With starring roles in the popular Shiro’s Story trilogy, the Netflix originals web series The Innocents and a director credit in Yxng Bane’s HBK: The Prequel short film, actor Percelle Ascott has had a busy year. However, you wouldn’t think so after taking a quick glance at his Wikipedia page. It tells you his birthday and that he’s Zimbabwean and not much else. This is where I come in! His Wikipedia page doesn’t reflect how many times we’ve had to reschedule this interview because Percelle (known as Percy to his friends) has been in his bag lately. Walking to our location in Penge, I had no idea what the interview would be like given the wet and muddy conditions of the shoot location. He approaches me with the air of a gentleman and suddenly all the doubts I had about interviewing him in these conditions disappeared like the sun.
After pleasantries, we sit down by the gravel pit where he and his mates used to play ‘Portugal’ another name for what most boys call ‘Knockouts’, which is best described as a battle royal meeting knockout football. Speaking on growing up in Penge, Percelle speaks earnestly about a simpler time. “I moved to Penge when I was 5 and lived there for 7-8 years. My characteristics and perspective of the world were shaped by living in Penge. I remember having a great childhood, playing Portugal, riding bikes, playing Knock Down Ginger…” At this point, he is gesticulating at various parts of the estate where he first experienced life outside of Zimbabwe. His experiences growing up in Penge are typical to that of most African kids who were raised in London, just making the most of what’s around them. “I remember when it was Euro 2004 and we must have connected everyone’s adaptors to a big screen just to watch the England vs Portugal game”. He told me a few stories like that, but for me the adaptor story is testament to his knack for making the most out of any situation.
Percelle was born in his native Zimbabwe on June 10th 1993, which he talks about with a clear affection in response to his fondest memory there. “We went back for Christmas and this was probably when I last went back to Zimbabwe to Victoria Falls. I remember sitting by the cup near the waterfall and this was before any sort of health and safety regulations! Having a farm, geese, chicken, trying to chase them all too,” the bits of Zimbabwe that he does remember.
I ask Percy if his upbringing and time in school was where his love of acting was born. His response is a resounding “absolutely! My school play in year 6 was Jungle Book…,” so I’m wondering was he was the guy that knew everyone’s lines? He laughs and says “yeah that was me, that’s what my mum says”. Elaborating on the latter part of my question, he states “my love for acting developed right here as we didn’t have much growing up. There was 6 of us in a two bedroom flat, we had to use our imaginations and each other to create entertainment. Without realising it I was doing role play, improvising which are facets of acting.”
At this point the rain pours down on us as we share stories and delve deeper into conversation. We look at our trainers in the rain and both laugh; it was the wrong day for Percy to rock white Nike Air Max 97’s. Percelle continues “Throughout my experiences, I’ve always been optimistic about my resources. Everything that Mandem on the Wall have done so far has been based off improvising, thinking on our feet and making the most out of our situations.” He is referring to his best friends Dee Kaate and Joivan Wade; Dee a stand-up comic and content creator and Joivan an actor who we’ve seen in Shiro’s Story and The First Purge.
Thinking back to August earlier this year, it feels like yesterday when the Netflix Original series The Innocents was released on the 24th. The supernatural teen drama was shot on location in the UK and Norway. The acting and plot development in the story reach far beyond its intended audience as it uses abstract devices to express motifs of love, conflict and the unexpected. Percelle plays the male lead as Harry Polk, an impulsive 16 year old who faces various obstacles as he tries to start a new life with his love June McDaniel (Sorcha Groundsell). He expands on these observations “It’s a story about these characters who run away from home in order to be together. It’s a coming of age story that is also a love story, using shape shifting as a device. Accepting his partner for who she is. A message on love and appreciating people.” Although his performance was consistently one of the focal points of the 8 episode series, he does admit to challenges in playing the role. “It was hard to play the character, my director told me to strip myself back as a person and go back to when I was 16-17. I was so raw and instinctive; I would make decisions and just stick with them. I think as we get older, we start to learn more about the world and develop fear about the decisions we make. I wanted to imbue that energy within my character so that he showed his love for people.”
It’s on the people greenlighting these projects to commission different stories, until that changes it’s gonna be hard for original storytellers to get their stories out.
