Babou Ceesay on ‘Wolfe’, Gambia and grisly body parts.
Babou Ceesay talks to us about his outrageously good - and outrageous - new forensic detective series 'Wolfe' and his plans for future glories from his new base in Gambia...
Babou Ceesay is a genius and if you don’t believe us watch the new Sky crime-drama-comedy-procedural-psychoanalysis-absurdist TV show, Wolfe. Yes, it’s quite tough to define it, and basically we recommend that you simply watch it, but let the record state the series is about a forensic detective called Wolfe Kinteh who leads his team in solving a grisly case each episode. Created by Paul ‘Shameless’ Abbott it has a similar sense of comedy and drama, but with an extra dimension of ickiness thanks to the forensic procedural, and a trump card in the form of its lead actor. Yes, because Babou Ceesay simply eats it up as Wolfe, delivering hilarity and hero thrills, as the type of unleashed character who can say the unsayable, and do the worst thing imaginable while remaining immensely likeable. It is a bravura performance, not least because as the series develops you realise this is a clever depiction of a man struggling with bipolar disorder; as such it’s a kind of magic trick that Babou pulls off here, a big performance with subtleties that get right under your skin. Of course, It should be no surprise to those who’ve followed his career with turns in the likes of Guerrilla, Dark Money and Damilola, Our Loved Boy, for which he was BAFTA nominated. We spoke to Babou from his home in Gambia, where he is making big plans for involving himself in the industry there, as well as fondly recalling the fun he had filming Wolfe…
How was Wolfe, it looks like you had a ball?
It’s one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had. Just even the opening scene, climbing through that window into his house [to test his ex-wife’s bed for semen]. I would spend scenes going, why is he doing this? But then really enjoy doing it. It’s fantastic the way Adrian Shergold shot it, because it’s constantly moving. I don’t know if you’ve seen episode at the beginning where I go into the boxing gym, but we do that in one take all the way around and out again. You completely lose yourself in it, you forget there’s a camera as actors appear as you come around a corner. Really fantastic. I mean, I love the character.
He’s very eccentric, how would you describe him?
Well, look, Wolfe is a forensic detective. That’s his job on paper. But I think what really fascinates him is human behaviour. Why do people do the things they do? So when he’s out there solving crimes, he doesn’t just look at the factual evidence, he’s trying to get into the mindsets of these people. He almost wants to become them for a bit – why would they do this? Why would they do that? That’s what he’s passionate about. But with the ultimate goal of bringing people together. I think Wolfe, with his bipolar disorder, has always seen in the eyes of other people the moment they get sick of him. That’s where his heart breaks, when he knows that he’s just done that one extra thing that means this relationship is completely unrecoverable. He’s watched his closest friends, family, loved ones disappear. So central to his job is bringing families back together now. That’s kind of how I saw this whole ‘crime of the week’ idea of the series, that every single crime is just trying to bring a family back together. Get to the root of what’s wrong with them. For me, that’s what this show’s about. It’s not that different from ‘Shameless’ in a way, from Paul Abbot. He always writes about family and relationships, so obviously that’s the heart of it.
He is a man of extremes, was it fun to explore those extremes?
100%. And it gets even better when it starts to rub off on you in your real life. Things that you might have gone ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this,’ you instead go, ‘No, I’m just gonna do it anyway.’ Some of Wolfe’s behaviour is so extreme. In Episode Five it goes through to another level, it’s so extreme that I would also start to let go of some of life’s constraints. One big thing I noticed was I started really becoming more assertive as a person, I started saying to people exactly what I thought, because Wolfe doesn’t know how to filter.
Because of the shooting schedule, I shot every single day for the entire shoot. I’ve never really done that in my life where there’s 76 shoot days, and I’m in 75 of them. I just had no time to think, it’s just onto the next location. It’s not dissimilar to theatre – you don’t get time off in theatre, you’re just on the stage and you go Honestly, it’s so close to my heart. It’s strange now being in Gambia talking about it, because Wolfe is an England guy. He’s easily one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on set.
There’s lots of grisly moments, outrageous moments, but it balances the tone well so it’s funny as well as alarming.
That’s good to hear. When I read the first 10 pages, and saw what he did, I just got a real sense of who he was. You know the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In his mind he’s doing all the right things, including creating a biological weapon! ‘This is for the greater good, so we should just do it.’ I love that.
In terms of building the character, did you do you do much research?
