Interview: 'Guerrilla' Star Babou Ceesay Talks Controversy Around the Series & Carving Out Success in British Drama

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April 20th 2017

Babou Cessay: Babou Ceesay

Tuesday morning saw the announcement of the nominees for the 2017 British Academy’s Television Awards. Babou Ceesay, star of Showtime and Sky Atlantic’s drama series "Guerrilla," has been named a contender in the Leading Actor category for his role as Richard Taylor in BBC’s "Damilola, Our Love Boy." He faces stiff competition from industry heavyweights Benedict Cumberbatch, Robbie Coltrane and Adeel Akhtar all nominated for the much-coveted gong. The award ceremony doesn’t take place until May so for now Babou can focus on promoting his role as Marcus in Academy Award winner John Ridley’s 1970s political drama series based on the British Black Panthers.

The Gambian born actor’s resume boasts the best of the best in British Drama, including performances in "Luther," "Silent Witness" and "Lewis," to name a few, his silver screen appearances are nothing to scoff at either. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s "Half of a Yellow Sun" to "Rogue one," the British actor’s career has gone from strength to strength. His most recent role in "Guerrilla" sees him opposite Frieda Pinto as a politically active couple in 1970s London who use violence to further their cause. Dogged by controversy since the release of the show’s trailer last year, during a Q&A at the show’s premiere the cast and writer faced criticism about the erasure and misrepresentation of black women from audience members unsettled by the episode they’d seen.

Danielle Dash: Hi Babou, how are you?

Babou Ceesay: Hey Danielle, how are you?

DD: I’m well thank you. Congratulations on your BAFTA nomination.

BC: Thank you.

DD: How did you feel when you heard the news?

BC: I just landed in LA and was in bed trying to cope with the jetlag just about to nod off and I look at my phone and there was a tweet from BAFTA saying, you know that I’d been nominated. I think it was overwhelming. I ended up not knowing what to do for 5 minutes. I called my wife and said “hey, guess what?” And she screamed for me, which was amazing.

DD: Winning a BAFTA has helped propel many an actor’s career both here and across the pond; are more roles in the States a prospect you’ve been working towards?

BC: Well look, I’m not getting ahead of myself. I haven’t won and you’ve seen the rest of the list, they’re ridiculous. I wouldn’t work towards roles in the US anyway because the acting community is large. It’s large in the States and also exists in the UK. I would be interested in building relationships in the America.

DD: You’ve carved yourself a pocket in British Drama over the last ten years; what is the secret to your continued and growing success?

BC: Wow. Look let’s face facts, it’s 50% luck. I think it’s kind of undeniable. In the sense of things happening when they need to. Luck in that sense but also I kind of hit the point in my career where I ask more of it. It’s a combination of those two things. But the other side as well; I started to want more and ask for more. Talking with my agent, a lot more selective with roles in terms of what comes up and just deciding I’d take a risk. Trying to be selective is very tricky in this industry where you get what you get and I just felt like it was time to just put myself in the hot seat and thankfully it’s paying off.

DD: You were an accountant before deciding to pursue acting full time; can you talk about what held you back from making the jump?

BC: Oh my goodness. It’s like you’ve just reminded me of that. It’s ridiculous. Wow. When I think back to the decision I was compelled and I had to commit, I had to jump in and commit fully to it. Look, it’s easy for me to say ‘follow your dreams.’ I’ve been working at it for a long time, it overnight. I’ve really been working at it and I’m not the only one who works at it. There are a lot of talented, very hardworking actors out there who I’ve had the pleasure to work with. I’m just relieved really, I guess. Right now I’m feeling happy. We’ll see what happens next year.

DD: Many black British actors, both men and women, have spoken about working in America as being a necessity for survival because it is challenging to find roles here, yet other than 2007 and 2010, there hasn’t been a year in the last decade you haven’t worked. Do you think your success is specific to you or can other Black British actors find hope in your path that things are changing?

BC: That’s a very deep question. I have to be honest. I think there is a glass ceiling that exists in the UK. I’m firmly of the belief that it’s real and there are people who have their limitations whether it’s their upbringing in terms of people might not want to cast them in roles or just don’t see black people telling certain stories, they’ve got all those limitations. This is not just relevant in my industry, it’s relevant in the world. It’s not just about black people. There are people who look at women or look at white people this way. We try to build as glass barriers for each other so that we have pride, we have ways of thinking, ways of being so that we’re represented by our people whatever that may be and however we see that. Personally, I have my parents, not only that- part of my culture, they just believe you can do something about that glass ceiling with your mind. I have been told a hundred and one times and in a hundred and one different ways how impossible it is to be an actor. I have seen first-hand how impossible it is to be an actor, to succeed, whatever success is, right? However, in my mind somewhere I’ve always felt like it’s all good. This is good scenario. I’m getting to do what I love. Maybe I get some money, maybe I get some recognition. But at the end of the day, I’m pushing for something. It’s a crazy world we live in and I encourage all people to take a risk. I’m a fricking fufu Gambian and I’m standing on a corner on Washington Boulevard and Glencoe Avenue in LA in my hat. What the hell am I doing here? My mind brought me here. I cannot believe it was possible and I try to fight that. I think you have a kind of feeling sooner or later when opportunities come up you just react to it. I have had years I haven’t worked but I do a lot of theatre and I have years when I had theatre jobs that were less rewarding or more rewarding but I’ve had massive frustration as well. There’s no getting away from that. I think it’s belief that keeps you going too. I’d be remiss to not say having someone around who believes in you, so for me it’s my wife. When I wanted to quit, she was like ‘I have a good feeling about you, don’t quit, I have a good feeling about you.’ When I reached rock bottom I was like ‘This is a bit too much, I don’t know how I’m going to do this’ so having people around you as well encourages you to carry on, that’s for sure.

