Interview: White Heat Star David Gyasi


The rising British actor talks about the new BBC drama, Cloud Atlas and The Dark Knight Rises.

Posted 6th March 2012, 10:08am in TV, by Becky Reed

Coming to our screens this week is a riveting new British drama in the vein of the classic Our Friends in the North.

The semi-autobiographical White Heat comes from award-winning writer Paula Milne (Endgame, Small Island, The Virgin Queen, The Fragile Heart, The Politician's Wife), and follows the fate of seven friends from 1965 to the present day, airing on BBC2 from Thursday 8th March, 9pm.

We follow the students from their north London flat, as their lives are shaped by the shifting politics and attitudes of the changing decades, and their relationships with each other grow increasingly complex.

A hugely exciting young cast have been assembled, which includes Sam Claflin (Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Snow White and the Huntsman), Claire Foy (Little Dorrit, The Promise, Season of the Witch), Reece Ritchie (Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time, Pete Versus Life), Lee Ingleby (Being Human, Inspector George Gently), MyAnna Buring (Kill List, Any Human Heart), David Gyasi (Red Tails, Cloud Atlas and Jessica Gunning (Law & Order UK, Doctor Who).

We recently had the pleasure of a phone interview with Gyasi, who starred in the epic production of War Horse and recently appeared in Red Tails. As well as the engrossing White Heat (we've seen the first two episodes and are hooked), Gyasi has roles in two very exciting upcoming films. The actor plays Autua opposite Tom Hanks and Jim Sturgess in The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's highly anticipated adaptation of Cloud Atlas. He also shot a scene for The Dark Knight Rises, which he obviously can't tell me too much about, but we get to hear all about auditioning for Christopher Nolan.

Can you give us an overview of your character in White Heat?
Victor Bailey is a very strong-willed, determined, passionate man, an immigrant who comes over in 1965 on a scholarship to study law. He arrives in Sixties England, thinking, I've got my scholarship, it's the Commonwealth, we'll all be together, I'll be able to learn, and it'll be great. And he's faced with different opinions from the locals, the indigenous. He has to deal with that. To be honest, he deals with it a lot better than I would imagine I would. When I first read the script I thought, I don't know how this guy listens to that and doesn't respond to it. He's quiet. I had a conversation with my dad about it, and I spoke to a judge called Elroy Claxton. They were equally useful. My dad came over in 1966, so he faced a lot of the stories I was relaying to him. He said I needed to read it again, and see it as dignity. And in that dignity there is huge amounts of strength. That's what we have to deal with. Also, he was saying a lot of the mentality was, particularly of African immigrants, that they would come for a short period, then return home. Sadly, my dad thought, if this is British hospitality, that's fine. I'll come here, get my education, work a bit, and go home. So, it was a great opportunity to spend hours chatting to my dad about his experiences, as we'd never really had that. Then Elroy Claxton, although he was nine in 1966 and was bought over as a young boy, slightly different to my character who was 19 in 1965, by the time Elroy got to the bar, things had moved on.

It's an interesting aspect of Sixties England to be covered today - do you think its something that the youth of today need to be reminded of?
Absolutely. I found it incredibly empowering to be playing a character who goes on to become a judge. I've had a really blessed year. I've played some strong characters this year. One of the films I was involved with was Red Tails - I remember reading that script and feeling hugely moved but incredibly sad that I had no idea of this story, wondering why I didn't know. I tell you, if we learn about these pioneers within our own community, then it's going to create a dignity, a sharpness, a proudness amongst young black males. You can hark back to these people who really struggled so we may be able to attain a form of equality, and use that platform to go on and be as successful as we can be. I felt hugely, hugely privileged and honoured to be involved in these projects.

Did you get to meet George Lucas, who produced Anthony Hemingway's Red Tails?
I did meet George, who is a genius, but quiet - until he's directing. It was an honour to be around. We had the Tuskegee airmen, who are very proud men. One guy had his wife with him, and his grandfather said he needed a buggy to get from one terminal to another, but nipped into the shop and caught up. Their backs are so straight. As a young black male to be on a set like that with such role models was amazing.

