Project world domination,” smiles Joivan Wade, and he’s only half joking. The young actor and entrepreneur has already built a vast online platform, as the trailblazing Wall Of Comedy spawned the Wall Of Music and the Wall Of Talent. (Wade’s love for walls is matched only by Donald Trump, only his are virtual, and actually get built.) There’s a burgeoning film career – most notably a major role in last year’s The First Purge – and now a move into TV, DC TV no less: Wade will play Cyborg in the forthcoming Doom Patrol adaptation.
How does he find the time? He doesn’t, which is why he turned down Doom Patrol when initially approached. A four-month stint on Eastenders had played havoc with his business interests, and filming Doom Patrol would take even longer. So he said thanks, but no thanks.
Only then The First Purge came out. The Monday after its opening weekend, his agent called. Executive producer Greg Berlanti had watched the film and seen his Cyborg in it, wouldn’t take no for an answer. One meeting.
“It’s too long a time. You haven’t done anything like this before. Let’s keep going with the company and when the time’s right, that will come.”
Nonetheless, Wade assented – how often do you get to sit down with a legend? “Greg is a juggernaut,” he says of the man who recently signed the most expensive producer deal ever with Warner Bros. (North of $300m.) “He’s one of the most successful TV producers. I want to learn. I want to understand how you do that.”
He got a taster: Berlanti duly sold Wade on the project. “I did the test shoot, and a week later I was in LA doing the fittings for Cyborg.” Well, they don’t pay him $300m for nothing…
Berlanti must have been surprised by the initial rejection, I say. Wade nods. “Yes. I think that also gave the respect, you know? It allowed them to see that I don’t just want to do anything. Everything has to be calculated and thought out. It has to be in line with the journey, really. Yes, they respected that.”
Naturally, this change of heart – wait, make that ‘change of mind’: everything has to be thought out – didn’t stem solely from the project’s artistic merits. Doom Patrol will run on DC’s new streaming platform, DC Universe – the company’s version of Netflix et al. “I obviously understood how big the DC fanbase is,” says Wade matter-of-factly. “Off the back of that, it was like, ‘Cool. Yes, this makes sense. Yes, we should go for it.’ I spoke to the team. Everyone agreed and we went for it.”
Jovian Wade has been going for it since Brit School. He was a talented teenage footballer, trialling with Charlton and Crystal Palace, but the love was never quite there. So he asked himself: “If you could do anything that would make you happy, and money wasn’t an option, what would you do?” The answer: “I would act.”
He acted. Drama began to supplant football, the stage superseding the pitch. He told a friend, “I think I’m going to throw in the boots – I want to act.” In that case, said his friend, you had better go to the BRIT School. “What’s the BRIT School?” said Wade.
He went home, researched, discovered applications were closing in three days. Got applying. “My dad drove me down there on the last day to hand it in personally, so I could make the deadline. Then, from there, the rest is history.”
At the BRIT School he met his best friend, collaborator and business partner Percelle Ascott. Theirs was a natural affinity. They began developing ideas, concepts; each encouraging the other’s creativity, and seeing it reflected in himself.
One time the pair were invited to perform in a variety show by Glen Murphy, one half of the comedy act, and Britain’s Got Talent finalist, Twist and Pulse. Neither Wade or Ascott had ever done comedy before, but why pass up the opportunity? They wrote a sketch the night before: Ascott wants to talk to a girl Wade’s already seeing. Performed it, went down a storm. “Off the back of that it was like, ‘Maybe this comedy thing is something that we could build out.’”
Although the sketch had no direct relation with Mandem on the Wall, both spoke the same language. “It was urban. It was youth culture. It was street.” Watching from the audience was a young comedian, Dee Kaate. The trio exchanged ideas, and numbers. A week later they were filming what would become the first episode of Mandem.
The concept was simple: three youths, sitting on a wall in South London, chatting shit and trying to pick up girls. “It was just a bunch of friends and a couple of cameras and some passion,” says Joivan. And talent, of course: eight years on, that first episode remains a remarkably polished piece of work: one that comes with the added thrill of watching creativity be unleashed, destinies harnessed.
The British film and TV industry isn’t the most hospitable place for young black actors and writers. Mandem was a means to build their own platform, speak directly to whatever audience might be out there for them. Wade describes the mindset as: “If I’m not able to get another opportunity from a casting director, or my agent doesn’t put me up for certain roles, am I never going to make it to where I want to get to? That can’t happen.”
