Ashley Walters is relaxed. Sporting a smart black jumper, the 37-year-old rapper turned actor lounges on a squashy armchair in a corner of his suite at London’s Soho Hotel. Calm and collected, he has the air of a wise old hand who’s been through a lot over the years, but learned all the right lessons along the way. “I’m a strong believer in the darkest hour of the night being just before dawn”, he tells NME. “And when things seem really crazy and whatever, it’s forcing us to get to a better position.”
“I’m a strong believer in the darkest hour of the night being just before dawn”
Oddly prescient advice, given the current global atmosphere (thanks coronavirus), but Walters’ life hasn’t always been as straightforward as his words suggest. He first broke onto the scene during the early 2000s as Asher D in chart-topping UK garage collective So Solid Crew. However, the band broke up after just two albums and numerous controversies, including Walters’ own imprisonment for carrying a firearm in 2002. Soon after, he pivoted to acting – and is enjoying a new peak in his career as the star of Netflix’s inner-city drama Top Boy and Bulletproof – due to debut its second season tomorrow on Sky One.
First aired in 2018, the buddy cop series sees Walters’ Detective Ronnie Pike hunt down London’s most dangerous criminals alongside partner and best friend Aaron Bishop (Noel Clarke). In the first season that included drug dealers, armed robbers and human traffickers, one particular case almost cost Pike his career. Luckily, the combination of well-drawn characters and gritty action proved to be a hit. In fact, the show was so popular that it attracted Sky One’s biggest audience of the year – and landed a lucrative syndication deal in the US. More episodes were quickly green-lit, much to the pleasure of Bulletproof’s rapidly-growing fanbase.
Fronted by a pair of childhood pals, the show lives and dies by the chemistry of its two Black leads (still a rarity, especially for British TV) – and the friendship between Walters and Clarke is just as close off-screen as it is when the cameras are rolling. Naturally, it makes for a fun environment on set: “I suppose a lot of laughter comes from us trying out new material, improvising and whatever, but we’re quite close in that sense,” says Walters. “All we do is laugh.”
“‘Top Boy’ is a big part of my heart”
Born in Peckham, London, to Jamaican parents and raised by his mother, Walters used to be best known for his music. But he’s quick to remind NME that acting was his first love, having attended the capital’s prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School from the age of six. “I did my first screenplay which was called Storm Damage in 1999,” he says. “Then So Solid Crew kicked off a couple years later.”
Indeed they did. Walters was the youngest member of the group when their second single ‘21 Seconds’ reached number one in 2001. It went platinum and kicked off a string of top 10 hits in the UK, turning Lisa Maffia, Romeo, Asher D and the rest into youth icons. So why the sudden career change? Well, making acting his focus was more out of necessity than a love of the craft, says Walters.
“I had my gun charge and there was my prison moment,” he says. “On reflection, I came out and just felt like I wanted a safer journey and acting provided that for me.” It’s a decision that has led to a fruitful career on both the big and small screens, from early lead roles in indie dramas like Bullet Boy to big parts in current blockbuster TV series like Top Boy, perhaps Walters’ greatest triumph so far.
“I’ve been involved with it for what, 10 years now. And it’s a big part of me,” says Walters. “It has a big part of my heart. And I’m creatively involved in it a lot.”
Telling the story of rival drug gangs vying for control of east London, Top Boy’s authentic depiction of urban life struck a chord with viewers. Characters like Walters’ gang leader Dushane even became a cultural touchstone for Skepta and other British MCs. For a moment, it looked like Top Boy had ended prematurely when it was cancelled by original broadcaster Channel 4 in 2014, but its salvation came from the unlikeliest of places. An Instagram post by Drake lamented the series’ demise and kicked off a chain of events that led to the Canadian rapper joining forces with Netflix for a revival.
“We hang out when he’s here,” says Walters of the show’s famous benefactor. “But I don’t want people to sit there thinking I’ve got Drake on speed dial or anything because I don’t. He’s been hugely supportive about it and when he’s in London he makes an effort to take us to dinner and, you know, we go out and whatever. Essentially, he’s kind of happy with us taking the helm and just doing what we do best. He liked the show before he was involved with it, and what he wants to see as executive producer is the show that we’ve always tried to make.”
It’s unsurprising that Walters is grateful. The return of Top Boy marked a new high point in his career. After years of grinding out smaller acting successes, he started to get the attention he had long-deserved. Mini-interviews turned into magazine covers, supporting roles into dominant leads, and now, as he sits talking to us about one of the biggest TV shows in the world, Walters is magnanimous in victory. In fact, he’s also developed a need to advise and nurture the generation coming up behind.
Micheal Ward, who made his acting debut in the latest season of Top Boy – and went on to win this year’s BAFTA Rising Star award – is certainly a member of that new generation Walters is helping to mentor.