Can you tell us which characters you interact with on White Heat?
I interact with Claire Foy's character Charlotte. They have a really interesting love triangle going on between Victor, Charlotte and Jack (Sam Caflin). What Paula Milne has done brilliantly is write these strong characters where each one can stand alone and have a series, with all the relationships, politics and sex - all the fashionable topics! It's grounded by this changing face of London, because it goes all the way up to the present day. I'm always fighting with Jack, but I get on really well with Sam! Our characters hate each other! I have a little bit with Lee Ingleby's character, as they have one thing in common - they both dislike Jack.

You must've had quite a few stories to share, with all the cast landing such exciting film projects.
It was just one of those dream moments, where you're working in a cast, and you love everyone, and you want them to do well. But then MyAnna gets a job, Lee got a job, and Claire got a job, and Sam went off to do Snow White, Reece was being called to LA. It was nice to be around that, and then Cloud Atlas came in right at the end. We were just all so happy for each other. It's a shame that it doesn't continue, because we thought, it would it be lovely to spend the next few summers revisiting these characters again!

You've just wrapped Cloud Atlas - can you explain it for someone who hasn't read David Mitchell's novel? [CLOUD ATLAS SPOILERS AHEAD]
I guess the best way to explain it, if you'll step with me into the world of the Wachowskis... We all play souls, really, and there's six different time periods. The 19th century, 1920s, 1973, 2012, 2125, 2345. Everyone who plays a certain soul, that soul evolves in some way. My character starts out as a free-spirited, intelligent young man who is enslaved, and is not happy. So he does something about it - he runs, and is continually whipped for running. He manages to get away, on a boat, and becomes this excellent seaman. He then proves himself and becomes a sailor, and saving the main character of that section's life, played by Jim Sturgess. He evolves into Lester Ray, who is a fictional character, a brilliant journalist and detective - he became a journalist to out corruption in the police force. So that soul of Autua evolves into making people aware of injustice. In 2345 I become a president figure, actively shedding light on injustice. I start as a good character, but Tom Hanks has the biggest journey, as he starts out as an evil character. I actually fight with his character. END CLOUD ATLAS SPOILERS

What's it like working with Tom Hanks?
He's a two-time Academy Award winner, so you know he's going to be on the game, but what makes him very very classy, and also Jim Broadbent, is that even with all their success, their approach to work is still childlike in their excitement. Their vigour for it. The read-through was incredible - to my right I had David Mitchell, the Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer, Keith David, alongside Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, Jim Sturgess and myself. I'd just come off White Heat, which was an amazing job, and before that I did the play War Horse, and before that I had guest leads on television. And here I am with these Academy Award winners. I tell you what, they made us feel like we're all actors just going on this journey together. It's such a classy trait to have, as it just encourages you all to bring your best to the table. That's what Tom does. I have a lot of time for the man, which I'm sure everyone has - he's fun, hard-working, and really respectful.

I read you have a part in The Dark Knight Rises - how did that happen?
I was in the States doing pilot season last year, and this audition came up, with this amazing monologue that I was sent. I had to put myself on tape, and I learnt it, worked on it for days and nights and went in there and performed it for this casting director. He was just like, dude, I would like you to come back and read for Christopher Nolan. I said yes I can. I went in, and I met Christopher for the audition; I was really nervous, and shaking. I was staying in LA with an actress who said to me, David, if you feel anything in an audition, just embody it into the character. So I used it, and then I didn't hear anything for three months. I got back to England and got this call saying, are you sitting down? I got told by both my American manager and my agent over here they want to use you on The Dark Knight [Rises]. 24 hours before, I went on a young walk with my son, then three, and was just thinking, what is the best way for me to provide for my family? Because we'd come through a tight period, and I was wondering if I could continue acting. I had spent a lot of money going to LA. So to get that call was such a godsend, and such a sign. Because I was questioning myself and my ability. The next day, White Heat came through as well! For me, Dark Knight was much more about that moment, about answering questions about whether I could work globally, and also to be able to go in front of a director like that, and for him to say yes, you're the chap I would like to use. That was life-affirming.

Can you tell us anything about your role in The Dark Knight Rises?
I can tell you a little bit about my experience. I didn't get a script, so basically I had the audition in my head. I arrived on set, and Christopher Nolan was giving me the lines I had to say. He would literally say, this is what just happened, and this is what you're reacting to. I know absolutely nothing! I know that sounds like a cop-out, but I was there, and I worked with Tom Conti and a little bit with Christian Bale, but I was there on a need to know basis. I'm hoping that I'm still in the film, as I'm a fan of the films, so I'll be watching with vested interest!
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