DD: There’s a thread of vulnerability that runs through the characters you play from Richard Taylor in "Damilola, Our Loved Boy," to Marcus in "Guerrilla" and even Jerome in "National Treasure." What attracts you to the roles you’ve played?

BC: A thread of vulnerability?

DD: That’s what I’ve noticed.

BC: I’m interested in characters’ attitudes towards life, understanding that and allowing them to have that but ultimately it comes down to their behaviour. Sometimes it’s contradictory, someone has an attitude towards life and a behaviour. Someone like Marcus has an attitude towards life and he’s behaving intuitively to that. Whenever I read a script, it’s something I look for. You can instantly tell a writer’s gone to town on it, when you can see that history behind the words. That’s always been attractive to me that someone isn’t always exactly what you see.

DD: The British Black Panther movement was an extraordinary time for the fight for the progression of the black British community, what kind of research did you do in preparation for your role?

BC: I read a whole heap of books. John Ridley had done a lot of research before I ever came onto the project. At that stage he gave us a whole bunch of books to understand what was going on at the time. Beyond that we had meetings set up with the actual Black Panthers. Darcus Howe, Neil Kenlock, Farouk Dhondy. We read about the people who are no longer alive, what contributions they had. It was extremely inspiring to me.

DD: When you say it was inspiring what was that like being in touch with the members of the British Black Panthers that were still alive? What did that mean to you?

BC: What was amazing about them was how human they were. If you read about someone in a book, they’re kind of removed. But when you actually speak to the person, like I actually got to sit two times with Farouk Dhondy who wrote London Comfort. You read that book and there are elements of "Guerrilla" that make sense straight away, elements that are very visible in my relationship with Frieda’s character. I think when I met him what inspired me was how effective they were. They were making lots of mistakes in their approach but in the end, they were making decisions affecting our lives today; workers’ rights, how people are paid, equal opportunity and they were really trying to do it. If they didn’t know about something they would go and learn it like legislation and how legislation works so we could really get this thing changed for the better. They had elements in it that were about anger, elements in it that were you know, about “us and them” mentality and they had to deal with that. Just listening to them it was refreshing to hear kind of Guerrilla reflected that and in general reflects that.

DD: There were some challenging questions asked at "Guerrilla’s" UK Premiere about the representation of black women in the episode we watched that night. How did you feel about the validity of those questions?

BC: I think they are very valid questions. And always worth asking because representation is a question of our time. In fact a question of all time really. What I was reported as saying was “oh wow really” in response to someone saying “the black women were involved in the movement.” Which isn’t true. What was suggested was that Asian people weren’t involved in the movement. They said "no Asian people were involved in the Black Panther Party." I had sat down with Farouk Dhondy, an Asian man. When it says I went ‘oh wow really, you read that in a book?’ as if to say how much research have you actually done? And their comeback was to say "my parents were there." I’m a well-trained African boy. The moment you bring up parents my mouth is shut. I’m not gonna disrespect your parents. They’re not here. So I kept quiet and that was the end of it. I think it’s a very valid question. It’s one that’s very tricky to answer. It’s about agreeing with the idea of who represents you. Are we talking about black women getting opportunity in films? I would say there’s a serious problem and a serious lack black women getting opportunities in film. If we had six Guerrillas coming out at the same time within this year, I don’t think it would be as big of a problem if we’re talking about black people having the opportunity, whether they’re male or female or even- see this is where it gets tricky when we start going into the thing of people of colour, it binds up people. But black people being represented on screen definitely has an issue. However for this story, a very crucial part of this is central to it is a mixed race relationship. Bear in mind these people had seen one episode, they hadn’t seen how the movement worked when there is a mixed-race couple leading it. There are extra challenges because they’re a minority in a minority. The police at the time saw anyone who wasn’t white as black. Asian people were black, that was it. And, yes, in the black community of that time there were further denominations of people being created by those people themselves. “You’re light skinned, you’re black but you’re light skinned. You’re this. You’re that.” Going back to what I said earlier, these little glass boxes we create for each other. At the end of the day you come to my country, Gambia, and we’re all black, pretty much, and the same exact challenges exist. Some people are Mandinka, I’m Wolof, that person’s this, this person’s that. I don’t know, it gives me a different perspective because I’ve had the opportunity to live there and who represents me. I feel Meryl Streep could represent me because she got up and made that speech, I felt she was talking for me despite the fact that I’m a black, Gambian, Muslim man and she’s a white, American- I don’t know her denomination- woman. At the same time, are there enough representations on screen? Absolutely not. Let’s keep working. I’m doing my bit. Thank God! And I hope everyone else does theirs and gets behind the camera, behind the production, creating work so that we can get out there. Definitely. But in terms of the side of representation? I don’t know, man. I feel like Frieda represents me despite the fact we’re different on so many levels. I know John’s vision. I know what he wrote.

