Dynamic and deeply thoughtful, Jonathan Ajayi and his role choices deserve your attention.
A LAMDA graduate, Jonathan makes his presence felt whether on stage or screen, captivating the audience. His role choices are unapologetic and unflinching. He was part of the award-winning ensemble for Gone (After Lysistrata) a short which reaped a slew of selections at film festivals and was the winner of the Diversity in the Arts award at the Los Angeles Diversity Film Festival. He brings an energy to his performances that sees his star appeal continue to rise with memorable features in Noughts + Crosses and Wonder Woman 1984.
Ajayi can now be seen as Koffee in The Drifters, a love story set in post-Brexit Europe, finding freedom and love, and fighting for both.
Without giving too much away, what are the different kinds of love the audience can expect to find in The Drifters?
There are so many different expressions of love in The Drifters, it’s kind of the DNA of the movie. It is the primary driving force for all the characters. Longing, ambition, truth vs lies, journeys, acceptance of self, finding a home in another – these things seem separate from each other in passing, but at their core, they all have that same seed. Love. It drives us in life and it drives us in this movie.
How did you build your character Koffee in relation to his goals in the film and could you relate to him in any way?
Here’s this man, not that much older than me, who has crossed oceans, overcome countless trials in search of a better life. He’s had to fight for his humanity in a way that I’d never needed to or even had to consider. These initial truths created a lot of distance between myself and Koffee, but in hindsight, that distance was a gift. I had no choice, but to be objective and map out what his life might have been like before the film started and do it in a way that justified everything he wanted during the course of the film.
In that objectivity, I learned that he actually wasn’t so different from me at all. He wants very universal, simple things; companionship, stability, and the freedom to explore himself – I want those things too. But the value he placed on the things he wanted was so different from the value I placed on them. I started to really see how precious and worth fighting for the ‘simple’ things in life are and it took that journey outside of my worldview to discover who Koffee was and what that required of me, stepping into his shoes. I guess that’s what it means to be a drifter – someone seeking… Makes me think of the line from the bible ‘seek and ye shall find’.
How does Koffee differ from characters you’ve played before and how would you describe the experience of stepping into this role?
Koffee differs greatly from the characters I’ve played before. I was still in my final year at Lamda when I was offered the role of Koffee (after some very nerve-wracking auditions). I’d just finished The Brothers Size at the Young Vic, which had me playing an African American man from the deep South. So to leave that play and start trying to wrap my head around the experience of being an African immigrant trying to settle in Post Brexit England, the character sensibilities were so contradictory. My character in The Brothers Size was a sparky guy who wore his heart on his sleeve, whereas Koffee is a man trying to move on and grow from his past; who held internalised trauma and wasn’t readily available to a lot of his emotions. Koffee was a very pleasant character to live with and we parted ways very amicably. But I was still in school when The Drifters came about so I was still figuring out aspects of the job such as building different characters and then saying goodbye to them.
The tag line of The Drifters is ‘Close your eyes. Fall in love. Stay there.’ What is the relationship between romance and reality in the film?
The relationship I see between romance and reality in the film is how romance alters your reality. Romance connotes feelings of joy, excitement, deep nervousness, doe-eyed foolishness that makes you take risks that you otherwise wouldn’t and when you meet Koffee and Fanny in the film, their worlds are pretty drab (school, work, school, work and so on) until romance completely pulls the rug from both their realities and they find themselves on a beach, in Devon. I think that is something everyone can relate to and hopefully translates well in the performances, that love takes you on unexpected journeys and sometimes love is an invitation to step outside of the reality you know.
‘Close your eyes…’ makes me think of the moment before taking a deep breath, ‘fall in love’ … isn’t that such a terrifying thing to realise that you’re in love? And ‘stay there’ makes me think of the desperation of not wanting these feelings to ever leave. That sounds pretty reality bending to me.
How explorative or reflective of the representation of an immigrant Black Man is this film?
I think The Drifters is more explorative than reflective in terms of the representation of black men. You don’t see a lot of people like Koffee in the canon of black, male roles. I remember reading the script during the audition process and then when finally getting the job and constantly realising that I’ve never read, seen, or experienced this kind of black masculinity in a film.