“We talk quite a bit actually. We talk on the phone. He’s on a journey at the moment. He’s young. But he’s winning,” says Walters of his younger co-star. “I suppose all I do is a slight big brother role and just make sure that he stays grounded because I know the pitfalls. And you know, the things that can [hurt] you at this stage in your career.”
“I’m a big fan of ‘Question Time’, but Brexit destroyed that show for me”
He adds: “I’ve never seen my acting as the main part of what I’m actually doing. It’s more about the other side of it, acting as an inspiration and being a walking inspiration. I physically don’t have to talk about it. But if I continue to do what I’m doing, I’m being what Will Smith and Morgan Freeman were to me coming through and you know, being that silent representation to someone else. You can achieve the same thing and I think that’s much more important than anything else in this job.”
Sadly, Ward has come up against similar roadblocks to Walters in his short career thus far. Fingers were pointed at So Solid Crew when there was an uptick in knife crime almost two decades ago. And while the specifics were different, Ward’s first film Blue Story was initially pulled from some UK cinemas last year for an unrelated incident of violence. A public outcry eventually caused that decision to be overturned.
“I feel like one bad egg shouldn’t spoil a person’s whole work,” says Walters. “We just have to be careful who we attach things to. There’s a lot more complicated reasons why things are happening and people are acting the way they are and it’s usually not to do with films or computer games or posters”.
Similarly, Bulletproof’s first season was unfairly scapegoated when self-professed activists papered over a poster of the show in which Walters and Clarke’s cops were pointing guns, claiming it was because the imagery was glamorising violence. “Obviously to us, it was quite disturbing to see,” says Walters. “Especially the fact that we’re police officers and, you know, there’s loads of other posters – whether it be James Bond or John Wick – that have images of men carrying firearms and don’t get the same response.”
It’s a rare political statement from Walters, who admits that he “hasn’t been paying enough attention” to the landscape in the UK lately, but Brexit did have a devastating unforeseen consequence. “My Question Time was destroyed by Brexit for several years. That upset me because I’m a big fan of that show,” he says. “At some point, we’re going to get back to a balance. But for now, we have to ride it”.
“I don’t think So Solid Crew will come back for a reunion album”
Thankfully, season two of Bulletproof hasn’t caused any controversy yet, but it will take its central duo to some new, interesting places. Specifically, Pike and Bishop will be going undercover when they return.
“Undercover Pike can be someone else that he’s not and it begins to explore the possibility of not being married and what would have happened if his life was different,” says Walters. “At the same time, Bishop is taken on a journey where he becomes really close with the head of this crime family, almost as a father figure. So there’s moments where you feel like ‘are they even undercover anymore?’”
Looking to the future, Walters is cagey on what’s next. Top Boy’s fourth season is scheduled to hit Netflix later this year (coronavirus permitting), but Walters is tight-lipped when asked what Dushane and co. will be getting up to when the show returns. However, he does tell us that “the storylines are going to become a bit more intricate and the plot is going to thicken.” Tantalising stuff when you consider the acclaimed programme already has a myriad of complex storylines and high-profile cast members (Dave and Little Simz are just two of the well-known musicians to feature).
And what about Bulletproof – are there more episodes in the pipeline? “We just make sure that we do the best we can with what we’ve got in front of us. And then the network decides whether it happens,” says Walters. “But fingers crossed, man, we love the show. We love making it.”
On the music side of things, Walters still has a lot of love for his former collective. Just don’t expect a reunion anytime soon. “I go to a lot of events with So Solid so I see them all the time, and a lot of the guys still gig week in and week out around the UK,” he says. “I don’t think we’ll come back for a reunion album, but there’s enough demand for So Solid nostalgia that’s going around”.
Walters’ journey is all the more impressive when you realise that he’s done it while remaining in the UK, while many of his counterparts have journeyed abroad in search of fame. Though initially he was given the same opportunities as everyone else, he’s now at a point where he’s creatively involved in all of his projects and can control his own destiny.
“I feel like I can go to America anytime”, he says. “But I also feel that, you know, we’ve always been a place that follows the American business model, which follows the American style of marketing. I think we have to make sure that we have our own identity here. You can watch a film in America that’s set in the Bronx in New York, and that becomes an international movie around the world. Whereas if I made a film here that was about Peckham, the buyers and sellers will probably say it’s not international enough. And I’ve always wondered why that is.”
Still, it feels like international success is well within Walters’ grasp. Whether it’s another substantial role in a homegrown movie or joining the biggest franchises in Hollywood – “if Marvel call, I might jump on the plane” – his decades-spanning CV is undeniable.
“My position with the whole American thing is that I would prefer to go out there when they want me rather than go out there with my hands out looking for work,” says Walters. “I think I’m kind of nearing that position now.” Not bad for a boy from Peckham.
‘Bulletproof’ season two arrives on Sky One on March 20