DD: In a similar vein there were those who feel the centering of Frieda Pinto’s character Jas erases the roles Black British women like Barbara Beese and Althea Lecointe played during the movement when the roles of black men in the same movement are allowed to live on screen in the middle of the action in you and Idris Elba. While Wunmi Mosaku and Zawe Ashton are in the show, their roles do not occupy as much space in "Guerrilla" as the women of the movement did. Is this a fair conclusion?

BC: I think it’s a story. The challenge we’ve always had and we’re given an opportunity to stand up and say something. There’s a deep desire to say everything. There were a number of women at that time who were all standing up for the black civil rights movement of that time. Those women were black, Indian and white. The choice of Frieda goes back to what I was saying about representation. It now becomes a question of are you unwilling to be presented by someone who isn’t your race? Or does it come down to this idea of historic fact? Which if it does there’s only one answer. Maybe we should take the success "Guerrilla" has, develop a story set specifically about one about of those black powerful women set in the movement at that time. I remember my mum being in London in the 1970s and she came to see "Guerrilla" with me on Sunday. Loved the show but once we got into the car started talking to me about her involvement in it. And it shocked me ‘cause they were full on immigrants. In no one way would I support the erasure of black women in any section of society or any story at all. I think that that’s wrong. However, in this particular case I don’t feel that it is a deliberate attempt to remove them from the historic landscape. Those people cannot be removed. They were there. Does Frieda work as a representative of that time? Absolutely. Maya Sen was there. Locked up went through all sorts of stuff. It was a long fight. Darcus, Farouk, those kinds of people, were there at that time working really hard. So on some level, it’s emotional for me. I feel that actually there is something quite wonderful about giving an Asian actor the opportunity to represent what people feel and see as black. Why not? Do you see what I’m saying? The erasure, though? We can do something about. And must do something about. Of course. I mean Hidden Figures blew me away. That is testament to the erasure. I just don’t feel like the project has started something against that.

DD: What do you hope people will take away from watching you in "Guerrilla"?

BC: Me?

DD: Yes!

BC: Me personally or do you mean the show?

DD: I mean the show, but I’ve had the opportunity to watch the second episode and I see where the drama is going and the conflicts that are happening between characters that maybe people didn’t think would be a problem in the second episode and seeing Marcus’ reaction to the violence that seems to be a necessary part of any kind of freedom civil rights struggle. Again going back to the vulnerability, there’s something in him, that shock, that a lot of people will relate to. So when I ask about you, I guess that’s what I’m referring to.

BC: That comes back to what I was saying about his attitude versus his behaviour. His attitude towards life is "this is something we can get done." But when it comes down to actually doing it, it surprises him. I think a lot of the story that’s told through Marcus’ eyes. Not all of it because it is a small ensemble cast. Wunmi’s been nominated for a BAFTA, the so called one that isn’t being represented properly as well as Danny Mays, so I’m really proud of those people. What you take away from "Guerrilla," the fundamental thing is consequence. What is the consequence of taking violent action, setting up a Guerrilla cell? What is the consequence of a brutal police force that actively tries to crush black radicalism by using violent force as well? What are the consequences of these actions? That’s the fundamental thing of "Guerrilla." And Marcus’ journey is also about consequences. What happens after you break out a convict? How do you live? I mean there were little things that you wouldn’t expect but over time what did they do for food? What did they do for money? How did they survive? Marcus goes through an extraordinary journey over the six episodes. Somebody suggested that Marcus is a weak black man. I refute that. I say Marcus is one of the strongest people in this entire series because despite the fact he’s terrified by everything he sees, he’s overwhelmed, despite all of that he is sticking to it. He doesn’t run away. At the end of the first episode he still has the ability to ask one of the characters how they’re doing. Marcus is one of those people who, you know weakness is described as failure being able to break under pressure and he is nervous, he’s terrified and he wants to run away and actually he sticks to his task and he keeps going and he keeps doing what needs to be done over and over again despite the fact he’s terrified. That’s what’s extraordinary to me about Marcus. And I hope that went audience members watch it, they go through the emotional rollercoaster that he’s going through. More him than any other character.

DD: I wanted you keep going. Thank you so much for your time Babou, I really appreciate it.

"Guerrilla" premieres this Sunday, April 16 on Showtime.




Daniellé Dash writes regularly about race, gender and popular culture on danielledash.com.

by Danielle Dash on April 20th 2017
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