White Heat - David Gyasi interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
BRITISH actor David Gyasi talks about his role as a law student in BBC mini-series White Heat and what it means to him to play such a pivotal role in such a landmark drama.
He also talks about his career to date and forthcoming roles in The Dark Knight Rises, George Lucas’ World War II drama Red Tails and Cloud Atlas.
Q. With roles in White Heat for the BBC, The Dark Knight Rises, Red Tails and Cloud Atlas coming up, this has been quite an amazing period of time for you?
David Gyasi: It has been. It’s been an amazing year and a bit.
Q. Can you talk about your role as Victor, the young law student, in White Heat. What makes him tick?
David Gyasi: Well, as you say it was a fascinating period of time in my life in that when I first got the script, I was actually supposed to going to the Ghana-England match, which was the first time Ghana had played England at Wembley. But then this script arrived and my agent said I’d really like you to read this. So, I had to cancel seeing the game, which all the rest of my family were going to. And I remember that as I was reading it, I was getting quite annoyed at Victor and what I deemed to be a lack of courage, of fight, of bravery really… because he arrives in England during a time and in an environment which was so hostile and so racist and yet this man is very intelligent.
So, I was confused because a lot of the time, when he was faced with that hostility in the early episodes, he doesn’t say or do anything, and I was always brought up to educate when faced with that, or to at least offer another perspective. And Victor was of my dad’s generation; my dad came over in 1966, so I was frustrated that he didn’t say anything… and I was also frustrated that I missed the match.
But I was round my parents’ house about three days before I was due to meet Paula [Milne, screenwriter] and John Alexander, the director, and I thought I don’t really want to do this. And I mentioned all this to my dad when he asked me why I wasn’t at the match, and was waxing lyrical about how upsetting I found it, when I noticed that my dad had a wry smile on his face and was very silent. I said: “What, what?” And he said: “I think you should go and read it again. I think you’ve mistaken Victor’s quiet as weakness, but really it’s dignity and in that dignity there’s strength.”
He then explained that a lot of the people that came over had a focus and a long-term goal and the clever ones realised that if you got involved in the conflict… as frustrating, demeaning and painful as it was, if you got involved in the small-time politics, then someone like Victor wouldn’t have been able to achieve his long term goal of becoming a lawyer and eventually a judge. If he’d become involved in an altercation, he would have probably been arrested and given a criminal record, which would hinder his chances of becoming a lawyer and so on.
So, I read it again and this time I read it from my dad’s perspective and it made a lot more sense. I began to see him as this hugely powerful and brave man – and someone who was strong because of what was going on in his inside. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel hurt and disgust, but that he had the ability to suppress it… although there is a part where he is unable to suppress it anymore.
And I have to confess, when he does what he does I put down the script and jumped with joy. And when I was playing it and feeling those things, it did hurt. There’s a scene on a bus where he’s being thrown nuts and called all sorts of words where I could actually feel Victor’s frustration and could really understand what a lot of that generation must have gone through. And it was hard. But then afterwards, I felt hugely powerful and privileged to have been given the responsibility just to personally be able to walk that journey that the generation above me had.
Q. So, I guess you have your dad to thank in a big way?
David Gyasi: [Laughs] Yes, it was just one of a lot of things he’s said to me that made sense. Of course, as a young man I’d always be wanting to run out trying to make my own sense of things. But he’d pretty much be right about things 99 times out of a 100. Well, maybe 98 times!
Q. Have your parents seen White Heat yet?
David Gyasi: No, they haven’t seen it yet. But what’s nice is that during one of the episodes there’s a picture of Victor and his parents and while they were trying to cast for it I said: “Why don’t you use my parents?” So, that’s my mum and dad in the photo that Victor is staring at.
Q. How was working with a writer of Paula Milne’s calibre?
David Gyasi: It’s one of the best experiences I’ve personally had because, again, I’ve mentioned the responsibility I felt towards that character, so to be treated and respected as an artist in the way that Paula did was incredibly rewarding. She would spend time chatting to us individually about her characters. And these were characters who were very close to her heart, so it must have been very hard for her to let actors come in and read into them. But Paula did that. She had a lot to say about Victor but she’d also ask me how I felt about him. And we didn’t really disagree about how he should be played. Rather, we shared information and built and built and built. I think the only disagreement we had was in the way she described him as a sleeping dragon, whereas I liked to think of him as a sleeping lion. But she let me have that one.
