The BAFTA-winning British star of Steve McQueen’s anticipated series, Small Axe, discusses the power of championing Black narratives, with Desmond Elliott Prize-winning author Derek Owusu.
Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing a selection of stories, events and social moments to celebrate Black History Month in the UK. View all stories here.
Micheal Ward is, for all intents and purposes, a very modern success story. Born in Jamaica, and raised in Essex, in England, by the age of 17 he had already traded in a job delivering food for his auntie’s Caribbean restaurant for a career as a model. This included a healthy spate of ecommerce gigs for high-street athleisure brands and some small roles in music videos. After signing with an agent out of drama school, Ward relayed that a role in the TV series Top Boy was the dream [while still at school, he messaged the lead actor Ashley Walters on Twitter asking for an audition]. Less than a year later, he was thrown into the global spotlight as Jamie – an east London boy fighting the hierarchy of a Hackney gang in the Netflix and Drake-resurrected series.
The show became an international sensation, surpassing the previous series’ loyal following when it aired on Channel 4 in the UK. This was closely followed by Blue Story, the acclaimed film based on spoken-word performer Rapman’s viral YouTube series about south London gangs. Then came a role opposite Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron in The Old Guard, a Louis Vuitton campaign cast by the label’s creative director, Virgil Abloh, and shot by celebrated artist Tim Walker. And now, only three years since his big acting break – winning 2020’s BAFTA Rising Star Award along the way – a starring role in the artist Steve McQueen’s latest project, a collection of five original films collectively called Small Axe.
The project comprises a decade-spanning look at West Indians living in London, with Ward’s film from the series, Lovers Rock, centring around a ‘Blues party’ in 1980 – a time when the Black community was not allowed (‘or wanted’, as Ward says) in London clubs.
Exclusively for Soho House, Ward discusses his meteoric rise and the need to show real lives from Black history in film, with Desmond Elliott Prize-winning author and member Derek Owusu.
Micheal Ward: ‘I still move the same, I’m still interested in the same stuff, and I still navigate the same way. Now we can’t just step out and go anywhere anymore – that’s what’s different. But my bros and that know; there’s nothing to get overexcited about. Obviously, the projects are amazing and everyone’s proud. And they know that we can go out and eat for free now (they will reap those benefits!), but other than that, I’m still cool. Even they say to me, “You should be moving a bit more bougie.” But I can’t, it’s just not in me. It doesn’t really gas me up, to be honest with you. I’m just present and enjoying it. I really come from nothing, so you know, I’m just grateful for everything.’
DO: Because of some of the roles that you have played, being a Black man, people may get a certain impression. In previous interviews you’ve made the distinction that you may be from ends, but you’re not a roadman. Is it important for you to emphasise that fact, and that these are just characters you’re playing.
MW: ‘I do like to make the distinction, because I think a lot of people feel that you need to be “bad” – not necessarily to play the roles, but to be successful from the ends. I felt like I’ve never needed to be like that. Once you have role models who show you that you don’t need to be bad to be successful, it just makes a lot of things easier for people. Do good work and people will gravitate towards that. That’s what I’m about.’
DO: Talking about role models, what was it like working with Steve McQueen for Small Axe?
MW: ‘Steve McQueen is an artist, it’s a different muscle. I knew his work from 12 Years A Slave and Widows. But when I got the audition for the part, I did a lot more research. I watched his other films, like Hunger, and that’s when I realised, this guy ain’t just a director, you know? What I really liked was that everyone was kind of like “Oh my God, Steve McQueen”, and when I met him, he just said, “Listen, bro, just do your thing.” From that energy, I just knew he’s a proper down-to-earth guy, as well as an artiste. Beautiful to be around. There were times I was worrying on set and he’d go, “I hired you for the job, so just do what you’re doing and it’s all gonna be good. Don’t worry about nothing.”’
DO: In the Lovers Rock, part of the Small Axe series, you play Franklyn, a charming young man at a Blues party in the 1980s. For the most part, the role and project has been kept secret. What can you tell us about Franklyn?
MW: ‘For any Jamaican character, from instinct, I always think about my uncle. I thought about him a lot for this role. He’s the only one in my family who’s been married for many years – 17 years now – and in this film I’m playing a lover. I needed to understand that, because a lot of men, they ain’t loyal, they ain’t really invested in romance. Thinking of him helped a lot. And a lot of stuff was instinct as well, that’s what Steve is invested in.’
DO: In a time like this, when ‘Black love’ is on the tips of a lot of people’s tongues, how important is it for you to show a Black man who is a lover, not a fighter?
MW: ‘We filmed this last year, but even then I still felt like I was involved in a conversation that was going to be huge. I felt like I was part of something that was going to make a difference. It’s on the tips of people’s tongues now, but it’s something that we’ve been wanting to speak about for a long time. Ain’t nothing new. It’s going to highlight real stories and real issues. And what’s special about Lovers Rock specifically is that it just shows us living. It is literally just a party we’re enjoying, we’re allowed to enjoy, we’re allowed to get into confrontation, and it don’t seem like we’re “gangsters”. It’s normal stuff. That’s why it just felt good to be a part of it.’
DO: You’re right, it’s important for people to see projects of Black people, as you say, ‘just living’.
MW: ‘What really is important about Small Axe is that people are going to get an insight into Black stories. People think they know Black culture, that they know Black stories. But with films like this, they’re going to get the real stuff, real knowledge – they’re going to know about the Mangrove Nine now. They’re going to know what a Lovers Rock party was like. The real stuff. There were things about Black culture I learnt from making this film myself. I didn’t know about the music, the dancing, or the clothes. It was all an experience for me, and it’s an experience that I felt I needed to know. Because I’m Jamaican, as well, it was even more special for me to understand that this is what my people would have gone through back in the day. This project and experience has really changed my perception of things. That’s one thing that I want now, just to continuously learn, you know. I spoke to people who have seen it at New York Film Festival and they said they’ve never seen nothing like it before. And that is the key. Because this is truth.’