27 September 2021

Bright Young Things

Meet the new wave of acting talent proving that the UK and Ireland are good for more than just dreary period dramas and police flicks.

Martins wears shirt by AHLUWALIA, trousers by BIANCA SAUNDERS and watch by OMEGA.

MARTINS IMHANGBE

“For me, being an actor is an act of service,” says Martins Imhangbe, talking to me from his sofa over a patchy Zoom call. “I wouldn’t want to be a part of something that didn’t resonate with me.” Hailing from Nigeria and raised in Greece, then south London, Imhangbe was originally fuelled less by a higher purpose to explore acting than by a desire for creative expression. But like all the best artists, he struggled to constrain his creativity within the rule-driven, restrictive environment of the education system. “I left secondary school with the lowest grade in the whole performing arts class due to behaviour and concentration.”

Regardless of what his teachers thought, Imhangbe was made for the stage and screen, going on to study at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and launching his career with a slew of theatre productions, including Richard II at the Almeida Theatre, which bagged him a nomination at the Ian Charleson Awards. There’s an almost spiritual connection in the 30-year-old’s craft, which can be felt strongly in his roles in theatre, particularly Shakespeare, for which he draws on his religious roots to channel the words’ lasting resonance. “I grew up in the Church and reading the Bible,” he explains. “So when it came to Shakespeare, I was used to understanding that language and watching pastors preach. Coming from a Pentecostal background, pastors can be quite expressive.”

“For me, being an actor is an act of service.”

As well as appearing in the classics, his theatre career has also involved parts in future classics, such as Inua Ellams’ lauded exploration of Black masculinity, Barber Shop Chronicles. For Imhangbe, securing a part in the production fulfilled his personal mission to only work on projects that actually have something to say. “I was really excited to be a part of that story, which gave a voice to characters I can identify with,” he says. “Growing up, going to the barbershops, there is a culture of being able to talk and be open. In terms of masculinity and vulnerability, it was nice to be in a company of men expressing vulnerability, pain, anger, joy and love, and not shying away from that.” While his theatre roles have helped him gain the industry’s attention, it was his jump to the small screen that has put him on the public’s radar. Playing Will Mondrich in Netflix’s Bridgerton, he was beamed into 82 million households during the first month of its release – not bad for his first TV role. “I didn’t expect it to be such a phenomenon,” he says. “But at the same time, I shouldn’t be surprised because of the love that was put into it.” For Imhangbe, that love came in the form of the care he poured into his role as a character who was based on the real-life boxer Bill Richmond. “Richmond was the first Black boxing superstar, in a time post-slavery when there was still a lot of racial tension in the air,” he says. “Richmond was able to become an entrepreneur and to set something up for himself and for his family against those odds. That really inspired me.”

Freya wears suit by GANNI and boots by THE KOOPLES.

FREYA ALLAN

If the name Freya Allan doesn’t ring a bell yet, you’ll most certainly recognise her face, thanks to her appearance in the Netflix fantasy behemoth The Witcher, in which she plays Cirilla of Cintra, a sword-wielding warrior princess with a signature shock of grey-blonde hair. Adapted from the cult series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski (essentially Eastern Europe’s Game of Thrones), which has already spawned graphic novels and a trilogy of video games, the TV series came with a ready-made fanbase – and stacked expectations.

Allan makes it clear that she’s not intimidated by the series’ hype. “To be honest with you, I just feel quite detached from it,” she says. “The numbers of who’s watched the show are just figures and they go over my head. It only really hits you if you’re at San Diego Comic-Con, because then you see how many people [turn up to see the cast].” Down-to-earth and pragmatic, she makes it clear that although her life has changed, she’s not going to be putting on any airs and graces anytime soon. “I’m just the exact same Freya, other people are weirded out by my job more than I am.”

“I’m just the exact same Freya, other people are weirded out by my job more than I am.”

