sky Atlantic’s second biggest original drama launch, with 2.23 million viewers (for comparison, the vastly more hyped House of the Dragon debuted with 3.78 million, so more than two million is a lot). Created by Gareth Evans, the director behind astonishing action movie The Raid, Gangs Of London tells the story of a war for power after Finn Wallace, the biggest gang boss in London, is murdered. Dìrísù’s Elliot is supposed to bring the Wallace family down, but a series of ill-advised decisions see him ensnared by the criminal world. At the end of season one, he’s off the force and being blackmailed by very shady crooks.
Gangs Of London is fun, fast-moving and a little silly, but it’s the fight scenes that set it apart. Evans brought the same imagination, impeccable choreography and gore he gave The Raid, producing stunt sequences better than you’ll find in most Hollywood movies. Dìrísù showed he was both a formidable dramatic actor and very handy in a brawl, loudly announcing himself as a leading man. It only makes sense to test the limits of what he can do.
In person, Dìrísù looks like he could probably cope if things got a bit nasty – but also doesn’t seem like he’d ever want to. More than six-foot tall and clearly no stranger to a gym, he’s a big guy but carries it lightly. He seems just a little shy. He listens to questions intently, brow furrowed, hands clasped in his lap, answering after a pause to think about it. He seems like what your mum might call a nicely brought up young man: polite, humble, respectful. Finding himself an action star is something of a surprise.
Dìrísù was born in Edgware, north London, and grew up in what was definitely not a showbiz household. “Both my parents are preachers,” he says. They’re both big supporters now but it was always hoped he’d get a ‘proper job’. Dìrísù initially thought the same, studying economics with the plan of being… something economy-y, but he never felt it was for him. “I was going down a path in my life that I wasn’t particularly satisfied with,” he says. He’d first considered acting as a child, when he was asked what he wanted to be when he was older. “Everything,” he says. “I didn’t want to have to choose.” It was at university that he realised he had to do it. He won a place in the National Youth Theatre, a prestigious theatre group that gives opportunities to young people without financial access to drama school. Former students include Daniel Craig, Kate Winslet and Daniel Day Lewis. “I came to London to [be in an NYT] production and it was a pivotal moment… I realised ‘I can do this’.”
“If you work hard you don’t know where it might take you”
There’s no big overnight success story for Dìrísù though, just hard work. He spent years on the stage – Coriolanus for The Royal Shakespeare Company, Cassius Clay in One Night In Miami at the Donmar Warehouse – and small roles in TV (Humans, Black Mirror) and film (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), edging his way to success. He remembers a Bible passage his parents taught him: “It’s in Proverbs and it’s something like, ‘A man’s talent will put him before kings’ [The exact quote is ‘A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men’]. It’s basically just to say that if you work hard you don’t know where it might take you.”
Since Gangs Of London he’s shown his range in some well-received indie movies, like the excellent horror-drama His House, in which he plays a Sudanese refugee haunted by something in his new London home, and Mr. Malcolm’s List, a fun spin on the Jane Austen romance template. In 2021, he was nominated for the BAFTA Rising Star Award. He’s done an impressive job of showing he can fit into any genre.
On Gangs Of London though, he’s not just fitting in – he’s carrying the thing. With a very high body count in season one, most of the bigger names in the series have now left. And there’s been change behind the camera too. Gareth Evans moved onto new things after season one, so season two is in the hands of Corin Hardy. Hardy directed four episodes of the first season, but he’s better known in the horror space, for films like The Conjuring spin-off The Nun.
“Ṣọpẹ’s a brilliant actor and a master of physicality,” says Hardy. “There are only certain people who could carry off what we do in Gangs.” He says he’s really putting the character through the ringer this season and not just in action terms. Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t finished season one, but season two finds Elliot working as a killer-for-hire for The Investors, the guys who control the gangs. “He’s not just this slick assassin,” says Hardy. “He’s not doing it because he loves it. He’s tired, he’s drinking, he’s messy. I wanted to put that in the action too, so it’s all a messy experience.” Lucky old Ṣọpẹ.
By his own admission, Dìrísù is “not a household name”, but he could very well be on that path. Given his rising action hero bonafides, his award-nominated credibility and his age (31), it seems inevitable that Dìrísù will be part of the conversation when it comes to rebooting the James Bond franchise. He can fight, act and he’s younger than most of the other credible possibilities, like Henry Golding (35), Henry Cavill (39), and Regé-Jean Page (34). Bond’s producers have already said the next Bond will be in his thirties and the 26th film won’t shoot until probably 2024, so forget Idris Elba (50), Tom Hiddleston (41) or Michael Fassbender (45). If the producers want someone who’s relatively little-known, i.e. not super-expensive, and could play the role for at least a decade, Dìrísù’s an obvious choice. We’re not the first ones to ask him about it and he answers like he’s making a humble pitch for the job, very ‘it’s an honour to even be nominated’.
