Kayode Ewumi Isn’t Focused On Past Glories

Words: Ajay Rose

British actor Kayode Ewumi’s work as the now-memeified character, Roll Safe, was truly pioneering. The first episode of Hood Documentary was released in October 2015, and after quickly becoming a massive viral hit, R.S. landed himself a Fire In The Booth a month later. In terms of entertainment value, Roll Safe’s FITB freestyle is one of the most impactful ever, with over 11 million views to date. A second episode followed four months after he visited Charlie Sloth at BBC Radio 1Xtra, and so too did a deal to take the popular Hood Documentary to a much larger platform.

Ewumi wrote a pilot episode alongside his friend and co-creator, Tyrell Williams, which was split into six mini episodes for BBC Three’s YouTube channel in June 2016. Those six episodes dropped and then, just like that, Hood Documentary was over, never to be seen again. But its impact is still very much felt: the likes of Michael Dapaah and Mo The Comedian have created characters online and used these creations as a basis for further success, which some might say was inspired by Ewumi’s work.

Outside of his work as Roll Safe, Ewumi has been keeping busy as a youth leader at his local church and working on another show he’s created called Enterprice. The comedy-drama follows two entrepreneurs, Kazim and Jeremiah, who, in the world of Amazon Prime next-day delivery, aim to establish a delivery service business of their own. TRENCH went for a drive around South East London with Kayode Ewumi to discuss the much-loved Hood Documentary, his new show Enterprice, and how the likes of Charlie Chaplin inspired his acting.

“My walk with Christ is the most important thing. It comes before my career, before my family.”

What initially made you want to get into acting?

Growing up, I always did impressions in front of the mirror. I didn’t really have a lot of toys growing up, we weren’t the richest, but my mum had a VCR. The only two videos she had were Michael Jackson in concert and the film, The Mask. Watching The Mask really fascinated me. I never knew that The Mask and Jim Carrey were the same person—I thought it was two different people, until I was like 14. I did alright in school. I got 9 GCSEs, A-C, so I did quite decent, but you could tell that I had a different kind of passion for drama.

Coming from an Indian background myself, I know you can’t just tell your parents you plan on pursuing any old career in some cultures. How did your parents deal with you wanting to become an actor?

My dad, at first, he wasn’t really keen on it. Understandably, at that time, you’re not seeing people like myself on screen. Or if you do, they’re getting chased down by police in The Bill. I remember in EastEnders, Patrick was a drunk and Gus was a cleaner. So my parents were thinking, “Unless it’s America, you’re not going to make it,” which I understood. As time went on and when I went to university, after that, they realised that I was actually decent. In school, my teachers would say things like, “Kayode is quite good at acting,” so I think they knew. I enjoyed football but I wasn’t the best at football; after years and years of self-denial, I came to realise I wasn’t the best. I remember my dad watched me play football once, he used to watch me from the window, and he said: “You see this football thing, you should stop investing in it.” I was like, “Bro, I can make it you know!” My boys got scouted so I thought I could get scouted too. But when it came to acting, I think they realised. They’ve always supported me, though. My parents are really supportive and I love them for that.

You studied theatre and drama at university. Did that help you to become a better actor?

When I came onto the scene, I feel like people just saw me as a viral sensation. I don’t really like doing interviews, so when I came onto the scene, a lot of people didn’t know that I studied my craft. At uni, I used to study the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Konstantin Stanislavsky and all these great practitioners and great shows. I used to watch all of them and use them to build a character. All the books I was reading and all the things I was watching, kind of became me. Going to uni and studying that course, it really opened my eyes. You need a lot of focus and you need a lot of patience, but it helped me become the ‘creator’ I am now. I’m not just an actor. Even with writing, I started writing at uni, so yeah, it really helped.

If you had a pound for every time someone used a Roll Safe meme, how much money would you have?

A million [laughs].

How did the character of Roll Safe come about?

I used to make Vines in my last year, at the beginning of 2015. When I finished uni, I carried on making Vines and my friend at the time, Tyrell Williams, who co-wrote Hood Documentary and directed it, he finished uni as well and wanted to make content. He was helping me record Vines and I was recording a Vine one day in the car, trying to do a scene involving Mitch from Paid In Full. But it wasn’t really working and I was hot, so I took my top off and then Tyrell suggested that I stall the car like one of the olders on the block, so I stalled it then I said, “Roll safe!” And I put on a lisp. And that was it.

How did you turn your videos on Vine into an actual show for BBC Three?

