Ahead of his debut in the highly anticipated return of the British drama Top Boy, Micheal Ward, like many of his peers, was a fan of the series hailed as “Britain’s answer to The Wire.”
With conviction, a 17-year-old Ward sent a direct message to the show’s lead, Ashley Walters, to express admiration and present his case for a chance to audition for the show.
“It was the point where I had left sixth form to go to college, and I had decided to do performing arts,” Ward told BuzzFeed News. “That was the moment that I realised this is what I want to do full time, so I just DM'd Ashley and thought the worst that could happen is that he doesn't see it and he doesn't reply.”
As it happened, Walters didn't see the tweet — not until four years later on the night of the Season 3 premiere, when the two appeared on the red carpet as costars.
In the Netflix revival of the series, Ward holds his own as the newcomer onscreen against seasoned performers Walters and Kane Robinson, making him the breakout star.
“With Top Boy, we were kind of just waiting for the audition to come up because it was an open audition, but my agent got me a meeting with the casting director,” explained Ward.
His next role was one he admitted he was hesitant to audition for over concerns that he would be typecast. Six months into filming Top Boy, he was sent the casting call for Blue Story by friends who knew he was keen to cement himself as an actor. The movie is better known as British entertainer Rapman’s big-screen debut backed by Roc Nation, Paramount, and BBC Films.
He recalled: “At first I was like, I don't really want to do this, but loads of people kept sending it to me. So I thought to just send it to my agent and see what he says, and we just went from there really.”
Reading the script, Ward was won over by Rapman's signature storytelling and concluded that the project wasn’t “anything like Top Boy.”
He said: “I read the script. I realised that it's different. And when you compare it to ... the Italian stuff — so you've got Godfather and then you've got Sopranos — I felt like it was the same kind of lane.”
The 22-year-old secured one of the two lead roles opposite fellow newcomer Stephen Odubola in the story of two friends who become rival gang members following a tragic incident.
The film debuted at No. 2 in the British box office its opening weekend. It grossed over £1.3 million but quickly became embroiled in controversy.
Its first 48 hours in cinema concluded with it being pulled from two major theatre chains over “safety concerns” following an altercation involving up to 100 young people and resulting in six arrests.
At the time, a frustrated Ward was among those who pledged to boycott both cinema chains, tweeting: “I’m never ever going to Vue or Showcase cinema again in my life. Fuck them.”
Reflecting on the ordeal, Ward explained that his anger over the decision was fuelled by a lack of understanding. He told BuzzFeed News: “At first I was upset, but I was more upset because I didn't understand what was going on at the time. I was in America filming a movie, so I didn't really know what was going on. I just saw the news and reacted.”
Vue Cinemas claimed that during the first 24 hours of its debut, it had experienced over “25 significant incidents” in 16 cinemas. Both cinema chains would later revise their positions and reinstate the film with “increased security protocols".
“It was a crazy situation,” accepted Ward.
“Luckily, people didn't get seriously injured. That was the main thing," he added. "I guess them taking it out of the cinema kind of helped the movie to get more views — because people were concerned about what the issue was and, when they did more research, they actually realised that Blue Story had nothing to do with the incident.”
Over three months, the young actor transitioned from an extra to a lead with an EE BAFTA Rising Star nomination crowning his arrival into the mainstream.
Bit what might appear to onlookers as a dark horse storming the industry out of nowhere has in fact been the clever masterminding of Ward's team, and raw talent complemented by a few strokes of luck.
“I don't feel like it's been fast. For everyone else it seems that way, but we've been putting in work for a while,” said Ward. “I understand [that] because it's only now that a large demographic of people are seeing my work and what I do, but we've been putting in work for years.”
At the age of 17, Ward experienced his first brush with fame when he was named the “Face of JD,” a nationwide model and talent search organised by British sports retailer JD Sports.
For Ward, who was born in Jamaica and raised in east London, diversifying his acting résumé is his top priority. And despite not having any formal acting training, he is confident he has the capacity to deliver more than what audiences have seen from him so far.
“Those were the opportunities that came at that time, but more is coming this year that's a lot different — and not just from the urban world. I'm not really afraid of being typecast, because I know I'm versatile.”