“That’s not even a boyhood dream,” he says, meaning it’s something he wouldn’t have even considered a possibility. “I have such a strong affinity for that franchise. I’ve got a very deep connection with those films and my father. We used to sit down together and watch them at Christmas.” Good pitch tactic, throwing in the heartwarming dad stuff. “When No Time To Die came out, I wanted to take my dad to the premiere but wasn’t able to, so I made sure we had a family day out to see it. Bond is special to me.” He then adds a note of if not reservation, then awareness of what would be in store if he were cast. “It’s an honour that someone would even consider that I could play such a quintessentially British role, especially as a Black man.” he says. “There was a lot of racial bullshit around Idris’ consideration for the role. I like to think times are changing, but I don’t know if that’s true.”
“It took self-control not to respond to the nonsense about my participation in ‘Constantine”
Dìrísù has already had a taste of what could come with being a household name. In early 2021, HBO announced it was developing a new TV series based on Constantine, the DC comic book about a cynical detective solving supernatural crimes. In 2005, Constantine was adapted into a cult film starring Keanu Reeves. This version was to be produced by Star Wars director J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production studio. Dìrísù was rumoured to be in the frame to play the lead, which would be a huge career leap. He was never officially announced, but he made enough allusions to it on Twitter that many assumed it was a done deal. The project collapsed in September 2022, when HBO’s new owner, Cinemax, announced it was canning the show and instead, after 17 years, going ahead with a film sequel, again starring Reeves.
Dìrísù graciously responded to the news by tweeting a picture of Reeves with the caption “Give ‘em Hell, King”. He still didn’t fully acknowledge he was ever involved, but it was clearly some sort of goodbye to the opportunity. It must have been a devastating loss. Dìrísù exhales sharply. “I don’t know what my NDA (non-disclosure agreement) says, so I don’t know what I can and cannot say,” he says, carefully. “But I was never going to play that role.” He can’t say what he was in line for, but, surprisingly, he wasn’t going to play Constantine. “I don’t know why people thought I was going to. It was to the point where [so many people thought] I was going to [play him] it made me think, ‘Oh maybe I am!” If he was NDA’d he clearly had some involvement, so we ask how it felt when that big American opportunity disappeared. “It took a lot of self-control and I had to talk to therapists and talk to family and friends and partners. It was just, ‘This thing’s making me really upset’. It changed little by little.” It’s an understandable reaction, but has it made him hesitant about trying for big American projects again? “No, I would never not do something because someone said a Black man can’t do it.”
We’ve misunderstood. We thought Dìrísù was talking about the pain of losing a part. He actually means he needed therapy because of the level of racist abuse he got just for being rumoured for the part. “Oh no, actors don’t get jobs all the time!” he laughs when we explain. In the original comics, Constantine is a blonde, pale Liverpudlian (things you may notice do not describe Keanu Reeves). As soon as there was a whisper of Dìrísù playing him, the abuse started. “I had to mute the keyword ‘Constantine’ on Twitter and Instagram,” he says. “It took a lot of self-control for me to not react and respond to a lot of nonsense that was out there about the role and about my participation in it.” He tries to spin things back and say how thrilled he was that people would even think he could play the role, but it’s clear this has, understandably, shaken him. It’s a horrible reality of the industry and the fetid nature of social media that this will likely not be the last time he experiences abuse for getting a role. Dìrísù is of course fully aware.
“Unfortunately, those people may exist until the end of time,” he says. “But I’m really enthused by the industry response to that. Look at Lord Of The Rings and how production came out and supported its actors.” When Amazon launched its Lord Of The Rings prequel series, The Rings Of Power, it did so with a diverse cast. Some people were furious that this was not representative of J.R.R. Tolkien’s original writings, though of course they couldn’t explain what possible difference it made to the story. Amazon issued a statement in solidarity with its cast. The same happened on the recent Star Wars show Obi-Wan Kenobi, when people sent abuse to Moses Ingram. It’s been a busy year for idiotic racists with anonymous accounts.
He knows the trolls will likely always exist, but ultimately Dìrísù has to back himself and he does. “Nobody would be interested in me if I was terrible at this,” he says. Nobody would be talking about him for Bond if “I couldn’t run and I couldn’t fight and Gangs of London was terrible. Nobody would consider me, so I’ll take it as the highest compliment of my work so far.” When it comes to his own expectations of himself, his goals are modest. “Look, I got excited when someone made a Wikipedia page about me,” he laughs. “I couldn’t believe it! I just want to continue to be proud of my work. And keep working!”
There seems little doubt he’ll keep working. The attention of the weirdos sucks, but those are not the voices that matter. They’re just sad little people trying to shout down their own insecurities. The people that matter – the people who can turn him into the star he’s capable of being – are paying attention. The international big break will come. Nobody needs to set Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù on fire. Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù is already on fire.
‘Gangs Of London’ season two will be available on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW from October 20