Lessons in Life: Ashley Walters

Photography: Ollie Adegboye / Styling: Shaquille Williams / Interview & Words: Tom Everest

Ashley Walters is open to talk about anything and everything. So, it’s funny that you only see his name in the context of Top Boy, So Solid Crew and Bulletproof – or even subjects like prison, gun crime and fatherhood. Google him. You’ll see. 

Recent interviews focus solely on those subjects. It seems that the media, the mainstream media, in particular, think that they have Ashely all worked out. That his story should always centre around those particular highlights, flash points and supposed life changing moments. But, in doing so, they look beyond the alternative achievements of a man who has forged his own lane; someone who has toed the tightrope between acting and music better than anyone. Probably because he was one of the first people who were brave enough to start that walk.

To find out what a difference a decade makes, we sat down with Ashley Walters to track the ups, downs and unusual moments of a life and career which has been beautifully unpredictable. So, here it is. Ashley Walters on life, his one love – Arsenal – and why he thinks Raheem Sterling could make it on the small screen.  

“I was 5 years old and I tried to get a record deal.”

Let’s start from the beginning, when did you discover you were gifted?

I always wanted to do something. I wouldn’t ever say I’m gifted. I hate to say that. But, what I would say is that I realised what I wanted to do at a very young age. I was 5 years old and I tried to get a record deal. I called up some record labels which were in the Yellow Pages. I literally called around the lot. My Mum caught me on the phone and was like ‘what are you doing?’ I remember just looking back to her and just saying ‘I want a record deal.’ Not long after that she took me to Sylvia Young Theatre School and it all just went from there. 

How many people around you – be it friends, family or associates – at that time were into acting? 

My cousin. He was already at Sylvia Young. He’s like three or four years older than me. It was just him. Although, it was unheard of for someone in my family to even want to be doing that.

So, where do you get your drive from? 

It was a combination of things. First of all, by just watching my Mum. She’s a very determined person. She’s a perfectionist. The logistics of what I do have always been ingrained into me. Being on time, standing in a certain place, doing as you’re told – I can do that shit all day long. The other side of it, the art, that could come from my Dad. He used to sing to me a lot growing up. We always used to do a lot of role play together and acting out silly stuff. My Mum never had that creative side in her. She’s always been very clinical. So, I suppose, it’s a combination of the two. 

My Dad was a very financially unstable person. So, he was always living in a lot of different hostels and one bedroom flats. I remember he used to get us the pirate VHS releases; the latest Disney movies – whatever. We watched a lot of films. I see it a lot now with my Son. My 16-year-old soon edits and does animation. He’s done that since he was nine years old. He found this free course on the internet and I remember the first time he did an animation for us. He made me and my partner at the time watch it. Literally, this guy just cut this total shit together. It was crazy. Nine years old. He had establishing shots before he went into close-ups; this and that. He just watched and he learned how to do it. I think a similar thing happened to me.

How hard is the transition from being a rapper to an actor?

It’s difficult. At the moment, probably because I’m out of practice a little with music, I’d say acting is a lot more comfortable to me. For the past three years I’ve done Bulletproof and Top Boy back to back, so I’ve pretty much always been working. I did a gig three weeks ago at what used to be called Proud in Camden and that felt really weird to me. It felt proper foreign for me to step onto a stage. By the end of the performance I thought ‘yeah, this is dope,’ but at the start of the performance I knew I was rusty. But, it always comes with practice. I wouldn’t hold one or the other – acting or music – any higher over the other. 

Do you think it’s easier now? When you were in So Solid people were very much expected to be in one box, you are either a rapper or an actor. But, now it’s different. I think you can be given credit for laying down those foundations for today’s generation, as you were starting to be creatively ambidextrous before others… 

I’ve been doing them both for a long time now. When I was in So Solid, that was when I was doing both at a similar level. I’ve always been putting music out since then but it hasn’t always had the same traction. When I’m putting out music, I’m more thinking about just making sure that it’s dope and whatever comes from it, comes from it. 

But, for you to even say that I’ve had some influence of this new generation means a lot to me. Genuinely. I feel like it’s been so difficult to get people to come around to it. Like right now, the new Top Boy single has gone pretty well and I think that’s because I’ve introduced myself to a new audience that have no recollection to the first Top Boy let alone So Solid. Timing has been everything. The last 6 years have given me a lot. It’s given me the time to come back with new music and for it feel fresh and relevant. 

On this journey, what has been the most surreal moment? Because there seems to have been a whole host of serendipitous moments for you…

There’s been a whole load of moments! But, the one that springs to mind is when we were rehearsing for Get Rich or Die Tryin’. You’ve got to think about this. I was a huge fan of Eminem. I was a huge fan of 50 Cent. The album came out when I was in prison. Just imagine, I’d been in jail this whole time so a lot of the stuff he was saying really resonated with me. A lot of the stuff got me through my sentence. Just weeks after I walked out of prison, when someone told me I was going to work with them for the movie, I was just so gassed. I was sent to Canada to do rehearsals in this like abandoned warehouse. I was the first one there. I was by myself for time. I was in this empty room just waiting. Then 50 Cent walked in. Eminem walked in. Lloyd Banks walked in. That was one of those moments where I just thought; shit. ‘How did I get here? How did this happen?’ There’s been moments where my life has been at risk too, where I’ve had that very same feeling but just from a different angle (laughs).

