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Sope Dìrísù Is Ready to Get Moving Again

Tom Nicholson
·6-min read
Photo credit: Esquire/Netflix
Photo credit: Esquire/Netflix

From Esquire

Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù was sat in traffic with his dad the other day, and couldn’t stop thinking about his bike.

"It just really infuriated me – the fact that we have been impeded by all these other, like, tonnes of metals. So the ability to just, like, weave in between cars and only stop at red lights if you choose to…" he laughs, "…is just a freedom that I really, really cherish."

Dìrísù is, in most other senses, extremely upwardly mobile. He’s been nominated for the EE Bafta Rising Star Award after a year which included a lead turn in Remi Weekes’ horror His House, a smart haunted house story about two refugees from South Sudan who make it to the UK but find that their trauma has followed them to their new home in grey, concrete Nowhereshire. His character, Bol, is determined to make the best of it; his wife, Wunmi Mosaku’s Rial, would rather take her chances back home.

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

"I still haven't been able to articulate the words that I need to express how I feel about it," the 30-year-old tells us from Dublin, where he’s filming the period drama Mr Malcolm’s List. "But I'm just really overwhelmed and so joyful."

Dìrísù’s parents have been canvassing vigorously for their son. "They've worked really hard in the engine room, getting people out to vote. And my dad's been collecting receipts, like 'I want to see a screenshot!'," he says.

It’s been a busy few years for Dìrísù, between playing Coriolanus with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and Cassius Clay in One Night in Miami at the Donmar, and appearing in Black Mirror and Gangs of London. The last 12 months have given his ascent a strange backdrop.

"It's hard to celebrate 2020 as being, like, the year that everything took off, because it's the year everything shut down," he says. "And it was the year that [the] lens was focused on Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter and End SARS in Nigeria as well. You know, the ability to stop and take stock of what's going on in the world actually dug up quite a lot of the negatives, so I'm unable to completely celebrate the year because of everything else, the context in which it happened. But I am still very blessed and very grateful."

Over the year that everything shut down he’s been doing a lot of reading – David Olusoga’s Black and British, bell hooks’ All About Love, Bolu Babalola’s Love in Colour, Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors and a couple of Jane Austens are in a big stack behind him – and playing a lot of FIFA with the mates he’d usually be playing football with on Fridays. Another game’s been sparking off ideas too.

"I actually started revisiting the Uncharted series from the beginning. And I really want to create what is ostensibly a Black Indiana Jones, and sprinkle in some real lost African history into those films."

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

Dìrísù grew up around Colindale on the north-western tip of London, the son of two preachers in the Pentecostal church who moved to the UK from Nigeria. His first big break came when he was cast as the star – not the lead, the actual heavenly body – in a primary school nativity play, though a bout of appendicitis robbed him of the role. "But to be fair, I was one of three kids holding the star in a hula hoop, so I think they were fine without me."

He was an outdoorsy kid, going on hikes around Luton where he moved at 12 ("It's ridiculous to call it a hike now because we were definitely within a three-mile radius of my house") and imagining the tiny brooks he edged around were a raging torrent. At university in Birmingham, he split his time between studying economics, playing quarterback for the uni’s Birmingham Lions American football team, staying up until 4am playing the Batman platformer Arkham Asylum, and appearing in a play every term. Playing David Scott-Fowler in After the Dance by Terence Rattigan, a role played by Benedict Cumberbatch at the National a couple of years before, in his third year stands out.

"It was the first time, I think, that I was really taking on a role that was very obviously written as white. And I was just playing it – I'd given myself that freedom. And I actually had a lot of hair at the time, I almost had this pseudo-Afro whilst I was playing this 1920s elegant gentleman."

There aren’t that many similarities between acting and American football, but there is at least one. The night before a national final, Dìrísù and his teammates Skyped the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning head coach Pete Carroll. "He said that you have to have this reckless abandon for your body when you're playing American football, the ability to just put your body on the line to get those hard yards in order for the team to be successful."

Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX
Photo credit: Aidan Monaghan/NETFLIX

That physicality, Dìrísù says, runs through a lot of his characters. While His House was a standout in a good year for British horror, he’s not big on horror generally – too many people wandering into rooms they very obviously shouldn’t be wandering into for him to take seriously. Paranormal Activity, though, set off something deep from his Christian upbringing.

"So when the film started to explore the fact that they might be being haunted by a demon and they had to do some research into the occult, and stuff like that, that was like, 'Ooh... this is a little bit scary now isn't it?'" He pauses. "And whilst I never worried about being haunted myself, it was just… if there is this world of the occult and demonology, how close is that to the fabric of our own worlds, you know?"

This afternoon he’s off cycling around Dublin’s tourist highlights, and there’s not a traffic jam in sight. The weekend’s Baftas will be his first big awards do, and even if there’s no actual big awards do to set the seal on it, he’s upbeat.

"Maybe, if the world is in a better place by the TV Baftas at the end of the year, all the film lot could crash that."

The EE Rising Star 2021 Award is announced on 11 April. Vote here for the winner.

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