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Calvin Demba

Calvin Demba on Supacell: “It’s not a conventional superhero show”

Culture

Calvin Demba is one of the breakout talents in Rapman's new Netflix show Supacell. He tells us about the making of this groundbreaking hit.

Supacell is about to be a very big deal on Netflix. Directed, written and produced by Rapman, whose film Blue Story was a big underground hit in the UK, this show – that’s kind of Blue Story meets The Boys, a politicised, very real and exhilarating experience – marks the moment where this south London talent breaks out into the mainstream. And one of the stars who will be breaking out with him is another serious talent, this time from east London, in the form of Calvin Demba. This young actor has been on the stage in London recently in the acclaimed Boys on the Verge of Tears, appeared in Idris Elba’s Yardie, and is also a director, writer and poet, who’s film Rue Boy has been commissioned by Channel 4.

As you’ll see in our interview, Calvin is a super-smart creative soul from a working class background in Tower Hamlets, and was a keen boxer – he still does Ju Jitsu now, and has an attitude about him that’s half-artist, half-athlete, very focused, very dedicated, not at all starry just into hard work and believing in the project. When the project is as important as Supacell is. For while the show is great fun, in which a group of normal folk unexpectedly gain superpowers, it is also, as Calvin tells us, a rare show in that it represents people of black heritage not just on camera but behind the camera too. As a marker for a more inclusive future in the arts, it feels like a big moment. And as for Calvin, it is sure to be the first big moment of many…

Hi Calvin, you’ve just been on a stage run of Boys On the Verge of Tears, with David Carlyle, how did you find it?

It was an exploration of masculinity told from different perspectives, and the first time I’ve ever been in a production where I played more than one character.

That was a welcome challenge for myself and equally the play’s themes: a conversation about masculinity without it being just about toxic masculinity or fragile masculinity. It was more nuanced, with all the different facets of what a young man may go through, and an older man passing the baton to his son and what they might say and how they conduct themselves. I thought it was a powerful piece of writing from debut writer Sam Grabiner. And I was lucky enough to work with director James Macdonald again. I’d worked with him 10 years before on one of my first plays, and I haven’t done a play in seven years. It felt like quite a nice opportunity to get back on stage. Now I’ve got the post-show blues.

David had to do some big changes throughout the show because he had to play drag queens. But I feel like for me, I kind of buzzed off the whole thing. It was tiring, but it was rewarding because we all wanted to be there. We all resonated with this piece of writing. It wasn’t a job that was gonna pay the pay the rent, it was simply because we all wanted to be there.

Are you conscious already of trying to push yourself all the time, getting outside your comfort zone with your approach?

Yeah, I like to experiment artistically with different mediums. I’ve approached writing. I’ve directed a short film. For me, it’s just about testing myself as a creative and and exploring different parts of myself.

I took that play because I was asking myself questions about my own masculinity and what it meant to me, and suddenly I had this script and it resonated with some of the questions I was asking myself. That’s not to say I’m a big believer in fate or destiny or anything like that, but I feel like projects come at you at a certain time, and if you’re in that headspace for it, it all aligns, if you’re lucky enough to get given the role.

I always want to push myself. It’s like when you’re growing muscle, you need to eventually up the reps or up the weight itself in order to build muscle. You don’t want to be stagnant. A lot of it comes with just getting out of your own way. I think it’s about being able to to to push yourself into areas that you haven’t gone in before. Just get out of your own way and don’t worry about what it’s going to come out like. When you do that, I think you can actually learn something new about yourself and learn something new about the world.

And then it becomes enriching experience, as opposed to the mundane, ‘I can do this so I’ll do it’, you know?

What was leading you into thinking about masculinity? Was it about how you were brought up, or your peers, or what were you questioning?

I guess it’s weird because I’m a working class lad and I’ve come from a certain background. I used to box when I was younger and that came from a sense of having to present a certain bravado, of being able to handle myself in a confrontation. That’s not to say that’s the goal, but I feel like in certain environments you need to be able to defend yourself.

Obviously, now I’m an actor I’m in more of an artistic world where people speak about emotions and try not to let it build up. Don’t repress their feelings.

But I’m from a different part of the world, none of my family are actors. This is like a new language that I’ve had to teach myself by speaking with peers. David Carlisle himself, he was in therapy for many years and he talked to me about that kind of thing. Where I grew up, therapists weren’t the norm.

Look, I don’t feel like I’m that world anymore. Growing up in the East End, I feel like a part of me is that, but I don’t fully encapsulate that. And I definitely don’t feel like I encapsulate what the industry is, the arty guy. I’m sort of a hybrid.

So being that, I question what does it all mean to me? I’ll try to navigate my own language of what my masculinity might mean to me and what type of man do I want to become, and what type of man am I? And if I’m lucky enough to have children, what kind of man would I be to my kids? These are the kind of questions I ask myself.

