Hard to believe that Ashley “Top Boy” Walters would say that now but here’s why he thought it was all over for him, his career and how he almost ruined his life.
Courtesy Chris Harvey: Ten years ago, Ashley Walters had just had a number one single as part of the UK garage collective So Solid Crew. He was also on bail facing a firearms charge. In the month before 21 Seconds topped the charts he had been arrested in possession of a loaded air pistol modified to use live ammunition. He was looking at six or seven years behind bars. He got 18 months.
Now 29, he’s sitting in a plush hotel in one of London’s most affluent boroughs, talking about his burgeoning acting career and the incendiary problems of Britain’s inner cities. Walters is better known now for his roles in TV dramas such as Outcasts, Hustle and Small Island, and he’s just about to appear on our screens again in Top Boy, a new Channel 4 drama, showing over four consecutive nights, about drug dealers in the Olympic borough of Hackney.
He plays Dushane, a low-level street dealer with ambitions to move up the drug supply food chain. It’s a role that Walters says he was able to research “just by getting up”. He grew up on South London’s notorious North Peckham estate – where 10-year-old Damilola Taylor was murdered in 2000. “It was a haven for crime,” he says. I ask him how easy it is to slip into a criminal lifestyle on estates like it and the fictional Summerhouse estate in Top Boy.
“If it’s what you see every day, then it’s easier than easy, it’s normal. One of the things that people will turn to straight away if they haven’t got any money is selling weed or some other drug because it’s so easy to get your hands on. I guess for a kid growing up around here [we’re in Belgravia], that wouldn’t even cross his mind, but he’s not surrounded by drug dealers or poor people.
But Walters says he had always known subconsciously that he would find himself in prison. His father, who was absent when he was growing up, had spent his life in and out of jail. “I come from a place where to go to prison is like a rite of passage,” says Walters. “It’s something that you gain respect for.f what I was missing. I thought, ‘I’ve ruined my life and my career. I’m never going to be able to pull this back together.’”
There was one moment that really brought incarceration home to him.
“My son broke his arm. I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t be there. That’s when I knew I was a bad parent. I was doing the same thing my dad had done to me.”
Walters was 17 when his eldest son was born – “I was a child myself,” he says, pinpointing the phenomenon of “kids having kids” as a factor in many of the problems in poor urban areas.
“You’re young, you’re selfish, you don’t realise how much responsibility it really is.” He says he realised he had to be the one to “break the cycle” – by “focusing on being the best role model I can be for my sons, being there for them, and providing for them”.
He and his partner Natalie, 29, now have four children: sons Shayon, 11, and Paniro, eight, plus daughters China, 10, and Antonia, one.
Walters’s career saviour was director Saul Dibb, who had written the lead role in the 2004 film Bullet Boy especially for him. It won him a Most Promising Newcomer award at the British Independent Film Awards. He played a young offender who is drawn back into violent crime on the streets of Hackney.
On the future, He’s just written a script with Noel Clarke (who penned the 2006 film Kidulthood) which he calls “a UK version of Bad Boys. We’re playing cops, we’re trying to make police glamorous over here, trying to give an advert to the Met.” No release date as of yet, but we’ll keep you posted. Good luck Ashley, you’ve certainly managed to turn it all around. You gotta keep reaching x