David Gyasi went from a few lines in Casualty to become one of Christopher Nolan’s favourite collaborators, with parts in The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar. For more on London’s golden generation of black actors and filmmakers read our main feature here.
What inspired you to become an actor?
I always wanted to be a footballer and was influenced by John Barnes, but then I remember being a young boy and watching Idris Elba on a TV show called Family Affairs and, either consciously or subconsciously, I could see there was a talented black actor with star quality who sounded like me and looked like me and that meant a lot.
How did you manage to go from TV soaps to blockbuster movies so quickly?
If you look at my CV you can see the BBC has been amazing for me. I started there with a couple of lines, then a few scenes, then became part of a recurring series called White Heat. After that I got offered a few lead roles, but I got injured and couldn’t take them, and though everyone around me was saying it was terrible, I had an incredible sense of peace because I knew I’d broken through the glass barrier. I knew that all I had to do was heal up and go for the next job.
It’s a tough industry so how do you deal with doubt?
I was brought up to believe I could do anything and be anything I wanted to be — even when my school reports said otherwise. But the way my parents brought me up, they didn’t allow for any doubt, so there was always a voice in my head that said I should walk like a king and be like a king.
Why did you — and so many of your contemporaries — end up going to the States?
All scripts have lead roles but I wasn’t reading for them when I was here. You get tired of hearing people say: ‘Turn to page 33’. In the States I read for the leads and they aren’t looking for African-American characters or the ‘black guy’ parts. Over there it’s like they’ve turned a switch. So this golden generation is not having an exodus — we’re just going where the work is.
And does that mean you’ve left London for good?
We had the premier of Interstellar at the Chinese Theatre in LA but it means a lot to come back to Leicester Square where my parents had their first date. I’m honoured to be here in America and to be trusted to tell their wonderful stories, but the truth is I need to feed my family. My goal is to finish this season [of Containment] and then find a great movie script. If it’s a British film that would be amazing. Sadly, I get more opportunity in terms of volumes of scripts here in the US. But I’d love to work on something in London, be it theatre or film.
What do you make of the sudden rise of black actors and filmmakers from London?
It’s an exciting time. I’m friends with John Boyega and David Oyewolo. We’ve come through together, dreaming big and it’s inspiring to see all our dreams coming true at the same time. When we meet up there’s a lot of camaraderie and lots of laughs.
And in terms of depictions of race on film and TV, does it look like things are getting better?
We’re used to Disney princes and princesses looking a certain way. It takes time to adjust and some people take a while to get it. Our job is to keep pushing barriers so the next generation can see themselves as the prince or the superhero or whatever character they want to be. The film Panic I made in London is a great example: I don’t want to do work that says this guy has to necessarily be black.
David Gyasi is in Containment, a major TV series about the outbreak of a deadly virus in Atlanta. His fear-soaked thriller Panic which was made in London is in Cinemas from 18 November and on demand from 21 November 2016.