Meet Marchánt Davis – Chris Morris’ new leading man

Plucked from obscurity by the 'Four Lions' director, Davis claims the 'king of satire' is "too smart for his own good."

Marchánt Davis remembers the first time he met Chris Morris mostly because he couldn’t understand him. “I’d come in for an audition and I remember thinking: ‘This guy talks really fast!’ gushes the 28-year-old unknown. “I was like, ‘What is he saying?’”

An understandable reaction, from someone uninitiated in the ways of the Essex-born satirst. But even though Davis hadn’t seen extremely-wordy sitcoms Brass Eye or The Day Today, he could tell Morris was “steps ahead” of everyone else. Unable to read the script for The Day Shall Come – the filmmaker’s top secret new black comedy – he was forced to improvise one of the strangest scenes in the movie. It goes like this…

Unaware that he is being surveilled by the FBI, naive preacher Moses (Davis) is sat on a table in extravagant, floor-length robes, plus a pirate hat (complete with huge peacock feather). His attempt to negotiate with an Arab arms dealer is sketchy – especially when he calls “on the dinosaurs” as back-up. But for Davis, that wasn’t even the oddest bit of the process.

“When I read the breakdown that my agent sent me, I thought preacher meant southern baptist,” he begins. “So I came in a three-piece suit. I will never forget the casting director saying to me, ‘Did you wear that just for this audition?’ I thought, Oh fuck!”

Marchant Davis

Table read: Marchánt Davis shoots the scene he auditioned with, while Chris Morris analyses his script. Credit: Dean Rogers

Luckily, it didn’t hurt his chances and Marchánt snagged the role. As a first feature, The Day Shall Come is quite the coming out party. Set in the Miami Projects, it follows Moses – an impoverished and idiotic zealot who is offered cash to save his family from eviction. Based on a hundred true stories, it’s a tale of bigotry and incompetence – one that calls out the US government for targeting harmless individuals and turning them into terrorists. Davis excels in a standout performance.

Born in Philadelphia and raised by a single mum – his dad passed away when he was young – Marchánt got into acting early. But it wasn’t that which awoke the dramatic in him. In fact, music was his “gateway drug” to performing. A keen saxophonist as a younger tot, the Nicetown native only graduated to theatre when his teacher told him he “didn’t practice enough” and “would be much better off on stage.” After playing Rooster in a middle school production of Annie, the fledgling thespian took his talents to film, appearing in Oprah Winfrey’s 1998 adaptation of Beloved by novelist Toni Morrison. “I was a featured extra dancing in the woods,” remembers Davis. “From there… it kinda hit me. I wanted to be an actor.”

Years later, the rising star headed to BADA (British American Drama Academy), where he jumped on the opportunity to spend a whole summer in London, learning from the city’s finest professionals. It was another turning point and a masterclass with Fiona Shaw (Killing Eve, Mrs Dursley in the Harry Potter series) finally convinced him to apply for grad school.

Five years later and Marchánt is an NYU alumni and cast mate of “quirky little thing” Anna Kendrick. Not bad, for a new starter. So how did he find working with a genuine Hollywood movie star? “Anna’s a riot,” grins Davis. “We had a very funny moment one night when me, Danielle [Brooks] (Orange is the New Black) and some of the guys made up a dance on the beach. In the middle of the night, Anna showed up and joined in!”

Rubbing shoulders with A-listers might be new to Davis, but it’s also uncommon for man-behind-the-camera Chris Morris. Over the past three decades, his projects have been frequently un-starry. Four Lions, for example, featured pre-fame Riz Ahmed (Rogue One, Nightcrawler) and Benedict Cumberbatch in supporting roles. That movie was a critical hit – and has a quintessential Britishness to it that doesn’t tend to travel well. So was Davis worried Americans wouldn’t get it?

“Maybe a little bit,” he begins but it’s clear Marchánt doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds him and he’s hesitant to elaborate. “This is a terrible thing to say…” he starts to say, but again doesn’t finish. “I think my thought wasn’t that they wouldn’t get it at all, but that it might take them some time. Chris is a lot of steps ahead of most people.”

Right at the beginning of their relationship, Davis sat his director down and made one thing clear to him. Dark humour and risqué jokes were fair game, but there was one thing he would not tolerate.

“Very early on, I said to Chris, ‘you better not put the N-word in this film,’” reveals Marchánt. “’You’re not allowed to.’” Obviously, Morris agreed and said he wouldn’t dare. But it’s something of a bugbear for the young Philadelphian, who thinks “in most situations, you don’t need it.”

Marchant Davis

Performance notes: Morris gives Davis direction on-set. Credit: Dean Rogers

This statement brings to mind a number of white writers, who have come under fire for their liberal use of the racial epithet – most notably, Quentin Tarantino. “Oh, you’re trying to get me in trouble,” counters Davis when I mention the Pulp Fiction auteur, before letting out a giggle. “I think there are some writers, I’m not going to name names, who put it in there and it feels a little gratuitous. I personally will not see their work or watch their things because, for me, it’s triggering.”

This is just one of several carefully considered responses during our interview. Davis is – for a rookie – far better equipped to comment on difficult subjects than a lot of his peers in Tinseltown. Other actors, most more experienced than he, get irritable or bungle the harder questions. Not Davis. With a shrug or a chuckle, he tackles my probing (I thought) analysis easily. Unfazed, the talented newbie gives eloquent answers on gun ownership (“Fine, unless the intention is to harm”), Trump (“farcical”) and even Brexit, which he briefly discussed with Morris on-set.

Ultimately, his time on The Day Shall Come was satisfying, both creatively and philosophically. It’s one that he’d be keen to repeat, too. “I would love to work with Chris again,” says Marchánt. “I don’t know what he has planned coming up though. Chris is one of those people where something has to hit him like a ton of bricks.” Has Morris let slip any of his current projects? “I’m sure that there are a lot of things that he’s researching and looking into and investigating,” teases Davis. “But I don’t think he’s put pen to paper yet.” It’s a shame for his fans, but hopefully they won’t have to wait another nine years for their next dose of Morris mickey-taking.

Marchánt, of course, is a little more active than his cinematic benefactor. Currently starring on Broadway alongside Brian Cox (he plays civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael in The Great Society), Davis also writes children’s books on the side. His first – about a black boy born with white hair – is an examination of identity and toxic masculinity in African American communities.

For the most part though, he’s focused on his film career and wants to “tell stories that matter”. He’s sick of “slave narratives” and hopes to turn the format “on its head” by putting the captive labourers “in outer space”. That sounds like a hit, I say, one that I’m looking forward to seeing. Marchánt’s is a career we should all watch closely, and not just because he’s mates with Chris Morris. As we finish up our chat and say our goodbyes, I tell him I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next. His response is simple, yet confident. “Me too.”

The Day Shall Come is in cinemas now