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Of all things, Micheal Ward was most scared of the pigeon. The actor had arrived on set for Empire of Light, his biggest project yet. He would be the co-lead opposite Oscar winner Olivia Colman in a film directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes and shot by Oscar winner Roger Deakin, also starring Oscar winner Colin Firth. But it was Coco the Pigeon, no awards to her name, who had Ward sweating. “I was so nervous,” he says, laughing about it now. “I didn’t even touch it until Sam told me to. Me being a director’s pet, I gave it a little prod, but…” A violent shiver runs up his body. “Eurgh!”
Fear of feathers is not something you’d expect from the 25-year-old Bafta winner who made his name playing a gang leader in the crime drama Top Boy. So synonymous is Ward with his character that it’s hard to imagine him raising an eyebrow at a cocked gun, let alone a flapping wing. But the actor has no interest in contorting himself to fit any box – including the one now so desperately trying to contain his likeness on Zoom. Ward fidgets and talks fast; answers come out of him in loops, collapsing in on themselves and then outwards again without chronology. The camera lags in its vain attempt to keep up. His career is starting to show hallmarks of his restlessness. Ward’s IMDb page – which includes Netflix blockbuster The Old Guard, Steve McQueen’s wonderfully lyrical Lovers Rock, and The A List, a supernatural teen drama – reads like an actor trying to wriggle free of what came before. But no matter the role, Ward always lends the same star quality, a mix of warmth and vulnerability that – as I learn from our conversation – is all his own.
Empire of Light is Ward’s latest evolution, then. The film is set in the early Eighties in Margate, where Hilary (Colman), a manager at a local cinema, struggles with depression. Ward plays Stephen, a cheerful young man who joins the cinema’s ragtag group of employees and whose vigour and compassion strike a match in Hilary’s dull life. The two begin a quiet and tender love affair. This, I say to Ward, is another reason why his zoophobia comes as a shock: there is so much else to be nervous about! Namely, shooting a sex scene with a national treasure who happens to be twice his age. “She’s not double my age, Annabel!” Ward jokingly chastises me. He’s right. My maths is off by two years. And, in fact, it was Colman, by her own admission, who was the “mortally embarrassed” one and who credited her younger co-star with helping to ease her nerves. Ward brushes off the compliment with a flick of his wrist. “Olivia says that she was mad nervous, but she was cool,” he shrugs.
Ward came to the scene confident; this wasn’t his first time. “I’d done sex scenes before, with an older woman as well in Top Boy, so I understood what that was,” he says. Still, though, “I did get nervous when Olivia was nervous, for sure. Before you do a sex scene or even a kissing scene, until you have that first kiss, it’s always going to be a bit awkward.” It took just one session with intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien before he and Colman felt “absolutely fine” getting up-close and personal. “We figured out what we were comfortable with. Olivia would grab my hands and put them on the places she’s comfortable with me touching so I know I can’t go past that boundary,” says Ward, explaining that he did the same for Colman. “Everything is within our control, which I think is beautiful.”
Control is something that comes up in our conversation often – if not the word itself, then the concept. Ward is a man with a plan. Longevity, he states, is the goal. “I want to be someone who people want to work with when I’m 60 or 70. For people to still think I’ve got something in me.” He seems ambitious and confident enough to actually make it happen. Mostly, though, he is still the same Arsenal fan from Essex who was voted class clown at school. Even now, he lives at home with his mum.
Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, he grew up there until he was four, when his mother moved him and his sisters to east London. (His father died in a car crash when Ward was two.) They later settled in Romford, Essex. Growing up, he loved football and was good enough at it that his hopes of going pro weren’t entirely misguided. At the same time, he made room for music and drama – singing in the choir and starring in a school production of Macbeth. Reflecting on it now, Ward says it wasn’t Shakespeare who helped him to realise his ambitions on stage, but Akon and Snoop Dogg, whose song “I Wanna Love You” Ward very inappropriately performed at his year 5 talent show. He cracks up at the memory. “It showed me I’d been born to entertain people. I didn’t know what capacity it was going to be in, but I’m glad it’s acting.”
Asked whether he had a particularly creative childhood, Ward rubs a hand over his head, which is completely bald right now – for a film he’s shooting, he clarifies quickly. “Man, to be honest, I don’t really know in terms of creativity. What I do know is that I loved football. And I grew up in Essex, so my childhood was different to a lot of people I know now,” he says. “I grew up around a lot of white people, so I never really saw colour as a thing. They were my friends. I was playing football with my friends. It’s not like I was playing football with my white friends or my Black friends. They were just my people.”