Yeah, research is a big part of the work. One of the scariest parts of this job was his bipolarity, which comes out in a big way in that Episode Five. I wanted to understand it. It’s strange the way the universe works – I met up with a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a while, and he explained to me that some of his behaviour in the past is because he’s got bipolar disorder. Cut to a couple of months later and I’m auditioning for Wolfe. I really wanted to understand that and I read up on it. There’s this scale from 1 to 10 – when you’re depressed, and you don’t want to get out from under the sheets, that’s a one. And a 10 is when you’re having a psychotic episode, you might think you’re God, because that’s how high and manic you are. In this scale, from seven, eight down to three, that’s where people with bipolar disorder can operate in. And then you’ve got the rest of us in society who operate around four to six – we all do get a little bit manic and a little bit depressed, sometimes more down to a three or higher to a six or seven. Just seeing that scale, humanised Wolfe for me more. So through the script, I was looking for opportunities where I would say, ‘Right, this behaviour. Why would somebody call it strange, and how can I make it real?’ Because the balance with Wolfe is sometimes he can be a bit of an asshole, but you have to be likeable on some level. Actors like to say, ‘no why should the character be likeable?’, but they should, because you’re asking someone to sit and watch them for six hours. Who’s going to spend time with someone they don’t like?
One thing I looked at I was how could I play it when he’s having a manic episode without making it look fake. I went on YouTube, and there’s a bunch of people that on there who have bipolar disorder, who have filmed manic episodes when they’re in it. That was important for me to watch. And we had people on set who had stories about family members with it. At the heart of it though is Paul Abbott [who has been diagnosed as bipolar]. I got to see him a couple of times before we started, and I watched some of his behaviour. I noticed a few things that I thought I’d keep. Like he might walk out of a room mid-conversation, right? And then walk back in and carry on as if he’d never left. That’s not written in the script. But I watched that and thought, I’m gonna steal some of that for Wolfe.
In terms of costume he has a great look with another classic TV protagonist coat, Luther or Columbo-style…but with a twist, the hat and the shirts…
Lily Faith Knight, our costume designer, is just a genius. She really wanted to capture the silhouette. She was one of the first people I spoke to, and she was trying to capture something in my essence. Paul Abbott said, ‘can you dress Babou like he sounds?’ Because I have this voice that goes all over the place. She took that to heart and asked about local material here in Africa. So some of those funky shirts Wolfe has underneath with the gold and the greens, and in one episode he’s got this incredible orange almost lava shirt, when he’s not even wearing a jacket. It’s so out there. And it’s three quarter length, all the way down to his knees, almost a mini caftan. She went for it. And initially Sky were like, ‘just take it easy, we don’t know if this is gonna work, we don’t want it to look garish.’
But when we sent the first few rushes, and they could see that the jacket and everything else was designed so well, that was it. And they asked about the hat. But we came up with this language of when he wears a hat, and when he doesn’t, when he’s more vulnerable. When he’s wearing the hat, he almost feels like he’s got an extra layer of armour.
With that jacket I got to wear it for two months, because I was stuck in Manchester when they locked down. I arrived on the 30th of October, and I think that was the day that they announced that they were going to lock down on the 2nd of November. We pushed filming, but I was given the jacket so I wore it for two months – I couldn’t go anywhere without somebody mentioning it. It was made in Manchester as well by a company called Private White, it’s fantastic. That’s a £1000 coat. They didn’t scrimp on it. I think that coat more than anything is Wolfe. That coat/hat combo. We wanted to see something that is a bit different, you know?
How was it on onset you also because obviously, doing so many days and leading the cast, do you feel a responsibility at the heart of it?
I mean, look, when David Threlfall comes in, you defer responsibility. I love him so much. When he’s there, what he wants to do is what we’re going to do. But honestly, the way everybody was on the set was just fantastic. I mean, we have such a phenomenal cast anyway. The work ethic, the good atmosphere, all the jokes and laughter because we’re dealing with such horrendous crimes. It became quite macabre and dark. I remember one of our advisors explained that when you’re basically picking bits of a body up from a road, if you don’t have a sense of humour then you’re finished. We’re looking at pictures and and some of these prosthetics look real, so we just picked up this dark humour that we all kept the whole time.
I’ve been the lead on a set about four times now, and it’s not like a sole responsibility you share it with other people. But I’ve always felt like people are at their best when there’s a good atmosphere, with no Alpha type behaviour. Zero. I don’t even ask for cups of tea. As far as I’m concerned – is everyone else taken care of? Did they get enough sleep? Have they eaten enough? And we struck gold with Adrian Shergold. As our director, he’s so experienced, so laid back. Absolutely trusts himself, trusts the craft, and he hands things over to us actors, lets us get on with it.
For me, that’s important, and they don’t talk about that enough. Considering how many sets people talk about the bad behaviour on their people – this idea that you have to be a bit of a hellraiser for things to be good. I’ve always wanted to challenge that idea. We’re professionals, we’re turning up on a set, everybody threw themselves into this.
We had this one shot that started in a hallway, that had to go down this massive concourse up this elevator and out onto another concourse. Sound, lighting camera, they’re scratching their heads thinking, how are we going to light from this bright cafe to this concourse to that lift, and out of it while the cameras still moving, and nobody gets seen. They have to innovate all the time, so the atmosphere was always fizzing. That’s why I’m hoping this show translates, because we felt so good doing it. I hope the magic was captured.
In terms of the depictions of men on screens, do you think things are getting more interesting?
