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The Gentleman of London: Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù

Words/Imagery: Beth Bennett

For those loyal EJ readers, you’ll know that we began our year having breakfast at a cafe in London. However, as we come to the end of an arduous, transformative year, we wanted to take a step back, reflect, and grab a pint this time. So, we headed back to The Old Smoke, stopping in Soho this time, and invited someone we knew would appreciate the moment. 

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù pulled up a stool and joined us at the bar in Berwick Street’s prolific The Blue Posts Pub to talk about growing up, ‘Gangs of London’, and the year he finally got to breathe. 

Beth: So, end of the year; how’s 2022 been for you?

Ṣọpẹ: It’s been a good year. I haven’t sat down and probably reflected on it yet, but I’ve been able to do a lot of different things this year. My friend got married in Barbados and, in previous years of my career, I’ve not necessarily been able to make those kinds of events because I’ve been trying to work as much as possible. Whereas this year, I was finally able to carve out and protect time for the things outside of work and that’s been really important to me.

Beth: I guess, in the early stages, you’re sort of scrambling for work and you’re wanting to fill every moment you can so you can afford to live, get your name out there, grow your name?

Ṣọpẹ: There’s this feeling when you’re early in your career that everything is temporary until you prove that ‘you’re not’. So I needed to develop some momentum, keep working. There’s always someone else you’ll be told to impress or a job you’ll need to get. But I do love my work so, even though it’s been constant and difficult at times, I’ve ‘wanted’ to do it. 

But I do also feel like I constantly have something to prove. For me, thankfully, it’s not in an unhealthy way. It’s more a case that I need to prove to myself and to others that I ‘can’ do this and that I ‘can’ change, I ‘can’ be different characters. I know that I ‘can’, it’s just proving it.

Beth: It’s just about being able to show your range to people, no one wants to be put in a box, right?

Ṣọpẹ: Change is really important for me. There are a lot of movie stars that are the same in every single role, but they’re still movie stars and we still pay a cinema fee to go see them. And there is a talent and a skill to that. But what I want to be able to achieve for myself is to be visibly and tangibly different from one role to another; to go to the character rather than to bring the situation to myself and be like, “Oh, what does this version of Ṣọpẹ do in this situation?”

This year I’ve been able to appreciate that I’m achieving that already. If you look at the difference between ‘Gangs of London’ and ‘Mr Malcolm’s List’, for example, there is a difference there and the characters are different. I just want to continue to prove to myself that I can transform. 

Beth: So, for you, you could almost say that in 2022, you’re not stopping and you’re not pausing, but you’re finally…?

Ṣọpẹ: Breathing. There’s way more comfort than discomfort now.

A career is a marathon, not a sprint. You get out of the blocks, you find your position amongst the pack and you run. Don’t let your breathing become automatic; focus on it whilst you’re running. It’s almost like a meditation. And in remembering to breathe, you remember how far you’ve come in the race so far. There’s more to go, but you’re in a good place. And that meditative moment is really what this year has been like for me.

Beth: Sounds like your next project should be ‘Marathons of London’. You’re a physical guy, aren’t you? Do you do your own stunts?

Ṣọpẹ: I do as much as I can. I’ve always been physical. I did some low level martial arts when I was still in primary school and played football, rugby, and American football. My body has always been a tool that I’ve used so it makes sense. So I get involved, I take pride in it actually.

Beth: So was it that physicality, then, where you got your interest in acting?

Ṣọpẹ: We ask kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and we shouldn’t. The whole education system is not good. We make them choose at an age where they can’t even vote or they’re not allowed to legally have sex, yet they’re supposed to path their futures? 

I get less and less surprised by the amount of people who study something at university and then do something different, like how I started an economics degree and then became an actor. I wasn’t forced into doing that degree but because I wasn’t given the space to explore other options in school, I felt a little lost.

I never knew what I wanted to be. I would be told, “You can’t be an astronaut and a chef. You can’t be a firefighter and football player. You have to choose one.” So, I guess, in the end, I said, “No, I’m fine. I’ll just pretend to be all of them.” (laughs)

Beth: I read that it was your parents that pointed out that you weren’t happy doing your degree. How important was that for you to have their support? 

Ṣọpẹ: I guess I’m actually just a super obedient child (laughs). I did, and still do, take a lot of pride in making them proud. Especially from like global majority diasporic parents, you know, because they’ve often had a pretty shit time coming into the Western world – my parents didn’t have the best time coming into England – and they want to make your life, as their child, even easier.