Today, Wade admits, the businessman in him would be wrestling with the creative. “What if this show doesn’t do well? We’ll be the three guys that tried that urban show which was really, really poor.
“At the time, I wasn’t thinking that. It was just, ‘We want to create stuff. Let’s create stuff.’ We created stuff and then it got released. Then it was, ‘Wow. There’s a response.’ That’s the best way to go about it. You don’t want to be sitting there thinking. You just want to do.”
Mandem quickly built up a sizeable online following. TV networks took note: Wade appeared in BBC1 sitcom Big School, had a two-episode stint in Doctor Who, and starred in E4 comedy-drama Youngers alongside Ascott. There was talk of a TV show of their own, but that never materialised.
They returned to their roots, staging a Mandem on the Wall sketch show at the Hackney Empire. The response was great, but the boys were restless. Mandem was dying down, nothing had turned up. So now what?
Same as last time: if you can’t find a platform, build your own. But a bigger platform, one big enough to showcase not just the core trio but other young creators and performers whose talent hadn’t yet yielded the exposure it deserved. Mandem… was a show; this would be a network, a production company, a management agency rolled into one.
“We’re going to start this, essentially, as a Facebook page. We’re just going to be all about comedy. On Facebook you have walls. Everyone writes on your wall. We said, “this is going to be a Facebook wall of comedy.” So we named it The Wall of Comedy.”
For an idea of The Wall’s breadth of output, consider the six most popular videos on its YouTube channel. Number six, with 1.1m views, we have the Shepherd’s Bush iteration of Asking Awkward Question, a series in which the charismatic comedian good-naturedly interacts with members of the public, and asks the odd awkward question. (“Spell ‘mortgage’”.) Next is How To Go From Posh To Roadman (1.4m), a sharp subversion of the ‘baiting out’ videos commonly viewed as a form of cyberbullying. (“Bait out the biggest sket you know!”)
Number four brings Hollywood star power with The Roast Of Kevin Hart & The Rock (1.6m); Wade and Kaate adding some funk to the standard junket interview. Third is the first episode of Mandem, the cradle of the whole enterprise now seen by more than 2m people. Silver medal goes to When Girls Want Sexy Pictures!!, an Axel Blake sketch that manages to incorporate a twist ending into its 30 seconds, and 2.7m views in the process.
And number one? Number one is Leopard Prank In Camden Town, 90 seconds of an anthropomorphic leopard growling at surprised pedestrians. The video was a collaboration with National Geographic for Big Cat Week, and has racked up 55m views. As Joivan observes: “They say the biggest videos on the internet are cat videos.”
Red carpet treatment
Our interview took place at The Blue’s Kitchen in Camden – right around the corner from the leopard stunt. Nowadays, Wade is more entrepreneur than internet prankster: he speaks in unbroken paragraphs of prose – ‘likes’ and ‘ums’ minimal – and will occasionally unleash a megawatt smile that could power Lewisham, and possibly Bromley as well.
He owes a lot to his parents, who sound like remarkable people in their own right. His mum works in personal development and training. She instilled confidence, the belief that his life could be whatever he wanted to make of it.
“When I said, ‘I want to play football,’ it was like, ‘OK, cool. Let’s get you into a team.’ When I wanted to act, it was like, OK, cool. Let’s get you in a school and let’s get you acting.’ It was never, ‘But how are you going to make a career out of this?’ That’s what really helped me. I didn’t have that initial, ‘Oh, It can’t be done.’ I was always told that I can do it. That was a big reason as to why I am the way I am.”
If you haven’t yet appreciated the scale of Joivan Wade’s self-belief: in a recent interview he claimed to be five years behind – the aim had been a Hollywood film by 20. “I always set high standards for myself,” he smiles when I bring this up. “You aim for the moon and you land on the stars. Being in Hollywood at 20 was the moon and being in Hollywood at 24 was the stars.”
Ever the positive thinker, he notes the past five years offered opportunity to hone his talents as producer and entrepreneur. “Had I been in Hollywood at that time, I would have just been focusing on my acting. Now I have both strings to my bow and I’m able to grow both of them at the same time.”
His late father was a fellow entrepreneur, and one-time manager of Mandem. He also believed in community responsibility and helping others, running an initiative called The Polishing Project – the idea being that even the most-delinquent of kids was a rough diamond waiting for someone to take the time to polish them.
