The night before we’re due to meet for this interview, I spot Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù in Streatham. He’s eyeballing me from the centre of a giant billboard promoting the second season of Gangs of London, the extremely popular, extremely violent Sky Atlantic series depicting the struggles between criminal gangs in the capital. Dìrísù plays undercover police officer Elliot Finch, the de facto lead of an ensemble that includes Lucian Msamati, Michelle Fairley and Paapa Essiedu. That’s why he gets the middle of the billboard.
“I haven’t seen it yet,” he says, referring to the advertising billboard rather than the second season. “I haven’t seen a single one. But I’ve been sent loads of pictures so it’s nice that people are engaging with it.”
People most certainly are. Season one became Sky’s most downloaded box set of 2020 and Sky Atlantic’s second-biggest original drama launch of all time. The extensive promotional campaign for season two suggests that the audience will only grow. When your show has an official podcast, you can rest assured that people are invested.
And while second albums might be tricky, second seasons tend to offer greater creative freedom, the stakes already established, the stage set. As Dìrísù observes: “With the first series, you’ve laid the foundations. With the second series you can just go off.”
And go off it will. Naturally our conversation is light on spoilers: will Finch escape this season unscathed? Is [redacted] really dead? However, Dìrísù assures me that intrigue and violence will not be dialled down. Quite the opposite. “The visceral nature of the series has definitely increased. We saw a lot of blood the first time round but [director] Corin Hardy definitely has a penchant for it. He really loves it as a language of cinema. There is a lot more blood.”
Dìrísù is filming in Turkey but has flown back to London for the Gangs of London premiere. When we met at the Soho Hotel, he’s still feeling the effects of the jet lag but remains notably articulate and engaging company. Standing north of six foot, there’s a real presence to him – you can see why people are tipping him as a potential contender for the next James Bond.
Dìrísù is having a big 2022 – the second season of Gangs lands a couple of months after the period comedy Mr. Malcolm’s List in which Dìrísù plays the titular heartthrob Mr Malcolm, romancing Freida Pinto. He chuckles when I inquire how it feels being a man of the moment. “I don’t know if I’d describe myself as a man of the moment. I don’t know if I feel that necessarily. But it’s nice that people are saying it.”
The 31-year-old discovered acting in school. His parents moved to London from Nigeria in the late 1980s. “They met at university. My dad came over and laid the foundations for my mum to come over and they’ve been together ever since.”
Dìrísù’s first role was as a jitterbug in a school production of The Wizard of Oz. However, despite joining the National Youth Theatre, Dirisu never saw acting as a viable profession. “I enjoyed it but I didn’t think I was very good at it. My parents encouraged me to do something that would lead to a profession and an objective future rather than something that was at the whims of a casting director. You can be an excellent actor but not get the opportunities that your talent deserves because you weren’t born in the right city or don’t meet the right person at the right time.”
As he notes, “There’s such subjectivity to art. What you think is great, somebody else might not like and as a consequence you don’t get very far. As a child of immigrants, it was very important to my parents to create a stable and successful future for their children.”
So rather than Rada, Dìrísù attended the University of Birmingham where he studied economics. “I’d done economics at school so it was kind of an easy in to university for me. It got a bit harder, which was annoying.”
As I’m someone who studied Maths for A-level, and found himself utterly bamboozled, Dìrísù has my undying respect. The very words sine, cosine and tangent still bring me out in hives. “But that’s just triangles, right?” says Dìrísù with the air of a man who knows his way around his numbers.
He’s right, of course: they’re the main functions used in trigonometry and are based on a right-angled triangle. But the answers went on for numerous decimal places and looked wrong even if you got them right. Dìrísù nods. “When maths starts to look like literature in a different language, that’s when you have to walk away.”
Still, economics is not a degree that you can easily blag (unlike, say, English literature). Presumably he must have been close to making a career out of it? “I knew that I could have done,” he says. “I knew that I had an aptitude for it, I was good at it, but I didn’t enjoy it. But yeah, there’s definitely a future alternate multiversal Ṣọpẹ́ where I’m just sat in an office in the city somewhere and we never get to meet. That’s a shame.”