They believe, if you’ve got this degree, no one can turn your way; if you speak English really well, no one is going to say that they don’t understand you. You’re not going to be marginalised as a consequence of that. There will always be racism, but you can overcome it, to a certain extent, by being qualified.

So for them to have preached that sermon my whole childhood and then be like, “You should try and become an actor if that’s what makes you happy,” really was a freedom. Without it, I would maybe be doing very well in a successful economics or finance job that I don’t like. But that discomfort would manifest itself in other ways and I wouldn’t be who I am. 

Beth: Do you think that made you closer with your parents?

Ṣọpẹ: The only reason I’d say no is because I think my family unit is really tight knit. And I don’t think I would have blamed them for not being an actor. I was very well aware of the 5% of actors who were working at any given point and then the 1% of those actors that you know actually about. Those are hideous statistics that are probably not true, but it was something that I believed when I was younger. 

I’ve been so fortunate over the course of my life to have taken the steps to get to where I am right now. But if I hadn’t given myself that freedom or received it from my parents, I don’t think we would be estranged now as a consequence of that. We’d probably be closer because I’d be able to spend more time with them (laughs).

Beth: (Laughs) That’s fair but you also get to come back and be like, “Look, I’ve made you proud.”

Ṣọpẹ: One of my proudest moments, with my parents, was when I did Coriolanus at the RSC. My mum does not like Shakespeare; it reminds her of the trauma of being in school as a lot of us have. But she came to see me in Coriolanus and she was incensed, it made her feel so much. She met the actors who played Coriolanus’ antagonists and she was like, “If I hadn’t known that you were an actor, I’d be so angry.” She felt the injustice of the character because the production made her feel that. I was so proud that we had been able to transcend language and made the story clear to the audience to the point where someone who doesn’t like Shakespeare was able to feel something so passionately.

Beth: I’ve read, and spoken to, a lot of actors who don’t enjoy watching themselves on screen; do you share that sentiment or are you indifferent to it?

Ṣọpẹ: It used to bother me a lot. With the first director I ever worked with, I don’t think I watched a single bit of playback when we were shooting. I did so much work before that shoot. I wanted to make a good impression. I wanted to set myself up and create my practice. I was doing research and breaking down scenes, studying each word and syllable to make sure that I was giving it the truth and weight that it needed. And then when it came out, and I was watching it…it was the ‘blandest’ performance I have ever seen in my life. 

I’d just come from doing Stage all the time. It was my first proper screen job. I’d always thought theatre actors are so big on screen because they are used to playing to an audience and they don’t realise it’s an audience of one – the camera lens. To counter that, I made my performance really small but that made it just imperceptible. So, I do watch a lot more now. I suppose it’s testament to my growth as an artist and performer and knowing my own tastes, etc. I can watch stuff and be like, “Okay, cool, I’m proud of that performance and I achieved what I wanted to”

I am still my own worst critic. Maybe it’s better to have non artistic friends or family around you because they can just tell you as an audience member, “I enjoyed it” or “I didn’t understand this bit.” They’re not going to be like, “Technically, that camera move was so excellent!” Because art should be judged and critiqued on how it makes you feel, as opposed to whether it’s technically perfect. What stands up next to things that have come before… that’s not important. It should be like, how does it make the audience feel? How does it make the person who’s interacting with it feel? 

Beth: Let’s touch on ‘Gangs of London’ then. What I really like about it is the style. It’s a bit John Wick-ian; it’s a bit Japanese or Korean in action style. It’s a bit like a mythic London, as well. It’s the London we’re in now but more off kilter. Do you think that there’s still a responsibility in how you perform and what you do to represent things? Like you don’t want to glamorise or demonise anything too much. 

Ṣọpẹ: I like to create and work on projects that assume the audience is intelligent, and I therefore assume that nobody’s watching ‘Gangs of London’ for tips on how to extort the local pub. No one’s watching it for what fighting moves you can learn from a specific scene. So not so much responsibility. 

I think the responsibility that I feel very strongly is that it’s populated with the people of London. It’s cosmopolitan. If it was just white working class gangsters then I wouldn’t be interested. I don’t think many other people would either. So I think that’s the only role of responsibility I feel in making it.