Fans will have the opportunity to witness Ward’s versatility following the recent announcement that he will star as a lead in an episode of the BBC drama Small Axe, from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen.
The six-part anthology series starring Star Wars’ John Boyega, Black Panther’s Letitia Wright, and Roots’ Malachi Kirby will tell the story of London’s Caribbean community across three decades, beginning with Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968.
With his feet planted firmly in the limelight, the young actor is unnerved by the mounting attention.
He beamed: “All the shoots, the limelight — for me it just comes with it, and I've wanted it all from the get-go. So I've always been prepared for it I guess. I'm not really phased by it all.
“To keep me grounded and hungry, I just always remember where I come from and where I'm headed. I come from a place where people like me don't get to make it out, so I'm just grateful to be here and hopefully keep going.”
Ward credits US comedian Kevin Hart amongst his biggest influences when it comes to work ethic and the value of working collaboratively.
“A team is very important, and I've learned that from Kevin Hart. The same with staying humble and keeping going,” he said. “I always look to Kevin Hart as one of my [idols] — if not the idol for me — because he preaches about working hard and that you can't do it alone; it's about the team.”
The community of black British acting talent is continuing to flourish in spite of the lack of multidimensional black characters on British television — a challenge that has historically forced homegrown performers to look overseas for roles.
Having secured two highly coveted roles on entry, this newcomer acknowledges how a combination of opportunities and having people in his corner advocating for him have allowed him to thrive.
“I had done nothing when I came into the agency,” he said. “They had literally just went off a recommendation from one of my teachers that started working at the agency. It's actually crazy, and that's why I love them so much.”
He echoed the sentiment of Viola Davis’s 2015 Emmys speech, when the award-winning actor emphasised how opportunity was the only thing separating women of colour from everyone else.
Ward similarly expressed the need for more spaces to allow talent to flourish.
“At the end of the day, that's what we need, man: the opportunities,” he said. “Then the rest is down to me. I've just got to be prepared and be ready for them.”
With awards season in motion, Ward is among the few black actors nominated at the upcoming EE British Academy Film Awards, which has once again been criticised this year over the lack of diversity.
While Blue Story was shortlisted for the Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer category, the film didn’t land any nominations — much to the disappointment of its writer, who tweeted and told his followers that the movie had been overlooked.
“Numbers, Impact, Critic reviews we ticked all boxes but we were still snubbed from all nominations,” wrote Onwubolu.
As one of the film’s stars, Ward is thoughtful and measured in his response to whether he shared the same opinion.
“When I spoke to the people involved in making that decision, they hail Blue Story highly, so I don't know, man. I guess it's a tricky one,” he said.
“There were obviously loads of other categories that Blue Story could have gone for — but with the people that make these decisions, it's all perception. If they like other movies more, who are you to say that it should be in or not?”
Propelled by optimism, the BAFTA nominee believes that only a more diverse jury with a broader film taste will ensure projects like Blue Story have a fair chance at competing for awards in the future.
The present system of voting is comprised of the academy’s 6,500 members from across the industry. While the data of what the membership looks like isn’t readily available, the academy monitors applications to identify where groups are underrepresented, using the UK population as a benchmark.
“Hopefully, in the future, more people will be on those panels to make sure movies like Blue Story get a closer look-in. Right now we don't have anyone on those panels that are making those kinds of decisions, and that's what it comes down to, really,” said Ward.
Amid the return of the #BAFTAsSoWhite critique, there is a grassroots campaign emerging with the hopes of securing Ward the Rising Star award. It’s the only honour voted for by the public, and previous winners include Tom Holland, Daniel Kaluuya, and Kristen Stewart.
Ward will be going up against Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina, Waves actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., Booksmart's Kaitlyn Dever, and Fighting with My Family actor Jack Lowden.
“When you look back on who’s won, and even just the nominees — a lot of the time, the nominees have gone on to do better than the actual winner, so I guess it doesn't really matter. Just being recognised right now for my talent is … a big blessing," he said.
“I already feel like a winner."
Voting is open here. The winner will be announced at the British Academy Film Awards on Sunday, Feb. 2, at the Royal Albert Hall.