In Wolfe, Babou Ceesay proves yet again that he is truly a master of his craft.
At this point in his career, Babou Ceesay is a seasoned actor. The Gambian native can be seen in movies such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,‘ led multiple television series and films, and appeared opposite Andrew Garfield in the award-winning National Theatre production of The Overwhelming in 2013. His work has garnered him nominations for various awards, including a BAFTA in 2017. In his latest role, Ceesay takes on the titular character in the SKY Original crime series, Wolfe.
The darkly comic forensic series could not have chosen a leading man more fit for the role. There is a depth and darkness to the detective that in the wrong hands could leave much to be desired. Speaking with Babou, it is apparent that you are dealing with a man who truly knows his characters and has an outstanding ability to see both the good and the humanity in each of them. With Wolfe it is no different.
1883 spoke with the actor about portraying Professor Wolfe Kinteh, what he’s learned from the character, ridding himself of the habit of people-pleasing, and more.
To start, I’d like to talk about Wolfe. Tell me about Professor Wolfe. Who is he to you?
I think Wolfe’s heart is central to who he is. He’s got a really big heart. He may do a lot of really strange things behavior-wise. He wants to do his own thing and wants to be his own man, but his heart is in the right place. I needed to make sense of why he’d break into his estranged wife’s house to check her bedroom. Why would he behave the way he does with his team? There needs to be something more there than him simply being an asshole. I thought, “Ah, he’s got a big heart.” He wants to bring things back together. In terms of the crimes he’s solving what he wants is to bring families together again. Ultimately what he wants is to bring his family back together. He struggles with bipolarity. He can become It’s manic. He can become depressed. But, he medicates himself and he looks after his job. Watching the show myself, I found that it works as a six-parter. If you watch it as a six-part series then all of these things, lock into place. Because of the crime-a-week element, each episode stands alone. But, if you watch the whole thing, the bigger story comes together because Paul Abbott has weaved in Wolfe’s mental health, and this repetitive desire to bring people back together and his big heart. In episode three he decides to make ricin, which is a weapon-related poison and illegal to make, because a kid’s life is in danger, and ricin, I mean that’s breaking the law. Yeah, it’s a weapons-rated medicine. Those are the things that anchor him for me.
The show reminded me of Sherlock, which is the highest compliment I can give it.
I think that’s the highest compliment possible! What!?
[laughs] I’m obsessed with Sherlock. I love that show.
I was wondering what are some of the experiences and inspirations you drew from to inform the character?
Sherlock. Duh. [chuckles] Because of the way Wolfe’s brain works. I’m such a massive Benedict Cumberbatch fan anyway. I was watching Benedict Cumberbatch on stage in London before he ever became Sherlock and a Marvel character.
Ugh. I’m jealous.
Right? I remember seeing him in a play and thinking, “where do they make these kinds of people?” I also took inspiration from Colombo, of which I’m a massive fan. I think I’ve seen most episodes of ‘Colombo’ two or three times. There is a little bit of Luther and how Idris and Ruth’s characters express themselves. All of that affected me. All of that added to the pile. But ultimately, what influenced me most was I went to YouTube and watched videos of people who have had manic episodes and were sharing their experiences. They’ve made a video of themselves during the manic episode and then made a video afterward, commenting on it. I watched them so I could see their behavior and see what it was that happened. That made me think, “okay, how does a person like that, or who has that capacity, function as a forensic detective for who attention to detail is everything. That became the biggest influence. That’s what I think makes Wolfe stand out from those other shows.
That’s really really cool.
YouTube, man. It’s got everything.
I know! You can learn anything from YouTube. I do think that’s what makes this show different from the other ones of its genre because there are so many.
When I was researching for this interview, I read that you studied Microbiology at Imperial London College. Although that is not at all the same as Forensics, did you feel like you were putting on an old hat, playing Wolfe?
Absolutely. When we went to the forensic lab just outside Manchester it was real. It was an actual lab. It didn’t shock me or make me go, “oh this is a brand new world.” I spent three years in a lab at uni, and then outside uni for a little bit as well, so I felt like I was putting on an old hat with the techniques and attention to detail, how important it is. People don’t realize that there is an artistic side to lab work, that, just like having a gardener with green hands, you can have a lab technician, who is always getting results. I was a terrible lab technician.
