Top Boy’s Ashley Walters: “It’s difficult for men, especially men who have grown up in the place I’ve grown up in”

As we mark the final ever episode of Top Boy, actor Ashley Walters reflects on his career so far.

A word of advice: if you tell Ashley Walters he can’t do something, he will likely find a way to prove you wrong. When the actor was told by Sky that he lacked the experience to direct an episode of his TV show Bulletproof – “Politely! They weren’t evil about it. They were just like, ‘Hold your horses,’” – he set out to put that right. “What they didn’t expect was that I’d go away and get a short written and film it,” he says of his directorial debut. Even then, it was to be a low-budget project until Walters sent it to Sky “behind everyone’s backs”. It’s a good thing he was so determined, because not only is the resulting short film, Boys, a beautifully raw coming-of-age tale, but Walters loved being behind the camera: “It was like breathing fresh air. If I’m honest with you, I enjoyed it more than I probably do acting, and I know I shouldn’t say that, but it feels a lot more natural.”

Boys follows 16-year-old best friends Noah and Lewis as they embark on a quest around London to acquire items requested by Noah’s older, incarcerated brother. The themes of male friendship and growing up will be familiar to Walters’ fans. “Any time I seem to do anything creative, that always comes out because it’s been a big part of my life,” he says. “My relationship or lack of relationship with my father before he passed away, my relationship with my children, my sons – it’s shaped the person that I am, so most of my stories do revolve around fatherhood, that boy-becoming-man transition and how people learn to love themselves. I like to see that development, the realisation that your immediate environment is not the only place there is in the world.”

Ashley wears top and trousers by RAFAEL KOUTO.
Ashley wears jacket, blazer, shirt and shoes by BOSS X RUSSELL ATHLETIC.

Now 39, Peckham-born Walters has been in the business for almost three decades, having started acting aged 10, but it was as Asher D, the youngest member of early- 2000s UK garage collective So Solid Crew that he really shot to fame. After the group disbanded, Walters turned his hand to acting and landed a series of major roles: Ricky in Bullet Boy, Antwan in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and most famously, drug kingpin Dushane Hill in Top Boy.

Walters teases that the much-anticipated fourth series will see Dushane wrestling with just how much he’s willing to commit to his life choices: “The characters are getting older, as we are as actors, so I think it’s important to follow that journey. Does someone who does that job, if you want to call it that, want to be in that job for ever?” The Hackney-set series has become a worldwide hit since it was cancelled by Channel 4 and then rescued three years later by Netflix following support from the rapper Drake.

Ashley wears coat, hoodie and hat by BOSS X RUSSELL ATHLETIC.
Ashley wears coat, hoodie and hat by BOSS X RUSSELL ATHLETIC.

“In the beginning we didn’t have a clue what it was going to be, the beast that it would become,” says Walters. “But I did know that as much as I’d played roles similar to Dushane before that point, it was completely different. It was the human side of that story, which also embraced the political environment it was encased in. It reminded me of The Wire and other shows that get a bit deeper into the hierarchy of how the system actually works.”

Exploring the emotional side of characters that could easily be stereotypes fits with Walters’ wider life philosophy. Last year he took part in RANKIN’s digital exhibition about grief, Lost for Words. Walters spoke about losing his estranged father and admits it was tough to open up: “It’s difficult for men, especially men like myself who have grown up in the place I’ve grown up in. You’re kind of taught not to express how you feel and just hold it all in and be strong. That’s what our idea of a man is and that can be the worst thing. It’s something I try to encourage all the men in my life to do – to be a bit more open and be willing to talk.”

Ashley wears jacket by LEVI’S® VINTAGE CLOTHING, trousers by KA WA KEY and shoes DR. MARTENS.

One man in Walters’ life, at least until recently, was his friend and collaborator Noel Clarke, with whom he created and starred in Bulletproof. The fourth series was cancelled after Clarke was accused by 20 women of bullying and sexual harassment, something Walters is still coming to terms with. “For me it was a huge shock to the system,” he says. “My first thought was for the victims really, what they’ve gone through. Obviously I’m not responsible for his actions but things like that happening in an environment that you’re in as well and you not seeing it is kind of hard to take. Because if I had seen anything, I know I would have called it out straight away. Obviously Noel has been a great friend of mine for many years now while we’ve been putting this show together, so it was very disappointing to me. It was something that I had to have the support of my family throughout that period of time, because it was a big change for me – kind of overnight, the way it happened.”

Walters is acutely aware of the people who lost their jobs as a result of Bulletproof’s cancellation and he’s carefully considering the kind of future working environment he wants to cultivate: “I think we have to create a space where people feel safe to talk about that stuff and not be ridiculed for it and not be shut down for it.”

Ashley wears vest, blazer and crown by GIVENCHY, watch by SWATCH and rings by RÄTHEL & WOLF.
Ashley wears mesh top by RAFAEL KOUTO, trousers by KA WA KEY, shoes by DR. MARTENS, watch by SEIKO and rings by RÄTHEL & WOLF.

This is especially true for his future directorial ambitions, but Walters isn’t giving up on acting just yet. His latest role is in Dominic Savage’s anthology series I Am, playing husband to Suranne Jones, and he relished the challenge of Savage’s trademark gruelling long takes. “It’s one of the hardest, most exciting things to do,” Walters says. “I was sweating most of the time. Literally, for the hour’s take, you have to stay in character the whole time because anything can happen. I’ve worked with him a few times before and the results are amazing. Suranne’s performance is second to none. It’s gonna be a good one!”

Aside from that, does Hollywood beckon, as it has for many of his peers, especially young Black British actors? “Listen, sometimes I would like to be the costar in Top Boy because they all seem to be going to Marvel!” he jokes. “A lot of people do end up making that their first destination and have done really well at it. Not to be negative but a lot of that is to do with the lack of work and representation over here. There’s a lot of us in a small place fighting for the same roles and not everyone can get them. I think in America, as segregated as it can be over there, the work is a lot more diverse. A lot of those people are my friends – Ashley Thomas, Daniel Kaluuya, Idris Elba. They’re flying the flag out there, which is amazing and I only hope it makes my path slightly easier when I go out!”

This interview is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here

BOSS X Russell Athletic Season 2 is available to shop here

PhotographerDerrick Kakembo
WriterRachael Sigee
StylistFemi Ayo
Makeup ArtistAndrew Denton at Premier Hair and Makeup using BOY DE CHANEL and CHANEL Le Lift Lotion
Hair StylistFranklyn Nnamdi-Okwedy using GAMMA+
Fashion AssistantVictoria Oby
Photography AssistantsAndrew Rankin, Emmanuel Owusu-Afram and Tatjana Galic
ProducerGrace Finger
Set DesignMarco Turcich