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Jay Lycurgo on dancing with the devil

Jay Lycurgo played a henchman in The Batman, and Tim Drake in HBO Max series Titans. Now Netflix is calling. The British actor shares his story of superheroes and witches

Jay Lycurgo

It’s December. The year is 2016. For the sake of the image in our heads, let’s say it’s snowing. Jay Lycurgo and his mother have just travelled for more than an hour and a half to West London from the southern suburbs of Coulsdon for an audition. What kind of an audition? Only a one in thirty chance to be part of the incoming class of ArtsEd the coming term. It’s the only school he’s going out for, so, stakes are high.

His mum drops him off and goes to wait in a nearby café. Did I mention it’s cold? Jay sits and waits in a hallway with 40 other prospects, preparing for the make-or-break ten minutes that are soon to come. Some have no doubts they are going to get in. Others are shaking. Jay’s somewhere in the middle.

When his name is called, he stands and takes a few steps towards his only chance at proving to a couple strangers that he has what it takes to be considered. He goes in. He spits some Shakespeare and the opening monologue from The Long Road by Shelagh Stevenson. “It wasn’t even late. Ten o’clock or something…”

When the day comes to an end – a whopping nine hours later – those strangers emerge from their chamber and call out a list. Ten kids are named. Jay’s not one of them. Wait, what? That’s not how the story’s supposed to go. Stay with me.

Jay solemnly slumps to meet his mum in the café. We hope she ate. A few times. Jay’s mind no doubt lingers on what he will do next. He leans towards the obvious, following in his father’s footsteps into football – his dad is former Jamaican striker David Johnson. Even if a playing career would have been a long shot, there was always coaching. 

But acting? That dream seems dead.

Jay Lycurgo

But the next day, an email comes into Jay’s inbox. It’s ArtsEd. It appears they made a mistake: they want him to come back to re-audition. He heads back to that hallway, walks through the audition room doors, and smashes it. A few days later, an acceptance rolls through. When did he find out? “In detention; I remember I had prawn cocktail crisps in my six-form common room and my teacher gave me detention for eating crisps.” 

His mum called him with the news. 

“I’m sitting there in silence – you’re not allowed to talk – and she goes ‘Oh. My. God! Oh my God. Oh my God! You got in!’ And I was in detention and I was like, I don’t care anymore I’m gettin out!’” (Cue The Breakfast Club music, Jay’s hand in the air.)

When reflecting on that day, Jay smiles at the thought of his mother. “She’s my heart. That’s the person that keeps me going.” 

The youngest of four, and the product of two people that wholly love each another, it’s clear Jay’s got a team behind him. But the adjustment to drama school was not smooth sailing. “I would bunk off in lessons because I’d be like, ‘Contextual Studies, what is that? What does that even mean?’ And I’d go home and play Fifa and eat peanut butter sandwiches.”

Change was on the horizon. About halfway through the year, they were doing the play Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness when the light flipped. “There are just some projects where you’re like, you know, ‘This is real, man. This is a real responsibility.’ When you take on these plays and you take on these characters. To create stories. At some point, it changes.” 

Jay Lycurgo

Jay walked into his first year with a fade and a high top, and by the third year he had dreads. It wasn’t just external change, in fact, the change was mostly internal. “I cared, I just cared, I just learned to care,” he recalls. “And I got more curious.”

He got his first gig at the end of third year before graduating, a guest starring role on an episode of The Doctor. “It was an afternoon show for grans and grandads really and I was like, ‘Sick, let’s do it!’” 

He was spotted in an episode of I May Destroy You and then landed a role in The Batman. Who does he play? You may, or must, recognise him from that almost opening scene. You know the one? The train gang that takes pleasure in pouncing on the innocent, faces painted half black half white, as they exit the train to initiate the new member by asking him to land a punch on an unassuming citizen? Jay’s the initiate. 

Next time you watch, you’ll be able to spot him for two reasons. First, his face is only painted half white. (OK, easy enough.) Second, the eyes. When Batman steps from the shadows – with unusually loud footsteps – for his first reveal in the film, the crew steps forward and Jay steps back. Then Batman does his whole ‘I’m vengeance’ thing, and lays them on the pavement one by one. Except for Jay, who lingers in the back and watches on. At one point, he even steps in to stop one of his crew mates from shooting Batman. The members who are able to rise, up and run, leaving just Jay and Batman behind. 

The two stand and look at each other, and Jay gives him the eyes. What kind of eyes? The ‘I’m not supposed to be here, this isn’t me, this is just the wrong place wrong time, I support you, I see you, thank you, but also please don’t hurt me’ eyes. Jay can pack a verse in those pupils. “That’s how I got jobs in the beginning, I think. As soon as my agent saw the word ‘vulnerability’, he was like, ‘Go, go, go!’”

