From Peckham, South East London, Ashley Walters stumbled his way into acting and drama at the age of 6. Having built up his career in music and acting over the last 3 decades, his name is definitely one to remember. He’s well-known as the rapper and lyricist, Asher D. A member of the English Garage group So Solid Crew, whose hit ’21 Seconds’ was a major success in the UK; tearing up the charts in 2001.
But when neighbourhood conflict between two street crews heightened, one from Brixton and the other Peckham, Ashley was convicted at the age of 18 for possession of a firearm. Shortly after his prison release, he managed to transition back into acting. At a time when the industry was quick to reject him, he took on a role that would put him on the map. The Movie ‘Bullet Boy’ 2004, won him ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ at the British Independent Film Awards; an achievement that then fuelled his career.
From 2005, he landed himself in films such as 50 Cent’s critically-acclaimed ‘Get Rich or Die Trying’ and the action spy film, Stormbreaker. His leading role in the TV series ‘Top Boy’, which aired for 2 seasons received huge recognition not only in the UK but also overseas, with names such as Drake taking an interest in the show.
Ashley is currently working on his first project as a producer, in a Sky 1 TV series called ‘Bulletproof’. With over 10 million pound funding per season, the series is filled with action, drama and comedy. After 6 years of planning and approvals, Ashley also stars in the series with Noel Clarke; where the duo play as two East London police officers.
We sat down with Ashley to unpack more of his journey, what inspires him and his thoughts on the entertainment industry. With the recent announcement of TopBoy Season 3, it’s safe to say we’ll all be expecting some very exciting content coming!
Acting was something you were first involved with from a very young age, how did this begin?
It began by chance, when I was about 7 years old. My cousin, who was 4 years older, was interested in acting and found the opportunity for a show in the west end, a musical called Children of Eden. I tagged along to this open audition and ended up joining the thousands of kids waiting to perform. It turned out that I got the role!
From then, my mum then sent me to Sylvia Young Theatre School – one of three main drama schools for kids around that time.
Growing up in the generation of MTV raps, you mentioned how you would record their videos and imitate rappers doing ‘double time’. Which artists inspired you most and why?
It was between Busta Rhymes and a group called Camp Low. They killed that double time and that’s pretty much what influenced me…
Being a member of the So Solid Crew, you were one of the first urban groups to pave the way to into the US. But what did you think was one of the differences between the scene in the US compared to the UK?
In the UK there was no such market, nothing like there was in the States. UK rap at the time was so underground and we didn’t have an industry for artists like us on a commercial level. Getting that piece of America was brilliant; we took it and ran with it.
I would say garage was one of the first genres of music that we all felt collectively could be sold elsewhere. It existed before So Solid Crew came into it, but it was more House/Garage.
It was crazy the amount of hype and attention we received, but at the same time it was all new. We obviously didn’t realise at the time we were pioneers, and scapegoats, for whatever happened. Looking back, we are glad to have pursued it. Because I think it’s fair to say that we wouldn’t have what we have now otherwise.
How did you deal with the weight of that responsibility in those early stages?
It was heavy and confusing to deal with. There would be times when we’d turn on the TV and see Tony Blair saying, “ban So Solid!” And we would be thinking what’s the issue?
At the time, we didn’t know how responsible we should have been, and we didn’t really understand it either. The phrase ‘role model’ kept coming up and my attitude at age of 18 or 19 meant I was searching for role models myself. So, in that sense, we shied away from the responsibly a lot.
Artists today still view you as their inspiration. Considering how much the UK scene has recently developed, is there anyone that particularly stands out to you?
There’s a lot that stands out for many different reasons. I’d say Giggs, Chipmunk, Kano, Ghetts and Deviln.
Currently we’ve moved out of grime; no longer are we in that phase. I think what came out of the grime scene was the rise of some hard-funky house, which opened the door for Afro beats and artists such as J Hus, Abra and Kojo.
It’s brilliant to see the unity between artists right now – something that was lacking around the time So Solid was out.
The film ‘BulletBoy’ was about a young man who had just come out of jail trying to start a new life, a story that could resonate with your own experiences. Did this make it easier for you to play the character?
Yes, most definitely. And to be fair I didn’t know it would make it easier for me, at the time. It was the best thing for me to get that job after my release from prison. I was in such a depressed state from what I’d just been through. I remember my headspace at the time thinking that my only option was going back to the roads.
If you can catch someone whilst they are dipping into that state, and uplift them on that magnitude, you have a good chance of saving them. I still thank the directors and producers of the film for giving me that opportunity. I very quickly understood that I was back on track and had something to fight for.
People find this hard to believe but making that movie was when I first properly realised what acting was about. I’d been acting a long time before that, but not fully understanding the process behind it. After winning the award, it became more of a realisation that this was a career path I could continue.
Working on your first project as a producer along side Noel Clarke for the Sky 1 series ‘Bullet Proof’ which you also star in, what’s been some of the challenges along the way while undertaking this new role and as your career unfolds?
Parts of it have been really challenging because it does put pressure on your relationships. When it comes to success, along your journey you’ll get a lot of people waiting for you to get to a certain place, hoping that when you get there you will bring them in. I think when people see that you’re on TV and famous they automatically assume you’re a multimillionaire. So, for me thats the most difficult side of it.
There’s also a big deal with ethnicity in the UK film industry. The issues of representation right now is weak. Although things are changing, and diversity is being encouraged, we had to fight for a good 7 years to get a show like this aired.
Other than that, I’m really enjoying that side of the fence and I’m looking forward to it. It’s kind of like bringing together the audience and fans base of Top Boy and Kidulthood.
When you see the younger generation today, what challenges do you see them facing?
I think they are facing the challenges that we’ve kind of put on them. Being a dad and watching them grow up, I’ve seen how communication has changed due to technology and social media.
I grew up in an era when there were no mobile phones. We had to arrange with our friends at school on Friday that we were going to the cinema on Saturday. When I was coming through with music, we didn’t have the ability to post our songs on YouTube. We had to literary knock on doors and put flyers on cars. Those things in turn made us more well-rounded when we were leaving our teens and becoming adults.
Now, almost everything is accessible at our finger tips and the world needs to be careful in trying to facilitate that all the time. Some things you do need to wait hours for; just so you can go through the process of understanding what it’s about. So, because of that what you see is a lot of the success being short lived because these people have no experience in losing and failing.
What exactly inspires you?
I’m inspired by a lot of different things. But really and truly, it’s my kids. I love acting and what I do, but it’s more about leaving a legacy. I’ve seen a lot of people go this year and you always just want to make sure you’re remembered and that your name lives on. For me, I want people to take the positive parts of what my life was about.
And for my kids, I want to give them a platform to what they want to do – one that was much greater than mine.