I think a lot of the time people try to come [onto acting projects] perfect. I remember for a while I used to do that. It's okay to screw up.
In 1983, an Atari video game hit the market that ushered in the medium’s first-ever use of the voice-over. That game was called Sinistar, which featured the digitized voice of John Doremus, a radio personality, whose exclamations—“I am Sinistar! I hunger! Run, coward!”—signaled boundless inevitabilities. Modern video games not only feature voice-work but comprehensive performances by actors in all their physical glory via motion capture technology, and this has as much to do with the gaming world’s telltale desire to emulate the conventions of cinema. Players are coaxed into increasingly expansive and immersive worlds populated by nuanced characters and their intricate backstories. A game’s narrative is now just as important as its playability, and the casting of well-known actors to officiate the convergence between gaming and film has almost become commonplace. It’s little wonder, then, how Abubakar Salim, with a bit of star alignment, pendulum swings between those once-disparate realms. And he seems more than happy to oblige.
Make no mistake: Salim is a special case. The Kenyan-British actor emphatically confirms that what got him into acting in the first place are video games. This is not your typical craft answer tinged with silver screen nostalgia.
In 2018, Salim was nominated for a BAFTA Games Award for Best Performer for his work on Assassin’s Creed: Origins. The following year, he was named one of BAFTA’s Breakthrough Brits for his overarching thespian abilities—at the same time a premonitive celebration of his future prospects. This year, Salim launched his own independent gaming company, Silver Rain Games, with an IP in the works. Then there’s of course the matter of his biggest project to date on that other front: a coveted leading role in Ridley Scott’s first television series on a grand scale. It’s a doozy.
Raised By Wolves is a ten-part sci-fi drama series executive produced by the veteran filmmaker. When Earth is rendered uninhabitable after “a great war,” androids Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Salim) hightail it out of there with a small collection of human embryos to start a new settlement on a virgin planet called Kepler-22b. Twelve years later, only one of their human children has survived. Meanwhile, the arrival of Earth’s surviving refugees, the Mithraic, pose a sudden threat, which Mother has no choice but to confront with her death-dealing necromantic capabilities. But it doesn’t take long before the androids discover that trying to extinguish the Mithraic’s religious faith—in their eyes a menacing force challenging science, which informs their very livelihood and progress for humankind on Kepler-22b—is a treacherous and onerous task.
Anthem reached out to Salim in London, where he’s currently based, for an in-depth conversation.
Raised By Wolves premieres on HBO Max on September 3.
Raised By Wolves is just stunning. You’re the man of the hour right now—or you’re about to be. You must be so thrilled with how everything turned out.
Oh man, ridiculous amount. I’m a massive, massive sci-fi nerd so this is absolutely my jam. And it’s not even just getting to be a part of this sci-fi world. Because it’s complex, right? You’ve seen it. There’s a lot of themes explored. There’s a lot of complexity to it. There’s a lot of levels and layers to it. I’m still pinching myself every now and then. Honestly, I love it.
They unlocked the first three episodes to the press pack. Have you seen all ten?
No, I’ve only seen up to three. But knowing where the journey is going, you guys are literally going to lose your minds. I can’t even begin to express where this story takes you. It’s wild.
The worldbuilding is on another level. In Ridley Scott we trust, right? Take me through your journey to getting here. They probably looked at everyone under the sun to cast Father.
To begin with, I had it come through to me in LA. I’d just finished Jamestown, which was my first TV show where I was playing a series regular. I remember doing that and getting this, thinking, “Okay, yeah, sure. I’m definitely not going to get this.” It’s Ridley Scott! I remember sending my tape to my managers and they were very much of the mentality like, “Wow. This is strong. This is bold.” And when I say strong and bold, I’m not saying as if they were impressed. They were like, “This is a very daring take on it. I don’t know if we can send this.” [laughs] Anyways, we ended up sending it and when I landed in the UK, I got a call saying, “Ridley really loved the tape and he would love to meet you.” So the next round was meeting him, which was spending at least 45 minutes with him just talking to me. I remember thinking, “I gotta know this back to front, back to front. I have to know the script really, really well. No mistakes, no mistakes. Sir Ridley, Sir Ridley.” He’s this lovely, lovely human being. We’re just talking about the work, talking about the other stuff I’ve done. I’m talking about the character, we’re talking in-depth about Father, and Ridley’s giving me direction. From then on, I ended up doing several tapes at home on my own time and sending it out to him. It was a lot of back-and-forth because Scott Free and TNT were still trying to place Father. They didn’t know what kind of character they wanted out of him, especially when it’s counterbalanced to someone like Mother. Amanda Collin does an incredible performance so it’s almost like trying to balance that and trying to come to something that works with that, which is a challenge in itself. There were a lot of rounds to it. Another thing that happened was, they kept asking me at round five or six if I’d be comfortable in a latex suit. I remember thinking to myself, “This has turned from a Ridley Scott production to something else.” [laughs] Then they ended up helping me get in all the training and stuff, so on and so forth. It was only after I landed in South Africa and filmed episode one, or one block anyway, that I realized, “Fuck. I got the part.”
