David Ajala is the UK’s best kept secret.  He’s played leading roles for major US networks and has graced the Hollywood red carpet on more than one occasion. Born in Hackney east London, Ajala decided he was going to act from a young age and was in no doubt that one day he would take it all the way to Hollywood. Humble, grateful and dedicated to the craft, he has never looked back.

Currently starring in the new ITV series adaptation of the famous three-thousand-word poem, Beowulf, as Rate – a proud warrior king, TBB caught up with Ajala whilst he was still in the UK to discuss all things acting, family and the time he had a dance off with Channing Tatum!

Ajala is a Yoruba, from Nigeria. He can’t cook Amala, but loves Pounded Yam and Egusi. Much to my dismay he claims Nigerian long grain Jollof beats Ghanaian Basmati Jollof… I want to find out whether he knows his Ek’ale (Good evening) from his Ek’aro (Good morning) in Yoruba and whether we’ll see him in Nollywood anytime soon…

I understand a lot more than I speak. It’s a bit embarrassing. I need to get a gig where I’m in Nigeria filming or playing a guy from Nigeria who speaks Yoruba. The production value of Nollywood and the end results are becoming better and better. I haven’t watched enough to give a full opinion, but if the right gig came along, why not.

Peter Dalton & David Ajala as Trexx & Flipside

Peter Dalton & David Ajala as Trexx & Flipside

Some may remember Ajala from the BBC3 2008 series, Trexx & Flipside. Since then he has a multitude of credits behind him, and the list keeps growing. He recalls those early days of his career developing his craft at the Anna Scher theatre school…

I had no idea, what I was doing. I’m a blagger, I’m a hustler. I’m from Hackney, whatever that may mean for some people. It means something specific to myself and I just get on with it. I find a way. I suppose in auditions I had to navigate my way through. I was thrown in at the deep end and had to learn how to swim without any assistance. Our exercises were something like, your first line is ‘I can’t believe, you’re going to do that again’ and then your last line would be ‘If you can’t own up to it, we’re never going to speak’. In the middle of that, you’re going to improvise. You’re going to find your way through and hit the last note and that’s how we learned to act.

Now there are a lot more classes on auditions, but I learned on the job.  A struggle I found as an actor who didn’t have much credits was I couldn’t get the employment that I wanted because people looked at my CV, and were like, we would like to employ you but you don’t have credits. I was thinking, how can I get credits if you don’t employ me? A real catch 22 and I kept seeing the same guys get the same roles and it still happens now. The ITVs, BBCs; more TV than film, they always have their go-to actors. If you keep doing that, you’re not creating new stars. You’re playing within the safety net [but] sometimes there’s someone waiting to be discovered who can show different dynamics of what can work.

Grateful for their strong work ethic Ajala is deeply indebted to his parents and his partner for their support throughout the years. Telling your parents, you want to become an actor or a musician is a common joke amongst second generation African Caribbean’s in the UK – if you’re not a lawyer, doctor or an engineer, you’re considered a failure… but this wasn’t the case for Ajala…

I’ve always had the support from my parents and my partner as well. She is awesome and she is a great mother. I mean talk about fans, she’s very supportive, I just love taking her on the journey with me. My parents are very hard workers; I saw how they grafted over the years, selflessly, to look after us. I’m one of six – five boys, one girl. We never felt we lacked anything because my mum and dad taught us how to work with small things. So even though other kids had the flashiest trainers it didn’t affect us that much, to some degree it was water off a duck’s back. What I’ve achieved and hopefully what I will continue to achieve, I owe it to my parents, one hundred percent. My career is because of them, and above all it’s my mum who’s an angel. Real talk, she is an angel.

Along with parental and partner support, Ajala enjoyed school and moved into drama upon the advice of his math teacher. Apparently drama was a good way to get girls as well as being great for channelling his energy. I asked him if he ever took the advice to heart, and whether or not it worked…

Earlier on, I tried to use it as a catalyst to attract female attention but I didn’t really have time to embrace it. I made this decision from my math teacher’s suggestion in secondary school when I was focused on doing a good job to get decent GCSEs. After that, during college, there were a lot of pretty ladies around [but] I had no time to entertain any of that because I was so focused. My math teacher, I have to big him up. There’s a few teachers I remember and for me Mr. Sem was one. I did not like maths and he helped me.

Ajala tells me about one conversation he had just before he picked his GCSEs which has stuck in his mind…

Call me naive or a little bit beneath or above cloud nine, when I first said I wanted to do acting, it was to a friend of mine, Delroy Alexander… I remember we were about to pick our GCSE options. Delroy used to call me by my surname, he said, ‘Hey Ajala, so what are going to do, music or drama?’ I said I’m going to do Drama, he says, ‘Drama yeah? …Acting? Like, Hollywood?’ I remember this clearly and this was over 12 years ago, I said, yeah, why not? I didn’t give it much thought; it’s just what I said.

