Why were you drawn to In the Red and Brown Water? It’s just an amazing piece of storytelling. You’re pulled into the life of a young girl, Oya, who dreams of becoming an athlete but gets torn between her aspirations, her sick mum and her feelings towards this guy called Shengo, who is a negative influence – that’s my part. You follow her rites of passage, but there’s also this community in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina struck which could also be a sort of mysterious place anywhere in the world. I love it as well because music is important to the storytelling and there’s a lot of live jazz involved which is very specific to the area.
What’s unique about Tarell Alvin McCraney’s work?
When you first read the script it’s really challenging. He’s got this spiritual connection with West African mythology which is strange I suppose and mysterious, but you can relate to it because in the end it’s about what ties us all together whatever culture we belong to. Each one of his plays is different but they sort of interconnect. For example, there are characters who also appear in The Brothers Size. He has this strange way of making the actors speak the stage directions as part of the storytelling, a bit like playing two people. It’s been quite something to work out where I am and who I am!
How’s your Southern accent?
I’m okay now but I had to learn how to sustain it throughout the evening every night of the run - so different from filming where you can retake scenes or dub mistakes afterwards. The biggest challenge is the water. We wade around in water during the play so we had to rehearse in a specially made tank in order to find a balance between splashing about and making our voices heard in the theatre.
What’s your character like?
He’s a womanising guy who loves sex, but charming with it. He’s slick, with a silver tongue and his scenes are all about sexual tension, which means I have to create that vibe on stage.
You must be used to that from your So Solid Crew days.
I suppose being easy on the eye was a part of the music scene and, yes, you got a lot of attention from female fans. You just had to tread a fine line and not abuse that position.
What’s it been like making the crossover between music and acting?
I quickly learned they are different worlds, so it’s rare to have the opportunity to do both. I take my acting very seriously. I’ve found that there’s a lot more of Ashley in my acting whereas Asher D has become a kind of music business alter ego. They are both very different people.
Which one takes priority now? Ashley or Asher D?
Ashley most definitely. But when it comes to music, I started an independent label and production company a couple of years back so I’ve been more interested in developing the music talents of other artists rather than pushing myself. I’ve had my fun as a music performer but I’m releasing an album next spring and that will be my last. After that I’m going to concentrate on my acting career.
Was the acting part of reinventing yourself after your term in prison for carrying a gun?
In a way it was. I knew I had to start from scratch. I’d done a lot of acting as a kid, but working at the National Theatre in Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads was my first stage job after all of that negativity in my life and it made so much difference to me. I’d done films as well, but after Bullet Boy I got the impression that people thought it’s just me telling my own story – black kid out of a young offenders’ institute, and heading home to more trouble. I couldn’t keep sticking to roles that are easy for me to play. People weren’t convinced about my range as an actor. Theatre pushes you and people look at you differently.
Why is working at the Young Vic so special to you?
I live in Peckham so it’s my local theatre. Whenever I go past, I think back to when I was a kid on stage down the road at the Old Vic in Carmen Jones with Gary Wilmot. I had no idea how cool the theatre scene was until I went to the National and Royal Court. It’s the same here where young kids are getting off their bums and coming to see plays rather than staying at home watching films or just hanging around.
How do you look back on your So Solid days?
We got a lot of negativity, but we were raising awareness about what we as black kids were going through at the time. Looking back, we were reflecting the reality on the streets, even if we may not have done it in the best way and my role models then were drug dealers – I wanted to be just as flash. For me now it’s about going back on that negativity and correcting the mistakes and showing kids that you can change your life around. I owe that to a lot of people who grew up with my music and my scene. More than anything that is what my job is now. Making music and all that glamour that went with it in the past is fine, but my task is basically being a role model and trying to inspire kids and making them realise.
I know it’s really bad out there from living in Peckham. I have three kids and one of them is a nine-year-old who will be going to secondary school in a couple of years and I really worry for him and about the current climate of knives and violence and gangs. It’s something we can change, but it’s going to take more than jail sentences and money. We need to get into dialogue with these kids and show them certain things about life that they don’t understand. When you’ve got the internet and your Sky Plus and computer games and so on, hardly anyone communicates or has dialogue in the right way. We just need to go back to talking.
Do you have an acting role model?
Adrian Lester. Another big inspiration is Will Smith, who also had a music career as a rapper and went into acting.
You started acting when you were very young. Would you encourage your own kids to take it up?
Yes, if that what they want to do. Because my mum encouraged me, I started at the Sylvia Young stage school when I was seven. I’ve had a good time so far but it’s been hard work. You get lots of highs, but there are no guarantees in this game so maybe they’ll be best to get stable nine-to-five jobs. The fact is that I’m doing interesting things now, but I’m always aware that it could all dry up five years down the line.
Any stage roles you dream of playing?
I’m adamant about doing Shakespeare. I’ve been trying desperately to get into the Shakespeare’s Globe. I’ll just have to keep on at them until they’ll have me.
- Ashley Walters was speaking to Roger Foss
In the Red and Brown Water receives its UK premiere on 9 October 2008 (previews from 2 October) at Young Vic, where it continues until 8 November. From 8 October to 8 November, it plays side by side with The Brothers Size, which embarks on a regional tour after the Young Vic. Next month, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s latest play, Wig Out!, has its world premiere at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, where it’s on from 28 November 2008 (previews from 20 November) to 10 January 2009.
An abridged version of this interview appears in the October issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out now in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!