Is that what gives you life now? Knowing that these moments can happen at any time…

100%. I live that way every day. People probably look at me and think, ‘why do you have to feel like that?’ But, I feel like everything is relative. Even as humans, everything is relative to what you do. If I leave my phone on this table right here for the next year it’s going to create an indentation; there will be a place for it. People have to realise that that’s just the way of life. You have to let shit sail at times and other times you have to cease the moment.

Has TopBoy given you a new lease of life too? The fact for some people now, a whole generation, perhaps won’t know you for being Asher D but Dushane…

Again, 100%. I don’t hate on that at all. It can be annoying at times hearing ‘Dushane, Dushane’ but I’ve got mad love and respect for it. Culturally, because of social media and the way the world has moved forward, when it comes to TV, Top Boy has transcended it all. It’s become a brand. I’m not used to being branded like that. I’m used to having the ability to be Ashley Walters walking down the street because I’ve done so many different things. So, this is the first time where I’ve been boxed into being one character. But, I can’t lie, I’m loving it and the effect that it’s having on our culture. 

I went to a club the other day and I was talking to this promoter and he said ‘I have to thank you for what you’ve done.’ I was just like, ‘what do you mean?’ He just smiled and went ‘because you’re making me a lot of money.’ He obviously wasn’t referring to me being there (Laughs). He said that because of Top Boy everyone wants to be the Top Boy – everyone is competing now. In a healthy way. Everyone wants to win by doing their own thing. So, they want to go into the club and buy the biggest bottle possible. It’s just mad how this show has transcended the culture and the way that it’s become a brand. A brand that can sit on its own in any culture now. It’s dope. 

What was your mindset entering Top Boy series one in 2011 in comparison to entering it again this time around?

The only difference was professionalism and the uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen. When we did the first season, the moment me and Kane (Kano) read the script we thought it was dope and we couldn’t wait to do it. We were filming it; it was Channel 4, it was a lower budget and there were moments where we thought this may not even make it. In those times, shows would get made and never see the light of day. At the time we thought it may be too risky, wondering if people are going to be able to swallow it. So, receiving that initial response assured us that there was a market for us. Whilst we were doing it, we didn’t know what we were going to achieve, we didn’t know what kind of beast it was. 

This time around, we’ve gone into it understanding the mathematics around it and it’s given us the ability to run with it a bit more. There’s a slight disadvantage to that too because you’re never going to be able to top what you did in the beginning. Some people will say that we did with this latest season and I think that’s dope. In certain aspects, I think we have. But, I think the core essence, the realism and the freshness of us as actors and how raw it was. You’re never going to be able to recapture that. 

What have you personally learned from playing Dushane?

One thing about me is that I’m a fiery person. I have a lack of patience. I have a bad temper. I’ve probably got some anger management issues. Dushane is the opposite of that. I learned a lot from him. Especially in season one and two. I learned a lot from that. Dealing with problems without reacting straight away. Thinking about what you’re going to say before you say it. That’s Dushane. So, for a lot of the time now I’ll do just that. I become a lot quieter when I’m shooting Top Boy. Especially, in my personal and family life. 

But, this season it changed a bit. Because he’s on his face a little, because he’s trying to claim everything back, he’s a lot more fiery. That’s my personality (laughs). The writer actually sat me down and said if we go again you have to watch that because for the real Dushane fans, they think he lost a lot of his methodical thinking and he became quite desperate at times.

JACKET FEAR OF GOD, T-SHIRT TOPMAN, JEANS RAG N BONE

“I do get pretty pissed off, you’re right, when I have to justify why it is, why I did the show. Sometimes, you just want to tell people that it’s because it’s fucking good and the script is dope.”

Do you find it strange that you have had to apologise, or even explain why, TopBoy is the way it is, while other TV shows which feature the same issues are not given the same scrutiny? 

I think it’s a combination of two things in my opinion. Anytime something is deemed as a black show the audience are expecting it to be moral. That it has to have a message. We’re quite happy to watch Marvel or whatever and buy into the fact that it’s a joke ting, you know what I’m saying? We can just enjoy it. No one is going to go in there and complain about plot lines or whatever. But, whenever there is a black show, in the UK and one that is London-centric, then people are always asking straight away, ‘what’s the message here? How is this going to uplift us?’ What we explain to people is that it’s essentially just a show. 

Secondly, I’ve attached myself to a lot of moral endeavours in my personal life when it comes to mentoring and how I’ve been actively against gun crime ever since I’ve come out of prison. So, I’ve slightly tarred myself with that brush. So, putting myself in the context of a show like Top Boy; people come out and say ‘oh, he should be more of a role model.’ 