But despite the negatives that can come with life as an actor, Allan’s drive means that she would likely settle for nothing less than a life played out on screen. She was just six when she caught the acting bug, cast in a school play as one of a trio of villainous wolves. Even at such a young age, she wasn’t afraid to give script feedback. “I put my hand up straight away and said that I didn’t want to be a baddie,” Allan laughs. “My teachers were like, ‘OK, we’ll make you a vegetarian wolf.’” After getting involved in drama groups at 11, she (successfully) set out to bag herself an agent just three years later. “I was sending emails, videos, pitching myself and one day I turned around to my parents like, ‘So I’ve got a meeting with an agent…’”

While Allan’s ambition has always been precocious, she admits that it’s been odd dealing with the ways that her life has diverted from those of her peers back home. “I remember when I came back from [shooting The Witcher in] Budapest when I was 17,” she says. “I struggled connecting with people my age again. I had got so used to hanging out with people a lot older than me [on set] that I literally couldn’t relate, even to the words they were using. I was like, ‘What is going on?’” Indeed, landing a major role so early on hasn’t just fast-forwarded her career but her life, too. “My friends do say that I seem a lot older and that’s presumably because of work,” she says. “It’s a lot of responsibility that most teenagers don’t really have.”

Max wears full look by DIOR HOMME.

MAX HARWOOD

Inspired by watching his sister’s ballet and dance classes as a kid, Max Harwood was quickly sold on the glamour and theatricality of a life on stage. And after acting in local musicals and plays, he landed a place on a foundation course in Musical Theatre at the Guildford School of Acting – a course he never got the chance to finish, thanks to the opportunity of a lifetime. “I booked Jamie in my second year and I had to leave and go off filming all summer,” Harwood recalls. “Then it just snowballed into this thing, this weird career I have now.”

For those not in the know, the Jamie in question is Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which is released in September and poised to be a major step forward in terms of queer representation: it has a gay lead, played by an openly gay actor, in a major family-orientated film. In this adaption of the hit musical of the same name, which follows queer teenager Jamie as he explores drag for the first time, Harwood had to prove his triple-threat skills as an actor, dancer and singer to win the part. “It was a really long round of auditions. Because it’s a musical I had to jump through about a million different hoops to try to demonstrate that I had the skill set to play the role,” he says, laughing.

“Everybody’s Talking About Jamie feels like the perfect role for me to introduce myself to the industry in a really bold and unapologetic way.”

All that hard work paid off, landing Harwood the ideal part for making himself known as his most authentic self. “As a gay actor, an openly gay person in my own life, it feels like the perfect role for me to introduce myself to the industry in a really bold and unapologetic way,” he says. And while Harwood is aware of what it offers him professionally, he hasn’t lost sight of the importance of bringing a story like this, which deals with themes of homophobia within families and wider communities, to a larger platform. “Queer people have experiences where they face really significant role models in their life, like a father or a mother or friends, not wanting to understand who they are,” he says. “I didn’t have any queer people to look up to and I hope a film like this is going to help queer kids to step into themselves.”

Sasha wears cardigan by STINE GOYA, skirt by CD FEMME and shoes by GANNI.

SIENA KELLY

Siena Kelly is bored of being asked to play it safe, which is why she jumped at the chance to play 19-year-old porn actor Amy in the Channel 4 drama Adult Material. “That was one of the first times I’d been called in for a complex character,” she says over the phone. “Most of the time I’m asked to audition for characters who are objects of desire, or need to be very likeable, but when I read the Adult Material script I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, this girl is a firework.’”

Kelly relished the challenge, throwing herself into the opportunity to commit to the part in ways that others might have baulked at. “There was a time when I was on set for hours, sitting in fake chocolate, having to lick it off the floor and choke on it, for a dream sequence,” she laughs. “I loved the opportunity to lean into my weirdness! I’ve never been asked to do anything as strange as that before, I normally just have to turn up and flutter my eyelashes.”

On set, she also received a crash course in how to be a porn star from one of the greats: Rebecca Moore, of Cock Destroyers fame, who served as an adviser and coach for the series. “She’s a fantastic porn star and watching her in the sessions with us really made me respect porn stars. It’s very technical,” Kelly says. With porn being such a divisive topic, one that is generally sensationalised in the media, the chance to work with someone actually in the industry was vital for approaching the subject with an open mind. “People have lots of opinions on the porn industry and make a lot of assumptions about it,” Kelly says. “We just tried to be as honest, authentic and as respectful as possible.”

