‘Empire of Light’ Star Micheal Ward Talks Dramatic Rise and Prophetic Vision for His Career – MMA Fighting

In a story likely to repeat itself many times over as his star continues its upward trajectory, when he first met his agent, 19-year-old Micheal Ward was asked what kind of project he would like to be part of if it was possible.

“Something like best boy,he said, referring to Ronan Bennett’s cult crime series – about rival drug gangs vying for dominance in a deprived area of ​​London – which was abruptly canceled by UK network Channel 4 in 2014. after two seasons.

It might as well have been a prophecy. A year later, Ward would not only be set to join Drake’s big revival of the series on Netflix, but to play Jamie, the new top boy himself, sparking a dramatic rise that would soon see some of the biggest names in the game. attracted industry. to the magnetic charm, confidence and undeniable talent of the actor, now 25 years old.

Of Boy Top would come blue story, the hit feature by British musician Rapman that brought Ward to the 2020 BAFTAs, where it won the Rising Star Award (and generated arguably the biggest cheer of the night at the Royal Albert Hall). Then came Steve McQueen’s acclaim small ax anthology, playing a lead role in the episode selected by Barack Obama as one of his favorite films of 2022. He is now aiming for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his turn alongside Olivia Colman in the ode to cinema of Sam Mendes, Empire of Light.

“The last few years have been exciting,” notes Ward. “And it showed me that no matter what, things can really escalate and surprise you. I never thought I would do a movie with Sam Mendes.

Contrary to the trend of a significant number of British film stars, Ward’s rise was not aided by expensive private education or practical industry connections. Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, he moved to England with his young mother and older half-sister when he was just 4 years old, his father having died in a car accident two years earlier. Times weren’t exactly easy. “There were days when we had nothing to eat,” he recalls. “But my mum would try as hard as she could.”

(Taking his mother with him to enjoy some of the privileges his growing fame has afforded him – even if it’s just a meal in central London – has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his career so far, he says)

As a teenager, Ward worked briefly in his aunt’s Caribbean restaurant in east London, then in 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 him just a few years ago). But performance would become a constant theme, starting in school, where he won a talent show, joining the choir and playing Macduff in a production of Macbeth, then on to college to study performing arts. (he first quit upon hearing he should sing and dance, only to return a week later after hating the more academic alternatives). And while he enjoyed the sport, 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 broke out, he was hired by fashion house Louis Vuitton to model a line of men’s clothing).

Micheal 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 joined Olivia Bell Management’s agency during her sophomore year in college, she landed him an audition. for a television pilot. “I didn’t get the job, but the casting director sent the agency feedback saying this kid might be special, keep sending him to auditions,” he says. He was quickly hired, and in his very first meeting with Agent Gavin Mills (who still represents him today, alongside CAA in the United States), offered his rather prophetic response on Best boy.

Rapman wanted Ward as the lead in blue story from his very first audition and immediately started DMing him on Instagram (and even before his Boy Top the casting was known). But he wasn’t the only one who had an immediate feeling that the young star was someone they wanted to work with. For small axhe initially auditioned for a different role, only to be told that while he wasn’t “naive enough for the part”, McQueen actually wanted to offer him something else, the romantic lead in lovers’ rock, his most personal musical part of the series. “And I was like, ‘Give me a part? He didn’t even see me reading it!

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

Colman agrees. “[Ward] is endlessly energetic and interested, and he is so eager to learn from everyone around him,” says the Oscar-winning actor. “It’s not that he had anything to learn, but his enthusiasm and desire to do things right was a beautiful thing to behold.”

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

Ward had – briefly – met Mendes before, earning enthusiastic congratulations from him at the 2020 BAFTA Awards. But the director (who won multiple awards for 1917 that night) was just one of many big names who he was talking 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 many – 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 the career highlights of 2019 and 2020, Ward says 2022 has been “the most really, really special” so far. Not only did it get him his first awards buzz and introduce him to that side of the industry, but he visited Jamaica for the first time since leaving as a child, and also left his mother’s house (he shares now an apartment with Hope Ikpoku, who plays her little brother on Boy Top). “I also went to my first Grand Prix, in Monaco, which was crazy,” he says. Unfortunately the press campaign for empire of lightHe dashed his plans to be in Qatar for the World Cup (he is friends with Dutch 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 involved in? “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 Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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‘Empire of Light’ Star Micheal Ward Talks Dramatic Rise and Prophetic Vision for His Career – MMA Fighting