Beth: Do you have anywhere you would like ‘Gangs of London’ to go next? Do you want to go bigger?

Ṣọpẹ: I won’t share that information. Not because I know, but because I don’t want my interpretation or desires to get in the way of the people enjoying it.  Everyone’s just really excited about potentiality, but nobody can come up with something that they would really love to see. I think that’s quite exciting. I’m thinking of the moment in ‘The Truman Show’ where he bumps into the wall, just before he opens the door to find out what’s on the other side. Nobody knows what’s on the other side; nobody can conceive it. That’s exciting because it almost means we can’t go wrong. But violence and the explosions are part of the DNA of the show. So definitely be more of that, I’m sure. 

Beth: So, as we’re coming to the end of 2022, where do you think British film and TV is at in terms of its representative storytelling and its inclusivity? What do you hope improves in the future?

Ṣọpẹ: There was a series at the end of last year called ‘You Don’t Know Me’. Sam Adewunmi was the lead in it and Bukky Bakray was in it as well. Basically, it was about the stages of representation. You could have just had non-white people in the series, that’s a version of visibility. But when the lead character was at home with his mum and his sister, they spoke in Yoruba, in the way that a lot of families do. A lot of global majority families will speak their native language at home and then speak English outside. That was a different version of going through the veil of a character or into a culture. I think that is ‘true representation’.

It’s about having the nuance of lots of different experiences. Seeing the fullness and uniqueness of marginalised groups… that is the chef’s kiss of representation. I think that we’re beginning to see more of that, which is really exciting.

It’s nice to know that we’re going in that direction. From not seeing ourselves on TV at all to seeing ourselves, but not seeing our stories, to seeing more stories embedded in the fabric of the culture of the entire country. It’s beautiful.

Beth: I think there’s always been an issue, specifically in Britain, that when we want to represent a culture or community, we tend to go for the easy route of focusing on the trauma of that group, rather than their full experience. It’s interesting to think about what that is subconsciously saying, don’t you think?

Ṣọpẹ: Yes and I think it’s that subconscious decision making that’s actually worse; because you’re revealing what you yourself don’t know that you think about those people. Whereas, if it’s conscious, you could say it’s what’s happening in the news, that we’re just trying to be relevant, and then you can be accused of being sort of callous or simple. But if you go, “Oh, we didn’t realise, we’re just trying to be inclusive,” you’re just showing that you think very little of people who don’t look like you. 

Beth: And it’s who’s behind the camera, right? And the people who are telling the stories? It’s in that space that you have these unconscious biases revealed that they might not even be aware of themselves but they’re expressed, and then they’re distributed to the masses?

Ṣọpẹ: Yeah it’s also about who the powers that be choose to create these shows and films.

Beth: Do you think you’ll ever move behind the camera? Is that something you’d ever want to do? 

Ṣọpẹ: That wouldn’t be the reason I move behind the camera but I would if there’s a story I want to tell that nobody else is thinking about. That would be the only reason. I don’t feel currently oppressed by being a black person in the industry. And I’m also surrounded by creatives and writers and directors and makers who I know have really excellent perspectives.

I know that the future of the industry is in really good hands. It’s not something that I feel like I’ve got to go on a personal crusade to change. 

Beth: Now, I need to ask – because I’ve been seeing your tweets – you really love the new ‘Pinocchio’, don’t you?

Ṣọpẹ: Pinocchio’s wicked! It’s one of the only one of this new spate of remakes that I wish I had when I was growing up. The original version of Pinocchio was alright. Don’t get me wrong, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket and Gepetto were great. But this one is so ‘charming’. I can’t fault it. And I kind of don’t want to hear anyone say anything bad about it. 

But really it’s the discussion about what it means to be real, in this film, that’s really beautiful. Pinocchio, back then, sort of takes on the Caucasian complexion. He looks a bit like a real boy all the way through the film and then at the end he just loses the animation of the joints. But he looks exactly the same. But this version? It’s so—-I’m not going to spoil it, just go watch it, yeah.

Beth: What else has inspired you this year?

Ṣọpẹ: Entergalactic created by Kid Cudi.

Beth: And, finally, cliche as it is, what are you going to take with you into 2023 that you’ve learnt from this year?

Ṣọpẹ: I’ve made the unfortunate habit of floating through life, so I think it would be: if you can do it now, do it now. Don’t let yourself have regrets. But mostly, remember to take a minute to breathe.