Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters: We want Bulletproof to inspire young working class actors
The stars of Sky1’s new action-packed cop show talk stunts, growing up in London and the importance of creating their own roles
Bulletproof brings a whole new meaning to the term “action-packed”: in the first hour alone, there are two car chase scenes, a hit-and-run, a shoot-out and numerous punch-ups.
Sky 1’s new drama – 'the British answer to Lethal Weapon', starring Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters – follows maverick cop duo Bishop and Pike as they tackle bad guys across London and confront ghosts from their pasts.
Clarke and Walters, who co-created the series with Nick Love, admit that they “wrote off a few cars” when filming the show, for which they did their own stunts. In real life, however, Clarke confesses: "Ashley mocks my driving, because I drive like I'm driving Miss Daisy – two hands on the wheel."
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“I think Nick and Ashley put that in because, in real life, if either of them drive with me, they're sitting in the passenger seat like, ‘What's wrong with this guy, man?’ 'Because I'm like: indicate, tick tick tick, look slowly. I'm a driving nerd, I guess.”
Clarke may not be so slick behind the wheel, but he’s fast on his feet, as Walters tells me: “I didn't realise how fast Noel is, when you're acting, you can take a bit of the speed or whatever, but he's like Linford Christie, or Usain Bolt. So we had moments where the director would say, ‘Ashley, please, you need to keep up.’”
Walters, who is asthmatic, will have been put through his paces in many of his previous roles, including Top Boy, Cuffs and Safe House. Clarke, meanwhile, is best known for creating and starring in the Kidulthood movie trilogy, and for playing Mickey Smith – the boyfriend of Billie Piper’s Rose in Doctor Who.
When I ask about his thoughts on Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the Thirteenth Doctor, Clarke describes her as a “phenomenal actor” but refuses to make a comment on her gender. “I don't care, like, it's Doctor Who isn't it? I don't care,” he says.
“It doesn't bother me in the slightest. I feel like she's a great actor, you know, phenomenal actor. I feel like she's been good in everything she's done, and now she's going to be Doctor Who, and I just feel like, I don't see it as an issue.”
Clarke wrote a tweet to similar effect when Whittaker’s casting was announced last year:
When pressed on whether the fact that a woman had been cast in the role for the first time is something to celebrate, Clarke says “Yeah, 100%” before correcting himself: “Well, not for me. Here's the interesting thing, I'm so into her as an actor, I don't need to celebrate it, like Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who – that's what I'm celebrating. I'm not celebrating the fact that it's a woman, like it's not a big deal.”
For him, he says, it’s more about the right individual getting the role, regardless of their gender. “She's going to do it in a great way, for me that's all that matters.”
While Doctor Who is part of Clarke's distant TV past, he is now developing a TV spin-off of the Kidulthood movies, which he says is likely to have a whole new cast. Walters, meanwhile, is on the verge of shooting the much-hyped new series of Top Boy, on which Drake is an executive producer. Walters says the rapper will probably work on the soundtrack, too.
Both Clarke and Walters tell me that they grew up in situations and surroundings where becoming an actor wasn't a typical path to take, but they didn’t let that stop them. Clarke, who was raised by his mother in a council house in Ladbroke Grove, remembers: “I believed [I would make it] back then, anyway. Not that I saw this coming, but when people told me I couldn't achieve because of where I grew up, you know what I mean?
“Like, I grew up opposite Grenfell Tower, opposite. In that area which is one of the most poor areas in the country, within the richest borough in Europe. That's where I grew up, so when people told me I couldn't achieve, or I looked like I couldn't achieve, I always knew I was going to achieve.”
Peckham-born Walters agrees. “Same, same,” he says. “I've always, from day one, been doing something that I wasn't meant to be doing in the eyes of…” he trails off, before changing tack: “I started off really young, tap dancing and doing ballet on a Saturday afternoon.
“That was my training and then going back to Peckham and running around with my friends and stuff like that, pretending that I was, you know, that I hadn't been at drama school… I've always had a dream to do more than what was put in front of me.”
Walters says his mother was a great source of inspiration to him. “Through the eyes of my mum, my mum making me read, and making sure I go on holiday once a year, or whatever, I was always inspired and my aspirations were always higher than my peers.
“Me being here is not a surprise, I've worked hard for it, that's what I've done for years to get into this position and there's still a long way to go. The minute you think you're at the top, you're on your way down anyway.”
Clarke and Walters are both known for playing hardened criminals, but in recent years have swayed towards roles on the other side of the law – Walters in Nightshift and Cuffs, for example, and Clarke in The Level and The Corrupted. Clarke puts this down to maturity. “We've grown up though, we've grown up,” he says. “I can only play youths for so long.”
Clarke also explains that for a long time he was only being considered for tough guy roles, and that now he is doing more writing himself, he is able to change how people see him. “The reason we're able to do Bulletproof now is because of the stuff we've done in the past,” he says. “The jobs that we've done in the past sometimes were not just done because we wanted to do them, it's that they were necessary because they were the only things that people would allow us to do.
“We've created enough profile between the two of us and individually that we can essentially do what we like and create jobs.”
He adds: “But you only get that after you've earned it, do you know what I mean? I feel like Ashley and I, through the years have earned the thing where we can go, ‘This is what we'd like to do.’ And people with vision like Sky go, ‘Actually, we'd love to see that.’”
Given the recent surge in gun and knife crime in London, which made headlines in April when the city’s murder rate overtook that of New York, I want to ask the duo whether this rise has influenced Bulletproof, and whether they would like people to watch the show, a crime drama set in London, in the context of that. But when I put this to them, Clarke’s reaction is hostile, and he tells me he has no knowledge whatsoever of the recent stabbings or the extensive news coverage around them. Instead of discussing Bulletproof in this context, he is more happy to talk about what he wants the series to do, which is to inspire young working class actors.
“Bulletproof is a show that's going to inspire people, and that young people will aspire to,” he says. “Young people sometimes get into [crime] because they don't feel like they have opportunities, where they're marginalised. This is a perfect example that they can achieve things. And that people that come from working class environments that don't always get opportunities can be actors, they can be writers, they can be creators, they can be police officers.”
Walters adds: “There are also kids going to university, studying law, doing loads of different things, the fact is we don't talk about them, we don't celebrate them enough in order for them to be examples and inspirations for other people…
“I've never done this for money, fame or anything like that, I've always done it to act as an inspiration, to inspire others. I wouldn't be here if I didn't see Morgan Freeman or anyone else doing what they did. We have to be present in order to make change and that's not always through preaching, teaching and whatever, it's just sometimes by being there and winning, you know, and we're clearly doing that.”
Bulletproof begins on Tuesday 15th May at 9pm on Sky 1 and the show is also available through Sky’s streaming service NOW TV