Ashley Walters: Modern day icon
The MALESTROM recently got to spend some time chewing the fat with musician, writer, producer, and one of the leading actors on British television, Ashley Walters. He discussed life back on the road with So Solid Crew, those Drake rumours, with the new series of Top Boy on the horizon, and why he’s helping young inner city kids to avoid the same mistakes he made. Refreshingly honest, Ashley’s a top bloke and a necessary role model at a time when the next generation is crying out for a voice.
The MALESTROM: Ashley, what are you up to right now? You’re on the road performing?
Ashley Walters: Yeah, for about the last year and a half, ever since Craig David had his reboot, garage has been a lot more prominent in the mainstream, so we’ve been like getting a lot of gigs. We did Eden last weekend and we’re just about to do the Liverpool festival. So, I think the new generation are catching on to ‘21 Seconds’ and so we’re not anything serious, just kind of riding the wave sort of the thing. I love music, it’s always been part of my heart you know, I’ve really never had a solo career because I went to prison so, there’s always been a kind of void in me, so I’m always looking for ways to kind of get back into it somehow. But when its right, its right and I don’t force it on people, you know what I mean!
TM: And who are you working with?
AW: I work mainly and creatively with Swiss, who’s another member of So Solid Crew and the Producer. We own a couple of companies together so we’ve got that kind of connection. But from when we started with So Solid we were like a team within the team and we used to do a lot of production work together over the years, so I’m still working with him, but we know so many people in the industry, so when we call on people we can make things happen.
TM: That makes all the difference! Does it feel good to be back out there in front of audiences?
AW: Oh definitely, it’s the best feeling in the world. I’d say it was slightly better than the feeling you get making a film or doing TV, because it’s instant, instant gratification because everything’s a bit different when you see it back on TV and stuff you know. It’s not dissimilar to playing at The Royal Court every night, you get that same kind of vibe, to have control, to control the energy.
TM: Would you take the music over the acting?
AW: No, no. They go together and I made a conscious decision a long time ago that acting was what I was going to pursue as a career. I think everything else means a lot to me, but I wouldn’t give up what I’m doing now and the kind of name I’ve made for myself for the music. I’ve always wanted to be around for as long as possible and in music you don’t really get that opportunity, unless you’re like Paul McCartney or Elton John. It’s like, every kid on my street is an artist now, getting viewed on YouTube and whatever and fair enough, fair play to them, but it does seem there’s not enough room for everyone, so people just keep on coming and going; one album and you never hear from them again.
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TM: So you’ve got to balance quite a few plates in the entertainment industry?
AW: You have. I’d like to get into Producing, I’m getting into that now, like a film I wrote a few years ago with Noel Clarke, we were pitching it to Vertigo and Sky and now they want to turn it into a TV series.
TM: What’s it about?
AW: I can’t say at the moment. But it started off as a movie and we’ve been shopping it for a few years now and wanted to get on with it, then we were approached by Sky, who kind of read it at film stage and said, ‘How would you feel about turning it into a TV series then?’ So, we jumped on it, but that’s been going on for the last two to three years now.
TM: Noel’s a pretty sharp fella too …
AW: Noel’s a brilliant man, he’s a brilliant Producer and you know in this day and age, anyone who can get things made and raise money are great people, you know what I mean? Because it’s so hard for people to invest in what you’re doing and your vision, especially the way Noel does it because he has full creative control. A lot of his projects, he’s writing, producing and being in them as well. He’s kind of 100% or nothing, and he’s staying focussed to that and its brilliant for me to have this experience working with him. I’ve never delved into the back rooms of acting. I hardly ever talk to producers to be fair, I’ve always kind of stuck to the acting department and never really got into bed with the adults, so to speak. Making it in the entertainment industry is so difficult, sometimes its down to timing, sometimes its down to who you know, and I am now genuinely trying to align myself with the right group of people and to see what happens and to just stay focussed, just let it glide, because I can destroy my own destiny you know man.
