Learning From Top Boy’s Ashley Walters & Kane Robinson
Ten years ago, Ronan Bennet – creator of British crime drama Top Boy – witnessed a kid dealing drugs outside his local supermarket. It made him question what was going on in his own community. “That’s the power of Top Boy for me – it’s an unrepresented part of the world,” says Brady Hood, one of the show’s directors. “It’s something that we need to discuss.”
The show tells the story of those running London’s drug scene, bringing light to neglected issues: the abuse of immigrants, absent fathers, homophobia. Plus, it features a predominantly black cast, a rare representation in mainstream TV.
When Channel 4 cancelled the show in 2013, rapper Drake – a fan of the crime drama – came on board as an executive producer to revive it. Now that Top Boy is back – this time on Netflix – we sat down with Kane Robinson and Ashley Walters, the show’s frontmen, for a glimpse behind the scenes of the show.
When Kane joined the Top Boy cast, he’d never acted before. “Every day was a learning experience,” he says. “I would learn one week and bring [that knowledge] to the next.”
Known best by his rap moniker ‘Kano’, the 34-year- old is considered one of the pioneers of the UK’s grime scene. His talents come from a lifetime of learning.
“I learn something every time. I try and implement that next time around, and share my knowledge with others and newer castings, because I remember exactly how it was being a bit uncomfortable,” he says.“So, I’ve got to let them know, I’ve been there; but trust me – follow your instincts, you’re here for a reason.”
Ashley – known as Asher D to music fans – is also a rapper. However, unlike Kane, he wasn’t new to the acting scene. He played Antoine in Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and Ricky in Bullet Boy.
Now, eight years in, the 37-year-old says they’ve both gotten to grips with the process of making Top Boy. “I’m able to be confident enough to say when we’re not feeling how things are going with the story,” he adds. “Being kind of vocal about it. Those are the things that have led to the show being so good. It’s with all of us having an input and being creative.”
“I’ve been to South Africa,” says Ashley, who spent six months in the country. “So, I know the situation over there, and the segregation is really real.”
He says he was beaten up in a club because of the colour of his skin, just one part of the racism he experienced while in SA. Coming from London, it was a shock to the system: “I think maybe that [South Africa] was the first place I really felt, like, the rest of the world is not the same as where I live.
“But starting those discussions [about racial inequality] as a father, especially with my children, it’s just about empowering them, and showing them some serious role models that look like them.” Similar themes have slipped into the show: “As young black kids, we’re determined to make more of what we have. And that’s one of the things the show is about: not accepting what’s in front of you, and just striving for more.”
The percentage of black characters in 2018’s 100 highest-grossing movies, according to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. This figure was a 12-year high.
… AND STANDING OUT
So, what advice does the duo have for actors of colour trying to break into the industry? “One thing I’d say is to think about creating your own work,” says Kane. “Write your stories with characters and roles that you would like to play.
“In this day and age, it’s the best thing to be doing because of the platforms we have – like Netflix and YouTube – there’s more scope for people [to see your talent].” Kane adds that it’s important to leverage the power of new tech to your advantage. When he started up making music, tech advances gave him access to software to make his own beats on his computer, and, then, let him broadcast his tracks on pirate radio. “That kind of avenue wasn’t there for actors, you couldn’t just make your own show – it didn’t exist! But in this day and age, it’s much more open for people who are struggling – and maybe not getting roles because of the colour of their skin – to create their own path.” Whether you’re creating short films or Instagram clips, Kane says a “get-up-and-go” attitude will help you stand out and gain opportunities.
Watch Top Boy this summer, only on Netflix.