We talked to Ashley Walters, Little Simz and Micheal Ward: the stars of Top Boy’s latest season.
This Friday, Top Boy returns to our screens after a six-year hiatus. When Channel 4 dropped the series in 2013, its legions of loyal fans were devastated. Among Top Boy’s disappointed acolytes, however, was one Aubrey Drake Graham. In 2017, with Drake’s backing, Netflix announced that it would revive Top Boy and that Ashley Walters would reprise his role as Dushane Hill, the show’s Machiavellian anti-hero. Ahead of its new ten-part revival, we sat down with Walters and his co-stars, Micheal Ward and Little Simz, to see what’s changed in the last six years and what the future holds for Top Boy.
But first we had to ask about Drake. “I was just as shocked as anyone would have been,” says Walters. “Just imagine that you woke up tomorrow and you saw your face on Drake’s Instagram or his Twitter”. For Simz, Drake was nothing but supportive: “it didn’t feel like it was about him, if that makes sense, it felt like it was about us and the show.” Walters, who has been with the show from its very inception, talks warmly of his return to Top Boy. “I felt like I had unfinished business but only because Instagram, Twitter and the rest of the country told me so,” he laughs. “[Not] every show has the reaction that this show has had […], but for six years – every day – I have had at least a hundred people tell me, ‘when’s Top Boy coming back?’.” Nonetheless, he says, “it took a lot of convincing” to get the original team back together and, had it not been for Drake “facilitating this whole journey”, Top Boy may well have disappeared forever.
Ward and Simz, both huge fans of the show long before they were cast, speak of their own eagerness for Top Boy’s revival. “[When] we were younger, we wanted season three,” Ward says, smiling. “I’m sure if I saw Ashley, I’d have been like, ‘yo, yo, come on now, man, when is Top Boy coming back?’.” In fact, for Ward, Top Boy has always been the dream: “I would have done anything to do with Top Boy … When I first met my agent, I told him, like, “Top Boy’s something I’d love to be a part of,” and this was at a time when I didn’t even know it was coming back”. Simz shares Ward’s excitement: “When I was growing up and Top Boy came out, it was a really important show for me and my peers, and so stepping into it […] I know how important it’s going to be for the next generation.” Simz admits that “there was a little fear element in there.” This fear was quickly dispelled, however. She and Walters have an incredibly compelling chemistry on- and off-screen: “he’s made me feel like I can just be honest about how I’m feeling […] and he was just really on-call and on-hand.” Both Simz and Ward talk of their involvement in Top Boy as if it were a dream come true and Ward shoots Walters a warm smile as he describes how surreal it was to meet “the Top Boy himself”.
It’s been six long years since Top Boy last graced our screens, and six years since Walters’ Dushane left his home in Summerhouse, a fictional East London estate. Dushane’s self-imposed exile in Jamaica ends abruptly when a fatal run-in with a powerful Jamaican gangster forces Dushane to return to London. It’s not long before Dushane finds himself standing toe-to-toe with Jamie (Ward), an ambitious young drug dealer. Dushane, Walters tells me, “started off with a vision of having a world where drugs could be sold […] without violence, [but] he quickly realises that that’s just not the way it works.”
Jamie, like Dushane is a conflicted man, driven to desperate measures to provide for his younger brothers. Simz puts it best when she describes Top Boy’s exemplary ability to breathe life into misunderstood and marginalised figures: “You see them so tough, and in the streets, […] and then you look closer and you see the human element”. Nevertheless, Jamie is, in Ward’s words, a “young, ruthless gang leader” keen “to make moves in East London while Dushane and Sully [played by Walters’ long-time co-star, Kane Robinson, aka Kano] are away.” When Dushane and Sully return, it falls to Jamie to “show them that time has passed”.
When I ask Walters what has changed in London in recent years, his response is typically wry: “Pretty much everything.” Dushane’s exile has been “like being in prison […] As far as you’re concerned – in your mind – your world has stayed still; your London has stayed still.” When Dushane returns to find a London where “the way people are consuming drugs, how they’re selling them, has changed”, and Summerhouse is rapidly undergoing gentrification, and a new generation of dealers who care little for his reputation, he is shaken to his core. At one point in the series Dushane confides in his friend, Dris (Shone Romulus), that he thought he would have accomplished so much more by his late thirties. “This is a new Dushane,” says Walters. “I mean, there’s a lot of the same characteristics there, like his methodical nature … but at the same time … there’s a lot of desperation.”
Simz plays Shelley, “a strong, independent […] single mum”. “[She] has grown up in Summerhouse,” says Simz, “so she understands road life, she understands what it means to do what you need to do in order to survive.” Shelley is looking for “a way out, a way to escape and give her child a better life” and was inspired by someone very close to Simz. “[That’s] why for me it was a lot more important to do it justice and make sure I get it right, you know, because this is someone’s real life.” For Simz, Top Boy’s strength lies in its authenticity: “these are people that I’m sure we’ve all crossed paths with somewhere in life.” That”s not the only reason that this part is so important to Simz, however. “[For] the first two seasons, you don’t really see a strong female lead and I think it’s really cool that we get to see that this time round”.
Ward cites The Wire as an inspiration for his character but he’s also quick to point out what separates Jamie from, say, Marlo, a seemingly obvious comparison. “Jamie,” unlike Marlo, “has a lot to lose with his family and his brothers”. He is not merely a nemesis for Dushane to overcome either. “There is some sort of mirror between the characters,” says Walters. “Dushane does see a part of himself in Micheal’s character.”
There is clearly a lot of love between the three stars, as well as a shared pride in their project. Just as Simz and Ward talk so fondly of Walters’ influence, Walters is quick to praise his fellow actors. At one point he pauses to say, “Micheal should take credit for how he portrayed the character […] it’s a testament to your acting.” Ward is, obviously, overjoyed at this remark.
For Ward, “this story could be told in so many different places, but us being able to actually tell our story and the stories of people around us is what’s actually important.” “The most surreal concepts and ideas that you watch on TV or in films are usually the true stories,” Walters adds. “[The] most exciting, the most glamorised [stories] are usually the bullshit … Transferring real stories and putting them onscreen is one of the hardest things and that’s what I think Top Boy [does] better than most other shows or films in its genre.” “Well not even most, all of them,” Ward cuts in. Walters laughs: “I didn’t wanna be so mean […] I set it up and you knocked it down, baby!”