To say Micheal Ward has been busy these past twelve months would be quite the understatement.
“[Top Boy] came out in September. Before that, no one knew who I was,” says Ward.
Flashforward a mere six months and Ward, the breakout star of Netflix’s London crime drama, is nominated alongside the illustrious actors Stephen Graham (The Virtues) and Jared Harris (Chernobyl) for an RTS Programme Award.
When I speak to Ward in early March, pre-government lockdown, he has just returned from a trip to Los Angeles, having enjoyed a well-earned break after a whirlwind of acting work and awards nights. “LA is such a dream, it’s like a fantasy,” he says.
Ward is indeed living the dream. Despite a lack of previous acting credits, he landed a leading role in the big-budget reboot of Ronan Bennett’s Top Boy, a show he watched ardently during his teenage years at school.
The series follows the lives of rival gang members in Summerhouse, a fictional housing estate in Hackney. From ‘County Lines’ drug gangs to the harsh reality of immigrant deportation, the series has been praised for offering an authentic depiction of the London life experienced by many communities, behind the superficial sheen of gentrification.
Ward credits the original show, which initially aired on Channel 4 in 2011, for first allowing him to consider acting as a feasible career path. “What inspired me to even embark on this journey was definitely Top Boy,” he says. “It was the only time someone from my demographic was represented on screen. It showed me that there are people like me that can be successful within this field”
Ward plays Jamie, the new kid on the block, vying for dominance over Summerhouse’s established hierarchy led by gangsters Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson).
Despite his capacity for brutal violence, Jamie is presented as a sympathetic young man trapped in a tough situation, forced into crime in order to provide for his two younger brothers.
Having initially auditioned for the role of Jamie’s studious younger brother Aaron, played by Hope Ikpoku, Ward feared that he might not be up to the job of playing the new lead.
“When they gave me the chance to audition for Jamie, I thought this might be difficult,” he explains. “[Jamie] was aggressive. I thought I wouldn't be able to do it”.
But Ward wasn’t going to let any doubts about suitability get in the way of his ambitions to be on the show. “Honestly, I would have played Stefan if I could,” Ward jokes, despite Stefan being about 12 years old. “I would have played any role in the series because I was just such a big fan of the show”.
Perhaps surprisingly, considering the hyper-masculinity of his character Jamie, Ward was reared on a Disney Channel diet of High School Musical, That’s So Raven and Hannah Montana as a youngster. “I know it sounds a bit naff but it’s what I used to watch, and stuff like Glee as well,” he admits.
In a turn of events that would astonish his younger self, Ward has grown from watching American TV to becoming a regular fixture on it across the pond.
Thanks to Netflix and the help of Canadian rapper Drake, who helped to revive the show for Netflix, Top Boy has flourished into a show with a huge global audience. From Stormzy lyrics to French memes, the series has permeated culture way beyond the TV screen.
Ward is evidently touched by this global recognition. “Prior to all of this, I hadn’t been to many places. So, the fact that people know me in these countries I've never even been to before is just insane.”
He added, “I just feel so blessed that that's happening.”
“It’s a lot to digest in such a short space of time,” Ward admits, but for someone who’s achieved meteoric success, his feet are still planted firmly on the ground.
“There's a lot to kind of take in,” he says. “But there's going to be times where it's not going to be like this. So I've just got to be prepared for that really.”
Since Top Boy, Ward has starred in Rapman’s Blue Story playing Marco, a young man drawn into a postcode gang war against his closest friend Timmy (Stephen Odubola). The role earned Ward a BAFTA EE Rising Star Award, and his moving acceptance speech became one of the standout moments of the ceremony.
Being presented the award by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) saved Ward from becoming completely overwhelmed on stage, he says: “My feet weren’t even on the ground until [Kaluuya] gave me a hug and just said, ‘You know what, you got this bro’”.
Ward will be joining his fellow rising star alumni, Letitia Wright (Black Panther) and John Boyega (Star Wars), in Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen’s new anthology series Small Axe, which is set to explore the lives of the West Indian community in London from the 1960s through to the 80s.
Ward stays tight-lipped on the details of the highly anticipated BBC show, but is full of superlative praise when discussing his experience working with McQueen.
“I know I keep saying it, but I just feel so blessed to have been able to work with someone that is considered one of the greatest of all time within his field,” he gushes. “And I honestly believe after working with [McQueen] that he's so crazily, amazingly talented, and he's just real”.
Alongside Small Axe, Ward has also got his first American film and an action movie slated for release later this year, although with the current pandemic situation they may be delayed.
Looking to the future, Ward is determined to continue honing his craft. “I want to work with some amazing people, actors, directors”, he says. “Yeah man, just keep learning, keep growing. That’s the plan for sure”.
This precise focus makes clear that Ward’s success is no happy accident, but the culmination of years of hard work and planning by himself and his team.
As for the show on which Ward made his name, with a second series of Top Boy confirmed, Ward is raring to return to his character. “I'm excited to just get back into Jamie’s frame of mind and just start filming man, just get this done.
“Not only for myself, but for everyone who wants it, because it is special.”