The first screen adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s 2001 book Noughts + Crosses tells the heartbreaking story of forbidden love between Callum McGregor (Peaky Blinders‘ Jack Rowan) and Sephy Hadley (newcomer Masali Baduza).
In an alternate reality, London is the capital of a country known as Albion, where African cultural norms are dominant and Nigeria’s Yoruba language is is spoken by all. However, while the black characters (Crosses) live lavish lives filled with privilege, the white characters (Noughts) struggle against police brutality, racism and poverty.
As Noughts + Crosses hits BBC iPlayer (all six episodes are available to stream now), we caught up with Rowan to find out why he swapped the grimy backstreets of Birmingham (Peaky Blinders) to play an oppressed Nought in the Beeb’s newest dystopian drama.
Was it daunting to take on such a well-loved character?
“Once I got the part, I [immediately] read the book. From the first page and from the first word, I was emotionally invested and my mouth was constantly watering because I couldn’t wait to play this guy. I knew that I was part of something that is very special, very powerful and very unique.”
Noughts + Crosses’ alternate universe flips racism upside down, did you learn anything from the experience?
“I’m born and bred central London. I’ve always been surrounded by culture and I’ve gone to school with multi-cultural friends from everywhere, but I also came to the conclusion, or came to the realisation, that I’m privileged.”
What moment made you aware of this privilege?
“I remember before we started filming in South Africa, I had to do some military training. We did this week-long immersive experience where we had a real Sergeant Major, you know, addressing me as Cadet McGregor and everything. And I was the only white guy, there are 100 other lads, and they were all told: ‘You guys are Crosses. He’s a Nought and you don’t want him here. He doesn’t deserve to be here. You guys are not happy with him getting involved with you guys. So give him dirty looks, don’t talk to him. Basically isolate him. Callum you do 10 press-ups. They do five.’
“I’m not used to that in London. Even though it was a fictional experience, it hurt. It hurt to sit by myself at lunch, it hurt to feel like I’m the isolated one because of things I can’t change. I got a little taste of what it might feel like for someone who might feel that every day.”
Do you think Noughts + Crosses can ‘explain’ racism to people who have never experienced it?
“I hope it can teach someone who isn’t maybe surrounded by so much culture every day, that could perhaps watch our show and think: ‘Oh, that person looks like me’.”
What was it like working with Stormzy?
“I have a big moment with him on-screen. I knew about some of his music beforehand but I wouldn’t say that I was an avid fan. I knew who he was, but after meeting him in person I respect him more because he’s just a fantastic guy. And in a way for him, it came full circle because he was a fan of the books when he was a kid.”
Did you keep anything from the set of either Noughts and Crosses or Peaky Blinders?
“Yes. The actual physical hat that Cillian Murphy [Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders] gives me and goes: ‘You’re a Peaky Blinders now son’. He gave me the hat and it’s not going anywhere. For Callum [ in Noughts + Crosses] it was such an intense experience that I had to leave him there [on-set].”
Will there be a Noughts + Crosses season 2?
“I 100% hope so. It has the legs – we don’t actually complete the first book in the first season. It could happen. It’s visually beautiful. And I think, why wouldn’t they go again? That’s the question to ask.”
All six episode of ‘Noughts + Crosses’ season one are available to stream on BBC iPlayer now