Samson Kayo: “I’ve been given an opportunity to tell Black British stories”

Despite partying in LA with P. Diddy, the London-raised actor tells Ralph Jones that home is where his heart remains

Samson Kayo is having fun in LA but he thinks his house is haunted. Speaking to NME from a room that appears to be more sunny than spooky, he says, “Every time I’m downstairs watching TV I always hear like a ‘doof doof’. And I go upstairs and there’s no one there. It’s so weird.” He smiles his unmistakeable smile.

Hopefully the ghosts don’t get Kayo. He’s got TV shows to promote. The 30-year-old Londoner is in some of the hottest-looking comedies of the year, including The Bubble, Judd Apatow’s Netflix movie about a film crew trying to finish a blockbuster sequel amid the pandemic, and Our Flag Means Death, the Taika Waititi-executive-produced HBO series about an 18th-century ‘gentleman pirate’ and his crew.

We’ll get onto those. First of all, what does he think of LA? Has he been starstruck over there? Not really, says Kayo, who is wearing a black Lacoste jumper with multicoloured branding, and a silver necklace. He’s taking it in his stride. The only time he really felt cowed, he says, was closer to home, at the National Television Awards, when he met David Attenborough. At that point, he says, he was “trembling”.

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Samson Kayo
‘Bloods’ is Kayo’s Sky comedy about paramedics. CREDIT: Sky

But in LA, because he has a “tribe” of familiar actors who have made the commute as well, and because Kayo could probably make friends with a pot of yoghurt, he has just been enjoying the good life. Last year, as Kayo’s birthday loomed, his friend Daniel Kaluuya texted him asking what he had planned. Nothing, said Kayo, who had an early start on set the following day. Kaluuya was having none of it. They should celebrate him, he said. So Kayo went to Kaluuya’s house and the pair set off for a party.

It’s not clear when the realisation dawned on Kayo but, having been let into an enormous house boasting Rolls Royces and queues of people, it became apparent that the house belonged to P Diddy. In the garden area Kayo saw the man himself on the dancefloor. Already tipsy, Kaluuya and Kayo started dancing too. “Yeah that’s right your name’s Samson,” said Mr Diddy when Kayo introduced himself. “I was just sitting there, looking around, like, ‘What am I doing here?’” says Kayo. “‘Right, time to dance.’”

The American projects will earn him good money, and pay for Kayo to stay in sunlit – albeit haunted – accommodation. But before all that, and before he headed to La La Land, he was filming the second series of Bloods, the Sky comedy about paramedics.

Bloods
Kayo plays paramedic Maleek in ‘Bloods’, who is paired with Wendy (Jane Horrocks). CREDIT: Sky

Bloods is Kayo’s baby. It first came to life in October 2018 when he made it as an eight-minute Sky Arts short featuring him and Jane Horrocks as mismatched paramedics Maleek and Wendy. The response then was great, says Kayo, but because he was so new to the game he didn’t realise that a short could ever become anything more. At an awards ceremony, Ash Atalla, managing director of Roughcut, the company who had made the short, said, “Hey mate. We’re almost there.” “And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” says Kayo. “And he was like, ‘We’re about to get a series.’ I was like, ‘For what?’ He was like, ‘Bloods, you idiot.’”

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The short had been inspired by Kayo’s efforts to become an ambulance support driver in his late teens. He carried out three weeks training with the aim of eventually becoming a paramedic. “It was something that would take me out of the distraction of a certain lifestyle I was living – getting in trouble and stuff,” he says. “So being able to transfer all my energy into helping people and dong this kind of work was amazing.”

It didn’t last long. Acting had always been what he wanted to do, and he landed an audition for Youngers, which would become his first TV role. “You always go back to your first love,” he says in a mock-thespian voice. He might return to the ambulance world, he says – the London Ambulance Service, fans of the show, are always asking him to pop down.

Samson Kayo
‘Bloods’ returns for series two this week. CREDIT: Sky

He probably won’t need to change jobs any time soon. But Bloods has taught him a good deal about a profession he was already interested in. The cast got a crash course in first aid, he says, and he now knows everything about the inside of an ambulance. Most importantly, and most excitingly, in this series Kayo got to drive around a real ambulance. “We weren’t allowed to turn on the siren but we were allowed to turn on the blues.”

The 30-year-old has been a regular fixture of British comedies – Timewasters, Sliced, Famalam, Truth Seekers – but a Zoom with Judd Apatow will always feel like a step up. After a chat, the director asked Kayo to hop onto another Zoom and improvise in character with David Duchovny and Fred Armisen, two of his co-stars in The Bubble. “It was incredible,” he says, amazed that these are the kinds of people he’s riffing with. Fortunately he had honed his improv muscles on The Javone Prince Show in his mid-20s. He was ready.

As well as The Bubble there is Our Flag Means Death, already out in the US. This was another star-studded cast, and an almost equal split of American and British actors. This mix meant a constant stream of cross-cultural banter, mainly about kettles, by the sounds of it. “It was a proper family dynamic on that show,” he says.

In Our Flag Means Death the cast of pirates are from diverse backgrounds – a casting decision that might not have been taken even 10 years ago. But it’s a decision that’s so simple to do, says Kayo, as well as it being the right thing to do. “It doesn’t take away from your story; it doesn’t take away from the comedy; it doesn’t take away from the truth. It essentially enhances it because you can really speak on what life was like for a Black man in [the 18th century]. You’re able to really flesh out different characters and I think that’s the best way to go.”

He believes that one of the reasons actors from the UK move to the US is that they didn’t grown up seeing enough Black British television. The shows featuring prominent Black leads – The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Kenan and Kel – tended to be from the States. This is inextricable from the way that Black history is taught in British schools, he says, with American figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King taking priority. Now, he thinks, the UK is starting to see the stories of Black British people come to the fore – bit by bit.

“I feel like I’ve been given an opportunity to tell our stories,” he says. He rebuffs any suggestion that he might be in LA for the long-term. London has always been his home. If he stays in LA, he is afraid that his window for telling these stories in the UK might close. “So I always make sure I’m around,” he says, “making sure I can create and speak to people who don’t know our story and allow everyone to mix, I suppose, and appreciate our different cultures.”

This change might be slow, he says, “but at least the train is moving”.

‘Bloods’ is on Sky Comedy from tonight (March 16)

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