After his stand-out stint in this summer’s ultra-violent gangster thriller Gangs of London, Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù is back to blow your mind again, this time in Netflix horror and searing social commentary, His House. Director Remi Weekes’ feature debut, the film blew away Sundance at the start of 2020 and is a harrowing, all-too-topical take on a pair of Sudanese refugees who end up in the UK to find terror at every turn. We spoke to stage and screen pro Dìrísù about the legacy of his idol Chadwick Boseman, his south London jazz pals and discover where Peckana is…
Have you had the chance to start filming any new movies since lockdown?
“I’m really lucky and blessed to be about to start on my next project. I had something to look forward to, which definitely kept me sane through the lockdown period! It’s a film with [director] Eva Husson and it’s called Mothering Sunday with Olivia Colman, Colin Firth and Josh O’Connor. It’s a period drama set in the 1920s and 1940s and is just a presentation of life; there are moments of comedy in it and moments of really deep emotion.”
What drew you to ‘His House’ – it seems very timely…
“Yeah and it’s been timely for a while. Similar to the current iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement, migration is something that’s been happening for centuries. It’s not a new story, people crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life. When we talk about British people who have gone to Spain we call them ex-pats, but when we talk about people who have come from the third world to Britain we call them immigrants. I think there’s a lot of wilful ignorance. I’m really proud to be part of a production that is addressing something so prescient.”
A second season of ‘Gangs of London’ has been confirmed. When do you start working on it?
“I think they wanted to begin at the end of this year, but COVID has definitely gotten in the way. I think now they’re hoping to start in the spring of next year for a 2022 release, but don’t quote me on that! Production don’t tell you a lot of stuff.”
Before that happens, we’ll hear you as a voice actor in the next season of ‘His Dark Materials’. What can you tell us about your role as Sergi?
“Sergi is Ruta Skadi’s daemon and Ruta is played by Jade Anouka. Those books meant so much to me and my friends growing up. The first play I ever saw was a production of His Dark Materials at the National Theatre. I don’t even think I was 10 years old yet. Also I remember watching the first series and being totally gripped. For me, it’s like Harry Potter for this generation of actors across all ages in the UK – a little bit of a who’s who. I was really, really honoured when they asked me to come and be a part of this world.”
Not that long ago you took part in a live version of the first episode of iconic British sitcom ‘Desmond’s’ to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary at Theatre Peckham. Do you remember watching it as a kid?
“Absolutely. One of the things I was really proud of playing the role of Matthew is that early on, he was one of the few really positive depictions of Black people in the UK. He was this scholarly man and super well educated and always coming out with these African sayings. I remember growing up watching Desmond’s and laughing about how ridiculous they were and how close to home they were as well, because my dad is one of those characters – he’s always got a saying for everything. It’s definitely been part of the fabric of Black British culture from the moment that it was incepted. Even if I watch back episodes now, there’s still so much that is relatable about it.”
You also played Cassius Clay in the stage version of ‘One Night in Miami’, the film version of which comes out later this year. What’s it like playing such a well-known figure?
“Portraying a man of such international renown and importance was always going to be a massively difficult task. I was the first person to portray him straight after his death, so I felt the weight of responsibility from that from the moment they cast me. He’s so recognisable as a character, his mannerisms and everything, and as an actor, it was an incredible challenge, but rather than it being scary, it made me double down and do my best work.”
Are you excited about seeing the film version?
“Super excited. From doing that show, Kemp Powers, the writer of the play and screenplay, became a very good friend of mine. He was so excited that the story would leave the hotel room and go a bit before and a bit after. All four of these men were titans in the room right: Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Cassius Clay. He said it was like the meeting of the Black Avengers.”
I saw you visited the Motown studios in Detroit last year…
“My family were in Michigan for my cousin’s wedding and we had to make sure we got to Motown before we left. There aren’t many songs in the Motown library that I haven’t heard hundreds of times. I could sing most of them to you! It was almost like a spiritual pilgrimage to go and stand in those rooms that those iconic albums were recorded. It was also incredible to see how this Black-owned business started from scratch, from being in one room in a house to almost owning the whole street. That was super inspiring.”
What are you listening to right now?
“I really love Burna Boy, he’s an incredible artist, especially last year’s ‘African Giant’ album. I think he really caught the minds and hearts of the diaspora. I also really love Poppy Ajudha and Ezra Collective and Nubya Garcia. That south London jazz scene is incredible and I’m really glad that people who I consider my friends are doing so well.”
Talking of south London, there’s some great pictures on your Instagram of you going to see ‘Black Panther’ at Peckhamplex cinema a couple of years ago. What does that film mean to you?
View this post on Instagram
The Wakandan Embassy in Peckham. . #PECKANDA 🔥🔥🔥 . The love and spirit in that cinema even before the movie had started was incredible. We shut down the whole thing 😱😱😱. What a motive. So much love and respect to everyone in that room. And thank you to @blackpanther for bringing us all together. . #WakandaForever ✊🏾🙅🏾♂️✊🏾
“We dubbed it ‘Peckanda’ – a cross between Peckham and Wakanda! It was the Wakandan Embassy in London. The death of Chadwick has hit me hard, it’s hit the Black community hard and Black Panther is a massive part of that. There are very few Black people in the world who don’t know who that man is because of what he and Ryan Coogler and Marvel Studios created. The Afrofuturism is a promise of things to come – it fills the whole community with hope and gave us something on screen to celebrate – Black people who have no history of colonisation and no history of subjugation who are able to look to the future and be empowered in their Blackness. It was massive for all of us. That’s why we organised this screening for all of the Black British acting community in London.”
Did you ever meet Chadwick?
“I never got to meet him unfortunately, but he was a man who I looked up to. It wasn’t just Black Panther, he was able to really embody the Black American experience, playing such incredible roles and people who were so instrumental in the progression of Black people throughout America; from Thurgood Marshall to Jackie Robinson and James Brown. You’re really lucky if you get one great biopic, but he had three! He was an incredible talent and he’s been inspiring me for years and I hope that his legacy continues to inspire me for years to come.”