As the rain hits the roof of a photography studio on an industrial estate in South East London, two young British actors are planning to take over the world. Stephen Odubola is trying to persuade Micheal Ward that he should move to Los Angeles. Like any good British chat, it starts with the weather, but this is no small talk.
“You will love it. The weather is good there and it’s like the home of the film industry, Hollywood’s there. It’s where you want to be,” he says.
“I need to go there first,” replies Ward. “I need to go and see if it’s LA or New York. I might not like it, but I feel like I was destined to be in America.”
The talk of destiny is catching. “I see this film as being the first step there. I know I’m on a bigger track to where I want to be. That’s the goal,” says Odubola.
“One hundred per cent,” says Ward. “It’s every actor’s dream to end up in Hollywood. I know for a fact that everything’s going to be coming soon.”
When you learn that both actors are precisely one film into their acting careers, it could sound arrogant; they’re not only plotting a move to America, but plan to let LA and New York fight it out for their affections. But this is no ordinary film, and these are no ordinary actors.
They are joint leads in Blue Story, the tale of two schoolboy pals, Timmy (Odubola) and Marco (Ward), who live on council estates in different parts of South London – Deptford and Peckham – and whose lives become complicated, to say the least, by a postcode war between gangs in the two districts.
The film – also a first for writer-director, Rapman, aka Andrew Onwubolu, who based it on his own childhood in Deptford – is gathering heat faster than an asteroid entering Earth’s atmosphere. It might just be the most significant British picture of 2019, and these men are its undisputed champions. So a little confidence is allowed.
“We like to describe it as a modern Romeo and Juliet,” says Ward, referring to Rapman’s ‘signature’ rap narration of the film which gives it a Shakespearean flavour. “But instead of a love between a male and a female, it’s a love between brothers. The rapping gives it a USP. This is history. It’s going to be the first of its kind and it’s going to do numbers.”
Almost from nowhere, the three men are gatecrashing the bigtime. Almost. Rapman made his name with the popular three-part YouTube drama Shiro’s Story before being taken under Jay-Z’s Roc Nation umbrella and having this, his first feature, released by Paramount. Our stars have put the work in, too, having caught the acting bug at school and studying the art ever since. Each had exactly the same simple but effective philosophy: find something they enjoy and make a living from it.
For Odubola, 23, this is a screen debut of any kind, but Ward, 24, has a few lines on his IMDb page. After signing for an agency, he entered “a kind of spiral” of auditions, small roles, short films and music videos before landing his first TV show, Netflix horror The A-List, in 2018.
A year later, he joined the cast of long-running and mightily-acclaimed Top Boy for its third season. Another Netflix show, it’s set on a fictional housing estate in East London, is backed by Drake and stars Kane Robinson (aka Kano) and Ashley Walters (aka Asher D). It deals with crime but is about a great deal more. The same goes for Blue Story.
OUTFIT CREDITS | (LEFT) Suit: Thom Sweeney, Shirt: Gieves & Hawkes, Watch: Model’s Own (RIGHT) Suit: Richard James, Zipped Top: Topman, Vest: David Gandy @ Marks & Spencer, Chain: Gucci, Watch: Model’s Own
There’s crime. There’s violence, too. But at its heart of the film you’ll find those age-old themes of loyalty (merited and misplaced), love, pride, revenge, hope, friendship, the trials of youth and masculinity. It’s universal, but also specific to the people who live in that world. People like Odubola, who grew up on a council estate in Kennington, also in South London.
“It was similar to how Timmy grew up,” he says. “It was tough, man. You get exposed to a lot of things and, as a teenager, you’re still trying to find yourself as a person, as a man. I can relate to quite a lot in the story. Certain scenes and feelings like friendship, peer pressure, mental health states. Not a lot of people really get our stories, so I’m just happy that this reflects the life of so many people growing up on a council estate.
Odubola is more softly spoken than Ward, but on this subject he speaks with intent and clarity. These communities are a large, vibrant and crucial part of British culture and yet are painted negatively by the majority of both the press and the arts. See a young black man in the news and there’s a good chance he’ll be a victim or a perpetrator of a crime. Or he might be a ‘cocky’ footballer splashing his money on ridiculous things like, say, a nice house for his mum.
“When I decided I wanted to be an actor, I didn’t really want to be in anything related to urban life because a lot of people don’t portray it properly. When I read the script I saw a real story that hasn’t been told before. I had to get involved because it’s the truth. That’s all I wanted to be involved in, the truth.”