I express to Percelle that I have recognised his growth given the range of acting role over the years. He’s appeared on Casualty, Shiro’s Story and Drawn Out and various other projects, but despite his growing filmography he displays the hunger of someone that always wants to do more. Randomly, we digress into a conversation about the link between criticisms of shows that play on inundated narratives on stereotypes such as violence, drugs and gang culture – and the lack of interest in projects that try to diversify the urban narrative. He laughs as I ask if he feels there are any resolutions to this apart from the most obvious thing – funding. “It’s funny because I was just talking to someone about this yesterday. We spoke about criticising certain storytellers for telling the same stories. That person is probably sitting in a commission room and Noel Clarke said this [a long time ago in an interview] that he had other stories about a lawyer and doctor, being played by black leads but the one they commissioned was Kidulthood. It’s on the people greenlighting these projects to commission different stories, until that changes it’s gonna be hard for original storytellers to get their stories out. It’s also on the evolution of the audience as they are far more intelligent nowadays”.
We both agree that audiences are becoming more mature, the rise in social media contributes to word of mouth recommendations on music, web series and films. Curiosity drives some people to look for things with more substance, but this can be difficult to measure in quantities. “There’s a hunger for different stories that people want to be told. Some creators can only make content that the audiences want to receive. I’ve seen positive content get no views at all. Audiences ultimately influence what gets commissioned so we’re fighting a hard battle to portray different narratives”. We agree that it could be perceived as a battle between what you want and what you need, the need for the representation of different roles and different narratives. He used fellow actor Kayode Ewumi (or RS if you’re familiar with his old comedic shorts) “it was something new and we all gravitated towards it. It is up to filmmakers to perfect our craft and help the art progress.”
Congratulating him on his contribution to the Shiro’s Story trilogy, he explains why this project caught his eye and what influenced his involvement. “It wasn’t necessarily the story, but more it’s narrative and how it’s being told. My first thought was just wanting to work with Joivan again because we know what each other so well, we know what we bring to the table. I remember when Joivan approached me about Shiro’s Story before I even met Rapman, Rapman wasn’t completely sure about casting me for Kyle and we had a meeting about it. I asked him loads of questions about the character which is normal; he respected that and once I got on board it worked. We developed a sick relationship with Rapman, Simon (DOP), Rita [Bernard-Shaw] and Alexia (who played Kiera and Kyla respectively). We have a Whatsapp group and we all click. It’s like we were looking for each other beforehand”. Percelle likens the coming together of minds to a jigsaw puzzle, given how he feels they came through for a collective effort.
What you’re seeing now is years of grafting, trying and failing. I had to fail so many times in order to succeed and learn what to do.
Reflecting on whether or not he can see his growth as an actor he says “yeah absolutely because there’s so much stuff that people don’t know about the early days. There were days where I didn’t get any work, days where I thought I was gonna quit, days where I thought I was a bad actor. I was on set getting my lines wrong over and over”. His face develops a more pensive look as he continues to delve in to the difficulties that shaped his experiences. “What you’re seeing now is years of grafting, trying and failing. I had to fail so many times in order to succeed and learn what to do. So when you ask if I can see the progression, absolutely because I go back to all the moments where I was not excelling. Those moments are amazing for me because in your dark times there is so much light. I’m here talking to you and I can go back to the moments where I thought I was gonna quit. Did I think back then that I would be an actor on Netflix? No! I didn’t, but it happened.” I interject by saying ”this is almost like your testimony, speaking on the darkness that came before the light. Struggle always comes before success” to which he replies “amen to that”.
Percelle was mindful of time given he had a meeting scheduled with East London based artist Yxng Bane and his manager G FrSh regarding a project that was under wraps before earlier this month when HBK: The Prequel was released on YouTube and billed as a production by The Wall of Production (a branch of Mandem on the Wall) in partnership with VEVO. Without wanting to divulge too much information, he says “all I can say is that I’m grateful to be in a position where he’s being approached about the work we’ve done and people can see that not only are we good storytellers but we can produce projects quite well. So we’re working with Bane and G FrSh on a story, but that’s all I can say at this point. Hopefully when people do see it, they can appreciate what we’ve done as something different and love it for what it is”.
We quickly go back to address the difficulties that he’s experienced. “I’m working with a bunch of actors now who are gonna be the future, working with me on the Yxng Bane shoot and I think they’re amazing. They’ve all asked me questions about my acting and the amount of hours [spent] and rejections we’ve received is amazing. Even down to Mandem on the Wall, we did that and got onto Youngers and we were promised [by Channel 4] to be on a TV show as a spin-off [as an incentive]. We said yes, we’ll be on this show called Youngers that’s not our show, we’ll put our own characters on it. At that time we could’ve pitched our own TV show and been a competitor of Youngers, but we did that because we thought things would fall into place after. And not to feel completely jaded but in the industry, nothing is ever promised. And in that creates a lot of moments where you don’t know what is gonna happen next”.
