The only opportunity I'm going to have to be all of these things at the same time is by being an actor. That was a real pragmatic decision I made.
On the eve of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Netflix preemptively acquired the global rights to Remi Weekes’ feature-length directorial debut, His House. So the film, with its nondescript title, was already buzzy by the time it world premiered in the festival’s Midnight sidebar, and of course it went on to garner rave reviews across the board. Anthem was very keen on meeting its makers.
When Sope Dirisu stopped by our portrait session, he did so tabula rasa-style because, admittedly, we had known little to nothing about this guy. What you notice right away is his physique—the English-Nigerian actor banged heads as a quarterback for his university’s American football team—his kind eyes that could let him off the hook for almost anything, and more than a generous dose of grace about him. Dirisu is somebody you instinctively earmark: a person of rare quality who’s alluring, mysterious, and belies the scope of cogent understanding. Standing right in front of us.
His House follows a refugee couple, Bol (Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), as they flee their home in a war-torn South Sudan. In the film’s opening moments, we see them survive a perilous journey on crowded buses through the desert and on a rescue boat through a storm-tossed ocean crossing—each step more fraught than the last—only to lose the young girl who’s in their care along the way. In the UK, they settle into a depressed low-income housing estate with the help of a hassled case worker (Matt Smith). However, their relative security comes at a terrible price. Bol and Rial start witnessing unaccountable horrors, the least of which are stabby apparitions clambering out of their rotting walls. Your suspicions are correct: this is not for the faint-hearted.
Nor is Gangs of London, which made a huge splash at launch in the UK back in April. The 10-part drama series starring Dirisu makes its proclivity for extreme violence and merciless mobsters known from its opening scene. The story begins with Sean Wallace (Joe Cole), the newly crowned kingpin of London, dangling a desperate man by his feet from a high-rise scaffolding. Sean wants to know who is responsible for killing his father, Finn (Colm Meaney), but his victim clearly knows nothing. So then Sean douses him with gas, strikes a match, and lets the laws of combustion do the heavy lifting. After years of peace between the capital’s various nationally demarcated criminal factions, Finn’s death means that the delicate network of alliances holding London’s underworld together threatens to shake apart. Meanwhile, the Wallace organization’s foot soldier, Elliot Finch (Dirisu), an unknown low-level worker for the family, eyes an opportunity. He single-handedly brings Sean valuable information that vaults him into the inner circle, a position that gives him access to their most important dealings. Desperate to earn Sean’s trust, he throws himself into increasingly deadly situations. But how far is he willing to go, and for what hidden purpose?
His House hits Netflix on October 30. Gangs of London is now streaming on AMC+ in the US.
You and I met so briefly at Sundance. It seems like so much has happened since.
Quite a bit! The world has changed.
What’s been on your mind with everything that’s gone on?
I’m grateful for life and I’m grateful for family. I spent a lot of lockdown with them. But it was definitely hard, I can’t lie. It was hard being trapped in one place. It was hard not to be socializing with friends, and I think there were other things that made it difficult as well. There’s a lot that’s happened in the world, especially with George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. It was quite difficult to be stuck in one place with this illness flying around. I want to say that we’re coming out on the other side of it now, even though that’s not true. But I’m very thankful for life.
Are you currently filming Mothering Sunday?
Yeah! I started shooting that on Monday.
This is quite an ensemble.
I’m really blessed and grateful to be working with Oscar winners, you know? It’s really exciting. Also, with Odessa [Young] and Josh [O’Connor], who I knew from before, and Eva [Husson, director]. When I met Eva for the first time, I knew that she was someone I was gonna get along with, not just in terms of friendship but in terms of the work that we were going to create together.
I imagine there are a lot safety protocols in place.
There are. It’s important for us to be safe, not only for our own health, but to thwart the spread of the disease towards people that we love in the rest of the world. Because there are safety protocols, we’re being tested twice a week. It’s very easy to feel safe and at ease at work. I don’t think anyone’s looking over their shoulder, worried about the illness spreading about. Apart from that, it doesn’t feel that different. Actually, I’m really grateful for that because I was worried the working environment would be so sterile it wouldn’t be fun to be at work anymore. It’s been good so far.