Q. And how was working with your fellow cast members such as Sam Claflin and Claire Foy?
David Gyasi: Sam Claflin, I reckon, is a very, very special talent. I really liked his work on this, from the read through to working opposite him. Claire Foy is amazing. She quietly goes about her business and she’s lovely. But I really enjoyed working with everyone on this. Lee Ingleby was an amazing improviser… you could see in each take that he was constantly building this character. But MyAnna Buring, Jessica Gunning and Reece Ritchie… I had moments with all of them where we’d be in a scene and I would find myself zoning out and going ‘that’s brilliant’. I didn’t have much to do with Reece but I remember seeing him in an early scene where he was like a sheepish little boy and then, a little later, he’s a doctor in his mid-30s and he’s diagnosing someone and I thought ‘that’s genius’. It was the same actor but I could see him, literally, 10 years older. But that’s the level you want to work at, where you love what your friends are doing it, because it makes you play hard as well. I genuinely loved everyone that I worked with on White Heat, from the crew to the actors.
Q. Is it also a bit of a gift to be able to spend so much time playing a character such as Victor, who ages from 18 to 40 over the course of the drama?
David Gyasi: Yes, of course it is, because I mentioned my frustrations with him early on as a character, so to be able to go on and see him develop and become the man that he does is lovely. And you do get very attached and slightly over-protective of them, to the point that when they make decisions in their life you find yourself screaming: “No, don’t turn left… turn right, don’t do it!”Or if there’s an injustice that happens to them, I found it really affected me. I like to be involved with my characters. It’s the way I trained and how I work. So, I love to try and get underneath them and try and feel and live what they do. It’s been a massive lesson and I did find it painful when stuff went wrong for him.
Q. And now you’re also branching into movies…
David Gyasi: [Laughs] Yeah, I’m doing that now. It’s been a crazy year and a bit. And I’ve loved everything I’ve been able to do. White Heat was different to a lot of other projects in that we had time, not acres, to spend rehearsing a little bit and breaking down our characters in a way that allowed us to be quite comfortable on set and in front of the camera. That’s not to say that you don’t get that time on other bits of TV. You do, it’s just shorter. But also on Cloud Atlas we’d sometimes spend days on a scene just attempting to give it the best we possibly could. And that’s with all of the artistic effort from the likes of Jim Sturgess and the Wachowski siblings and Tom Hanks and myself.
Those were the actors I spent the most amount of time with but you could see their desire to really respect the script and the job. But that’s what I fell in love with as an actor… that whole process. It is a long day sometimes but when I made a decision to become an actor I made it based on my love of telling stories, so to get to that in its entirety was, as you say, a dream job and an amazing opportunity. And I think because there was such a focus on that set… even though there’s Tom [Hanks], or there’s Jim Broadbent, or Hugo Weaving – the list is endless on that film – I never had time to get star-struck. We were just actors on a job and on a journey. And I loved it completely.
Q. Does it also encourage you to bring your A-game?
David Gyasi: I think there’s two ways of reacting to that kind of opportunity and that script and one is, as you say, to bring your A-game. I spoke to a very good actor-friend of mine beforehand and he was saying that our responsibility is to work hard. And it’s something I’ve subscribed to since I was a kid. I’ve played a lot of sport and if you can come off the pitch and know you’ve given everything, you can sleep well. So, given the effort that had gone into developing that script… even being able to do it was a drama from start to finish. So, once the cameras were rolling, it was such an opportunity to do it well that it demanded that we all brought our A-game and worked as hard as we could. And they [the Wachowski brothers] would do really lovely things like show us snippets that they’d edit together.
So, for instance a quarter of the way through, we had a five minute showing, and then halfway through we had a seven minute showing. It really is an incredible film. There are six sections to it, which feel as though they could belong to six different films, but of course we were only making one film. It’s amazing how you go from the 19th Century to the 24th Century in the same film. Red Tails, Cloud Atlas and White Heat were massive milestones in my career and I literally did them back to back.