Ward was born in Jamaica before moving to the leafy (well, leafy-ish) East London suburban town of Romford as a child. Even he – who would be seen through the same prejudicial lens as any young black man – had a skewed view of Blue Story’s world.
“The media like to demonise these people,” he says. “They don’t know what leads them to be in these situations or the aftermath. I didn’t even know. The script was a revelation to me. I used to think, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ But you don’t understand. That’s why these stories are so important: it’s educating me, it’s educating you.”
The violence and dangers faced by, in particular, young black men in working class areas can’t be ignored. They certainly aren’t in Blue Story. Violent acts are central to the plot and, as tends to happen with such acts, things don’t turn out well.
With the nation in what feels like a fug of depression and optimism in short supply, it makes you wonder if things can get any better – if there is hope out there for young people surrounded by pressures, prejudice and risks. The good news is, both Ward and Odubola are brimming with hope. Confidence of youth meets confidence in youth.
“A thousand per cent,” says Ward. “I believe we’re going to a place where there are a lot more opportunities and directions that people can see themselves going in. People used to think, ‘I want to be on TV’. Now it could be director, cameraman. People from our world don’t realise these opportunities are out there, but now we can ask friends, ‘Have you ever thought about being a sound guy? A writer?”
“There are ways of stimulating someone’s mind to think wider and I feel like this is the time for it. There’s more content being made, which means more opportunities.”
They two are certainly making the most of the opportunities afforded by Blue Story. They’ve attended awards shows, premieres and now they’re on a photoshoot wearing designer suits.
Ward has been modelling since his teens, but they both look at home here. Slender, athletic, good-looking men, pieces hang on them like they’re supposed to hang. But the clothes we’ve put them in today aren’t their usual style. Odubola loves a potent sweatshirt, while Ward likes his clothes with volume, “like my personality”.
“One of my favourite outfits I’ve worn was at the BET Awards,” he says. “It was this pink Casablanca look. Double denim. It was sick, man.”
At the same time, they’re also very aware that opportunities for black actors to get good roles are limited, and that this problem is exacerbated if you’re working class. Any success for the stars and makers of things like Blue Story and Top Boy has to be cherished.
Not that the arts or any other industry should bear the weight of trying to even up society; we have a government that’s supposed to do that. But, as both men point out, a film like this can lead to a greater understanding of issues such as knife crime, which in London reached a nine-year high in 2019.
OUTFIT CREDITS | Jacket: John Lewis, Jumper: Arket, Trousers: Reiss, Hat: Lock & Co, Shoes: Grenson
“I feel like the film is going to create awareness and might change some people’s lives,” says Odubola. “There are factors that we as filmmakers can’t control. Communities need to step up and create more opportunities for these young kids as well.”
Ward adds: “It’s not going to happen overnight. When the movie comes out, maybe 10 people out of 1,000 might take this message seriously and put down the knives or look for opportunities, but at least that’s 10. And in another year it could be another 10. All those tens would add up. I know for a fact that we’re going to improve because we can’t carry on going like this. It’s ridiculous.
“Masculinity is definitely in issue. In some situations, it could all be solved by communication, being mature and just letting your pride go. A lot of men don’t like to do that. That’s understandable, but at the same time, was it all worth it?”
With such acting chops, Ward and Odubola’s confidence in their own futures is well placed. You can only imagine a very sharp upward curve in their career trajectories and fame levels once Blue Story, as Ward says, does numbers. After that?
“I want to emulate Kevin Hart,” says Ward. “He’s inspired me. What he’s done, created history, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to be a legend. The only way you can be a legend is if you create history.”
“I’d love to go into different parts of the industry, to direct maybe. I’d love to produce a film, have my name on big projects. Those are all aspirations that I know I’ll be able to achieve, but all in due time. I see the vision and it’s just about chasing that.”
Aiming low again, then.
“Talking about being a legend,” says Odubola, “I don’t know what cause I’d want to help, but eventually, when I’m at a certain place I’d want to branch out and help other people. If you’ve got power and you’ve got a platform you might as well use it for the advantage of other people.”
Confidence is a powerful thing: confidence in yourself and in others. It can nudge us forward when it’s easier to stand still or retreat. It can lead to great things, it can lead to stupid things, but it does at least make us do those things.
It’s a good bet that these men will do things that will breed confidence in others who, in turn, will do things that breed confidence and so on. Then, maybe, a different circle can begin.
Photographer: Kirk Truman
Art direction: Luke Sampson
Stylist: Sarah Ann Murray
Stylist assistants: Bethany Parkinson and Jess Gwyneth
Grooming: Keshia East