Gangs of London is wild and crazy, especially for television. It’s hugely entertaining. Is it true that you initially auditioned for a different part on the series?
Who told you that?!
Yeah, I suppose that is true. [laughs] I auditioned for a different role. When they hadn’t found the guy [to play Elliot] yet, I asked if I could read for him. At first they were reluctant, but when they still couldn’t find the guy, they asked if I was still interested. The rest is history, I suppose.
Elliot is shot at, stabbed, stomped on, and chased around with a cleaver. You’ve made quite the spectacle out of darts and ashtrays on this show.
[laughs] Oh yeah.
What was the learning curve like in terms of the physicality?
In terms of the requirements, it wasn’t so much training per se. It’s just learning the fights. The fights were so meticulous and choreographed. They work exactly as they do because of the details that have gone into them. It was really important that I learned the fights, right down to where my feet were placed. I suppose my history in American football helped. I knew that the quarterback’s footwork is really, really important and underrated. My past experiences in sport and exercise have definitely lent themselves to me being adept at what I needed to do in production to get it all on that screen. That’s I suppose the preparation that went into it, yeah.
A lot of it looks really dangerous for an actor to do himself. Where do you draw the line?
I didn’t do that at all. There is this weird responsibility that I feel towards people I’m working with and to myself, and I really wanted to be able to do everything and that includes a lot of the stunts. I think I did about 95 percent of the stunts in the series. But I did have a stunt double, Mens-Sana Tamakloe, who did some of the more brutal stuff, like being flipped and flying onto a working washing machine or having his back snapped across the corner of a wall, which I’m super grateful to him for doing. But yeah, I was keen and desperate to do as much as I could. It was more them setting the boundaries rather than me saying I wouldn’t do something.
Gangs of London is getting a second treatment with the production set to begin in March 2021. What do you know so far?
I don’t know anything, unfortunately. I have a very great relationship with our new writer, Tom Butterworth, and our new lead director. But no, they’ve been very tight-lipped. They’re spending a lot of time that they have available to them making the scripts as good as they can be. So even I’m really looking forward to seeing what they look like.
This is an actual quote from Gareth [Evans, creator of Gangs of London]: “Sope is a fucking find.” He’s not wrong. You’re brilliantly cast in this role.
His House is something different altogether, but both of your characters have a duality about them. How did you relate to Bol, and how did Bol compare to Elliot?
Yeah, definitely. I think David Mamet was the one who said that every character you play is like a version of yourself. So it’s just about highlighting those particular aspects of yourself. I might be paraphrasing that, and I think it was him who said that. I suppose that Elliot and Bol I could relate to in very different ways. I could relate to Bol as an African man and as a man whose blackness was a big part of his identity in the environment in which he lived. When you’re in Africa, everyone’s black so you don’t notice that you’re black. But I think being an immigrant to a new country that’s predominantly white, you learn that your blackness is a thing. That is something that Bol learns—not explicitly in this film, but he’s definitely made to feel like an outsider because he’s not originally from the area. I think a different conversation about masculinity happens with Bol, in terms of what it means to need to be the head of a family and making yourself a self-appointed decision-maker, you know? And not showing weakness, for different reasons. He’s definitely a different character and I related to him in those different ways.
Elliot is very much a closed book, at least in the earlier episodes, and incredibly stoic. He keeps to himself. You previously tied that back to toxic masculinity. Bol is like that, too.
Yeah! There’s a similarity in their masculinities in not talking. Elliot doesn’t talk to his father about the loss of his family. Bol doesn’t talk to his wife about what they’ve gone through, and it’s strange because Bol and Rial have gone through the exact same thing at the same time. If there’s anyone who understands what he’s been through, it’s the woman he’s gone through this whole ordeal with. So perhaps Elliot’s refusal to talk makes more sense than Bol’s. But there’s a similarity there.
For all its supernatural horrors, His House also depicts real-life horrors that we see day in, day out. These are moments where Bol is racially profiled by a mall cop or when a group of teens scream at Rial to “go back to fucking Africa.” What was the scariest thing for you?