TM: So what’s the deal with the new series of Top Boy and all these Drake rumours??
AW: Well, this is what everyone’s talking about and there’s been a lot of stories out there in the press and such which aren’t true. But I was contacted by Drake and a few of his people a few years ago now, when Netflix had put on the first season of Top Boy, and they were getting it internationally like, in Canada whatever. And he pretty much got in contact with me and said the show’s ultra, and I just kind of told him about the situation, that the show had been dropped by Channel 4, I hadn’t got a clue what was going on, I did ask, but I never found out. He was just keen to get it back out there and ever since then he just kept in contact, trying to make something happen … so who knows, watch this space.
TM: Even if he did the theme tune to a new series, that would be something?
AW: Definitely, but I don’t know what capacity he would be involved with it, I don’t know … but he’s definitely interested in bring the show back. I’m just proud I’m getting that sort of traction over there in the U.S. So, I just want to capitalise on that and use it wisely and see what happens.
TM: One of our favourites things you’ve been in was Truckers, because you played against type …
AW: I enjoyed that man, it’s funny, I appreciate that. You know what it is, I seem to find that most people watch the Bullet Boys, the Top Boys and it kind of upsets me when I meet other people and they say, ‘Why don’t you kinda try playing other characters? Why are you always a gangster?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I did Dr Who, Silent Witness … you know, I did Cuffs and I played the angel in Noah’s Ark’. So, you know some people say they’re clued up on what I’ve done, but they’re not really following me which is fair enough, and some people refuse to watch it because its so against type and they don’t think I should be in it, because you know I got a lot stick for playing the angel in Noah’s Ark, and from doing The Musketeers as well.
TM: What role stands out for you?
AW: I know I should say Shane from Top Boy, but personally I feel my best role was in the film, Sugarhouse with Andy Serkis, and that’s the hardest I’ve had to work to play a character, to get that quality man. I was a crack head, heroin addict and homeless an all, and an alcoholic, it was hard to get there man. To get into the zone I spent a lot of time with crack addicts, squats, alcoholics around town, stuff like that, and I got to see a side of life that I really didn’t known about back then.
TM: How did the whole acting thing start?
AW: Well, I didn’t have any formal training, but I went to the Sylvia Young school from the age of about 6 till 10, something like that. And I studied speech and singing and stuff, but nothing formal, not hardcore training and stuff and then when I got into music with So Solid and stuff and I went to prison, it kinda gave me as a black actor, a slight edge over a lot of other young black actors coming up, so I sort of became the ‘go to guy’ for those edgy, urban, gang … whatever you want to call those roles, which was cool, and I kinda just ran with it! At the same time, I listened to a lot of other actors that I was working with. In the beginning Bullet Boy was my life story in a nutshell. I’d just come out of prison for my firearm offences, and when I came out I wanted to separate myself from the crowd I was around as they had an influence on why I went away. It’s the same story for Ricky in Bullet Boy you know, he kinda gets dragged back in, so all the characters, all things, all the emotions that were going on went into my acting. But I also knew a lot of characters so it wasn’t hard for me to get the examples of how to play them.
TM: And what was prison like?
AW: It’s funny you should ask that, because I was just saying to my wife when were watching that TV series, BBC’s The Met – Policing London, and I watched this scene where this guy got sent back to prison for breeching his license or something and that feeling he had on his face when her got sent back, it just dropped … I knew that feeling, I really knew it and I said to my wife I never want to feel that feeling again. I mean it was the worst time of my life, it taught me a huge lesson you know, I’ve made mistakes since, but your family man, you lose your parents, your family, your kids, all the people you lose you know … its awful.
TM: Did your Mum give you murder for getting into trouble?
AW: She did, she did, but she didn’t go that hard on me. She’s quite a stern woman, but when I was a kid and when I fell over, she wouldn’t make a fuss of you, she’s the kind of woman who goes, ‘Get up!’ you know, ‘You must fight again!’
