David Gyasi interview: 'I listened to Jay-Z to get into the head of my Carnival Row character'

Your guide to what’s hot in London

Your guide to what’s hot in London

When David Gyasi read the script for Carnival Row, Amazon’s new big-budget, big-name drama, he immediately wanted in. “It blew my mind,” says the 39-year-old actor, and not just for the mythical characters or the fantastical world envisaged by its writer Travis Beacham. The show also felt compellingly political. “In an earlier draft, it started with dead baby fairies washing up on the shore,” says Gyasi, who stars in the show alongside Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom. “I read the pilot five years ago, when we had those horrific images coming from Europe.

I phoned my team and said, ‘It’s brilliant, but how has Hollywood been able to react so quickly to what’s going on? That’s crazy!'” It turned out Beacham wasn’t responding to the headlines at all; in fact, he’d written the script 10 years earlier.

Yet when Carnival Row hits screens next week you’d be forgiven for making the same mistake as Gyasi. Despite minimal rewrites since its inception almost 15 years ago, it feels eerily current, with refugee creatures fleeing their homes on board dangerous ships before being turned away from safety by sinister, overbearing men. But it was Gyasi’s character that truly had him at hello.

He plays Agreus, a “puck” (Carnival Row’s terminology can take a while to get used to), a creature with huge, impressive horns, very strong legs and hooves. Pucks, according to the show’s social order, should be on the lowest rung of the ladder (humans are on top, and rule menacingly over creatures). Agreus, however, is anything but common: he owns the most expensive house in town and arrives on screen dripping in wealth. “Agreus was phenomenally intriguing to me,” says Gyasi, a man so charming it’s disarming. “What does it take to leapfrog so many social levels, and then what does it take to stay there?”


London’s best cinemas


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1/9 Screen on the Green, Islington

This was built as a one-screen cinema back in 1913 and has stayed the same way ever since.

Once known as The Empress Picture Theatre, and then The Rex, since 1980 its had current moniker – although technically, it’s been the Everyman Screen On the Green since the luxury cinema group took over in 2008. It’s got an excellent bar (with table service, no less), plush premier seats and two-person sofas alongside the standard offerings. It sometimes hosts live comedy as well.

All in all, perhaps the ideal cinema for a date, and the neon lit facade is the perfect backdrop for a couples snapshot.

83 Upper St, Islington, N1 0NP

2/9 BFI Southbank, South Bank

The BFI is well regarded for the choice of films over its four screens, which combine new releases, re-releases and screenings of old favourites. You might even discover masterpieces that have been broadly forgotten by the public at large. It’s probably the best spot in the capital for director and actor retrospectives, often hosts live film buff Q&As, and is a champion of international cinema too.

Besides, its two bars – one outside, overlooking the Thames, and the other tucked away inside, behind a bookcase. Belvedere Rd, South Bank, SE1 8XT

3/9 Everyman, Hampstead

Another excellent offering from Everyman. This isn’t grab a bucket of popcorn and jumbo coke affair; it’s more of a glass of wine and snuggling up on a sofa sort of place.

Tucked away in a side street in Hampstead, it offers table service, boasts the Spielburger restaurant next door and besides new releases, screens plenty of events from elsewhere, including opera, talks from the Southbank and iconic rock concerts. The nearby Belsize park Everyman is excellent, too.

5 Holly Bush Vale, NW3 6TX

4/9 Arthouse, Crouch End

This a beautiful little spot, still proudly independent, has an enjoyably eclectic array of films on. Staff know their stuff and are happy to chat about what’s on.

Everyone who’s a regular at the place feels affectionately towards it, so the atmosphere is always good – besides, the coffee and cakes will cheer up even the most miserable of movie-goers. The quizzes are fun, and they’ve plenty of live screenings, music and comedy. Community spirit galore.

159A Tottenham Ln, N8 9BT

5/9 Rio Cinema, Dalston

This Grade II-listed Art Deco spot is another single screen spot which should be celebrated for its independence. It might only have one screen, but its two-story auditorium is a wonderful room to watch it in. Like others on this list, they lean toward independent and foreign films, and show classics and children’s films regularly.

The staff also have a sense of humour – when showing Moonlight, they cut in 20 seconds of La La Land at the beginning, in a nod to the Oscars debacle. While the place could do with a bit of doing up, that’s all the more reason to go; show your support and it’ll give them a little cash to do some decorating.

107 Kingsland High St, Dalston, E8 2PB

6/9 The Prince Charles, Soho

This independent might not be the best spot to catch brand new releases, but in every other respect it’s excellent, and not just because it’s surrounded by bars. They run ‘seasons’ of cinema, often month long affairs celebrating a certain style, genre or director.

Besides this, movie-marathons and sing-along screenings are nothing more than business as usual – and don’t miss the beer and pizza nights, either. The enjoy old celluloid, with films in 35mm, but also, unusually, now have regular showings in glorious 70mm. While they mightn’t show premieres, they’ll often have films of the moment a few weeks after your local multiplex – ideal if you kept meaning to see something but never quite got around to it.