By 2009 Ajala was ready to work and develop as an actor experimenting with as many roles as possible…

Trexx & Flipside was like 2009, I was at a stage in my career where I was just ready to just work, on everything, just to develop as an actor, trying as many different things as possible to build myself and experiences better. Jumping from there to present day, I am building upon what I set out to originally do, just to be as varied as possible. I wear different hats, that’s my profession. Long may it continue.

His recent roles would have you believe he may have fallen into the dreaded typecast trap. Ajala appears to have played a lot of fierce, bad guy characters – a stooge in, The Dark Knight (2009), A Cyber Hunter in, Jupiter Ascending (2015) and in the opposition team as Ivory in, Fast and Furious 6 (2013). David maintains that character types come in cycles and change often…

As an actor I go through seasonal character breakdowns. So I remember there was a period in my career where I was going up for the ‘good guy’. The guy you want in your crew, the best friend, the cockney, the moral compass. It then just went completely left, or right and I started to do more villainous characters or compromised characters. It just shifts and changes, I enjoy doing the characters that are far removed from myself, it just gives me a wider berth and better perspective.

Currently on our screens, Ajala stars as Rate in ITV’s new series, Beowulf.  Rate is from the Varni – a hybrid tribe of black Africans and Asians…

david_ajala_rate_beowulfHe is a wonderful character. He is a king; a warrior at heart, but at the same time he is also fiercely ambitious – sometimes that can be his weakness. I think he’s a guy who loves to be kept on his toes. He welcomes the challenges because as far as he’s concerned, iron sharpens iron. Throughout the series, you will definitely see this guy become more and more involved. What he means to people, and how people perceive him. I have no control over that whatsoever.

Playing Rate was an opportunity for Ajala to regress into being a youngster and indulge in a little play-fighting…

Turn up on set you have a sword and it’s just playtime. A part of you feels guilty when you are having so much fun. Is this really work? [But] even though you do have a lot of fun, it requires a lot of responsibility. Those swords are heavy and when you’re fighting, I don’t want to give it away, but I have a very cool battle sequence with Beowulf and he is a champion warrior – but then he meets his match. It’s just really fun. Kieran Bew, who plays Beowulf, is not only a talented actor, but I call him a champion fencer because he is that good. When I’m rocked up against him, he just raises that bar which is fantastic.

Similar to many of his fellow British AfriCarib peers Ajala has enjoyed a lot of success across the pond, making waves with NBC and other American networks. Affirming yet again that it seems like there’s a lot more opportunity in the US for us…

It’s no coincidence that a lot of black actors and actresses are going over to the States, some are getting invitations, some are creating their own invitations. David Oyelowo, who is a friend of mine was saying that when he was in the UK his head was just bobbing up and down against the glass ceiling. It was a shame, because David who had been doing great work consistently in the UK had no choice but to move over to America. There are a lot of other actor friends I know who have done that. I was just in a position where I thought, I’m not going to be waiting around for them to keep going to the go-to actor and overlook myself.

It’s really interesting and quite a tell-tale sign that I’ve been doing my thing in the UK for a while, doing parts here there and everywhere. My biggest roles and breaks come from America. I’m playing leading men in Network TV shows. But they haven’t just shown love incidentally. Like anything, you have to work at it. I have worked for it. I made a conscious decision that I’m not going to settle here. I’m going to keep it moving. That’s just the difference and I’m also super grateful for what I’m able to do in the UK industry. I understand a lot of people are romanticised by the idea of going to Hollywood. I see the appeal. It’s a great thing, being able to get your foot in the door.

Ajala had a role in the Sci-Fi film Jupiter Ascending, which wasn’t very well received. The Telegraph described the film overall as ‘Roaringly naff’ I want to understand how actors take criticism in general. It doesn’t seem to faze him…

My rule is, if I read a good one, I have to read the bad ones. I read both or I don’t read any at all. Everyone is going to have an opinion. It’s just one of those things. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion and it’s good that we don’t all see things the same way. That would make life boring. We have to embrace the fact that people have their own way of thinking.

We discuss ‘colourblind casting’. Can James Bond be played by an African-Caribbean actor? I have heard Ajala say he would make a great Batman. I ask him how he would feel about a Caucasian playing the Black Panther comic book hero role…

That’s really interesting, with Black Panther, I remember when there was talk of black actors going up for it my name was in the mix. I didn’t really know much about it at all.  A fantastic actor Chadwick Boseman is going to be Black Panther; which is awesome. From what I know, even though it is fiction, it is a character integrated from an African black culture. So for a white actor to take on board that; I am not sure how well that would work. There are very specific things that are attached with a character. With the James Bond thing, someone could have a different argument and say, James Bond is fiction, he’s been white for all these years. He could be black, it’s true and maybe Black Panther could be white. I just think the best actor for the job.

