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‘Empire of Light’ Star Michael Ward on His Dramatic Ascent and Prophetic Vision for His Career



In a story likely to be repeated numerous times as his star continues its upward trajectory, when he first met his agent, a 19-year-old Micheal Ward was asked what sort of project he’d love to be a part of if it was possible.

“Something like top boy” he said, referring to Ronan Bennett’s cult crime series — about rival drug gangs battling for dominance in a deprived London neighborhood — that was abruptly canceled by the British network Channel 4 in 2014 after two seasons.

It might as well have been a prophecy. Just a year on, Ward would be preparing not just to join Drake’s grand revival of the show on Netflix, but to play Jamie, the new top boy himself, igniting a dramatic ascent that would soon see some of the biggest names in the business drawn. to the magnetic charm, confidence and unmistakable talent of the actor, now 25.

From Top Boy would come Blue Story, Brit musician Rapman’s hit gangland feature that brought Ward to the 2020 BAFTAs, where he won the Rising Star Award (and generated arguably the biggest cheer of the night in the Royal Albert Hall). Then came Steve McQueen’s acclaimed Small Axe anthology, playing a lead role in the installment selected by Barack Obama as one of his favorite films of 2022. Now he’s gunning for a best supporting actor Oscar nod for his turn alongside Olivia Colman in Sam Mendes’ ode to cinema, Empire of Light.

“It’s been an exciting few years,” notes Ward. “And it’s shown me that, no matter what, things can really creep up and surprise you. I never ever thought I’d be doing a film with Sam Mendes.”

Bucking the trend of a significant number of UK screen stars, Ward’s rise has not been given a leg-up via expensive private education or handy industry connections. Born in Spanish Town in Jamaica, he moved to England with his young mother and older stepsister when he was just 4, his father having died in a car accident two years earlier. Times weren’t exactly easy. “There were days when we didn’t have food to eat,” he recalls. “But my mum would try as much as she could.”

(Bringing his mum along to enjoy some of the privileges his growing fame has afforded him — even if just a meal in central London — has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his career so far, he says)

As a teen, Ward briefly worked in his auntie’s East London Caribbean restaurant, and later at a bookmaker’s shop and as a steward at London’s O2 Arena (where he recently returned for a gig, getting “so much love” from the security guards he used to work alongside just a few years ago). But performing would become a constant theme, starting in school, where he won a talent show, joined the choir and played Macduff in a production of Macbeth, and then in college studying performing arts (he initially quit on hearing he’d have to sing and dance, only to return a week later having hated the more academic alternatives). And as much as he loved sports, he eventually found himself playing less in order to focus on his growing passion. At 17, he also won a modeling competition (later, once he’d broken out, he was tapped by fashion house Louis Vuitton to model a menswear line).

Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in EMPIRE OF LIGHT.

Michael Ward and Olivia Colman in Empire of Light.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

It was Ward’s drama teacher Ellie Nelson who spotted something, and when she moved to the Olivia Bell Management agency in his second year at college she landed him an audition for a TV pilot. “I didn’t get the job, but the casting director sent some feedback to the agency saying, this kid could be special, keep sending him to auditions,” he says. He was quickly signed up, and at his very first meeting with agent Gavin Mills (who still reps him today, alongside CAA in the US), offered his rather prophetic answer about Top Boy.

Rapman wanted Ward as his lead in Blue Story from his very first first audition and began immediately DM’ing him on Instagram (and even before his Top Boy casting was known). But he wasn’t the only one to get that immediate feeling that the young star was someone they wanted to work with. For Small Axehe initially auditioned for a different part, only to be told that while he wasn’t “naive enough for the role,” McQueen actually wanted to offer him something else, the romantic lead in Lovers Rock, his most personal, music-soaked installment in the series. “And I was like, ‘Offer me a role? He hasn’t even seen me read it!’”

The star quality that Rapman and McQueen saw in Ward was clear to Mendes as well — to the point that he didn’t require a chemistry test between Ward and Colman, even though the relationship between their characters is central to Empire of Light. “People like me and Olivia show ourselves,” says Ward, who first met Colman for rehearsals a week before production began. “When I come to meet you, I don’t really put up a barrier, and you see how those [people] can just work together, and that’s pretty much how our characters are.”

Colman concurs. “[Ward] is endlessly energetic and interested, and he’s so eager to learn from everyone around him,” the Oscar winner says. “Not that there’s anything for him to learn, but his enthusiasm and desire to get it ‘right’ was a beautiful thing to behold.”

There was, however, one thing Ward says he definitely did learn from Colman, having recently thanked her for “being so lovely and not being ac***, because I would have thought, to be successful like Olivia Colman, you’ve got to be ac***!”

Ward had — briefly — met Mendes before, getting an enthusiastic congratulations from him at the 2020 BAFTA awards. But the director (who had won several awards for 1917 that night) was just one of many big names he spoke to, with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Andy Serkis, Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, John Boyega. , Daniel Kaluuya and Prince William and Kate Middleton all offering their support (and several — including Phoenix — posing for photos). He woke up the next morning in his shirt and bow tie, his BAFTA award by his side.

But for all of the career-shaping events of 2019 and 2020, Ward claims that 2022 has been the “most truly, truly special” so far. Not only has it brought him his first awards buzz and introduced him to that side of the industry, but he visited Jamaica for the first time since leaving as a child, and also moved out of his mum’s place (he’s now sharing a flat with Hope Ikpoku, who plays his little brother on Top Boy). “I also went to my first Grand Prix, to Monaco, which was insane,” he says. Sadly the press campaign for Empire of Lightt has scuppered his plans to be in Qatar for the World Cup (he’s friends with Netherlands star Memphis Depay).

Given that his teenage ambitions were very quickly realized, what project would Ward, now with the world seemingly at his feet, most want to be a part of? “There are a few things, but I loved the last season of Euphoria.” Over to you, HBO. As Ward says he’s come to appreciate: “Anything is possible.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The News84Media magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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