Q. What about your experience with The Dark Knight Rises?
David Gyasi: Well, it was interesting because before I got the call about it I was in LA at the beginning of that year and hadn’t worked for quite a bit of time. The day before I got the call I’d gone on a long walk with my son and I was really weighing things up, acting wise. I’ve got this beautiful family that I need to support, so I was thinking hard about how I was going to be able to continue doing that. My other passion is sport, so I thought maybe I could do something with sport and I was meditating on whether it was right for me to continue in a profession that I still loved. I also spoke to my wife about it and then I got a conference call from my English and American representatives and they said that they’d spoken to the people on Batman and they’d like to employ me. It was such an affirming phone call to receive at that point because I had auditioned maybe four months ago for the role and had kept getting calls from them regarding my availability. So, for me, it came at the right time. But I guess you want to know about what it was like on-set?
Q. Can you say much about it?
David Gyasi: Being on-set was an extraordinary experience… not receiving any script until I actually walked on set. And even then… I was told what was happening and then told my lines and then it was a case of ‘action… this is what your reaction is”. As someone who likes to get involved with their characters that was a little bit nerve-wracking but at the same time quite freeing because it meant that in my hotel room the night before I knew that every actor on the set was in the same boat. It was a fascinating way of working. And then being in front of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale and faced with this big Hollywood machine waiting for you to say your lines. I was like: “Please God, allow me to remember this paragraph!” I hope I haven’t said too much. But it was a great experience and very useful. It was a different experience and I hope I’m still in the film. I think I will be.
Q. And what of Red Tails? You say that was something very close to your heart now as well?
David Gyasi: I was working abroad when I got the script and so I read it and again, to my shame and frustration, i didn’t know this story. I just thought it was such an important World War II story and I didn’t know it until I was in my mid to late 20s, when I read script. This kind of story is so helpful for everyone to know… the effort and the sacrifice and the skill and the intelligence that surrounded these young African-American men in a time when we were calling out for role models… I just thought to myself, why am I only discovering this story now, when I’m in my mid-20s? If we were told stories like this in school it would help young men to walk taller all over, regardless of race. It’s a god example of dedication and hard work and triumph through adversity. It has all the ingredients for a good and inspiring story.
So, once I finished that script I literally went along to my audition prepared to sweep up after everyone. I really was prepared to do anything on that set because I thought the story had to get out there and would love and be honoured to play any part in it, even if that meant sweeping up. And then I got this part of a corporal. So, I made my way over to Prague and met some of the Tuskegee airmen who were out there consulting on the film. Some of them were on walking sticks, another was in a wheelchair for the majority of the time… but when they stood up, they had such straight backs and protruding chests that there was this aura around them of pride and dedication. I felt honoured to be donning the uniform of those guys from 60 years back. It was one of those moments where I felt hugely privileged to be part of telling the story of these amazing men… rather like the same feeling I had playing Victor in White Heat or Autua in Cloud Atlas.
Q. Did you get a sense from meeting those men that they were relieved to finally have their story told?
David Gyasi: Yes, I did. The fact that they were there said as much. And they didn’t interfere so much. It was more us going to them for advice and information, which I think pleased them as well. But this is such an important story that we wanted to get it right.
Q. Did you meet George Lucas?
David Gyasi: I did very briefly. But what do you say to George Lucas? I had this very brief interaction with him… sometimes the creative people in this industry are quite introverted and quiet and he seemed to be that type of person.
Q. What’s next? I’ve read that you have a yearning to get back to the stage?
David Gyasi: I’ve got quite a few meetings coming up for projects that are really exciting. But to be honest, with all this stuff in the can and about to come up my availability is quite key at the moment. I’ve had to say ‘no’ to a couple of things this year, which was quite painful. And the meetings I have coming up are sadly not for the stage, although I can’t really say what they are for. But I think the stage will happen later on this year. I’m predicting summer… as much as you can predict anything as an actor! But I’m getting itchy feet again. I saw a friend in Changeling at the Young Vic and almost jumped onto the stage just to go ‘hi’ and then jump off. I really enjoyed it. It’s an intimate theatre that one. But it kind of told me I’m ready to get back on the stage again.
White Heat airs on BBC2 on Thursday, March 8, 2012, at 9pm. Red Tails, The Dark Knight Rises and Cloud Atlas are out later this year.