Whereabouts are you from in East End?

I grew up in near Stepney. Tower Hamlets basically.

What led you into acting?

When I was in school, I did like drama. I just buzzed off it, I thought it was so liberating and exciting and fun. It was one of them where it didn’t feel like I was in class. I felt more connected than I did in the playground, and definitely in other lessons. I got to year nine, and I could pick my options of which subjects I wanted to do. And I just remember thinking, well what am I gonna do with drama? And so I picked PE instead because at the time I was boxing and I used to like playing football.

But I remember not losing that feeling of enjoying acting. My mum found this youth theatre in my area called the Half Moon Theatre in Limehouse. I was en route to go to the Half Moon, on the train, and I told one of my mates I was going to the theatre, and I was more or less called feminine for wanting to pursue this after school. I felt such shame about wanting to be an actor. This voice said it isn’t what I’m supposed to enjoy.

I stopped doing it until I was in my first year of college, where I went to a different school and could re-invent myself to some degree. I didn’t have the same pressures of who I’m supposed to be. I went back to that youth theatre to get that feeling again and I was lucky enough to be told I’ve got ability and perhaps I should pursue drama school. Coming from where I was from, I couldn’t afford drama school, but luckily I didn’t have to. I did this little six-week course and then I was able to get an agent when I was 17. Since then I’ve just been auditioning and acting.

Tell us about Supacell. This hugely exciting big Netflix series.

It’s a real buzz to be a part of it. It’s basically about five south Londoners with the common thread of all having black heritage, and they also have extraordinary abilities that they discover quite organically.

Calvin Demba Supacell

It’s not necessarily like the conventional superhero show or film. They’re not heroes, they’re just regular people getting on with their life. They find out they have these abilities, and then they all use their abilities to their own advantage, as I suppose people would if they was ever to discover they could fly – first thing they’d be doing is flying to Jamaica.

So it feels grounded and heightened at the same time, which I think is a quite a cool blend.

How did you get involved in it?

Just auditioned. I got an audition through my agent. But before then, I had a Zoom meeting with Rapman about the project after he reached out to me. I was a long time admirer of Rap’s work. He’s from Lewisham and he’s just a local lad trying to make things happen for himself in an artistic way.

He made this series on YouTube, called Shiro’s Story, which was basically a short film in spoken word verse. And I had done similar things with some of my own projects, so I just remember watching his videos and rated him.

On this Zoom call he told me about this show. I thought this sounds great, and then, weirdly enough, I got an audition for it. I auditioned twice and managed to get the role.

And can you tell us about your character?

Yeah, I play Rodney. He’s a bit of a duck and diver from Bermondsey. He’s involved in a bit of drug dealing, but low level stuff. He’s not by any means a career criminal.

He believes he’s a businessman, but he’s got no USP. So when he when he discovers that he has this ability to run at the speed of light, his USP becomes: I can deliver this bit of gear quicker than anyone else.

Later he becomes a bit more successful in his endeavours but that comes with certain ramifications as the series progresses.

He’s a loveable character, I hope, but he has got a trauma as everyone has. He presents himself to be this person who’s happy-go-lucky but he’s actually masking a hurt, he’s got abandonment issues from his parents and the only person who really knows that is his right hand man, Spud, played by Giacomo Mancini. I really, really enjoyed playing Rodney.

The show is brilliant at revealing another side to all of the characters, without being too preachy.

Yeah you’re right. It’s not earnest, you know, it’s not spoonfeeding the audience a message. There’s elements of social commentary within it, but it’s like where you’ve got Adelayo Adedayo’s character, Dionne and her boyfriend Michael [Tosin Cole] just sitting down, having a normal chat as a couples on the sofa watching a bit of telly and the Love Island-esque show comes on and she says, “You know, if they’re gonna get black women on the show, they need to find suitable partners who actually find black people attractive.”

You watch these shows and you think that yourself, you know?

So it’s observational, as as opposed to ‘This is right’, and ‘This is wrong’. Raps is a clever writer in that regard, because no one likes to be told what to believe.

What was it like doing the special effects stuff? Was there a lot of that?

There was a bit to be honest. In preparation, I used to run a lot. I’d run like eight miles every other day just to build up the stamina. I felt like, when you’re on set, it’s not one continuous chronological journey. When you get in front of the camera, you’ve got different angles, you’ve got different numbers of takes, and then you’ve got the reverse shot, and there’s all of this sort of stuff. So I knew that if I’ve got a power where I’m the fastest guy alive, I might have to run, and I might have to run quite a lot.

