As obvious candidates to play badman London gangsters go, they don’t come much less likely than Micheal Ward. His qualifications for portraying characters who are caught up in the worlds of drugs, violence and brutal turf wars? Let’s just say that they don’t exactly stem from gritty personal experience.
“I was too scared to go to those parts of London when I was growing up!”, he chuckles, of his Romford-based youth. “Especially back then – you knew south London wasn’t the place to be. I just didn’t wanna go there. Same with Hackney. Not for me.”
In person, Ward is a boundlessly upbeat and friendly character. He’s so grateful and enthusiastic for the life he’s currently leading that he’s been known to be found at photo shoots, un-starrily mucking in with a garment steamer to de-crease clothes. ‘It’s like everything is falling into place. Life is just a blessing in general!’ he says.
But onscreen he ventures into territory that he didn’t dare to explore as a youth. His latest starring role in Brit-flick Blue Story sees him play a happy-go-lucky Peckham teen drawn into the world of south London gang rivalries – a turn so powerful that you could rig him up to the National Grid as an alternative to fossil fuels. When he’s forced to utter a death threat to a friend, his eyes pool hot tears of despair, his words full of hate, his face melancholy. As the victim of a midnight police raid, he’s all frisbee-sized eyes, skull attempting to retract into torso as he shrinks back in terror – so convincingly petrified that he could be playing the unfortunate victim of a Saw remake. It’s impossible to watch and not be struck by how much of a raw acting talent Ward is. And his presence on our screens is all thanks to one man: William Shakespeare.
“The thing that made me want to be an actor was Macbeth”, explains Ward. “We did a modern version at school and I was playing Macduff. It just really sparked something in me: I loved it!”
Again, not quite the start you’d imagine to an acting career that’s seen him specialise in inner-city gangsters. “I know, but it was at school. It’s just the standard thing the teachers make you do, innit?”
EXCLUSIVE FIRST LOOK: @onlymikes_ (Micheal Ward) stars alongside @StevieGambles (Stephen Odubola) in #BlueStory – a hard-hitting London-set crime drama about two friends who become rivals in a postcode war @ParamountUK pic.twitter.com/HqYTWkbfZV
— NME (@NME) October 30, 2019
And so he enrolled in college to study performing arts, via a brief stint following a youthful dream of being a footballer (“I supported Arsenal and hoped I’d end up playing for them. But life doesn’t always work out quite how you think it will.”). His big break came when he won a competition to be the face of JD Sports and ended up modelling sportswear for a living, aged only 17 years old (“It was insane. I just felt proper young and I was there with all these guys around me who were like six foot plus, crazy tall. I literally felt like a kid.”) From there, he signed with an agent, told them that his ideal gig was to appear in the remake of Top Boy – only to be signed up alongside Kano and Ashley Walters to play Jamie, one of the main characters in the Netflix reboot of the show.
“Top Boy was my dream role,” says Ward of the show that he and his friends fell in love with, spending days of school feverishly eulogising the previous night’s episode. “I spent eight months filming it and then on the last day of filming, when I realised it was all over, I just started crying. The emotion came over me, I was so proud of what we’d made, of myself, and knowing that my family – and the world – were about to see what I’d just done.”
And the world saw it in spectacular fashion. For a few weeks last summer, drivers on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip were treated to a gigantic billboard featuring Ward’s face. He was featured in press across the globe and it’s led to him being so internationally in-demand that he’s currently out shooting in New York (exactly what he’s shooting, he won’t say).
And to top it off, he’s discovered an army of US celebrity fans; mostly hip-hop royalty. “I’ve met people in the States that are legends, just literal legends and they know who I am from my work,” he smiles. “I’ve met Busta Rhymes, Fabolous and Tory Lanez and they all recognised me, man. I never, ever thought that’d happen!”
It’s certainly a far cry from his earlier brushes with fame. In his youth, Ward’s aunt owned a Caribbean restaurant in Chadwell Heath, east London. At one point, a stint helping out with deliveries saw him transport food to the mother of someone he’d go on to co-star with (“After delivering it, I found out I’d just met Kano’s mum”).