You bring up the suit. It doesn’t look very comfortable if I’m being honest.
Oh my god, it was definitely a challenge. The thing is, these latex suits were tailor-made. They measure you out, then squeeze you in it. You cover yourself in talcum powder and lube. To begin with, it was lube, which was weird, and then it became talcum powder. I did at times feel like a giant condom. It was definitely a difficult costume to wear. At the same time, it really helped me perform the character, right? It holds you in a certain position. It makes you feel a certain way.
Science and religion are at loggerheads in this explicit and deliberate way on the show. From the get-go, Mother instills in the children defining ideas: there is no imaginary deity—only science. What Mother nurtures is this imperative: live as technocratic atheists and guarantee progress for humankind. Do you think the show might court some controversy about questioning the validity of faith, or does it in fact value religion as much as it does science?
Honestly, it fights both camps, right? Mother and Father are trying to instill this atheist sort of mentality, like you said, about a progression forward. There’s that camp of thinking. But then also you’ve got Campion [Mother and Father’s sole-surviving child, played by Winta McGrath] who, even though he’s been taught all this stuff, naturally, he begins to pray, trying to find faith. As a human being, you have to form your own thoughts, right? Campion begins discovering his own beliefs. I think it becomes, rather than a question of whether religion is right or wrong, more about the base human traits of belief and faith. I think that’s what’s interesting. Campion, who’s been exposed to the idea of atheism has been, really, almost brainwashed in the idea of how bad religion is. At the same time, you’ve also got these religious people causing devastation and saying horrendous things. So it poses them both against each other. That’s what Aaron [Guzikowski, writer and creator] does brilliantly, because he doesn’t present it to you like, “Religion is bad” or “Atheism is bad.” He actually makes you see both sides of the coin. He makes you go, “Let me get a deeper understanding of this and let me understand.” So it might cause controversy to someone who doesn’t necessarily see it that way, but most of all, I hope that the audience takes the time and pause and observe and talk about it. Look at us. We’re talking about it now, right? These are the kinds of conversations I would love to have happen when people are watching this show. I’d love for someone to be like, “Yo, they just literally said that atheism is the right thing. We’re following this killing machine who’s an atheist, and that’s wrong,” and someone else will come back being like, “I actually saw it the other way. I’m actually seeing atheism almost as a religion.” We have this debate. We’ll have it ever so lightly at maybe dinner parties, which I don’t recommend by the way. I do think it’s something that will trigger a lot of people into talking about it.
There was literally an applause burst in my head every time Mother took her necromantic form. It’s interesting that this atheistic “killing machine,” as you rightly put it, has the posture of divinity—arms stretched out like Jesus on the cross, levitating. These are the areas where things overlap for me, and it’s certainly a subjective reading. The necromancer also reminds me so much of the Machine-Person character from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
These are things, I think, Ridley spoke to Amanda about a lot. But when I was in the room and they were talking about this creation—the thing that destroyed humanity—I can only remember Ridley saying, “She’s very much like a ballet dancer.” [laughs] The definition of the muscles, the sort of elegance, and the movement are very much that of a ballet dancer. I remember that being really, really striking. He pulled up an image of a ballet dancer in quite a powerful pose. There was a feeling of it that almost looked identical to the necromancer that we see now and it was incredibly powerful. I remember seeing that and thinking, “God, I’ve never seen this before either.”
I’m sure the ballet reference was succinct direction from Ridley that Amanda could really play from. Was there any particular direction from Ridley that helped you to play Father?
Yeah. When Ridley spoke about the character, he mentioned a lot about cadence—the musicality of how Father speaks. That was a real strength to pull into the character of who Father is: finding the tempo within him, and using that to influence and explore what his character is like. Because even though he’s this android who is making all these terrible jokes at terrible times, there’s something as well about him that is efficient and clean. There is a reason why he was selected to do what he does and to protect the children, and raise the children to a degree. So that’s something that really helped—when Ridley directed me anyway—in regards to Father. It’s the fact that, not only is he an older model and resilient, there was an inner tempo to him that I needed to find. And once we found it, it just felt like a dream playing him.
I understand that you got into acting in the first place because, where storytelling is concerned, you were inspired by video games—not film and TV.
So whereas someone else, a typical actor, might reference classic movies and performances, for you it’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. You seldom find that in actors, and it’s refreshing in a way. Did you ever actively pursue opportunities in video game performance prior to getting that job on Assassin’s Creed: Origins?