He is a black man, an illegal immigrant for want of a better phrase. Everything ‘should’ point to deep raw, red-eyed screaming scenes, but this guy isn’t having cold, sweaty flashbacks, panic attacks, or bellowing into the abyss. He’s going on dates in coffee shops, flirting, eating Chinese food, and most importantly reliving his childhood like love songs. There is a romantic poeticism to Koffee that I’d not seen before and it was a massive privilege to explore it. It’s an aspect of my personality that I have had to put away for a lot of my life. Koffee gave me the license to let it out.
It also made me check myself on a personal level, I really struggled at first with the idea of playing this character and not experiencing/portraying his trauma on screen. We are far too accustomed to black trauma narratives in my opinion. However, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about Koffee you see the human will to rise above, transcend trauma and keep it stepping. Close your eyes, fall in love, stay there! Dare to be happy.
With that in mind, your co-star Lucie Bourdeu plays Fanny how did you work together to better enhance your characters’ relationship?
Working with Lucie was a treat. Our personal relationship lined up with the relationship in the film. I’d only had one Parisian friend before so I wasn’t too used to their way of being which created a quiet fascination about Lucie that I experienced day-to-day, working with her. Which was similar to the fascination Koffee experienced as he got to know Fanny.
On top of that Lucie is an amazing actor so when attacking scenes, I was able to let go and know that she would be there to pick up any impulse that I threw at her. We also got to do some really cool improvisations and let whatever happened, happen. Ben Bond, our director gave so much space to experiment during the shoot.
Some of your most popular roles in The Brothers Size, WW84, and Noughts and Crosses are rooted in mythology and fantasy, but also have a strong core of blackness, what draws you to those roles?
I’ve thought about this a lot, just in my personal life and I really struggle to find an answer. I believe that stories find you, not the other way round. I’ve always had an awareness of my race – I grew up in a predominantly white area, so had to fight from a very young age to see myself in a way that I could be proud of. And the great mythological, fantasy stories were places I could escape into during the times when I felt inadequate or ugly in myself. I guess I’ve always had an affinity with these genres in my life, so if you then add the intersectionality of my experience in this world to the mix, projects like the Brother Size & Noughts & Crosses make a lot of sense to me.
I believe we’re entering an era of black storytelling which is less bound by trauma. The realms of imagination and play are opening up in the stories we tell and that’s something deeply, deeply exciting to me. I love fantasy and mythology, it’s such heightened storytelling that explores the most grounded, human themes, and I find a lot of release in the big, epic emotionality of these stories. WW84 was also such a gift. I didn’t have to think about my race for a single second, it was a rare moment of playing a fun part, in a fun film, working with some absolute heroes. Pedro Pascal (Maxwell Lord in WW84) and Patty Jenkins (Director of WW84) so it seems to me that green screens might be the way forward for me.honestly. All I can do is thank God and keep on enjoying the ride, for as long as I’m allowed to do it.
On the back of the success of a show like Noughts and Crosses, how confident are you that the availability of a wider range of roles are becoming more available for Black actors?
I’m super confident. So many of my friends and contemporaries whom I admire deeply are constantly blowing my mind with the kinds of roles that they’ve been booking. Such exciting explosive unique stories are on the way, we just need to keep our eyes peeled, all our steaming accounts paid for, and be ready for some great TV and Film. We’re in an era of black storytelling that has not been seen before. I’m so excited.
What other character types would you like to explore that you haven’t to date?
I definitely want to play a superhero or a god of some kind. I read all the Percy Jackson, Lighting Thief books growing up so something like that. Basically, I wanna shoot lightning out of my fingertips (hint hint). I’ve played a lot of self-destructive, intense character types and I’m definitely not tired of doing that, but maybe a musical character like an iconic jazz musician or a story about the blues. I remember watching Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up (2014) and Jamie Foxx in Ray when I was younger and my mind being absolutely blown apart by the live music scenes, also watching things like Sister Act! I just love music, and being able to fully let go, my energy is very frenetic so I’m quite keen to explore those aspects of myself in a character.
What’s next for you?
Can’t really say too much at the moment, but hopefully, things can be announced soon. To be honest I’m just looking after my mental health, spending time with loved ones and trying not to resist the change of pace in the world right now. Exciting things ahead though!
GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
- A book you have to have in your collection? Nine tomorrows – Issac Asimov
- A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? Sara Smile – Daryl Hall & John Oates
- A film / TV show that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedly? Malcolm in the Middle
- Something you saw on stage that left a lasting impact? The Jungle at the Young Vic