A role as an extra in the video for Lily Allen and Giggs’ ‘Trigger Bang’ didn’t see him meet either of the co-stars, but Giggs would later go on to express his love of Ward’s work via social media: “I showed him a photo on Instagram that I took with him when he came into my auntie’s restaurant”. In 2014 he DM-ed Top Boy star Ashley Walters pleading for a chance to audition in the show, but never received a response. “Everything’s changed now,” smiles Ward. “I just feel like I’m getting to meet all of my heroes.”
But for all the success that Top Boy has brought Ward, it nearly stopped him from appearing in Blue Story. “Initially, I wasn’t going to do it”, says Ward, given that the chance to audition came about after he’d started work on Top Boy and signed a contract that promised exclusivity to the Netflix show. “But I love [director] Rapman’s work and when I read the script, I realised that this story was going to be important – that it was going to be big, not just for my culture, but for the whole country.”
The audition saw Ward captivate Rapman – the upcoming urban director cum MC whose penchant for adding rap-based narratives to his on-screen dramas has seen him signed by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. This is despite being too dark-skinned to meet the casting brief (of which the director has previously said: “I looked at him and thought ‘This guy’s darker than me! What are [they] doing bringing this guy in here?’ [Then he] auditioned and he blew me away.”)
But due to his Top Boy contract, permission was refused for Ward to appear in the film until his agent wrote an impassioned letter to Netflix and the production company behind the TV series, thanks to his belief that this film’s portrayal of London’s postcode war problem was going to make it a hugely culturally significant moment. “I told my agent that I just had to be part of this film,” says Ward.
Like Top Boy, Blue Story is based around the estates of London, looking at the effects that the drug gangs have on the lives of teens growing up there. Both projects tell these stories with pathos and heart, really hammering home the emotional reality of how people are driven into these lives, depicting the characters’ humanity and the tragedy that they and their families find themselves embroiled in.
In Blue Story, we see two best friends from different postcodes, Marco (Ward) and Timmy fall out as the gang rivalry between their areas comes between them, eventually plunging them into a life of crime. For Ward, it’s important to raise awareness of these issues on-screen (“We need to lessen the amount of knife crime, because it’s not good, man. We need to show people that side of life to get the situation dealt with.”). But there’s another important reason for giving these stories a larger platform – particularly in this manner.
“We’re not glorifying anything,” says Ward. “We’re just showing people the way it is – showing the mental health implications, how this life pushes some people to suicide. I’m hoping that when people from that world go and see that on the big screen, they realise that what they’re doing on the street is just pointless.”
As more film and TV projects focus on inner-city estates, there are more opportunities for actors from the world that they depict. Top Boy star and Mercury Prize winner Dave has talked about how for youngsters growing up in these worlds, “Acting doesn’t feel like a real thing – until you see people breaking down barriers.” Is this part of Ward’s motivation for taking on projects like this?
“Absolutely. That’s the way you stop knife crime – by creating more opportunities,” enthuses Ward. “I’m not just talking about acting. There’s lighting, directing, writing – on a recent project we had to recruit more assistant directors – people don’t even know that’s a job. So the fact that we’re showing things like that are available to people like us, it’s only going to get better.”
Next on Ward’s agenda is expanding his career in the USA (“it’s one thousand percent what I’m aiming at”). Thanks to stars like Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright and John Boyega, there are growing opportunities for British BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) stars across the Atlantic. “Now people wanna know what the UK has to offer”, says Ward. “Am I gonna move to Hollywood? Who knows, man. I’m hoping we’ll get confirmation of Top Boy series four soon. But other than that, who knows what the future holds?”
If you wanted a summary of where Ward’s life is at right now, you could do worse than turn to Blue Story. At one point, two teens lament a lack of role models to show that a successful entertainment career is a possibility, until they think of Maya Jama, Stormzy and John Boyega. Post-Top Boy and with Blue Story posters currently shooting up across the country, you’d suspect that, in real life, Ward is the name that would come to those youngsters’ lips.
“Yeah, I feel like I’m paving the way. I’m not saying that like I’m a mogul or something,” grins Ward as we wrap up. “But even for me, what I’m doing feels like a dream. So I know that for other people, my life is a dream as well and I’m showing them that it’s possible.”
‘Blue Story’ arrives in cinemas on 22 November