Oof, that is a really good question. What I found particularly frightening is the lack of care and the lack of real interest in the individuality of the cases that are brought to this system. That’s not reflected in Matt Smith’s character, who works really hard to do the best by the people he’s assigned. But it’s above him, and above that. There is this facelessness where everyone becomes a statistic. That is terrifying in this almost cyclic level. Also, going back to our conversation about masculinity, that’s terrifying as well: that you can go through life cutting your own self up from your support networks because you think it’s what a man needs to do. Having done that myself and looking back on it, it’s terrifying to see that there are still young men who are being raised to think that way. That’s something we urgently need to address as well.
Bol and Rial’s sudden displacement and the trauma that tags along with that is something I think a lot of people can relate to. At the very least, we all know what rejection feels like. Bol tries so hard to acclimate in this new life when everything is so stacked against him.
That scene where Bol comes home from a day of acclimating to Rial having prepared dishes that resemble something from home in South Sudan really warmed me. I think having the food there as a gesture of culture was a really beautiful moment, you know? It has to do with maintaining a sense of self and a sense of pride in one’s self, which I think Rial is better at doing as someone who is in a diaspora. It’s a really beautiful, homely moment.
Remi [Weekes] gets so much mileage out of those eating utensils, which for Bol signifies a new and better life. It’s Bol’s constant reminder that they need to leave the past behind.
Oh yeah. Remi knew what he was doing. That reminds me of a moment in Black Panther where you realize that the film has been written and created by a black person. When Lupita [Nyong’o] and Danai [Gurira] get their car blown up, and Lupita is driving with no shoes. Because that’s something I’ve seen my mom do, my auntie do, my sister does it, my friends who are black do it—everybody. I was just like, “Oh my gosh, she’s not wearing any shoes!” It’s a beautiful moment. And eating with your hands. There’s a line in, maybe Life of Pi—I can’t remember now—where they say that you taste with your hands first. That sentiment really carried into His House. When Rial says, “It tastes like metal.” It ruins the experience of eating for her, having to eat like someone who doesn’t come from where they’re from.
As for the supernatural horror aspect, are you superstitious in real life?
No, I don’t think I’m superstitious per se. That said, I grew up and still live in a very Christian household. So in terms of this being scary or things that put me off-center, I try not to let it be terrifying to me, but the occult and demonology and stuff like that I’ll think twice about. One of the early films that had really gotten under my skin was Paranormal Activity: that exploration of being haunted by a demon that you can’t do anything about. That and any sort of satanic iconography—it’s just not the one. It’s not the one for me.
What’s your earliest memory of wanting to act?
Hmm… I think it came when I was at school when people are just like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I couldn’t exhibit any one thing that I wanted to be. I wanted to be a bit of everything. I wanted to be a doctor one day and an astronaut the next, and the only opportunity I’m going to have to be all of these things at the same time is by being an actor. That was a real pragmatic decision I made. [laughs] When I was at the National Youth Theatre, while studying for my economics degree at the University of Birmingham, I found a place where I was surrounded by like-minded people: people who loved telling stories and creating them. I felt really at home there and that’s sort of when I knew that maybe this is what I wanna do actually, before I do anything else or secondary to anything else.
It appears that you’re quite involved with the National Youth Theatre even now.
I’m super involved with them because they were so instrumental in me making that decision in my life and pursuing that. They also gave me the tools and the opportunities and the experiences that turned me into the actor I am today. The least I can do is just give back as much time as I can. I’m a mentor for their training scheme this year. I got a young actor who I’m in conversation with whenever they need my help. I also go back and give as many Q&As as I can or hosting sessions that I can do because I know how blessed I was to have that organization in my life and how much of an important factor they were for me. I hope that they can continue to be there for the next generation of performers. Also, so many people in the National Youth Theatre don’t go on to become actors, and yet, it does still change their lives profoundly. There are lots of people who have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, and politicians. It’s really about giving young people an opportunity to come out of their shells and be seen and be heard. I really support the work that they’re doing.
I noticed that the rumor mill in the UK is often pregnant with names of potential actors to carry on the James Bond legacy. You’re one of them. Is that an interesting prospect to you? I think you would be great for it.
[laughs] Thank you so much. I really appreciate that vote of confidence. I think when those rumors become a bit more substantiated, I’ll allow myself to think about it. Until then, I’m just gonna keep on the track that I’m on as best as I can.