Babou Ceesay has appeared in some terrific shows in his career so far, but in Sky Max series Wolfe – which draws to a close this weekend – the actor was presented with his first-ever leading role. Ceesay stars as the title character Professor Wolfe Kinteh, a leading forensic scientist with bipolar disorder and a penchant for rule-breaking, who balances his rather grisly day job with a somewhat troubled home life.
The list of flawed detectives to have appeared on British TV is long and varied, of course, but Ceesay believes that what makes Wolfe stand out is his “big heart”. In an exclusive chat with RadioTimes.com from his home in Gambia, the star explains that the thing that really matters to the character is fixing families – whether that be his own one or those of the show’s victims.
“He cares a lot about people,” he explains. “He doesn’t necessarily behave like he cares a lot about people, but actually his truth is that he really does care about people. I think that’s what sets him apart. He isn’t just sort of depressed and wallowing in his own sort of thing, there’s a part of him that – in all that turmoil that he’s having to deal with – he tries to put things right.
“And one thing we discovered very early on during the rehearsal process was that Wolfe really is a family person, he’s all about families. He wants to rebuild his own family, with his wife and child, and he wants to build his work family. But also what he ultimately does is go out and try and fix other families that have had losses, murders, and so on. So ultimately, he’s just about trying to bring people together.”
The drama is the latest project from State of Play and Shameless creator Paul Abbott, who has often been very frank about inserting aspects of his own personality into his characters. The same is true of Wolfe – with Abbott having explained to The Guardian that the detective’s manic episodes are based on his own experiences with bipolar disorder – so I’m curious to know what the conversations between Ceesay and Abbott were like when it came to portraying the character.
“I mean, when I finally got a chance to be in the same vicinity as him, I ended up just watching him, watching certain things in his behaviour, and stealing them for Wolfe,” Ceesay explains. “But I didn’t hide it, at one point I turned to him and said, ‘Have you noticed that you walk out of the room in the middle of a conversation, then you come back in and pick it up right where you left off as if you haven’t missed a beat?’ It’s quite extraordinary to me.”
He adds: “But one thing I learned a long time ago is that if you’re playing someone, and to some extent Wolfe is Paul Abbott, it actually helps to have a little bit of distance. So I didn’t ask too much. I just observed him and let whatever impressions hit me.”
Another trademark of Abbott’s style is a fondness for rather dark comedy, and there’s no shortage of gallows humour present in Wolfe. Of course, there can often be a fine line between what constitutes a dark joke and what is simply bad taste, but it’s a line the show walks well, and according to Ceesay a large part of that was down to conversations the cast and crew had with real-life forensic crime experts.
“I mean, when I first read the scripts, even those opening scenes, I was thinking, ‘Wow this is so on the line!'” he explains. “But when we finally did go to Lancashire we went to their main forensics department and spent a lot of time with them, and managed to talk to them. And we realised that humour was an essential part of their survival on the job.
“And it wasn’t just gallows humour, there was something deeper – a desire to live, and take life a bit more lightly. So once we heard that, we went for it. And the kind of sensibilities in terms of how Paul Abbott writes is very much a case of we can’t take anything overly seriously, it is serious but also it is just life. I think sometimes we avoid that when we create shows – we want it to be inoffensive almost, and actually, the point is that sometimes people react very strangely. And I love seeing that on-screen.”
Ceesay’s research didn’t stop at speaking to forensic experts: he also wanted to really get a handle on his character’s bipolar disorder, and so he spent a lot of time looking at YouTube videos people had uploaded that showed themselves going through manic episodes, in order to ensure his own portrayal didn’t come across as crass. Ceesay describes the experience as “eye-opening” and explains that he came away from his research with a much better understanding of what it means to be bipolar.
Speaking of the videos he watched, Ceesay recalls: “It just looks like they’re acting, but actually, they’re not, they’re in the middle of a manic episode. So when I saw that it just relieved some of the tension for me, I thought, even if I do a bad job of manic episodes, at the end of the day, it can be valid, anything can be valid in that respect.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Ceesay wasn’t necessarily an acting one – but rather dealing with some of the more gory aspects of the series. The star describes himself as “very squeamish” and admits that seeing some of the mutilated and burnt-up corpses that appear in the show was not a particularly enjoyable experience.
“I don’t like any of it, it just makes my stomach flip a bit – I start creating smells that aren’t even there,” he says. “I’m not very good with that kind of stuff. And the prosthetic work that was done was just of such high quality, you are looking at the remains of a body that’s been mashed through a meat grinder and it looks real.” He sighs. “It’s awful, even talking about it now!”
It seems like a good time to change the subject, and so I take the opportunity to ask Ceesay about some of his other projects. Aside from Wolfe, the actor has been very busy during the last 18 months with something entirely different. While he acknowledges the “very heavy toll” the coronavirus pandemic has had on the world, he’s grateful the enforced pause allowed him the chance to pursue a longstanding ambition: beginning a writing career. Since the first lockdown began, Ceesay has signed with a literary manager in the US, finished writing a screenplay, and started work on various other projects, including several pilot scripts. Is writing rather than acting going to be his main focus going forwards, then?
“Well in an ideal world, I’d love it to be because I feel very much like I’m eking writing time out,” he says, before explaining that he’s still experiencing one or two doubts about the transition. “I have a couple of projects that I’m working on at the moment between now and the end of the year, which I’m very excited about and love but there’s still always that feeling that you’re an imposter. So, there’s always a part of me that’s like, okay, I’m sitting down to do this and I have faith in myself to be able to deliver it. But there’s also a part of me that thinks, what if it doesn’t work? What if what I have up here in my head doesn’t actually translate properly onto the page? Or what if I miss stuff or I’m not clear on stuff?
“I have so many stories that have been bursting out of me for 20 years, even before I thought about being an actor,” he continues. “I used to tell my kid sister stories, make these entire epics up that I would tell her every night over weeks. So yeah, now is that moment, I want to do that. And I’m trying to find a balance between going off to film and work and at the same time being able to find time to just sit here at this desk and do some writing.”
Perhaps the most intriguing of Ceesay’s current projects is a collaboration with Nick Frost – who he met while they were both working on the post-apocalyptic drama series Into the Badlands a few years ago. Ceesay says he pitched the idea of a horror story based on a Gambian myth to Frost, and the pair then spent three weeks mapping out where the story could go, while they are currently in the process of developing it further. Frost’s involvement might suggest something fairly comic – but Ceesay says that at this stage the script is anything but.
“So far it’s dark,” he says. “There isn’t a huge amount of comedy in it, it’s dark at the moment but I think that’s the thing about working with someone like Nick, he’s got this irreverence, so I just know there will be a sprinkling of something in it that makes it special. That’s the hope anyway.”
As for the future of Wolfe, Ceesay remains hopeful of the drama being renewed for another season, but if that doesn’t come to pass it seems he has plenty to keep him busy for the time being. I ask if the eventual hope is to star in his own scripts, but he says that while he does have his eyes on the main role in at least one of his writing projects, that is not the main motivation for putting pen to paper.
“I’m not writing to be in it, I’m writing because I feel these stories are very important,” he says. “I feel my particular take on them is also important. You know, I grew up in West Africa, I grew up in Africa pretty much until I was 18 and I came to the UK so I have a very unique perspective on the world, and I find myself confronted all the time in terms of our industry with how different my perspective is.
“The simple fact that I grew up here is not unique – there are billions of people here who have that perspective – it’s just that they’re not necessarily working in my field. And the ones that are haven’t yet opened some of the doors that I’ve managed to be led into, so I think that’s why I have this massive desire to see my take on it.”