“I loved the opportunity to lean into my weirdness – I normally just have to turn up and flutter my eyelashes.”

This straightforward approach proved successful, garnering Kelly a Bafta nomination earlier this year for Best Supporting Actress. When I speak to her a couple of months after the announcement, she’s still trying to wrap her head around it. “Not only is it such an honour, I just found it very surreal because I wasn’t anticipating it at all,” she says. “Adult Material was a hidden gem, there wasn’t much promotion behind it and it was very low budget. I was so proud that we actually got some attention with no money behind us.”

Experiencing this career high during the pandemic has no doubt been odd, but Kelly is confident about what her future holds – in no small part thanks to the recent needle shift regarding how women have been portrayed on the small screen. “The past year we’ve had some incredible female roles on TV – complex women who are messy and confused and don’t know what they’re doing,” she says. “That was really exciting to watch and I hope I get to play another part like that.”

Kadeem wears shirt by SMR DAYS, jeans by LEVI’S and shoes by UNIT LAB.

KADEEM RAMSAY

With his first acting gig having been a Transport for London advertisement, Kadeem Ramsay has since found his best roles have always been intimately tied to the UK’s capital. Whether in the Top Boy reboot, set and shot in Hackney (where Ramsay grew up), the powerful south London postcode war drama Blue Story, or the lauded Steve McQueen five-film anthology series Small Axe, Ramsay has been bringing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of living in his city to the UK and beyond.

As Ramsay explains, having this connection and shared upbringing with his characters is an important part of his method. “Don’t get me wrong, I like challenging roles, but I also like to go for roles where I can pull from somewhere, from an experience,” he says. “That’s where I can really be playful and enjoy it.” Such was the case with Small Axe, which explores London’s West Indian community and in which Ramsay’s role as the DJ Samson in Lover’s Rock gave him a space to celebrate his heritage. “I’m from a Caribbean background and grew up watching my dad playing music, pretending to be a DJ in the house,” he says with a laugh.

“There’s no roof on talent.”

Indeed, an important dimension to Ramsay’s work so far has been telling the stories of London communities which remain unsung. “It feels amazing to represent my city on screen, especially Hackney. People have a bad look on the area because of the violence that goes on, but there is a lot of talented youths there, they just don’t get the opportunity,” he says. Leading by example, he’s already been in some of the biggest UK-grown TV and film productions, bringing a natural charisma to every part he plays. “I just hope to inspire the youths from the streets, because we come from the same background,” he says. “If you’ve got a dream, chase it. If you want to be a rapper, be a rapper. If you want to be an actor, be an actor. Even if you want to be a magician, be a magician!”

“Imposter syndrome” is not in Ramsay’s vocabulary – “What’s that?” he asks, truly baffled, when I ask if he’s ever suffered from the phenomenon – so his potential remains limitless. What’s next for him? “I haven’t really planned where I want my career to go, I just want to be able to express myself in any way that I can and if I feel like I’m capable of doing something, doing it,” he says with conviction. “There’s no roof on talent.”

Fionn wears jacket by THE KOOPLES, shirt by LYMPH, trousers by JORDANLUCA and shoes by LOUBOUTIN.

FIONN O’SHEA

Not everyone gets to appear in an Oscar-nominated project aged 11, but then again not everyone is Fionn O’Shea, who was cast in Roddy Doyle’s critically acclaimed short film New Boy after attending a local drama class. “I had no idea what that meant at that age,” the Dublin-bred actor says of his early brush with the Academy Awards.

While he hasn’t yet managed to replicate this beginner’s luck, he’s on the right track. Having worked on an Irish kids’ show throughout his school years, he has since established himself via more serious fare: appearing in the drama Handsome Devil, which gained him his first Irish Film and Television Award nominations. But for many, his most attention-worthy project to date would have to be the BBC smash Normal People, adapted from the novel of the same name, in which he played antagonist Jamie.

Anyone who has read the Sally Rooney source material knows that O’Shea’s depiction of the manipulative, privileged student is dead-on – maybe too much for his own good. As the show aired, fans took to social media in droves to express their hatred of the character, something O’Shea was able to take in his stride but which his mother struggled to come to terms with. “It was funny because my mum would religiously look through everything that was written about the show on Twitter,” he remembers. “There were so many times when I had to say please don’t, because she would be wanting to jump to my defence.”

