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Interview: David Gyasi, actor

05 February 2021

‘My roles require a lot of physicality, for fight scenes, and so on’

I like anything with a heartbeat: action, fantasy, and sci fi. You can say things loudly in them that may be wrong with our own world. I like films that challenge the performer and the audience — make them uncomfortable, make them think about how we treat others and ourselves.
 

The budgets are much bigger than they used to be in television, and you have more time to explore a character in a series.
 

I like roles that aren’t linear — roles which reflect complexity. What is good and bad? We’re all a blend of both. I want characters that feel real. The Bible doesn’t just give you best bits about the people in the stories. Take King David and Bathsheba. Mandela was vilified; now he’s admired.
 

Stormzy went from grime artist, which was synonymous with knife crime and gun crime, to multi-award-winning national treasure, selling millions of albums and talking about his faith and personal relationship with God. We’ve sung his song “Blinded by His grace” in my very normal Anglican church, and he’s funding black students to go to the top universities in the country. When did he change? Or is he the same person?
 

That’s part of my job: peeling back the sheath and finding what’s there. Sometimes, I find more human complexity in scripts which are less obvious — and perhaps that’s more akin to our faith.

 

The BBC’s Troy: Fall of a city was very layered script, about humanity and greed, love, loss, how we interact, and how we don’t. For Achilles, I wondered, what if this guy’s a pacifist who has been blessed or cursed to be a war weapon? What do you do with that in your heart? in your head?
 

My vision of Achilles was as a pacifist warlord: statuesque, efficient like a dancer in his movements, even when taking someone’s life; so I did the fights myself. I trained, did a lot of weights, kept my body supple. My wife, Emma, teaches physical fitness, and I do her barre class to give me that posture.
 

My roles require a lot of physicality, for fight scenes and so on. In Carnival Row, I play a faun: half-man, half-ram. This requires me to walk on bent legs which are muscular and powerful; so my upper body has to reflect that same muscularity, too. I train six times a week, and practise yoga. I eat well. Some things are impossible for me, and I have a stuntman who’s highly skilled in seven different disciplines. He’s a good friend.
 

Denzel Washington is uplifting and motivating. I learned a lot about being a lead actor from Martin Shaw. When I worked with John Hurt in Rwanda, though there were probably no directors or writers with more experience on a film set than him, he was there from start to finish, completely committed, and almost childlike in his attentiveness, humility, and hunger to uncover what we wanted to say in this story. He showed huge respect for the crew, director, and actors around him, and that you never stop learning. Halle Berry, Angelina Jolie, and Natalie Portman are incredible, powerful women.
 

I really enjoyed sport and drama at school, and studied performing arts at Middlesex University. If you ask how I’ve become so successful, I’d say that success is relative, but recently my wife and I prayerfully reflected on the days when we had no money compared with now. It was amazing to reflect how far we’d come. We made certain choices based on our faith. It’s been important to me throughout my career to keep faith and endure.
 

In the early part of the pandemic, filming stopped. Now, I’m developing ideas. There’s a real appetite for new material, new content. I’m also walking, meditating. . . And we got a puppy.
 

The pandemic is more than that, though. We’ve all paused for thought. The death of George Floyd also caused a massive shake-up in the world, and the US election shows we’re so divided. Democracy is not an “I win, you lose — and the winner laughs in your face, backwards and forwards.” Democracy’s when I win a bit and you lose a bit, and we hear each other’s perspectives.
 

Diplomacy, not avoidance. We need leaders who say, having heard everyone’s perspective: “This is how I propose we compromise and go forward.” Maybe we need an advertising campaign to remind us, as we go to the polls, to think about what we need in our leaders.
 

I count myself as one of the luckiest people in the world, and the others are the people in my family. I was one of six children, and each one of us is an incredible character. Our house was full of love and laughter — it was a glowing light — even when we lost the house and became homeless.
 

The idea that people should lose that kind of safety is deeply saddening to me. There’s just been a police raid in our village — people peddling class-A drugs. Their crimes are very serious, but I’m aware these men have children, who will grow up fatherless, and some didn’t attend school yesterday because they had 30 police running through their house. The men were doing very dangerous things, and so I’m not justifying them at all; but to be homeless and not have love, humour, and fun at the centre is terrible.
 

In my industry, there can be negativity towards Christianity, but I always cling to the stories of Jesus. When we connect with God, we go from dark to light.
 

That’s why I was interested in helping Tearfund. The thing I love about them is that they go where the need is greatest, without regard to race, creed, sexuality. I worry that the Church has sometimes allied itself with the wrong side. I’ve seen Mina’s Castle in Ghana, the slave-holding dungeon, and, opposite, a white building which was the soldiers’ church. The same on Robben Island: appalling cubby holes where people were imprisoned, and the grand white church next door. Tearfund just asks, What is your need? How can we help? It’s an important stance to take.
 

The 21 for ’21 plan is to do 21 different exercises for sponsorship, to try and help as many people as we can.
 

I was five years old when I first encountered God. We’d gone to Ghana, my brother, mother, and I. There’d been a lot of tension at home. When we came back, the tension had gone. I found out later that my mother went to Ghana to divorce my father: you go back to your matrimonial home and give back the dowry of gifts. When she was there, my mum’s brother led her to the Lord. She came home with a different heart. They then had a really happy marriage.
 

Taking big things to God is exciting. One Christmas, we were poor, and the lights went out; but someone in the church dropped bags of food to us, and we had a wonderful Christmas and enough money to turn on the lights.
 

I’d still like to be a professional footballer — no, that’s a joke. But, possibly, go into politics. And make films. I want to help others develop and grow.
 

Injustice makes me angry, and love makes me happy. I love the sound of cooking, and the quiet of the morning, birds, silence.
 

The next generation give me hope. They’re demanding a level of decency and equality.
 

I pray for God’s will: “Your will be done.” And for trust, wisdom, and discernment; space and stillness.
 

A companion in church is a toss-up between Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s early activism was labelled as terrorism before we had a rethink. I’d ask him about that, and his years in jail, and if the dignity and forgiveness of his later years was always there, or something which developed. I’d ask what it’s now like for him, in heaven, looking at South Africa and the pain that’s still there.
 

David Gyasi was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

tearfund.org/campaigns/21-for-21

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