We made a few Vines and I was watching People Just Do Nothing, and I found it hilarious! so I hit up Tyrell and said, “Yo! Let’s make a mockumentary. Let’s do it.” Then I hit up a guy called Reynold Maunze, who I met at uni. He used to shoot stuff and he said he’d be down to work with me. So I said to him, “Me and my boy are trying to shoot this mockumentary, you down?” Then, yeah, I guess history was made after that.

“All I see is bootcuts” is one of Roll Safe’s many phrases that have gone on to influence pop culture. When you were writing the script, did you try to plan for these big moments?

Sometimes you just feel it when something’s funny, but we didn’t plan anything or know which segments might go viral. We only really had two conversations like that beforehand. One of them was to decide R.S’ name and the second was about the Fire In The Booth. So when the FITB happened, I was like, “Yo, T! Here’s some bars I’ve written.” He checked them over, and that was it.

The Fire In The Booth was iconic as well. Was that scripted or all freestyle?

The day we went off to Charlie Sloth, I showed him the bars. I just wrote a few bars and then everything else I just freestyled on the day. I thought Charlie Sloth was going to give me Oasis’ “Wonderwall”. I actually thought I was going to get it, but I didn’t get it. But when he played Giggs’ “Talkin Da Hardest”, I just rode it. I adjusted ASAP, or at least I hope so. It was about 80% freestyle. It’s crazy because, when the beat came on, the rap I had didn’t even work anymore. It was a blur, to be honest.

Hood Documentary already had a big following before taking it to BBC Three, so what made you want to sign with them instead of remaining independent?

First of all, we’re not making any money online because we can’t profit off the songs that we’re using. Secondly, Tyrell and I wanted to make it for a TV network. When Hood Doc came out, I told my acting agent and she said, “This is sick! What do you want to do with it?” I said I wanted to make it into a TV show with Tyrell, so she said she knows a writing agent. You can’t get shows made unless you’ve got representation, so she said: “Cool. No problem.” Then we got signed and my agent got us some meetings with some producers. We met some producers and we met Fudge Park and they were cool, but we didn’t know what network we were going to. We were going to get a treatment and then pitch it to different networks. Before you know it, the BBC had already heard of Hood Doc and wanted to meet us. Then they offered us six five-minute pilots, with the hope that it would go straight to series after that. After the five-minute pilots, I was done, and I said, “I don’t want to play R.S.”

Why were you done with R.S. at that point?

Me, as Kayode, I wanted to push myself as a creative and I was finished. I was done with that character, I’m done telling this story. And that was literally it. We had an amazing experience at the BBC. I learned a lot from them, and I’m sure they learnt a lot from us. It was an amazing experience, but it just wasn’t meant to be.

Some people preferred the first two episodes of Hood Documentary on YouTube compared to the six that were shown on BBC Three. What’s your take on that?

If we brought out those six episodes on BBC Three, without the first two we did online, people would be feeling it. They saw something that worked, and as soon as the BBC touched it, they’re like, “It’s been changed by this big corporation.” But I feel like the texture did change. We’ve come from 22 minutes online of R.S. just moving around and living life, to A-B-C stories; they were teaching us how to write A-B-C stories. We had a lovely time and it opened so many doors for us, for myself, for Tyrell, but, if I had to do it all again in the same way, I would. I wouldn’t change anything.

Do you think leaving Hood Documentary at such a high point left people wanting more?

Of course it helped. I’ve still got a following. Don’t get it twisted, bro: remember, when I finished R.S., there was no acting work waiting for me. There were no scripts waiting for me. When I stopped doing Roll Safe, it wasn’t like I had ten roles waiting for me. There was nothing there. I believe in the Lord, so if it’s meant to be, it will be.

Today, in 2020, how do you think Roll Safe has influenced online comedy?

I don’t know... People always compare me to Big Shaq and what he’s doing, but I don’t know where he got his idea from.

Mo Gilligan and Michael Dapaah are two examples of creators who found success on the back of creating funny characters on social media…

—I don’t take credit for anything. Everyone’s doing their thing, and everybody gets inspired by different people. But no one will ever forget R.S. But Enterprice is here now, so they should enjoy that instead.

Is there any chance that we will ever see Roll Safe again?

You could give me 1% of the world and say this is yours, I still wouldn’t bring it back. I’m done.

How do you deal with people coming up to you in the street and recognising you for your acting work?

My faith helped a lot, my family helped a lot. And also, just talking to people. I realise it’s part of what’s happening because of what I do. But when I’m out with my family or having some private time, there are times you just don’t want to be disturbed.

“We need more BAME commissioners and more BAME writers.”

Did your relationship with the BBC help you get a second show made with them?

Yeah, the relationship with the BBC helped a lot. When Tyrell and I were working with them, we’d never treat them like they’re our big bosses. We treated them like they’re normal human beings.