You’re known but you’re broke and it kills because people have this perception of you. And for a lot of people it’s demoralising.
As time will have taught us, it is very hard to control your destiny when doors don’t open for you when you want them to, so it is hard not to learn lessons from what Percy is saying. “I remember every moment we’ve sat in Joivan’s house and thought ‘what the hell are we gonna do next? We’re broke’. I remember cycling from my house [in Croydon now] to London, 22 miles there and 22 miles back. I did that to go to meetings because I had no money then. It got to a point where I was bumping train so much that the inspector would be trying to give me a fine when kids would come up to me for a picture screaming ‘Mandem on the Wall’”. As he continues to tell his story I think back to the age old debate of fame versus riches. “You’re known but you’re broke and it kills because people have this perception of you. And for a lot of people it’s demoralising. When I quit my retail job [River Island in Wandsworth] I said to myself that I would do everything I can to keep my mission going”. Off of initial observations on his speech and non-verbal communication, I see a young man that has emerged from his initial challenges with a smile on his face as opposed to a chip on his shoulders. He credits this to a strong faith in God, much like his best friend Joivan.
I show him the link between what he is doing and the strides that actors such as Idris Elba (The Wire, Luther), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Black Panther) and John Boyega (Rogue One, Detroit) have made recently and ask for his take on representation within the Black British community. “It’s so important. I didn’t realise until after an interview I did with BBC Newsday; she [called me before the interview and] ran through the questions she would ask. When the interview was happening, she asked me questions all about my roots and heritage. I answered them and I’m proud of being Zimbabwean but I didn’t know the impact that interview would have. People were messaging me all across my socials to say how proud they are to know that I’m Zimbabwean and I’m representing that. That was mad to me because growing up in London – in primary school – it wasn’t cool to be African…”
I nod my head in agreement as he continues “…and all of that stuff so I’ve been through so much where back then you don’t know much about the world growing up. I was hiding [my heritage and being Zimbabwean] and I’ve never spoken on it up until this point in my career where I felt like it was the right time to do it. And like the names you’ve mentioned I’m sure people from the same countries can go “I can also do it”. That is the most important message to me, to let people know that you can achieve anything you want to achieve. My family doesn’t come from wealth but I’ve made the most out of things in order to achieve. Representation for me is about young people looking up and saying “I can do it too”.
Admittedly one of the reasons I was slightly nervous beforehand was because of the conviction of the roles he played as Kadz in a short film titled Drawn Out and more recently Kyle in Shiro’s Story. We talk about the energy he gave off in both roles and given his words about frustration, I ask if he tapped into those memories whilst playing those roles. “If I went for a normal audition on C4 or BBC, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the first actor they’d interview for the role because I don’t look enough like the character they wanted to portray. My own thing was to send a message to the industry that I can be versatile and that I’m willing to play different roles. You’ve seen me as Harry Polk and you’ve seen me as Kyle, who are two different characters. That was my selfish way of approaching the role, but I didn’t really use the anger but rather the emotion of what the character is going through to justify his decisions”.
Taking a brief pause before explaining further, Percelle continues, “in ‘Drawn Out’ for example, my character loses his brother but doesn’t know how to show grief. I was saying to Rapman that we have to justify Kyle’s character and his actions because obviously in Part 1, Kyle did that madness. Naturally I asked Raps if there was any way to show Kyle justifying his actions and he just said to me “don’t worry, we’ll get there in Part 2 & 3” and show that he’s not this monster. I feel that every character is fighting for their truth; we might not agree with how they got there but we understand. Look at The Joker in Batman, I don’t agree with his antics but I can piece together why he took that route. I try to channel the character’s truth and make it authentic for the viewers”.
The interview draws to a close and I ask if any steps have been made with the future of Shiro’s Story as the fans are in the dark. He lets off a chuckle and replies “we’re all in the dark about Shiro’s Story! It’s like that because we approached it so that Rapman has the conversations [with production companies] as it’s his brain child. I also want him to build relationships and set up the foundation for his future and to show budding storytellers how to do it. He’s an amazing storyteller and we just need him in every writing room”. We walk towards his car as I remind him of the link between Shiro’s Story and the conversation we had about the negative stereotypes. “Rapman has told other stories, stories about domestic violence and mental health and they didn’t gather the same traction as Shiro’s Story! We’re working hard to elevate the story so who knows what might happen in future?”
As he loads his car up, we see some kids point at Percelle as they recognise him and show appreciation for his work in Shiro’s Story. I look at him and smirk as if to say “that’s representation right there!”.
You can check out Shiro’s Story and HBK: The Prequel on YouTube. The Innocents is also available to stream on Netflix.