In his youth, Ward didn’t realise how the game was “rigged” against him. “I really had this idea of, ‘Bro, I go to the same school for the same hours as these guys. I’m learning the same things as these guys, so that means they don’t have an advantage over me. They can’t be smarter than me just because their families have more money,’” he says. “From a young age, I always saw me and them having the same opportunity, and I guess I never broke out of that mentality.” Ward did eventually discover that he hadn’t had the same chances as his white schoolmates, but says he is “glad” to have had that mentality in his youth. It gave him the confidence to pursue acting. That and the unwavering encouragement of his mum. “A lot of people from my school, their parents weren’t supportive like that, and I don’t think that’s OK because everyone is entitled to their own life; you don’t know what your kids can accomplish.”
While his childhood wasn’t creative in the typical sense, it did cultivate his future in other ways. Living in a house of women, he says, “There were…” He pauses, laughs, reconsiders. “Actually, nah, I’m not gonna say that!” Put it like this: there were many “mood swings” in the home. One minute, he and his mum would be palling around; the next, she’d be yelling at him to do the dishes. He is also very much prone to sharp emotional turns. “I’ve never been afraid to cry,” says Ward. “I’ve always been fine with expressing my emotions, because my mum doesn’t hide when she’s crying. My sisters, when they’re upset with me, they’ll show they’re upset with me. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and I’ve always been like that.” It’s different, he adds, from how his friends without any sisters behave.
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That softness is palpable even in Ward’s toughest role. Top Boy, which was revived by Netflix in 2019, six years after Channel 4 cancelled it, was his breakout moment. In it, he plays Jamie, an ambitious, violent gangster and also a devoted father figure to two younger brothers following the death of their parents. Jamie is the kind of role that’d thrill any young actor, and Ward stepped up. Lots of attention, including a Bafta Rising Star award, duly followed. Critics praised Ward’s layered performance – how believable it was to watch his searching eyes and warm demeanour calcify in a second. Last year’s series ended on a cliffhanger, with Jamie shot in the chest. If you don’t want to know his character’s fate, look away now. Or at least skip the rest of this paragraph. Will Ward be returning for the next series? Sadly not, he confirms. “I was definitely devastated, to be honest with you,” he says. “I mean, it is what it is.”
Killing Jamie off wasn’t always the plan. At the time when Ward read the script and shot the scene, he was told he’d be returning. “But then things change, you know? It was fine. And you know what, everything worked out for the best,” he shrugs. “Top Boy did for me what it needed to, which is put me out there to the world, show the world I can be great, and show the world there is a new kid on the block.”
It has been hard to say goodbye to the role that started his career in earnest, not least because people still see him as the person he played. “Even now, they still do,” he says. “Not even to gas myself up, but people believed what they saw, and now, when they see me, they see Jamie.” The character’s criminal life has never reflected his own. “It’s never been like that at all, and hopefully will never have to be.” It doesn’t help matters, he adds, that he and Jamie talk the same. His speech is liberally sprinkled with the same east London slang heard in Top Boy’s script. “Sometimes you can see the disappointment in people’s faces when they realise I’m nothing like Jamie,” he laughs. “And they’re so obvious about it!”
Consider Top Boy alongside his follow-up film Blue Story – a stirring tale of friends torn apart by gang allegiance, told in the manner of a Greek tragedy – and Ward has found himself representing a world he can’t identify with. “I felt like I was being a spokesperson for the roads, and I’ve never been that. [My life] has never been that,” he says. People from the roads will thank him for the representation he is giving them. “It just feels a bit jarring, because I know what I am, and I know I’m not that, but what I am is a young Black man, and I can be a spokesperson for young Black men, in the way that I just want to do positive things and I want that for all of my people. I want when people see me, they think they can do something positive, because I’ve seen that from a young age. I know that we are capable of that. I can see that, it’s just for everyone else to see that. There’s loads of us doing it and God is just paving the way.”
Ward is leaning away from telling stories about “guns and drugs” these days. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell stories with ‘guns and drugs’ – it’s that I don’t want to tell a mix of guns and drugs because I feel like I’ve done that already, and I don’t really want to do it again,” he says. As for any casting agents reading, Ward remains open to playing the mastermind of a heist who happens to pack heat, or a drug lord too senior to get involved in the brawls. “I want to do different stuff,” he explains. “I want things that can help me shift my career in a positive way.” If not that, then at least Ward wants to be involved in productions that will resonate with his family. “If I don’t do that, I feel like I’ve failed.”
For the first time last year, Ward returned to Jamaica. Despite the two decades he has spent away, and the fact that he has no memories of his life there, the trip still felt like a homecoming. “I know these people, the way they talk and walk, the way they move,” Ward says. He can’t pin it down exactly, but there was something visceral about being in Jamaica. The closest thing he can compare it to is eating guinep, a Jamaican fruit the size of a ping-pong ball that tastes like a mix of lime and lemon. Suddenly, Ward sounds very wistful. “That taste felt so familiar. It felt like something I had tried when I was young.”
‘Empire of Light’ is in cinemas now