Old Compton St, Soho, W1D 4HS Prince Charles Cinema

7/9 Regent Street Cinema, Marylebone

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that seeing a film here is stepping into a slim slice of history. Regarded as the birthplace of British cinema, it was the first place to show moving pictures to an audience in the country, in 1896.

Somewhere along the way, it stopped, being used as a student lecture hall from 1980. Thank God someone saw sense and reopened it in 2015. It’s not just interesting for its past, though; it’s actually an excellent cinema and one of the few places in the country showing films in 16mm, 35mm and 4K digital.

309 Regent St, Marylebone, W1B 2UW

8/9 The Electric, Portobello Road

There are two Electrics, one in Shoreditch and this one, in Portobello Road. Both are good, though this one wins for its charm. The Soho House group rescued this old auditorium from 1911 and completely refurbished the place, putting in leather armchairs, foot stools, side tables, cashmere blankets, the works.

It’s wonderfully romantic, with three two-seater sofas at the back and six double beds up at the front (…behave). The food and drink isn’t bad, either.

191 Portobello Rd, Notting Hill, W11 2ED Press image

9/9 The Phoenix, Finsbury

Originally opening as the grand “East Finchley Picturedrome” in 1912, this place, like the Screen on the Green, is one of the oldest continually operated cinemas in the UK, having lived through the silent era, the first talkies and everything that’s followed.

It’s a single screen affair, with a focus on independent and foreign films. They also screen ballet, opera and theatre, and even do art displays. Well worth seeking out, well worth supporting.

52 High Rd, East Finchley, N2 9PJ Will Martin

1/9 Screen on the Green, Islington

This was built as a one-screen cinema back in 1913 and has stayed the same way ever since. Once known as The Empress Picture Theatre, and then The Rex, since 1980 its had current moniker – although technically, it’s been the Everyman Screen On the Green since the luxury cinema group took over in 2008.

It’s got an excellent bar (with table service, no less), plush premier seats and two-person sofas alongside the standard offerings. It sometimes hosts live comedy as well. All in all, perhaps the ideal cinema for a date, and the neon lit facade is the perfect backdrop for a couples snapshot.

83 Upper St, Islington, N1 0NP

2/9 BFI Southbank, South Bank

The BFI is well regarded for the choice of films over its four screens, which combine new releases, re-releases and screenings of old favourites. You might even discover masterpieces that have been broadly forgotten by the public at large. It’s probably the best spot in the capital for director and actor retrospectives, often hosts live film buff Q&As, and is a champion of international cinema too.

Besides, its two bars – one outside, overlooking the Thames, and the other tucked away inside, behind a bookcase. Belvedere Rd, South Bank, SE1 8XT

3/9 Everyman, Hampstead

Another excellent offering from Everyman. This isn’t grab a bucket of popcorn and jumbo coke affair; it’s more of a glass of wine and snuggling up on a sofa sort of place.

Tucked away in a side street in Hampstead, it offers table service, boasts the Spielburger restaurant next door and besides new releases, screens plenty of events from elsewhere, including opera, talks from the Southbank and iconic rock concerts. The nearby Belsize park Everyman is excellent, too.

5 Holly Bush Vale, NW3 6TX

4/9 Arthouse, Crouch End

This a beautiful little spot, still proudly independent, has an enjoyably eclectic array of films on. Staff know their stuff and are happy to chat about what’s on.

Everyone who’s a regular at the place feels affectionately towards it, so the atmosphere is always good – besides, the coffee and cakes will cheer up even the most miserable of movie-goers. The quizzes are fun, and they’ve plenty of live screenings, music and comedy. Community spirit galore.

159A Tottenham Ln, N8 9BT

5/9 Rio Cinema, Dalston

This Grade II-listed Art Deco spot is another single screen spot which should be celebrated for its independence. It might only have one screen, but its two-story auditorium is a wonderful room to watch it in. Like others on this list, they lean toward independent and foreign films, and show classics and children’s films regularly.

The staff also have a sense of humour – when showing Moonlight, they cut in 20 seconds of La La Land at the beginning, in a nod to the Oscars debacle. While the place could do with a bit of doing up, that’s all the more reason to go; show your support and it’ll give them a little cash to do some decorating.

107 Kingsland High St, Dalston, E8 2PB

6/9 The Prince Charles, Soho

This independent might not be the best spot to catch brand new releases, but in every other respect it’s excellent, and not just because it’s surrounded by bars. They run ‘seasons’ of cinema, often month long affairs celebrating a certain style, genre or director.

Besides this, movie-marathons and sing-along screenings are nothing more than business as usual – and don’t miss the beer and pizza nights, either. The enjoy old celluloid, with films in 35mm, but also, unusually, now have regular showings in glorious 70mm. While they mightn’t show premieres, they’ll often have films of the moment a few weeks after your local multiplex – ideal if you kept meaning to see something but never quite got around to it.