“Seeing the wealth of talent coming out of Ireland makes you proud to be Irish.”

In the months since the show aired, O’Shea has had a chance to redeem himself with the public with his latest film projects. First was 2020’s Dating Amber, a charming romantic comedy that revolves around two queer BFFs, which has been praised for its depiction of LGBTQIA+ friendship. “Dating Amber was really important to me because it was a queer story that was framed with hope and optimism,” he says. “I think it’s really important to have queer stories shown in that light.” It was followed this year by the crime drama Cherry, which O’Shea was drawn to for a whole other reason: the opportunity to work with Tom Holland. “I was such a huge fan of the cast and Tom,” he says. “Getting the chance to audition for it, I felt so lucky, and then actually being on set, I was pinching myself.”

For those wondering what O’Shea is up to next, keep your eyes peeled for his turn in species dysphoria drama Wolf alongside Lily-Rose Depp and George MacKay, which is receiving its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. But despite his pivot to more international projects, it’s his fellow Irish actors who remain some of O’Shea’s biggest inspirations. “There are so many amazing Irish film and TV projects at the moment,” he says. “The arts are such a huge part of Irish culture, and seeing the wealth of talent coming out of Ireland makes you proud to be Irish.”

Mimi wears full look by MIU MIU.

MIMI KEENE

Let’s be honest, villains always get the best lines. At least that’s the case for Mimi Keene, who plays resident mean girl Ruby Matthews in Netflix hit Sex Education. Strutting the halls of Moordale High, she can wither her classmates’ confidence with a simple one-liner or, in the absence of words, a hair flick or roll of the eyes, backed up by her posse of chicly dressed besties.

The 23-year-old, who has also appeared in BBC One’s military drama Our Girl and action thriller Close, was trained at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, a drama school whose alumni include everyone from Naomi Campbell to Russell Brand. Keene remembers quickly settling in but admits that her younger self did have a crisis of confidence along the way. “I wasn’t really sure what I was doing,” she confesses over the phone. “I thought that everyone else was probably going to be really good and experienced.”

Fast-forwarding through the years since, it’s hard to see that nervous schoolgirl in Sex Education’s formidable Ruby, Keene’s best-known role so far. But while she’s certainly not drawing on her own secondary-school experiences, Keene sees her breakthrough role as much more relatable than Ruby is given credit for. “She’s quite a multidimensional character,” Keene says. “Up until now, all you’ve seen is her barrier and the way she likes to present herself to other people, which obviously isn’t who she is on the inside.”

“I don’t want to be pigeonholed, I want to do as many different things as I can.”

When we do see rare flashes of vulnerability from Ruby, they’re scene-stealing moments, such as when she reaches out for help after becoming the target of a revenge-porn scandal or when she opens up about her father’s multiple sclerosis diagnosis. According to Keene, there’s a lot more of where that came from for the third series. “You get to see her more vulnerable side, which everyone has, no matter who they are,” she says. “For her, hiding that side comes across as meanness or pretending she’s a lot better than anyone else. A lot of young women go through those kinds of things, so it’s good for me as an actor to be able to play that.”

Looking ahead, Sex Education fans can expect “a new relationship, independence and growth” for Ruby but Keene’s own ambitions for the future venture into slightly more adventurous territory. “I’d like to do something really physical and fun, probably action,” she says. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed, I want to do as many different things as I can.”

 

Sex Education Season Three is available to watch on Netflix.

This feature is taken from our Taking Back Control issue. Order your copy here

Photographer Vicky Lawton at Tonic Reps
Writer Megan Wallace
Stylist Luci Ellis at The Wall Group
Makeup Artist Francesca Brazzo at The Wall Group
Hair Stylist Josh Knight at Caren using HAIR BY SAM MCKNIGHT
Digital Technician Ben Colson
Producer Blair Smith
Executive Producer Chelsea Stemple
Production Manager Louise Flood
Production Designer Marco Turcich
Fashion Assistant Chessie Lulli
Makeup Assistant Kite Chuang
Photography Assistants Tommy Francis, Jed Barnes

Related Content