In America, I didn’t know this until my manager said it to me, I went in for roles that they were only seeing mainly white actors for. It’s happened when I worked on Black Box for ABC and when I worked on Falling Water the pilot, for NBC. They were seeing white guys for the role, but then they saw the chocolate brotha.

Getting those top roles can be a bit of rollercoaster. Ajala shares one tale where he was summoned to audition for role opposite Ben Stiller…

I auditioned for a film to play the lead opposite Ben Stiller. I did my first audition Ben Stiller wasn’t there. It was just the casting director. The second time I was invited back, I was doing a play at the National Theatre and they called my agent. He said Ben Stiller is staying in a hotel near Mayfair and you are going to meet him in the hotel and read through some scenes. There I was, in his apartment, there are two sofas facing each other, I’m sat opposite Ben Stiller. We’re talking away, about Nigeria, Nigerian culture, it’s just the subject that we’re on and he’s very interested in it and my background we’re cracking jokes. The next day I was invited back again, back in his hotel room, going through scripts. I remember when I first met him, he was trying to do the serious face thing. No smile. I remember thinking you’re Ben Stiller, I’m going to make you laugh. I’m going make it rain, you’re going to laugh, I just kept bantering with him and then finally he broke and that put me at ease.

We all have hopes and aspirations, David is not excluded, I ask if he had a WhatsApp group of anyone in the world, who would be in it and why…

Michelle Rodriguez, I worked with her on Fast and Furious and I got on really cool with her and Vin Diesel. Channing Tatum. I’ll tell you a story, word got out on set [Jupiter Ascending] that I can dance and I was challenging Channing Tatum for a dance off. He heard about this and stepped to me. We had our little dance off and I remember, just to smash it, because he was killing it, I thought, I’ve got to do something to take him off balance, and I started to do the Azonto. It went crazy. I think he won though.

The final two would be, Simon Cowell, I have a feeling he would be funny. He’s always in the public eye, he is himself, but he’s playing the persona. I just want to banter with the Simon Cowell who isn’t in front of the camera and finally Carrie Fisher from Star Wars, she is such a character, I’ll definitely put her in the mix. Shout out to Mr. John Boyega, for doing wonderful things, Nonso Anozie, David Jessie, Jack O’Connell, Clara Paget, Laura Haddock, these are guys Brits who are doing really good stuff… Nicolas Holt.

Having a small role in The Dark Knight meant that Ajala worked with the late Heath Ledger. Despite giving amazing performance as the Joker Heath tragically committed suicide shortly after the film was released. He fondly remembers Heath as ‘super cool’, very relaxed and classy with no airs and graces. However, in preparation for his part as the Joker, Heath was clearly dedicated to giving a great performance…

During the rehearsal period he was very collaborative, he was very focused, very easy going. When it came to filming he was in the zone, one hundred percent. He was special, he stayed in character throughout, he was brilliant. I remember one of the make-up artists on the film said that when she was doing his makeup for him, as she would put on the makeup she could feel him morphing… after a few times Heath started doing it himself as the The Joker would. Upon hearing the news of him dying and how it happened; there are no words. He was a guy who loved his work, he did not really care about the fame.

There are all kinds of pressures in the industry, David Oyelowo, has a great way of looking at things and I agree with him. He says that in the acting game, you have to have other things in your life you care about, that keep you grounded and keep you human. David (Oyelowo) says that as a Christian, that’s very important to him as a family man to be maybe someone who enjoys reading comic books, or playing football, or enjoys playing bingo on the weekend; whatever you do, you do to your relief to your enjoyment and happiness, it’s very important.

To stay grounded Ajala applies his faith and cites enjoying the little things in life to keep his feet firmly on the ground. Born into a Christian family, it has become part of who he is…

I always work on my faith as best I can. However someone expects a Christian to be or not be, I cannot have control over that. Christianity (I am sure other religions as well) brings you to a spiritual conciseness which should extend to humanity the power of love. It just so happens that I was born into a Christian household. It’s just the way that I’ve learned. I’m not saying everyone needs to be religious, I’m saying we are all spiritual beings and there’s something profoundly powerful about faith.

David Ajala’s career is going from strength to strength, who knows what we will be seeing him in next. He hopes to keep doing what he is doing and to continue raising the bar. We will continue to follow his career and see what 2016 brings. I am left wondering whether a move to the US is only just a matter of time…

Home will always be the UK and London, because this is where I was born and bred. However, you can set up home in different parts of the world. Wherever your heart takes you, or wherever you find happiness, a level of joy. I mean, we are speaking now and I’m in London at the moment, but next time we could be speaking I could be back in the states, living there. Who knows? I just go with the flow.


Beowulf continues Sunday’s, 7pm on ITV