Stephen Odubola grew up on a council estate in Kennington, and could easily have fallen into the gang culture on his doorstep.
But he didn’t.
Nor did he become (as per his father’s wishes) a doctor – although he did study for a degree in Business Entrepreneurship and Innovation in case his dream of becoming an actor didn’t work out.
Now, after seven long years of trying, working part-time selling phone contracts, and studying, he has landed his first lead role in a feature film: Blue Story.
It’s not bad going for a 23-year-old…
How did acting come about?
I was 15. I was thinking a lot about the future, about career paths, and I thought to myself: ‘If I could get into a career, what would it be?’. I decided that I liked acting the most out of all of my school subjects, so I decided it was time to start taking it seriously.
I applied for Identity Drama School, which I went to for a year, part time (I took my A Levels and following those a Business degree on the side to ensure I had a backup plan), but I left because I couldn’t afford it.
My dad’s a hard-working man, but his job doesn’t pay that much. Trying to fund drama school while paying all the bills around the house was very tough, and we could only afford it for one year, but it gave me the determination and knowledge that I needed to carry on chasing my dream career as an actor.
Alongside my education I just did my own thing, getting into short films, building up a portfolio and that. I started using casting websites, applying for opportunities and working for film students. When my showreel was good enough I started sending it to agents, in an effort to get represented, and that’s how my foot ended up in the door.
What was the initial response when you said you wanted to go into acting?
Ah, well African parents you know… they’re so fixed on the idea of you trying to be a doctor. I get why. They’re from Nigeria and there are fewer educational opportunities there. But I kept at the acting alongside my degree, and they eventually became supportive because they saw how serious I was.
I went in there and did my thing, and I could see that they loved it
What was the low point?
During uni, I was going for a lot of auditions and often not hearing anything back, occasionally a rejection, but often silence. You never want to talk about rejections and none of my friends were into acting anyway, so I kept it all to myself and ended up in a low, low place. I just had to self-reflect, I had to tell myself to keep doing it and that my time would come.
The industry is subjective too, so you often get ruled out because of a lack of experience or your height or whatever. It was hard, but I had faith. And it did come, it did.
What was your first big break?
There are two. The first wasn’t all that big, but when I was 18 I was cast for a small small role in Tarzan. For me that was big because I was around big actors and could briefly see myself in the cinema but it wasn’t a big role if I’m honest. But in January 2019 I had my audition for Blue Story. I’d prepared so, so hard for the role because I knew I wanted it. I went in there and did my thing, and I could see that they loved it. Sure enough I got the role.
The casting director was [British grime artist] Rapman, and I’d sent him an email in 2018 asking him to let me know if he needed an extra person in a music video. He still hasn’t replied to that, but I’m the lead in his feature film now, so I can’t complain. It’s mad.
How much of your character’s life had you experienced before the film?
I can relate to Timmy. I’m from a loving background, a hard-working home on a council estate. When you’re a kid, you come into this world pure, and it’s your experiences that shape you beyond that. I was exposed to certain things on my council estate, and there are traps you can very easily fall into. So this film is incredibly important, especially now, as gang culture is a huge issue.
When you’re immersed in that culture it’s also very hard to escape it. In most cases it takes an external force – in my case my older brother spoke to me, and he put me on the straight and narrow. A lot of my friends went down a less positive path.
How were rehearsals?
Crazy. I was so new to everything. Everyone in the cast is from London, so we could all relate to each other in one way or another. I was a right rookie for the first few days though. The director would say “Stephen, we’re going to use the 100mm lens” which is a close-up lens, and I’d be like “cool, cool” and then just wouldn’t move myself accordingly. There were a lot of terms that I had to get used to, but they were really patient with me.
In a couple of years I’d like to be in America, shooting a film
Who do you draw your inspiration from?
If I’m being honest it’s the bigger stars who really inspire me. Everyone inspires me in some way or another, especially the people I get to meet that I can see are working really hard. But people like Idris Elba. People from London that are doing big things in America. Rapman too, I’ve been a fan of him for years – he’s gone from making music videos to a full feature film. To see his journey is inspiring. I’m also inspired by actors such as Will Smith and Samuel L Jackson.
What does the future look like for you?
In a couple of years I’d like to be in America, shooting a film. I think any actor like myself sees themselves ending up in America – there are so many opportunities. And let’s be real, who doesn’t get excited by the idea of Hollywood? I want to see how this film is received, hopefully establish myself within the UK from it, and then yeah, the US. Obviously I’ll still do plenty here too.
Blue Story will be in cinemas from 22 November