Yeah, with all the changes that are happening in the industry anyway, where there’s this fight for more diversity, and more representation. And that’s representation on all levels, including neurologically. Obviously, there’s still that fight to balance out the amount of male leads to female leads, I think that’s something that is shifting and needs to keep shifting even faster, and also with the who’s behind the camera, etc. With all of that, in the midst of it, it’s had a sort of wonderful side effect in that men aren’t expected to just be, I don’t know what to call them, boneheads. Now you can have many layers of vulnerability, and, quote, unquote, weakness, but ultimately, that becomes your superpower, because bipolarity gives you other things: creativity. A way of seeing the world that’s actually different. And diverse.
Personally, I’ve definitely seen, from a black actor’s point of view, a much bigger scope in terms of the characters. I know that this role initially was ‘Cormac Wolfe’, and would have been a 50 year old Irishman. Now they’ve come and got me, a young black dude, and we’ve gone a different way. Now he’s Wolfe Kinteh. Kinteh is a name people recognise it from Kunta Kinteh [an island in the Gambia River], it comes from that background.
In general, I just think roles are becoming more complex, more layered. They’re taking in more of the human experience rather than this homogenous thing. I’m seeing it in the roles that are coming in, and the auditions that are available and the conversations that I’m getting to have now because people will take me seriously as a potential lead. It’s things like that are very positive.
What else have you got coming up? What are your plans ahead?
I’m currently waiting to find out if we’re going to get a second season of Wolfe. And I’m hoping for that. But you know, we’ll leave it to the TV gods. For me personally, I’m writing. I’ve written my first feature length screenplay. I wrote it during the lockdown last year, a West African adaptation of a Shakespeare play. I’ve now got to the stage where I’ve started conversations with producers. I’ve got a literary agent from it. That’s exciting to me. And what I want to do really is bring the sort of story of Africa into the mix as well: to film through TV that all the platforms that we’ve got. It’s part of the reason I moved back to Gambia – I want to be immersed in it. And I love the UK, England is my blood really, you know, there’s nothing I can ever do to get that away for me. And my kids are British, my wife’s British. I’m British. But living here gives me an opportunity to really immerse myself. I’m also Gambian. That’s my heritage. My parents are Gambian. So I wanted to immerse myself and be part of the wave of upcoming African filmmakers and producers. I’m hoping that in the years to come up, you get to see a film or TV show that I’m behind, and just see something that’s different from here, because we’ve got some amazing stories from what I’ve seen so far. Now it’s just a battle to get them up onto the screen.
In terms of acting, I’m focusing in on a very narrow field, which is, do I love the role? Do I love the people? Do I love this story? It’s a hard thing to maintain if you’re looking at your mortgage in the face, but I’m sticking with it. And so far, knock on wood, so good.
So how is it living out there? How long have you been out there?
I moved in 2019. And then eight months later, the pandemic hit. I was here for 10 months straight with the family. But we have the beach 10 minutes from my house, and they didn’t lock down the beach for a lot of it. There’s a lot of outdoor space. Everyone eats out and does everything outdoors. It’s hot, so the virus wasn’t surviving so well. In terms of lifestyle, it’s just an exceptional quality of life. I mean, I have a coconut tree in my garden.
Finally, what was the first thing that got you really excited about acting as a kid?
I grew up in West Africa and we were getting the Rambo’s and the Rocky’s those are the ones were at the centre. I love those movies. I’ve seen Rambo I don’t know how many times and Rocky too. But we also got a lot of Bollywood films. That was what really started me.
In England, I came there and I went to Uni, I did consider not going to Uni and going to drama school instead, and then one performance that really got me was when I went to see Adrian Lester play Henry V at the National. I won’t beat around the bush: he’s a black dude who stood on this massive stage in front of a thousand people and he’s Harry England! His performance is so emotional. It’s just phenomenal. I remember watching this thinking, wow. And then when somebody mentioned drama school to me, that was it. I just knew I had to go and pursue even talking about it right now. I can feel the tingling in my from going back to that moment, you know?
And film I’ve always loved – my mum would say I’d sit literally this close to the TV and shush anybody that would speak. I’d watch films in French, when at the time my French wasn’t very good. I would wake up at three in the morning to watch a film – it was terrestrial TV, and if I knew a film was showing, I’d wake up at three in the morning, watch it, get a quick nap and then go to school. So I’ve always been obsessed. But now I’m beginning to see – and it’s a weird thing to say, considering I’ve been doing this for 17 years – but it’s only now that are beginning to see it’s possible. That film is just something you make. Right? That you write a good story, you get a bunch of people together, you shoot it, and then you get it out there. So now I’m beginning to see and that’s kind of part of why I’m back here. I thought, well, let’s, let’s start. Let me join the group of people that are already doing it and see what I can bring to the table with the connections I’ve got in the UK and abroad, you know?
Wolfe is now streaming on Sky.
Photographer: Sheikh Tijan Secka
Retoucher: Yusupha Njie
Design: NFC – Ndey Fatou Ceesay
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