His father inspired Joivan to create his own foundation, Wade’s World, to help young people follow their dreams. “Whatever it is you love doing, you can make money out of that. You can make a career out of anything. You just have to find that passion and work out how you can make it into a business or a career. That’s my aim – to try and help young people to do so, and follow in the footsteps of my dad and really build out a community.”
I tell him it sounds like a brilliant cause. “Thank you,” he says.
Joivan Wade: Showreel
Of course, he’s already built a community, indeed a family, through Mandem and The Wall Of Comedy. The day after our interview, I accompany Wade and his team to the Newport Beach Film Festival Awards held at The Langham Hotel rather than southern Californian (a fact much lamented by every speaker). Wade has been nominated as one of 10 Brits To Watch In 2019 (and beyond, presumably).
The Langham foyer is crowded with actors of various renown – Rob Brydon is probably the most familiar face, although Lily Cole runs him close – the standard posse of photographers, and roving waiters brandishing trays of champagne. Wade, very much cutting a dash in a velvet green tuxedo, greets me with a hug and a “hey mate!” (On my departure, I get another hug and a namecheck – which means either he remembered from the interview, or he took the trouble to ask the PR. The latter, I suspect, but it’s a classy gesture nonetheless.)
The Wade Gang isn’t small. Fellow Mandem Dee Kaate and Percelle Ascott are also present, along with various performers from the Wall Of Comedy, and Joivan’s mum. “I bring them everywhere,” says Wade. “The clan. The posse. If I do something, they’re coming with me. If P’s doing something, we’re going with him.”
P – aka Percelle Ascott – doesn’t disagree. “It's overwhelming,” he says, “and just nice to share the experiences with Joivan. It's both our moments, if that makes sense.
“His mum is my mum, his cousins are here – they're like my family as well. I've known him for 15-plus years. That's my brother, basically.”
From a wall in Lewisham to awards night at the Langham – did Ascott imagine the journey would lead them here? The resulting “no” is followed by laughter: “Not at all! It's nice, not only to have the recognition, but have the opportunity to perform in projects that we've always dreamt of.”
Breaking down barriers
Opportunity. It was a lack of opportunity that pushed the trio to create Mandem for themselves, and then The Wall Of Comedy for others. It’s the word that came up at the end of the interview when, as a parting question, I asked Wade what changes he would make should his ambitions of world domination be fulfilled.
“What I would change is equal opportunity,” said Wade without a moment’s hesitation. “I think everyone should be able to have a chance to be able to have the same opportunity as everyone else, no matter how you are brought into the world. I feel like everyone should start on a level playing field. I would create opportunities for everyone to be able to do just that. I feel like hard work and merit is what everything should be valued on, as opposed to circumstance and situation.”
As with so many black actors, Wade had to cross the Atlantic to find the space in which to express himself. He wants to get “black, asian, ethnic minorities creating and telling our stories more. I feel like we don’t get an opportunity to do that. The big reason why we always go to America is because the characters that we want to portray and create are characters which are not written.”
The Good Doctor star Antonia Thomas made exactly the same point in our recent interview, almost word-for-word. It’s an alarming indictment of the British film and TV industry...
Especially when we like to think of ourselves as a largely progressive culture…
He hopes the success of Black Panther will lead to Hollywood opening the purse strings for predominantly BAME productions. “When you go to a producer and you say, ‘I want to make a film. It’s a black film,’ straightaway that budget is no more than £25m. That’s horrible… We should be able to create films and stories for the story’s sake, not based on who’s in it or what colour someone is or what background that story is from.”
He will tackle this imbalance across his many guises: offering inspiration as an actor, a platform as a producer, financial backing and new projects as an entrepreneur. “One day, we’ll be able to sit down and have this conversation and say, ‘‘Look. That’s not the problem any more. What’s the new problem?’”
He’s relentless: both in his pursuit of personal success, and his determination to ensure that success is used to help the cause of others. He’s expanding into property, wants to own restaurants, hotels, ships. He wants it all; and he wants everyone to have a piece.
“Everything that we do we see as an inspiration. I want to be able to have the next young guy, girl look at us and say, ‘OK, this is possible. These guys from South London were just kicking a ball. They ended up going to a school and acting; now they’ve done X, Y and Z. I can do that.’”
Forget X, Y, Z. By the time Joivan Wade is through, we’ll need the whole alphabet.
Doom Patrol will be available from dcuniverse.com