So I just prepped myself with that. Then there was some other stuff which was cool, but no spoilers. We had a whole stunt team, and we did stunt rehearsals. We basically got to see even down to what the powers would look like, the visual effects, prior to shooting the the series. So we had a reference point when we were playing it, as opposed to just doing it blindly and not having a clue what it’s gonna turn out.

And did you have to do quite a lot of running?

Do you know what? I couldn’t believe it when I saw the first episode. I must have ran so many times up and down this street, a half marathon. Some of the local residents saw me run up and down so many times, at the end of it they gave me a little round of applause.

And then I come to actually watching it, and it was like, five seconds. That’s the nature of film.

What was it like on on the set? 

Yeah, it was a real buzz, we all felt like a family by the end of it. I feel like actors have a unique ability to be able to connect quickly with people, Because I guess you’re put into these strange scenarios where you have to build trust quickly. You’ve got to trust that this person’s got your back and you’ve got their back. It requires intimacy. You just develop an ability to be open.

But yeah, we all got on so well as a team and we just approached every day like it was fresh. We were working towards something that mattered to us, that we thought was a good, and that’s obviously what you want. It’s a good working environment when everyone wants to be there.

And it was a buzz to film in these little areas of south London as opposed to just being in a green screen. Because the residents of the areas feed your performance. You could see how they interact and that energy feels tangible. You can sort of touch it and let it affect what you’re doing to some degree. You become a little bit more present in what you’re doing.

And Raps was a director who was also the writer and show-runner. He had a lot of hats on his head and he allowed us to experiment with the lines. We often recorded one for script, and then he would be like right now, maybe do one for yourself. I’d take that opportunity whenever it was presented.

What’s he like as a guy?

Proper nice guy. He’s obviously a black working-class man from South London. He’s not necessarily the person who had been to film school, he’s a go getter, a grafter. He’s made this happen through determination and perseverance, and I’ve got a lot of admiration for a person like that.

He’s got a lot of confidence as well. But he’s not arrogant, he’s a collaborator, he wants to hear what you can bring to the table. He’s not a dictator. When he’s directing, we’re all finding this together. His energy is infectious. He definitely believes in what he does. Sometimes I can become a bit self-deprecating in what I’m doing, but watching him conduct himself, I kind of thought, ‘Well, why shouldn’t I be more confident in what I’m trying to bring to the table. I believe in it, so why should I be able to to show that to some degree?’

The show pulls off a seemingly difficult trick of combining authentic street life with sci-fi really well.

Yeah, it balances the real and the surreal quite cleverly. It helps that raps is somewhat of an auteur. So this story feels like it’s uniquely Rapman’s vision.

The series is set in South London, so to some degree he’s drawing from real life experiences. So it just feels a little bit more organic when you’re watching it because he’s not writing from fantasy, he’s writing from, in some respects, memory.

A lot of the time when you’re watching films and TV and you’re like, this is a a great little story about these people from this social economic background and then you research the team behind it and you think, ‘you’re actually not from that background’. But Raps is from that world, so that helps.

And he’s a big nerd as well. He loves all the Marvel films. That’s his jam. He’d be giving us all these references, like to watch Heroes, and The Boys in prep for it. I think weirdly this show is him more than maybe some of his other stuff. This is his creative side and his actual lived experience to some degree.

How do you kind of look after your mental health in the acting world with all its rejection?

You can’t take it personally. It’s not a critique on you. There’s just some someone else that is more fitted to the role. I know that this is just how the game is. But generally I like to check in with family, you know, I’ve got good foundations. I know who I am.

I like to go for jogs, and obviously I mentioned training for martial arts, trying to do the jiu-jitsu, the boxing, all these sort of things. They help me, I guess. Give me a focus away from just my career.

I’m multifaceted in that way. If you let the game just become your life, then it has more control over you. Whereas if you’ve got other things that you’re interested in, this is just one thing that I can do, you know?

What do you hope people get from the show?

We had a lot of fun shooting it. We all believe that we were making something at least special in the respect that it was a crew and a cast of people from minority backgrounds. And often when you see representation on screen, it’s not always reflected off screen. But our production was, and for that reason you know it means a lot to me.

Raps really created an environment where the little details were looked out for. We had a hair and makeup team that knew how to deal with Afro hair, and we had a DOP that was used to lighting skin of a darker complexion.

It definitely feels like a groundbreaking show, but it’s interesting that was reflected behind the cameras as well.

Yeah well, it has to be. Because otherwise it’s just the show, isn’t it? If you’re just doing it in the shop window and then you get into the store and then you think, Hang on, this ain’t what I’ve come in here for then it’s something different. But there’s been a real effort in making it – if we’re doing representation, we’ve got to do it across the board.

I don’t know why but this is the only production I’ve been on really in the UK in about 12 years that I’ve seen that, to be honest. But this is hopefully one of many now.

Supacell is on Netflix now. 

Follow Calvin on Instagram.

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