But, I’ve been really honest with this. There are messages in there that are about what London is really about. We’re not here trying to bash it around your head. But it’s real life. We’re just making a TV show. We’re not trying to glorify anything. These are real characters. Dushane is based on a person that I actually know. So, it’s not about celebrating anything. It’s just about documenting what they have done. At the end of the day, it’s entertainment. I do get pretty pissed off, you’re right, when I have to justify why it is, why I did the show. Sometimes, you just want to tell people that it’s because it’s fucking good and the script is dope. 

In all of the craziness around the world of Top Boy, where is your place of solitude? 

I’ve got two places. Firstly, my studio. It’s obviously a place I work in, but it’s also a place where I just sit and listen to music. The second is my sofa in my living room. I have a really small house in North London and I live with three of my children and my wife. We’re always on top of each other. So, in that corner of my sofa, opposite the TV, in between 1 in the morning and 3 in the morning, that’s my spot. It’s the only untouched time I get. With eight kids and a wife, three businesses, an acting career and a music career. It gets mad. 

Let’s talk about the new track – Top Boy. Was that a spontaneous drop or was it something which was always on the agenda?

None of this was planned. I’ve been preparing myself to start my music career again and I had this epiphany in December 2018, the day before New Years. I just said to myself; ‘I’ve got a back catalogue with seven or eight tracks and I’m going to put them out this year.’ Whatever I do, I always come back to music. When people say to me ‘focus on your acting,’ it gives me more desire to do it. 

Nim from Catalyst just hollered me asking if I’m doing music again and wanted to sort me a studio. So, he got me in there and put me in the studio with Swifta and Predator. We just clicked. It was just an instant vibe. It was the first track he played, I knew that was the one. I had already written for it, without the beat. So, I laid the track. The guys then asked me who I’d wanted to feature. Me and P Money go back. We’re both from South and P’s just dope. He’s one of those artists that makes you step up your game. I knew he had to be on it. Then, Tobz was bought in. I had never really spoke to him before but he was sick and he immediately jumped on.

But, the D Double E thing for me was my starstruck moment. Everyone was telling me to ask him and I was scared to ask him because I know him. I didn’t want  to ask because I didn’t want to get rejected. I idolise the guy. The management company asked him and he said yes. Thankfully So, he really solidified the whole track for me. 

What about you and Kane? 

I want to work with Kane; I’ve wanted to do a track with him for time. But he keeps on telling me ‘no’ and to wait until the time is right. It’s all about timing. It would be dope. People keep asking for it, but we’ll see. I’m just a huge fan of Kane. Lyrically, he’s one of my favourite ever rappers. He’s one of those artists whether it’s in acting or music, that has this level of integrity that is almost unmatched. He’s just a really honest and true guy that makes some unbelievable music. I don’t ever want to put him in a position where he thinks he isn’t creating in the way he wants to. So we’ll wait.

What other music are you listening to a lot right now?

I try and stay out of the scene but through my kids everything seeps through – the drill stuff is all there. But, I’m really feeling Jaykae at the minute. I think he’s fucking dope. I’m listening to a lot of P Money too. Bumping a bit of Kanye still. A real mixture.

What would you say is your greatest extravagance?

What I spend a lot of time and money on now is training. My personal trainer is my biggest expense because I train every day. I have eight kids and a wife, remember, so they run through a lot of the rest!

What is your greatest fear?

Not being there for my children. That is probably why I’ve taken my health a lot more seriously. I have a five year old daughter. My biggest dream is to be able to walk her down the aisle; my greatest fear is not seeing them grow up. 

“Seeing a black man execute the game the way he did just gave me inspiration. It made me realise that there is more for me too.”

Dushane is known for his one-liners, but what is the greatest piece of advice you  have ever received?

It was from my Dad before he passed away. He had lung cancer. Two weeks before he died he stayed with me in Canada while I was filming Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and I knew he was dying so I decided to film him. I filmed him every evening while we had these one or two hour conversations. One of the things he said which stuck with me was, ‘what are you striving for? Perfection? Because it doesn’t exist.’ I learned from that moment on to start enjoying the moment you’re in. To not worry about the future because sometimes that doesn’t come and you spend your whole life working towards something which doesn’t happen. Sometimes, you can spend so much time obsessed with where you’re going and you don’t enjoy the journey. 

Let’s talk Arsenal. When did the club enter your life and turn into something you love?

The club means everything to me. I started supporting them when Ian Wright went to Arsenal because he was someone that was known in my family, I had seen him in and around South London and he came from the area in which my brother lived. Before that I had no real love for football but after he joined that was it. Seeing a black man execute the game the way he did just gave me inspiration. It made me realise that there is more for me too. Ever since then, it’s been a massive part of my life. I’m at The Emirates all of the time. I now go with my 16-year-old son and that’s a way for us to connect. 

What about the odd convergence which has seen a footballer step into acting; Eric Cantona and Vinnie Jones are the two which spring to mind. What modern day footballer do you think could cut it?

There’s a few. I could say Mane because he dives so well. But, on a serious note, from a director’s point of view, I could get a lot out of Raheem Sterling. I reckon he’s got a lot of stuff going on internally and when you see him in interviews he’s very good at maintaining his cool but I reckon there’s a lot more behind that. I think I could definitely bring something out in him.

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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