Micheal Ward had a lot on his plate when it came to preparing for Empire of Light.
First, he had to hit the books and read up on buildings, so that he could convincingly play Stephen, a budding architect in early Eighties Margate, in Sam Mendes’ deeply personal film. Then the Jamaican-born Londoner put the work in during voice lessons, finessing a southern English accent tinged with just the right amount of cockney.
“That was the first time I’ve been able to do that,” says the 25-year-old of the hours that went into bringing Stephen to life. Ward’s previous roles in Top Boy and Blue Story had required significantly less prep. That’s partly because he was squeezed for rehearsal time on both projects, but mainly because, having grown up in Clapton, East London, he already understood those characters.
“[In those projects], I know the world,” he shrugs. “[And] there’s not really much research to go on.”
This new, longlead approach was a welcome challenge, then, a chance to level up his already impressive acting chops in a film starring Oscar-winner Olivia Colman, written and directed by Mendes, another Oscar-winner.
Contrasting the inner-city grit of Top Boy, the film tells the quietly aching tale of an unlikely romance. Colman and Ward are lovers, one a lonely cinema manager struggling with her mental health, the other a new employee brimming with curiosity and ambition. Set in 1980/81, there’s an underlying theme of race, too, which storms to the forefront when Stephen is brutally beaten by National Front skinheads.
Ward was obviously more than capable of handling the layered storytelling. He’s just been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role at this year’s BAFTA – which if he wins, will look pretty impressive next to his 2020 Rising Star Award on the mantlepiece. But there was one thing that caught the calm and collected, cool-headed Micheal Ward off-guard on the set of Empire of Light: a pigeon.
Not the kind you find on the street, mind. This was a stage pigeon (yes, there is such a thing), which Ward’s character nurses back to health – he even fashions his feathered friend a cute little wing-sling. And this top bird therefore required a lot of one-on-one time with the actor.
“I was afraid,” he admits with a sheepish grin as talk in a central London hotel suite, just after Empire of Light’s premiere at the London Film Festival. “I’m scared of animals and it took me a very long time to be able to even stroke its wing.” Oddly, Ward doesn’t look at all stressed when reminiscing about his intimate scenes with the pigeon. In fact, he’s beaming from ear to ear. “Being able to overcome that was brilliant for me. They’re just birds, at the end of the day. They’re cool, man.”
But what about his other co-star, with whom Ward gets even more intimate? Was Colman also as cool as a, er, pigeon?
“She is just an incredible raw performer, you know?” he says, keeping things discreet and professional. “She doesn’t really like to rehearse and saves it for when we’re doing takes. Everything is instinctive. For her, it’s about creating a new environment where everything can feel real.”
It seems that Ward is also more inclined to operate on instinct, at least when it comes to picking projects. Since making his acting debut in 2016’s Brotherhood, the stories he’s helped bring to life on screen have often either implicitly or explicitly tackled the subject of race, from his breakout turn in Top Boy to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe: Lovers Rock (2020).
These similarities in Ward’s filmography are, however, mere coincidences. Well, as much of a coincidence as possible in an industry notorious for providing few nuanced roles for Black people.
“When I’m looking at projects, it’s just [about whether] I’m passionate about it and can share that passion with my team,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I read many scripts and they’re good, [and] I’m laughing, I’m happy, I would love to see it. But do I necessarily need to be involved in it? You’re constantly making those decisions.”
But no matter the decade, city or story, what makes Ward’s performances special is the subtle emotional throughline he brings to every character, a sort of quiet stoicism that’s just as impactful behind the eyes of a drug dealer as it is a young partygoer in love.
“I just base it on truth. A lot of the time I appear to be happy, but there’s a lot of stuff going on. I lost my father when I was young and stuff like that. It’s just about tapping into those things, without it kind of making you upset or angry.”
Next up, Ward is starring alongside Bill Nighy and Sheyi Cole in Netflix’s The Beautiful Game, about a squad of homeless footballers, as well as The Harder They Fall director Jeymes Samuel’s next film, The Book of Clarence. But he also has his eye on a Bob Marley biopic script written by his friend. “I’m really passionate about wanting to be involved in that story,” he says. “We’ll see what we can do to orchestrate there…”
It’s easy to see the emotional connection there. Ward spent his early years living in Spanish Town, Jamaica, before moving to London aged four. Last year, he returned to his home country for the first time in two decades, taking a month to re-immerse himself in the culture.
“I just had an amazing experience,” he says, beaming again. “I’m so blessed to be Jamaican, I’m so blessed to know that I can help support [my family there] one day.” After taking a moment to reminisce about the oxtail and curry shrimp, he concludes: “Now that I’ve done it, I’m trying to go back once a year – at least.”
If he bags part in that Bob Marley film, he’ll be sorted. Trenchtown, here he comes…
Empire of Light is in cinemas now