TM: Has she had quite an influence on your life?
AW: Most definitely, she’s brought so much to my life really. She’s just a well educated, bright, intelligent woman and I’ve always known that. She’s taught me the art of the language we all speak, you know what I’m saying? She taught me how to be perceptive and taught me how to understand what’s going on. So now, because of her I can see things quickly, she brought me up alone, she worked loads and loads of jobs and she gave me the finest things, she worked really hard for me. I went on holiday every year, every year man and some of my friends are only just going on holiday now for the first time in their lives in the last two or three years.
TM: What about your Dad? Do you feel if he’d been around things would have been different?
AW: Well, I think I’ve had to work harder. I was searching for male role models outside my home, because I didn’t have one and that meant I met some of the people that I met, like long standing people in my life. I mean Mega was the founder of So Solid, I met him through being lost I suppose, and that’s how I found music. He was like one of the olders, he was like a few years older than me, from around the area, and I hooked on to what those guys were doing and it spiralled on from there. We then had a number one record, a platinum album and everything else, so I feel that being lost was a part of meeting those people, and obviously that enhanced my acting career as well. So, I’m grateful for those things!
TM: That lack of a role model was quite a big influence then. What would you say to other kids out there now in the same situation?
AW: Well you can’t get all preachy. I do try and help kids by telling them my life story and not giving advice etc, its not really my bag. But if they want to sit down and ask why I did what I did, then I just tell them the truth. I’m not here to spin any PR. I do understand that the whole point of me being there is to provide some sort of inspiration though, if they can see me doing stuff, then they can see it for themselves. There’s no point in telling kids, ‘You could do this, you know you could do that!’ My job is to actually do it so they know it’s possible! I come from the same places as a lot of them, but its not just about making that connection. In the last few months, me and Swiss have started a ‘Performology’, which is using acting to teach kids critical thinking, decision making and CBT, behavioural therapy and stuff like that and we use Top Boy and stuff like that to draw them in, and then teach them a lot of things they need to know like ‘life skills’. We’re right in the beginning of being given a pilot by Croydon Council, fingers crossed, because they have the highest amount of youth in that borough getting involved with crime, because of the gentrification of London they’re all getting pushed out. Look what Brixton’s like now, in some places there ain’t even one black face. It’s a really serious thing.
TM: How has all this come about then?
AW: We sat down with the Mayor, the Councillors of Croydon and a few other like key people in the community and talked about starting up an acting school, but we’re definitely going to do the ‘Performology,’ which is going to be a six week course for kids down there and we’re going to try and run it out with the Council. So me and Swiss, we are trying to do our bit. We’re involved with a lot of artists that come from south London saying, ‘Put their money where their mouth is, so we can get youth clubs reopened and built’. You know a lot of these artists are making some serious money now from live gigs, Glastonbury and stuff, some of them get half a million a show.
AW: There’s some serious money out there you know, and we’re saying why don’t you have one less Bentley and put it into changing the Church into a youth club or opening one back up again in your area, just to give the kids something to do. Then we’ll come in and facilitate and help teach kids acting, music and we can keep those things running, raise the funding, whatever we need to do. The only way we’re going to get all the numbers down of all these stabbings and all these shootings is to give them something else.
TM: It’s inspiring that you’re doing it because this is meant to be down to government and local government.
AW: Well, something has to be done, and I’m only one man. But if I can set an example and other people come on board, then together we can set an example, it’s the only way it’ll happen. I tell you my eldest son is nearly 18, I mean I’ve got 8 kids, 4 boys, 4 girls and they’re all going through what’s happening out there you know. Regardless of who I am, on a daily basis my own children are faced with a lot of this stuff going on that I’m trying to fight against it, so its really important.
TM: Good work Ashley.
AW: Thanks guys, it’s been a pleasure.