How did your show Enterprice come about?

BBC told my writing agent, “Look, if there’s anything else he wants to make, let us know.” Then I spoke to my agent and said I had an idea, then they sent it to Fudge Park, who then sent it to the BBC. Then, within two days, they were like: “Yo, here’s money to go and write a script.” After that, they wanted to have a readthrough. Then on the day of the readthrough, they decided that they were going to shoot a pilot. Then we shot a pilot, and after the pilot, they gave us money for the first series: four episodes, which I think is quite small, but it’s okay. Then for season two, they gave us five episodes. And that was that, really.

What did you learn from season one of Enterprice that helped you with season two?

I learnt to always tell the story you want to tell. Always push boundaries. This is my first series by myself; obviously, you want to make things funny—my producers encourage me to make things funny—but when I went to season two, I was like, “Nah, man. It doesn’t always have to be funny. Sometimes serious, sometimes tears, sometimes pain.” That’s life: you go through different emotions.

Highlighting racist stereotypes is a key theme throughout Enterprice. What made you want to include these scenes?

I don’t know. I just felt like you go through these things, innit. Because in London, it’s more underlying, it’s not really there in your face in comparison to America. I just thought to myself, “Why not? People are going through these things.”

What are your thoughts about working in America?

If it comes, it comes. But I’m not chasing it. I’m not against it. If the right opportunity comes, why not?

Do you think there’s enough work available for black actors in the UK to get by without needing to work overseas?

At the moment, no. I feel like there’s a lot of work for white actors, but I don’t think there’s enough work for black and Asian actors. But people are changing because more writers are emerging, like myself, Samson Kayo, Tom Moutchi—they’re writing stuff now. But it’s still difficult for a lot of actors because one role comes, and everyone’s going for it. White people have got a lot of opportunities. We know it, but we don’t want to say it.

What needs to change in order for that situation to improve?

We need more BAME commissioners and more BAME writers. Anytime we go on that big scale and we get the opportunity to show our work, it’s like, “Why is Drake commissioning Top Boy?” On a big scale, like that, when Netflix is seeing that Top Boy works for us, people want more stuff like that. We haven’t seen a sitcom before, so they’re not sure if it’s gonna work. Drake, come give us money to make a sitcom as well then! For me, I think things are going to change, and even if they don’t, we’re just going to have to deal with what we’re given and take care. I feel like some people don’t want to see shows like sitcoms. Timewasters is there, Bulletproof is on Sky One, Famalam is there, but some people just want to see Top Boy. They just like violence, innit. Who’s watched Timewasters on ITV? Who’s watched Bulletproof on Sky? Who’s watching Famalam? But when it comes to rolls for black actors, one thing that we need to do is make the roles. Let’s start writing the roles! The question is, who’s going to commission it? Who’s going to take a chance on it if it’s not Top Boy? That’s why a lot of actors like Damson Idris and John Boyega are going abroad. What we do in the UK, we do this all the time: when people like Damson are here, Daniel [Kaluuya] are here and they’re doing their thing, you’re not really rating them. Then when they go America and come back and then get a BAFTA, we say: “Yeah, they’re hard!” You don’t really rate them man like that. I just feel like we don’t really rate our actors that much and move like we haven’t got talent. But we do! You just have to find the right roles for us. These guys are talented—really, really talented—but it’s a shame that they have to feel like they have to go to America. You don’t see the Americans coming over here to the UK. But again, America is bigger than us and they have money, so, you know... Hey ho!

What can someone at the start of their journey do right now to get a foot in the industry?

Go and train. There’s longevity in training and perfecting your craft. You go and Instagram and make funny videos, no problem. But if you say you want to be an actor, and not an entertainer, there’s a difference. If you want to be an actor, go and study. Go and read scripts, go and read plays. Go and join theatre companies. Humble yourself. Let’s say you’re in your late 20s and you want to act, you’re going to go to acting class with people that are younger than you, who are better than you. Humble yourself. Try and push yourself, and don’t always go for the hood role. Push yourself. I feel like in the UK, it’s almost like, if you’re not doing the hood thing or stuff that black people aren’t watching, you’re not making it—which is very unfortunate.

Where do you hope to be in five years’ time?

I don’t know. I don’t have a vision or a goal. I just want to serve the Lord with all my heart, and that’s it. My faith and career are one. I don’t do stuff abroad a lot, because I want to be there to help the young people that I’m teaching. My walk with Christ is the most important thing. It comes before my career, before my family. God is the most important thing in my life and he will always be the most important thing in my life.

Posted on March 24, 2020