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Six years after it came to an end on U.K. network Channel 4 following just two seasons and eight episodes, cult gang-soaked London crime drama Top Boy — thanks to a dramatic, headline-grabbing intervention by fan Drake, who snapped up the rights in partnership with LeBron James and successfully pitched a revived show to Netflix — has returned to screens.
The new 10-episode season, from the same creative team and led by creator Ronan Bennett, catches up with stars Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson, reprising their roles as former drug-dealing partners-turned-rivals Dushane and Sully, respectively. But as they head back to the original housing estate, looking to assert control once more, they find there’s a new kid on the block.
Played by newcomer Micheal Ward, Jamie is Top Boy’s new top boy, a young, hungry and ruthless gang leader who isn’t about to step aside and let the elder statesmen of the local crime scene reclaim their territory.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Ward — also set to appear in Blue Story, the much-hyped debut feature from London grime artist Rapman landing later this year — discusses how the humanization of its criminal characters makes Top Boy so important and what it is like to follow in the illustrious footsteps of the show’s alumni, including Black Panther star Letitia Wright.
Ward also explains how, in a rather beautiful turn of events, when he was first asked what sort of drama he wanted to act in — and before a Top Boy revival had even been announced — there was only one show on his mind.
How much interaction — if any — have you had with Drake during Top Boy’s production?
He wasn’t around during filming, but he came to the first-ever read-through. And that, for me, made it basically feel real. I knew now this was where the work starts. It was good that he came down.
How did the role come about? Was it the usual casting or something a little different?
It was the usual casting, but I’d actually asked my agent to look out for this since I’d been with him. A year before I’d got the role, I told them I wanted to be a part of something like Top Boy. I remember seeing some stuff about it coming, and he was like, “Trust me it’s not out yet. When it’s out, we’ll definitely get you in.” But when it came, initially they auditioned me for Aaron, my little brother on the show, now played by Hope Ikpoku. But when I did my recall, the main casting director Des Hamilton and the first director Reinaldo Marcus Green said I needed to come in and audition for the lead.
So you’d actually asked your agent to look out for something like Top Boy even before the revival was announced?
Yeah. I joined my agency just over a year before the audition. I hadn’t had any experience, but knew one of the agents through college, and she got me in to do an audition. And when I met the agency kingpin, who’s my agent now, he asked me what kind of projects I was interested in. Acting wasn’t’ necessarily something that I wanted to do, so I said something that was close to me, which was Top Boy. It’s crazy.
What was it about the original Top Boy that you were drawn to?
There were a few things, but initially it was the authenticity, the language — just being able to hear how I speak, but onscreen. Because before that, I hadn’t seen anything like it. I think the closest representation was probably Kidulthood, which was a film. There was nothing much like Top Boy back then. It was something we’d speak about every week in school, for the whole week while we were waiting for the next episode to drop.
So it must feel pretty special to be the top boy in the new Top Boy …
Obviously, when you think of acting there are so many roles and so many big things. But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I was thinking what stories do I want to tell and would I enjoy doing them. And something like Top Boy is literally a dream come true. I would have done anything to have been involved in it … I would have walked in the background a thousand times if I had to. So the fact I’m leading it with some of my heroes is a blessing. It’s a dream come true for real.
What’s your character’s role — being top boy I’m assuming he’s a gang leader?
Hey hey! Don’t go assuming that. At the beginning you don’t actually see him leading, he’s trying to navigate his way to the top.
But what you don’t usually see in these stories, which Top Boy does very well, is the way we humanize these people, showing his relationships outside of just the gang stuff. You’ve got his relationships with his little brothers and you see the other side to it. That’s what makes Jamie such a beautiful character, because he does all these bad things, but then you’re made to feel like you need to excuse him, even though you shouldn’t. And that’s how it is in real life, man. That’s why I feel like Top Boy’s so special. In real life, you see these things going on in the news, and we demonize these people, but we don’t see what led them to do whatever they did. Now, when we put these stories out there, people can try to help.
Given news stories about gang culture that we see every day here in the U.K., do you feel that something like Top Boy is increasingly important?
I feel like it’s very important, because people don’t know, and if you don’t know, it’s impossible to help. Even when you’re from the U.K., yeah, you see it on the news, but they’re not getting a real depiction of it. I remember when I watched When They See Us on Netflix. That was one of the best series I’d seen in my life, but I never knew about the Central Park situation until I’d watched it.
Given the A-list producers and Netflix’s deep pockets, does season three of Top Boy feel like a glossier, more expensive step up from the previous two seasons?
Obviously, with the money, there’s a lot more we can do, and you’ll be able to see that. But in general it’s exactly the same show. The way it’s shot looks exactly the same. It doesn’t look out of place.
Top Boy has some pretty impressive alumni in the likes of Letitia Wright and director Yann Demange, who both cut their teeth on the show. How does it feel to be following in their footsteps?
When you’re coming into this, as I said, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. But when you do think about other actors that inspire you and come from the same world as you, Letitia is a perfect example of that. She’s come from a world that we live in and has represented it so well and now she’s gone on to do such big things. And a person can only dream to do what she’s done.
You’ve also got the anticipated feature from Rapman, Blue Story, which is coming out in November. This is looking like a pretty good year for you!
It’s amazing. It’s a dream to be able to be a part of projects like these that are so good but so big at the same time. What Blue Story is going to do is send a clear message, showing people a story that needs to be told and showing why people do what they do. And sometimes it is pointless. For me, being involved in these projects, to have these people as mentors to guide me, it’s a blessing. But yeah, definitely, it’s going to be a crazy year.
With Top Boy on Netflix and Blue Story being backed by Paramount, are you seeing that British stories that aren’t the usual period dramas are for the first time being given global platforms?
Yeah, and I believe Top Boy has helped break down the barriers for that. The magnitude of what it’s going to do — it’s the first of its kind. So now stories like that can be translated. People can understand what we’re trying to do in our world on a global scale. This is the perfect time for it, and it’s allowing people to create content from the same world, but their own stories.
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