Old Compton St, Soho, W1D 4HS Prince Charles Cinema

7/9 Regent Street Cinema, Marylebone

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that seeing a film here is stepping into a slim slice of history. Regarded as the birthplace of British cinema, it was the first place to show moving pictures to an audience in the country, in 1896.

Somewhere along the way, it stopped, being used as a student lecture hall from 1980. Thank God someone saw sense and reopened it in 2015. It’s not just interesting for its past, though; it’s actually an excellent cinema and one of the few places in the country showing films in 16mm, 35mm and 4K digital.

309 Regent St, Marylebone, W1B 2UW

8/9 The Electric, Portobello Road

There are two Electrics, one in Shoreditch and this one, in Portobello Road. Both are good, though this one wins for its charm. The Soho House group rescued this old auditorium from 1911 and completely refurbished the place, putting in leather armchairs, foot stools, side tables, cashmere blankets, the works.

It’s wonderfully romantic, with three two-seater sofas at the back and six double beds up at the front (…behave). The food and drink isn’t bad, either.

191 Portobello Rd, Notting Hill, W11 2ED Press image

9/9 The Phoenix, Finsbury

Originally opening as the grand “East Finchley Picturedrome” in 1912, this place, like the Screen on the Green, is one of the oldest continually operated cinemas in the UK, having lived through the silent era, the first talkies and everything that’s followed.

It’s a single screen affair, with a focus on independent and foreign films. They also screen ballet, opera and theatre, and even do art displays. Well worth seeking out, well worth supporting.

52 High Rd, East Finchley, N2 9PJ Will Martin

He trained six times a week to get into Agreus’ body, and listened to Jay Z‘s latest album, 4:44, on repeat to get into his head. “I feel Jay Z, whatever your flavour, stands out there on his own as a hip-hop artist, and there is an element reflected in Agreus being the only person that looks like him in this place and in his clothes.”  Gyasi, who was born in Hammersmith but now lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife Emma, a dance teacher, and their two children, already has a starry back catalogue of credits, including Cloud Atlas, The Dark Knight Rises, and, in 2014, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar alongside Anne Hathaway and Matthew McConaughey.

This year, however, feels “different”. Indeed after Carnival Row — already being seen as Amazon’s answer to the Game of Thrones-shaped hole in the cultural calendar, with a second series already commissioned — Gyasi will have a (top secret) role in Maleficent 2 alongside Michelle Pfeiffer, Elle Fanning and Angelina Jolie. And next year he will appear with Jolie again in another fantasy drama, Come Away.

Its premise already sounds intriguing: Alice (of In Wonderland) and Peter (as in Pan) are siblings, helping their parents to overcome the loss of their eldest son (Gyasi plays their uncle).  Fantasy, clearly, is a genre that Gyasi returns to again and again. “It allows you to examine things, without necessarily pointing the finger,” he says, when asked why. And yet it’s not exactly a genre known for its diverse cast lists.

Indeed, Star Wars actor John Boyega has criticised Game of Thrones in the past for its predominantly white line-up. Gyasi is only too aware of the importance of seeing black actors in roles like his part in Carnival Row; it’s in part thanks to watching Idris Elba on screen that he wanted to act himself. “I remember watching Denzel Washington for the first time, or Idris, or Black Panther, and being shocked at how much it affected me,” he says. “I strive to be part of that story for other people. What an amazing time to live and work where we’re open to having stories told from a different perspective.

It’s needed, isn’t it? I feel very honoured to be part of that conversation.” He’s come a long way since Interstellar, a film he started in a state of self-doubt.

A vital life lesson came in the form of a raised eyebrow from Christopher Nolan. He remembers it vividly, on set, during a read-through with Hathaway, McConnaughey, Nolan and Matt Damon, after nerves got the better of him. “I’m in my head,” remembers Gyasi. “I miss my line and I look at Nolan to give it to me. And the way he looked at me was like, ‘I brought you here for a reason.’ From that moment, I was like, ‘Game on.’ I thought, ‘If I don’t jump in, this will be the end before we’ve even begun.'”

Out of all the Hollywood giants he’s working with, though, he’s learnt most from Jolie. Her advice, he says, was to be smart with his career choices. “You just have to go with your heart. If your heart is connecting to the work in an exceptional way, you have to do that,” she said to him. 

With such an impressive future on the horizon (and an apocalyptic storm raging outside during our interview), is a move to Hollywood on the cards? Not exactly; he tried it once but the first jobs that came up were in Edinburgh, Leavesden and Spain, so he unpacked his bags pretty quickly. Plus, he loves his village too much to go Stateside, with its “little pub” and “the pizza truck that turns up on a Friday night”.

For now, the only game plan is to heed Jolie’s advice, and to watch his 19-year-old daughter Elena follow in his footsteps. “She is so accomplished, I have nothing to teach her,” he says proudly of her musical theatre. “I’m really enjoying the place I’m in at the moment. I can speak about any of the projects that are coming out over the next year with passion, it’s really stuff I love and want to do.

That is not lost on me.”

Carnival Row is on Amazon Prime on Friday

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