Not at all, no. I actually fell into Assassin’s Creed by accident. I knew about video games and I really wanted to get into voice acting—I actually ended up getting a voice agent before Assassin’s Creed—but Assassin’s Creed came through my acting agent. I remember auditioning for it, not knowing it was Assassin’s Creed. Finding out that it was, I had my mind blown by it. Video games have such a massive influence on a lot of things I do. Hell, I just opened a game studio in quarantine and I’m making my first game at the moment. I’m designing my first game, working with a team of people to create this story world and build this universe. For me, there’s such a powerful force to telling stories through video games because you’re interactively in that story with the protagonist or whomever you play. I thought that is so crucial in regards to how powerful that can be, in regards to teaching or just giving you a real fun experience and making people feel. The way that I see it is that I didn’t necessarily pursue acting in video games until after Assassin’s Creed because, to be honest, I didn’t know much about it. It’s not really spoken about in drama school or with friends and all this other stuff. It was after falling into it and being open to that world that I began learning a hell a lot about it.
How will you make the time, running a gaming company alongside your acting pursuits?
I don’t know if you know, my man, but I am an android. So actually, I can do it? [laughs] No, that’s a good question. I’ve got a brilliant group of people working at the moment in the game studio who know the vision I have and know the stories I want to tell. All I have to do is make sure that they understand the vision so they can execute. I’ve got head of studio, Melissa Phillips, who is me but a lot more in on the producer side of things. She’s basically the second me whenever I need to leave to do acting, and that’s the way it will sort of work. I’m one of those weird people who just never sleeps. I enjoy that creative work. I play a lot of games. I’m able to communicate ideas quite quickly. That helps. The team is also very aware of the fact that I do have an acting career and I do have something going on there. Ultimately, my job is to make sure that the people who are in their key roles—the lead artists, the lead game designer, the lead programmers, the lead level designers—know what I’m trying to do. And I think they all do.
I learned that you’re a first generation Brit and both of your parents immigrated from Kenya. Did filming Raised By Wolves in the Motherland feel symbolic in any way?
Yeah, it’s funny actually. So Africa is big, right? I think the flight between Cape Town and Kenya is like eight hours. I used to go to Kenya a lot as a kid. Going to Cape Town, you kind of do see similarities in the cultures, depending on where you go, depending on the areas. It was very beautiful working in Africa, working in Cape Town, and working with a crew of people who are actually a lot more diverse than what we’d get in London or what we’d get in Budapest or somewhere. There was something really lovely about that. There was also something really lovely about playing a lead role and also being in that position where we’re all working towards making this beautiful project. I really got on with the crew from South Africa a lot. It just felt natural. It felt like a really beautiful space to play and be in, do you know what I mean? But of course, even with South Africa, as with the industry itself, there are elements or spaces for it to be improved on. I think we’re getting there.
Were you also on sound stages out there?
We were at the Cape Town Film Studios. There were definitely sets the crew masterfully built to make it look like an alien sort of space. The crazy flight scenes and the stuff in the ships were filmed in there, which is really awesome.
Again, I’m only three episodes in. I can’t imagine what’s to come.
Honestly, dude? It’s bold, it’s daring, it’s exciting—it’s just everything, man. I feel like there is no other show like this on TV. I don’t even say that lightly, man. Aaron is such a visionary. And alongside Ridley? This was meant to be, bro. [laughs] It’s crazy.
By the way, I saw a snippet of of your conversation with Paul Rudd for BAFTA. He said this to you in regards to acting: “Like everything else, you learn by doing.” What was one important takeaway from Raised By Wolves on that front?
The one thing I learned from Raised By Wolves is that, in a role like that where I’m playing alongside someone like Amanda as a lead, it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to screw up. It’s okay to rely on other people as well to sort of help. I think a lot of the time people do think that because you are the lead or you are in an important role that there’s no space for mistakes, no space to have fun and to play, and that you come in and you know your stuff and you gotta do it. Of course know your lines, absolutely, and know the world you’re in, but I think there is space for you to play, and to be daring and try something new. I think that was really solidified on set. I think a lot of the time people try to come on perfect. I remember for a while I used to do that. But having worked with someone like Ridley where it’s better to play and it’s better to collaboratively work on something, that was a big lesson I learned from the whole process.
This is by no means a two-hander, but you guys are the anchor as Mother and Father. It sounds like the trust you put in each other was really essential and key to getting it right.
Oh, a hell of a lot. A hell of a lot. It’s because of the fact that Amanda was so open and so cool about talking and playing with these characters. We’re trying to learn what an android is in this world, right? There are so many different iterations of androids. We were trying to discover what makes it our own, and that was quite tricky to do on your own. Whereas together, we could come up with certain rules or certain ideas to play. Also, you know from talking to the rest of the cast, getting a vibe and feel from their characters. We were quite a close-knit cast. We hung out a lot after work. We still talk as well. We’ve got a WhatsApp group where we keep chatting. The whole world was a lot of building with all of us together, do you know what I mean? That’s what was really crucial in making this world so rich and believable.
Back to that other thing: when can we expect your game? Have you announced the IP?
Ah ha! It’s so secret at the moment. I’d love to tell you, but the studio would kill me if I did. I really cannot wait to talk about it because, again, it’s a world I’m building and want to bring that no one has ever seen before in the space of video games. Honestly, man. Give me a call when we’re ready and I’ll tell you everything about it.