It’s an ideal day to do an early morning Zoom with a football fan in London. England have just won their opening World Cup game 6-2, which I’ve watched alone in my Los Angeles office before sunrise, and I’m craving a bit of camaraderie with a fellow countryman.
Football is known as the beautiful game for good reason. These days, amid the obscene money and injury-feigning players, that grace can be harder to find. But there’s definitely a take-your-breath-away beauty. We saw that this morning as we watched Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, and a team full of fantastic young English role models doing themselves proud on the biggest stage. Then there was plenty more enchantment in the days that followed, as underdogs beat goliaths and hard-working men’s lives were changed forever. While there are special moments to savor on humble ground across the world every day, as men and women connect with fellow lovers of the sport in amateur games.
And when actor Sopé Dìrísù — a keen player, Arsenal fan, sharp intellect, and star of the red-hot gangster series ‘Gangs of London’ — talks about football, it sounds pretty beautiful too.
“I really do believe that football makes me the happiest,” he says. “I love being in that flow on the pitch, and my body is doing exactly what I want it to do, and it’s even surprising me sometimes. My fitness is there, I’m making the right decisions. I feel like my mind and body are connected, and I’m also connected with the world around me. And then you’re even able to switch off your head, and just let your body do what it knows to do. There are moments of real flow.
“I think it challenges a lot of the things I am proud of myself for: teamwork, athleticism, and problem solving. I find all of these skills important, and I think that’s why I love it so much.”
These three attributes — teamwork, athleticism and problem solving — are all being put to good use in ‘Gangs of London’, the show that has sent Sopé into the Premier League of English actors. And his commanding performance has led to him being linked with the biggest move of them all — signing with the 007 franchise to be the next James Bond.
‘Gangs of London’, broadcast on AMC+ in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK — where more than two million devoted viewers have made it the second most-watched show in the channel’s history — is a dark, brutal depiction of the criminal underbelly of the city, splattered with the gallows humor that Brits have turned into an art form.
Sopé plays undercover cop Elliot Finch in the gritty drama, and is at the center of most of the set-pieces for which the show has become renowned — the gory, action-packed fight scenes that mix blood and banter to shock and entertain in equal measure.
It’s Sopé’s impressive physicality displayed in the show— created by the Welsh writer and director Gareth Evans, who made his name helming Indonesian action films — that is among the reasons he has been tipped to fill the departing Daniel Craig’s boots in the iconic Bond role. And it’s a talent that was developed on the grass and tarmac football pitches of the English capital.
“With playing football, and also doing a bit of martial arts when I was younger, I’ve always been very physical. So it was a natural progression for me, and the choreography bedded in quite quickly. But there was also an intensive period of about a month of learning the steps, changing partners, so you know exactly what’s going to happen on the day. So not only is it an efficient shoot, it’s also a safe one. It’s exactly the same as learning dancing, and if you do it right then no-one gets hurt.”
As Sopé’s acting career continues to kick on, playing football has had to take a back seat. Ideally, he likes to play four or five times a week, but being a central part of expensive productions means he has to protect his body against injury. This exemplifies Sopé engaging in another of those three crucial skills he identified — teamwork — but giving his all to his team on set, as opposed to the one on the pitch.
“I try to respect the frailty of my work,” he explains. “Because if you get hurt it scuppers everyone around you, so sometimes you have to put the team you are working with ahead of yourself. But especially when it comes to mental health, I really do feel different when I’m not exercising. I haven’t exercised much since the beginning of October, and my head’s a bit cloudy, and my body’s not working the way I want it to. So as soon as I can, I’m going to get in the gym and ease myself back into it.”
‘Gangs of London’ turns the dark and moody corners of the city into a central character in the story. And it’s unrecognizable from the whimsical, charming streets that star in the movies of Richard Curtis and others that have romanticized the location around the world. And as tends to be the case, Sopé has found the reality of living in the city falling somewhere in the middle.
His parents, who are both Christian pastors, moved to London from Nigeria before Sopé was born and he spent his early childhood years in Edgware, North London, before moving 20 miles north to the commuter town of Luton, Bedfordshire, aged 10. “I had a happy childhood,” he recalls. “It was quite a suburban area. I grew up on the Grahame Park estate, and at that time it was very green, very leafy, and I could play out on the street with my friends. I have very good memories of that.
“But I do also remember there were some unwelcome characters in the area, and places that did become dangerous, as happens when you have a lot of people kettled together in low-income housing. My parents became concerned at the trend of gang violence, especially young boys being recruited into it, so that inspired them to move out of London to Luton.”
The move wasn’t necessarily a step into a more peaceful world. Luton has had plenty of its own issues with race-related tensions, and is the hometown of Tommy Robinson, the far-right thug who founded the English Defence League. “Luton is also a diverse area, which Tommy Robinson didn’t appreciate much. But once again, thankfully, the safety of their children was of paramount importance to my parents. So they really protected us from those areas where people like the National Front and the EDL were active.”
Sopé renewed his ties with the big city when he joined the National Youth Theatre aged 15. “That gave me my first opportunity to explore the creativity in London,” he says. “Going to shows and museums, and just watching people in the street to find and develop characters. That was exciting.”
