Babou Ceesay

BAFTA nominated actor Babou Ceesay takes on one of his most harrowing roles yet: John Ridley’s “Guerrilla.” This six-episode miniseries, starring Ceesay and Freida Pinto, is set in London during the British black power movements. The series will make you ask the question, “How far can you go?” We were able to ask Ceesay a few questions of our own.

How did you become a part of “Guerrilla”?

It’s thanks to the casting director, Shaheen Baig. She’s kind of looked out for me over the years. I actually got brought into to read for the part Nathaniel Martello-White plays, Dhari. I had a few meetings with John [Ridley] about that part. They were very happy with what I was doing, but then John saw Nathaniel in a play and thought that was the guy for [Dhari]. After a week they had called and asked if I would read for Marcus. I read for the second director Sam Miller, who basically said, “It’s either him or nobody.” Two days later I was offered the part.

Did you have a chemistry test with Freida Pinto?

I would say no, but when I was offered the part, two hours later, I got called to meet John and Freida for tea at the hotel John was staying at. I thought, “Oh dear. This has to be a chemistry test.” But I had already been offered the part, so I thought as long as I was quiet and sat still maybe nothing bad would happen. Ha!

I met Freida before John came downstairs. I went over to introduce myself and she’s such a straight-forward person. You can build your image of what you think someone will be like, but it just wasn’t like that. We sat and talked about everything. Freida and I then, partly at John’s request, we spent as much time together as we could before the show began, including dinners and talking about the characters. It got to the point where we talked about how we worked and what we wanted to get out of it. Freida, she’s very close to my heart.

What personal characteristics were you able to bring Marcus?

I think it’s a slow burn. He can be seen as weak, but you make the mistake to underestimate him. I always have that moment where people are surprised at what happened and I go, “Oh, okay. I wonder what you were expecting.” I look at Marcus – and this guy just gets dragged along until he gets his feet where he wants them, but that’s because he thinks deeply about things. And also that feeling of being an outsider. He considers himself to be Britsh, even to some extent an Englishman, but on some level he knows he’s not. That’s something I grapple with as a person. Maybe less so, I do identify myself more as a Gambian. And finally, the big thing was his compassion. I think he just didn’t want to go down the violent route. He fundamentally understands that anger and explosions of anger do not necessarily create results.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of this series? What was the most enjoyable thing to be a part of?

I think the most challenging part for me was personal. How did I not know anything about what the series was based on? The series is a departure of that history because in the UK, it never became violent. So why don’t I know what was happening in this place I call home? On the reverse, meeting the actual people who were a part of this and realizing how they saw the world and what they wanted to achieve and how they went about it, which I couldn’t help but admire. They were protesting but also making an impact. That for me was really inspiring.

Let’s talk about that finale. Crazy all the through and then you guys get on the boat and it’s pretty quiet. Then the tape starts rolling in the background and you get to end the entire thing with “It feels fucking cool.” Is that how you felt? What was going through your head?

Of course I felt like that. So many things come together in that moment. There’s what Marcus, my character, is going through as a man. And John has this incredible description of him. I tried to get very actuated in the beginning because of this incredible journey over the six episodes. And that plan to plant the bomb and use that character to get that done comes out of Marcus, and slowly but surely gets there. Also that departure as a human being to strike the deal with Nathaniel’s character, which is pretty tragic. What will you do? How far will you go?

But also, for me personally, being aware that is indeed the last line of what I think is a sublime series. There we are on the boat with that backdrop. I think when I’m saying that line, a lot of things are coming together for me personally and for the character. As an actor you want to play a character, but in that moment there was an element of coming home in a very pure and exposing way. I’m in the middle of doing exactly what I love with the people I respect… To be able to stand there and end the series on that note, I felt what an honor.

What was it like working with John Ridley? I mean, in 2017 alone, he’s had the success of this show, “American Crime” and “Let It Fall.” It must be pretty incredible.

John has an incredible work ethic. He does things with the camera. He will set up one perspective, but there are scenes where it’s a two-hander and he only shoots one character. He’s very brave to have made that decision before the edit. As the performer, you’re given this huge amount of pressure, but at the same time you’re given a huge amount of trust because he’s saying you can carry this moment of the story well. There are scenes where it’s Freida or me. Scenes with everyone.

He has an incredible attention to detail. You get addicted to that. I think it’ll be hard going forward because you expect that vision from the people you work with. He’s really adapted my taste to care about what our director cares about.

He’s also incredibly insightful. I mentioned earlier how I thought my character changes and transforms over the series, and he simply said, “Actually he doesn’t transform so much, he becomes himself. He sheds things.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s really at the core of what a human being does over time. You grow up and lose all the nonsense you carry. This is how someone can whittle it down to one thought in your head that makes sense to the actor.

Did you feel that during the series you were shedding different parts of yourself?

Yes. Those rare moments in life when you know who you are. That last sequence, from being given the bloody handkerchief to that sort of element of peace. And knowing what you’ve worked and strived for comes to fruition, regardless of the cause. Especially in comparison to the beginning, where he’s in that room, he’s lost and doesn’t know what to do, and Freida’s trying to get him to act. And what does that mean? Is he even a man?

What was your biggest takeaway from the series as an actor and a viewer?

As an actor, you are only as good as the people around you and the material you have. You really have to give yourself over to that.

As a viewer, I was so deeply moved by the show. I loved the show and I’m proud of what we achieved with it. In a way nothing else really matters because of the amount of satisfaction I feel from having been in it.

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