He never stopped acting throughout university. In 2012, Dìrísù attended an open casting call for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Fast-forward a few months and he’s playing the title role in the RSC’s production of Pericles. The city would have to wait. Another multiverse, another life.
One of his classmates in the National Youth Theatre was a young actor named Regé-Jean Page. They did a play together in 2011. “It was a play called Our Days of Rage. It was a meditation on process and civil disobedience. That was the year of the London riots.”
The pair remain close friends. Page of course ascended to superstardom with his role in Bridgerton. That landmark TV show attracted acclaim for its colourblind approach to casting – an approach that would be replicated in Mr Malcolm’s List. Dìrísù was approached directly to play the Darcy-esque Mr Malcom. Does he think this would have been the case ten years ago?
“No,” he replies. “No, quite simply. I don’t think people were forward-thinking enough or inclusive enough at that time.”
What changed? “I think the gatekeepers needed to be shown that it was profitable. You have showrunners who have power like Shonda Rhimes who are able to create really diverse and representative and inclusive projects like Grey’s Anatomy or Still Star-Crossed or For The People or Bridgerton. To show people there’s a whole world outside of whiteness. And those people will subscribe, those people will pay their money – there’s a market there. It’s terrible to talk about people just in terms of consumerism but at the end of the day it’s a business.
“Generations are changing. There were attitudes that were in existence in the early 20th century that have been dismantled socially and will hopefully continue to be dismantled. As a consequence of that, we get more inclusivity and more celebration – not only of racial difference but gender fluidity and sexuality and ability and disability representation. There’s a lot that is going to change over the next ten years.”
While acting is Dìrísù’s vocation, another great love is football – both American and British. He played quarterback for the University of Birmingham Lions after discovering the sport while visiting relatives in America. “I was like, this is excellent. This is a combination of brutality and intelligence. It’s chess with violence. The combination of those two aspects of humanity – your mind and your body – was really, really enticing for me.”
His NFL team is Atlanta Falcons – best known for blowing a 28-3 lead in the 2017 Superbowl. “Yeah, we don’t talk about that,” sighs Dìrísù. “That was against the New England Patriots. That was a bad evening – and I watched it happen live. That was not fun.”
Hopefully Arsenal will prove more successful this season – although Dìrísù now lives south of the river, in Peckham. Being relatively close to the area myself, I ask his favourite spots. “Prince of Peckham is definitely the best pub-bar in the area. Le Van is a great restaurant next to Peckham station. The Kudu restaurants are quite good as well – there’s a restaurant, a bar beneath Queen’s Road Peckham station, and there’s a grill on Nunhead Lane. So those are my South East London recommendations.”
What does he hope the coming years will bring (other than an Arsenal Premier League title)? “Working, man. If we get to meet each other again in five years time and there’s a whole other bunch of films and TV shows and theatre projects we can talk about then that will be a good life. I think Ian McKellen said that the most successful actors are the ones that work. And I hope to continue telling stories that I really enjoy with people that I really enjoy making stories with.”
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Funnily enough, both Page and Dìrísù are among the favourites for the next Bond. I mention this, and Dìrísù doesn’t miss a beat, answering with a politician’s smoothness. “It’s a testament to how excellent the National Youth Theatre is for performance, I suppose. I think there are a couple of other NYT alumni on there as well.”
I guess it’s hardly surprising that a place created to produce successful actors is doing just that. Joining the NYT must be akin to signing up for the Manchester United youth team… Dìrísù smiles. “I think National Youth Theatre is far more successful than the United youth team.”
OK, the United youth team in the 1990s: Beckham, Scholes and all that. “What, the Class of 92? Yeah, maybe.”
I’m not sure what the acting equivalent of winning the Treble would be – three Oscars in one night? And as a Gooner I’m sure he’d prefer the comparison to be the Invincibles season. Regardless, Dìrísù has established himself as a true star player in his field. Further glory lies ahead.
Gangs of London is now streaming on Sky Atlantic