After demonstrating his talent for drama, Sopé finished his schooling at the private Bedford Modern School, which was less diverse and he found “difficult for a while.” But when he went to the University of Birmingham, in Britain’s second most populated city, he says he “found my tribe again.” He studied economics at university, and did not go to drama school, as he sought to build the kind of solid foundation that was important to his hard-working family. Then after graduating, he returned to the National Youth Theatre to complete their intensive eight-month REP Company course.
And in recent years, after moving to South London, Sopé now truly feels like he’s found his home. “London can feel like it’s made up of lots of little villages, it’s not a homogenous experience. The cost of living crisis, for example, is threatening low income people more than those living in Knightsbridge. But I’m really proud to be surrounded by people who are really outward focused and looking after their community. I used to live in North London, and not to say there isn’t one there, but I really moved to South London because I knew there was a community of like-minded people, both politically and racially, and I’m much closer to my friends than I was before. And these are people who are trying to heal other people rather than exploit other people.”
Sopé has already taken on some very meaningful roles in a relatively young career. He first earned respect and plaudits at the Royal Shakespeare Company, including as the lead in a production of ‘Coriolanus’ that was filmed and screened in theaters across the US. He took on the heavyweight role of Cassius Clay in the stage version of ‘One Night in Miami’. Playing a refugee who arrives in London from war-torn South Sudan in the thriller ‘His House’, which won four British Independent Film Awards last year, was another significant moment that highlighted Sopé as one to watch. And taking on the title role in the racially diverse period drama ‘Mr Malcolm’s List’, released this summer, confirmed his status as a Hollywood leading man.
While telling these important stories, Sopé says he’s learned more from the teams he has worked with than from researching and embodying the specific roles he’s played. He praises the collaborative culture at ‘Gangs of London’ and thanks the team upstairs for “creating an environment for growth.” He’s been encouraged to contribute to rewriting and improving his scenes this season. “It was all about leaving your ego at the door,” Sopẹ says. “And rather than being offended if something is changing or something isn’t changing, knowing that everybody is striving for the best show possible.” And while his travels for life and work have seen him immersed in — and learning from — a variety of different environments, one constant has been being part of a strong community within the Christian church, where his parents remain active pastors.
He says, “I grew up and lived in a Christian household, and there’s a lot that I gained from going to church every Sunday — there’s community, a discipline, and an outlook. The simplest thing of ‘Love thy neighbor, as you want to be loved yourself,’ and underpinning our existence with love.
“But I don’t know if I have a very strong and considered belief system within myself. I think I’m still on that journey, and I think it will be a lifelong journey. But I’ve definitely picked up these beautiful learnings and teachings along the way. And one of the biggest things about organized religion is community. Having a group of people that you move through life with, from a young age, that you share ideals and values with.
“I think there can be an over reliance on the various texts. They can provide comfort, but they can also make you rigid. Something that I’ve picked up by blending my religious upbringing with my secular experience is that I’m always open to learn. I trust my experiences as well as what I read, and blend the two rather than being too far in one or the other direction.”
Sopé has found guiding lights outside the church too. He recalls the best piece of advice he’s ever received, given to him by fellow actor Matt Stokoe, who he met at the National Youth Theatre and would go on to star in TV hits including the 2018 blockbuster crime drama series ‘Bodyguard’.
“It was just two simple things, ‘Be nice and do good work.’ If people have a good experience with you, because you’re diligent and go the extra mile, and also because you’re good to people, then people are going to be good to you. It’s not that you’re doing it for the purpose of reciprocation, but you’re more likely to feel that reciprocation if that’s the energy you’re putting out.”
It’s a straightforward philosophy that we also subscribe to here at Mr Feelgood, and I show Sopé the ‘Work Hard & Be Nice To People’ poster by British graphic artist Anthony Burrill which is hanging behind me on my office wall. We’re in agreement, stick to that advice and you can’t go far wrong. Sopé is effectively balancing this ethos of kindness with his powerful turn in one of the most violent shows on TV, and of course his parents are thrilled about how he is embracing success while maintaining the integrity and humility they passed down. They even enjoy the watching the gruesome ‘Gangs of London’.
“Dad loves film and television, and he’s very proud of me, they both are,” he says. “The artistic world can be quite subjective and fickle, and it doesn’t promise anybody stability or longevity — even if you work hard and are nice to people. There’s a lot of luck involved. So when my parents are able to sit back and watch finished products like this show, it settles them and enthuses them to see how far this journey can go.”
So, how far could it go? Well, the internet is buzzing with rumors that Sopé could be the next James Bond. The latest 007, Daniel Craig, has hung up his pistol and there will be a new leading man in the 26th film in the franchise, set to shoot in 2024. Producers have said the next Bond will be in his 30s, so that seems to rule out the 50-year-old Idris Elba, who has long been tipped to become the first Black actor to take on the role. So at 31 years old, with praise rolling in for his charm and energy in his action-packed star turn in ‘Gangs of London’, Sopé seems well placed.
“I’m honored that people look at my work and think they could see me in that iconic role,” he says. “That means I must be doing something right. But I’m also very aware that people are talking about me now because of ‘Gangs of London’, and next year there will be another excellent young English actor who will be linked with the role when their series is hot. So for me it’s about keeping my head down and continuing to work hard. And it may not be Bond, it may be something else, but I just want to make the most of all the opportunities I’m given.”
To return to the football theme, Sopé is not one of those soccer academy graduates who was lavished with immediate fame and riches as a teenager, but a cultured performer who is deservedly climbing the leagues, on his way to the very top of his profession. And he is playing the game quite beautifully.