Babou Ceesay discusses lessons learned from the British Black Panthers movement in Showtime’s brilliant limited series Guerrilla.
Showtime’s Guerrilla is a six-part series that looks at the radical movement of the British Black Panther Movement in the 70’s. Jas (Freida Pinto) and Marcus (Babou Ceesay) are a couple who are all talk but not really much action until events change things for them and they join the revolution. John Ridley’s show takes us back to an era of British history that is often left out in history classes. Guerrilla shows us how a radical group fought for their beliefs.
Babou Ceesay’s Marcus brilliantly becomes a warrior, a panther, and contends for the Emmy® in Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or a Movie. I recently caught up with him while he was in London to talk about how he went from accounting to acting to Guerrilla.
Isn’t it shocking that the story of the British Black Panthers is one that we tend to gloss over?
It’s not a fun story to tell.
It’s still a big part of history.
Exactly. It’s also an important part. Workers rights and a lot of stuff that we see in legislation today came from those struggles.
It’s something that we’ve looked at before. What’s it like having been on the show?
Like you, I was on a steep learning curve. I went to school in the UK and that was it. The show itself is a departure from reality because the movement never became an armed struggle. I believe the only armed shooting was at a Spaghetti House in Chelsea, and they ended up shooting themselves in the stomach.
There were a lot of protests, fights, and legislation and so forth, but that was about it in terms of violence.
The great thing was I also got to meet the people who were at the forefront of the movement. Especially in the time we live in now, you see how people can make a difference to the world. You think, these people have made it possible for me today to be a lead in a TV show.
You talked about meeting the people involved in the movement.
I met with Tarouk Donnelly who wrote a book called London Company. He had a lot of similarities to my character. He was surrounded by people who wanted to fight fire with fire and he doesn’t believe that’s the way forward.
Being with him, I had a list of questions that I wanted to ask, and I think I asked two or three and just ended up listening to his stories. It was incredible because I saw the excitement in his eyes because they were doing something amazing.
I’m thinking about what we can do with the world we can live in and the challenges that we face with Brexit and the rise of Trump and the rise of the Far Right in nature and in general.
Those people have their feelings about class and who should do what. What was amazing was how messy it all was, yet how effective they turned out to be. They kept looking at ways to use the system be it rules that existed or legislation, against itself. So, in the same way, Trump tried to impose the Muslim ban. In the end, it was the system that stopped him from doing what he wanted to do.
They were canny about how they got what they needed. The group was mixed in their education, but that’s really what also inspired me, especially with Tarouk and the ideas they had.
They opened up houses to give people homes because legally if you change the lock you can’t throw the people out. They also had lawyers there, so when the police came, the lawyer would read their police the law and say they couldn’t touch the house. That’s how Tower Hamlets in London was taken like that to provide houses for immigrants. It’s exciting and inspiring and would now be illegal, but back then it wasn’t.
Did anything surprise you?
Their view on jealousy. We have a bigger reason to be alive than to worry about who was living in what house, who is living with who, and who is earning what and who comes from where. People from America would come over to talk and they would integrate. Movements back then were about getting together and doing something. They believed there were things bigger than them.
On the subject of jealousy, Marcus is quite a jealous guy. He’s quite a character between showing his jealousy and at the same time, he shows his fear.
How much have you seen?
All of it. I thought that was a great moment in Episode 3 where he admits his fear.
In the safe house.
What’s it like going on that roller coaster with Marcus?
It’s a tricky one. If you look at it from an acting point of view, you have to trust you’ve done enough. You can’t trust the audience’s intelligence by doing more than is necessary for the scene to be in the moment. It was easy because of the cast I had around me. Freida and I built this chemistry, and it was a breeze after that. In the moment where we are under pressure, I trust her as an actor, but she is also my partner in crime off camera. On camera, we just know and we are confident together. From an acting point of view, it’s much easier when you have actors who are willing to meet you more than halfway. I tried not to resist any of the places he had to go to.
Marcus should be able to handle himself, according to society. But, he can admit to his girlfriend that he’s scared. It’s been playing in his mind.
What about working with John Ridley? What did he tell you about Marcus?
They were seeing me for another role which I was given my own interpretation of. Then he saw Nathaniel Martello-White in a play and thought he was the perfect fit for Dhari. He asked me to read for Marcus, and we met for lunch and that was it.
When we started shooting it, he said Marcus doesn’t change. He actually becomes himself. He goes out and gets a job and is hoping to do something. Eventually, he is the one with strength and clarity and he can lead and becomes himself.
What happens to Marcus?
Well, he’s being dragged along right? There comes a point when he finds out who he really is. He finds out how strong and how powerful he is, and that’s what he becomes and he comes to terms with that.
The last three episodes are epic.
I love John’s work. I didn’t binge the show because it’s about history. The characters are so well written, all of them. So much so that if you binge, you might miss something.
I think you are right. You need it to settle. Its themes of prejudice and injustice are still relevant today.
We didn’t solve the problem, we pushed it under. Not to excuse people at all as people say the world is getting better. All the phobias start coming up, and it’s very sad. I’m in the last stages of depression about it. [Laughs]
How on earth did you go from accounting to TV and Eye in The Sky?
I’d always wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t believe I could do it. Someone mentioned drama school, and it finally made sense to me.If someone had said to me “Just give it all up and become an actor” I would have been terrified.
I went to drama school. I auditioned for four things and got two. The place I went to took one in thirty students. I said I was taking a sabbatical for a year and tried keeping everything going including my apartment and relationship. By the end of that year, the job had gone, the relationship had gone, and the house had gone. When you don’t have a safety net you have to make it work.
The big change came four years ago. I decided I was going to be in the hot seat. I wanted to lead a show, and I wanted to be in this circuit of storytellers who care about what they do. It might not be popular but it’s meaningful when it happens.
I sat down and decided I was going to involve myself in it for now. I had to say no to some great opportunities along the way. It’s about luck and timing. If John hadn’t done this we wouldn’t be doing this.
You’re on Guerrilla. You’ve done Free Fire, and you’re in Star Wars.
You wouldn’t know I worked for eighteen weeks for those few seconds on screen, but never mind. [Laughs]
We shot a lot, but the film is the thing. I’m so proud of that film, and I’m in it.
You can find Babou Ceesay and Guerrilla on Showtime.