Jay Lycurgo

We have a laugh, but it’s true. It’s one of the things that’s led him to success so quick. So, where do those eyes go next? A year later, Jay lands the role of Tim Drake, aka the third Robin in the HBO Max series Titans. 

Quick Comic Book Break. The character, created by Marv Wolfman and Pat Broderick, first appeared in Batman issue #436 in August 1989. Drake is considered the greatest Robin of all time, known for his meticulous detective work. He’s the one that connects the dots between the flying Graysons, an acrobat show he saw as a kid, and the identity behind a past Robin, who is now Nightwing, because they are the only two people in the world that can do the one-handed meat hook. Big breath.

OK, there’s a lot. Point is, it’s a big deal.

He landed the role mid-Covid, while he had Covid. Ouch. He recalls the day he found out. “My manager Will messaged me and he was like, ‘I’ll call in 15.’ Full stop. I was like, ‘I ain’t got it. I ain’t got it.’” The two chatted for ten minutes, and Jay thinks he’s softening the blow when his manager drops the news like it’s nothing. “‘By the way, you got Titans, and oh by the way you’re going to play Tim Drake who is also Robin. It was just insane.”

In the show, Jay sports an American accent with ease and even speaks a little Cantonese. The upcoming season four of Titans teases Tim Drake suiting up…

Jay Lycurgo

So a quick recap. Jay lands Batman, has an emotionally steamy moment with the new Batman, and then lands Robin. When the universe plants seeds this big, it’d be a sin not to let them grow. Certainly Robert Pattinson needs a plus one? Let’s get planting.

Until then, Lycurgo slips back into his native tongue for the upcoming fantasy drama on Netflix, The Bastard Son and The Devil Himself based on the Half Bad trilogy by Sally Green, adapted by screenwriter Joe Barton. 

“I loved having my accent, man. I wish I could be British everywhere.” Jay plays Nathan Byrne, a young man who’s seventeenth birthday looms ahead, the day where he will take his full form as either a Fairborn or Blood Witch. (Both witches, only one kinda, sometimes, eats the other) This adaptation delves deeper into the darker parts of human nature, as Jay points out. “Joe Barton is so incredible. I am so fortunate to be working with such an intelligent, creative writer because he just makes these fantasy, magic shows real and raw and human. And that’s what I’m all about.”

He transitions from guest star to leading man seamlessly. But he gets by with a little help from his friends. The heart of the show – which, there are many, that are eaten – is the chemistry between Jay and his two cast mates Nadia Parkes and Emilien Vekemans. Every step of the way you can tell these three are having fun. Lycurgo met Parkes two years prior reading for an indie film. When she came in to test for Annalise, Jay had already been cast. 

“I knew she would smash it… like the emotions she can hit are just incredible.” But he met the French born Emilien at the first read through. “His English just improved over the table read… Me, Nadia, and Emilien just had so much love for one another right away.” I can see why. Jay’s got one of those personalities that’s so big, it overlaps with everyone else around him. I suspect it’s one of the things that makes him such a good actor. There’s parts of him in everything he plays. Jay is neither bastard nor devil, but I can say he kills the role that flirts with both.

Jay Lycurgo

Jay smiles as he thinks back on it. And he’s got a big smile. I mean, Jay’s smile blows up the air around him like a giant piece of bubble gum. The minute you’re in his atmosphere, you get to step inside that bubble with him…transported to a space that’s childish, and engaging – full of laughter. And yes, I got all that through a Zoom call. It’s almost like the kid has some kind of superpowers. 

Oh wait, he kinda does? “I love everything I’ve achieved so far. Like giving a community of mixed-race people belief that they can be a superhero. That’s incredible. And it’s a very nice, respected thing now.” 

Beyond the commercial success Jay is coming into, he’s looking forward to the day he can jump into more human stories. He loves A24 films. Most notably, Waves. “I love the raw stuff because I love to get emotional. We’re taught we’re not allowed to get emotional in real life, especially as a man.” 

He details a day on set where he just broke down. It was while filming episode two. Jay’s character goes through serious training in preparation for the battle that’s prophesied to come. “Those moments in the training montage with Celia, felt real. It was real. Every day I was doing press ups, and I was doing those runs. There was a scene where I pick her up and throw her down for the first time and she’s like what are your weaknesses and punches me in the face, and I throw her down. I remember after that take I just started crying. I was in such an exhausted place, and that’s exactly where Nathan Byrne was. And you get to play that, it’s incredible.” 

And so the story goes. A star is born. Or, I mean, a superhero. Or, I mean, a witch. What can I say? Jay Lycurgo can do it all. 

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The Bastard Son and The Devil Himself is out now on Netflix.

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