23 years old Stephen Odubola may have just snatched his first big-screen leading role, but he’s been quite determined to become an actor since a teenager. Born in London from Nigerian parents, he attended Identity Drama School, which he had to left after only one year because he could no longer afford it, and then got a degree in Business Entrepreneurship and Innovation. But that was just the back-up plan. Meanwhile, he stubbornly kept on building his portfolio, knocking on agents’ doors and taking part in short movies. It was in January 2019 that he auditioned for Blue Story, the debut feature film by British rapper and director Rapman – already known for the exceedingly successful three-part YouTube series Shiro’s Story – where he plays Timmy, a young boy who ends up in a gang war rivaling his best friend Marco, played by Michael Ward. Now that the movie has hit cinemas in the UK on November 22nd, Stephen opens up about his path until now, from his childhood to starting shooting on set, something he remembers feeling nervous about, yet excited for due to the journey he was about to embark on.

Hi Stephen! Where did you grow up and was gang culture something you ran up against there?

I was raised in a council estate in Kennington, South London, so I was very aware of gang culture. Around 15 I was going through a period where I was trying to find myself. Definitely I could have been a part of it if it wasn’t for my brother, who stepped in and constantly fed me a different kind of hard love and positive energy showing me I could be much more in life.


What made you fall for acting?

I remember loving the subject so much in secondary school and loving the idea of being able to temporarily experience that reality. It was also around the same time that we had an assembly at school and I remember just asking myself “if I am going to get into a career, what would it be?” and acting stood out to me and I followed through from there.


How did you prepare for Blue Story audition and to step into Timmy’s shoes?

I got specific scenes sent to me and I prepared so hard in front of the mirror and by myself to get them on point. I can relate to Timmy because we share similar backgrounds: we both grew up on a council estate and we come from loving hard-working Nigerian families and those things already kind of shape your character. Unlike me though, Timmy succumbed to negative pressures that lead him into that ‘gang’ lifestyle.

Working with Rapman: what is that you learned from him, on and off the set?

Rapman wrote and directed Blue Story and he treats this film like his baby. For someone who has no professional directorial background, he’s a natural in the way he carries himself. We’ve all been in contact after filming and it’s just inspiring to see where he’s come from and to where he’s headed.


What was your favorite scene to shoot?

The party scene! It took me back to my secondary school days and how parties were like back then when we were all young and didn’t have any major responsibilities.


Rapman’s also a rapper so, what kind of music are you most into?

I have a very wide taste in music, but I’m mainly into hip-hop and R&B. I love being in the studio myself and have been recorded spitting a few bars with Rapman when we attended the BET Hip-Hop Awards in Atlanta earlier in October.


Did your parents ever share with you their experience of moving to a foreign country? 

My dad came to London first and encouraged my mum to join him. They both worked as hard as they could, doing any job they could find. When they first arrived in the UK, they did not have their own home to live in, so they stayed with a family friend and when they eventually had saved enough money to apply for a council flat, they were given their own small one. From that, they built up and started their family. My siblings and I, we all grew up in that same flat until we were teenagers. Our parents instilled in us the importance of a strong work ethic and self-belief.

Is for black actors somehow harder to pursue their careers?

I think it used to be a big struggle for black actors to be seen as just ‘actors’, rather than ‘black actors’, but there is such a drive now across the industry to promote color-blind casting and to open doors for black and other non-white actors, that I think it is easier now for us rather than in years gone by.


‘Inclusivity’ is one of the most discussed issues throughout the fashion, media and entertainment industries. Do you think they are doing their best to embrace that and properly depict black culture and identity or is there something that still needs to be done?

There will always be work to be done in all areas of inclusivity and equality. As a society, we have come so far but still have so far to go, not just with black culture, but across the board including race, class, sexism, sexuality, and gender-related inequality. The hard work and progression are reflected in all these industries, but again, they must continue to keep pushing forward and we all must work to maintain the interest in educating others and ourselves.


Any big screen actor you’d pick up to have dinner with?

Idris Elba. It’s got to be him. He’s highly respected in the acting and music world because he’s brilliant at what he does in every role and DJ set he plays. He started from ordinary beginnings, worked hard, dug deep and kept going to get to where he is today. I would love to chat with him.


Looking back at your career, what were the hardest and happiest moments until now?

The patience, the resilience, and the drive to keep going when things are quiet, while you are waiting for that next job, that moment, that break. That’s the hardest. And the happiest, well, being told I’d got the role of Timmy, and everything that happened since then.

So, what’s next?

I’ve just shot a BBC continuing drama soon to be aired, and I have several big projects I’m screen testing and reading for at present. So, there is a lot on the table, but nothing that I am able to share out loud, so watch this space!

Photographer: David Reiss
Stylist: Kenny Ho
Grooming: Daisy Holubowicz using KeraCare & Diego Dalla Palma