I’ve messed up experiments that it should be impossible to mess up. I remember my biology lab lead being surprised that I managed to contaminate the control room. As in the room that had all the control samples, if you follow the protocol, there is no way you can contaminate them. I contaminated them all.
I almost broke a £500,000 centrifugal machine.
I just didn’t have the artistic side needed to be a lab technician. Unfortunately, Wolfe doesn’t actually get to practice a lot of Forensics. He tells people what to do. He’s like, “test that for me. Check that for me. Can you find out what sample that is?” In a way, it’s a relief because I would have made it look bad. [chuckles]
It seemed to have worked out. In an interview with the guardian, Paul Abbott, the show’s creator, said there are two scenes in the show he can’t watch. One was the scene where your character tries to talk a woman down from the roof of a Manchester Highrise. Was that scene as impactful for you?
That scene was very impactful. The root of that scene and I don’t think it would necessarily be obvious to audience members, is that as a character Wolfe has been in the woman’s shoes. In the second episode Wolfe talks about how at one point, he was so suicidal that people were doing everything they could to get him off the topic because it was all he talked about. What I love about that scene is that Wolfe never condescends during it. He never treats the choice to commit suicide as a sign of weakness or stupidity. It’s not a defect. He knows that anyone can get there.
Oh, wow. I didn’t think about that.
When I first read the scene, I thought, “yeah, this makes absolute sense.” While he’s trying to talk the other person off the ledge, at any point, Wolf could have jumped himself. That’s why that scene is so confronting. Not that I’ve ever felt suicidal, but I certainly got to places in my life where I felt like, “whoa. Could I do this? What is the meaning of life?” Especially past a certain age, you start to think, “What are we doing? What is this?”
Were there any other sequences in the series that you found especially difficult?
The first manic scene that I performed is in episode 5. That really affected me. Wolfe comes back from shopping and is in the middle of trying to find and song that he and his wife danced to. She’s seeing that he’s in a state and knows he blows money when he gets into that state. She’s upset that he’s clearly spent thousands of pounds. After that scene, I went home and I couldn’t sleep until 4 AM because I had managed to psych myself up so much that couldn’t come down. I remembered the videos of people talking about their manic episodes and saying they go three or four days without sleep. I was like, “wow. I’m exhausted after a 14 hour day and yet, I can’t fall asleep.” I was so wired. I had to come up with these rituals, for whenever I was doing a manic scene just to decompress.
What were some of the things you came up with that helped you?
Music was a big one. I would dance around the flat with my headphones on, or with my Alexa speaker. Video games sometimes helped I would watch Rick and Morty as well. Things like that distract. I found that what I ate was important. I’d do a bit of Transcendental Meditation, just to settle my brain and get through some of that stuff that was still there.
Also coming up you are set to be portraying a different investigator as We Hunt Together’s DI Jackson Mendy. Do you think two men would get along?
[laughs] I think Jackson would get on with Wolfe because of how unjudgmental he is. He would find Wolfe funny and a joy. I think he would be almost jealous of the way Wolfe is. He would probably learn some things from Wolfe, which I think would improve his marriage because he could become a little bit more assertive and clear. But, I think Wolfe would be very frustrated with Jackson. I think he’d be doing everything he could to avoid him. [chuckles] He would just think, “what are you so happy about?” He’d be deeply envious of Jackson’s happiness and joyousness. In a way, those two characters are my extremes.
Oh, how fascinating.
It’s weird. I play all sorts of other characters. I get called upon a lot, I guess, to play very emotional characters: Dads who have gone through bereavements and things like that. I’ve played people who have a lot of integrity, which Jackson does have, but there’s something almost clownish about Jackson. He’s able to laugh at things and be clumsy and sort of silly. I can be like that. Wolfe is the other side of the spectrum. I can be absolutely clear about what I want and need and I almost don’t want to compromise. Those two men are the limits for me.
That’s a really interesting way to look at it.
They’re both very similar jobs. My friends when I took the job were like, “What? Another detective?” I’m like, “yeah, I know, but it’s the human behind it. That’s what they do, but it’s not who they are.” I’d say, for Jackson, that’s not who he is at all, he just happens to be an investigator. He could be doing anything and he’d approach it the same way. But for Wolfe, his job is his lifeblood. It’s why he’s alive. He’d probably be dead if he didn’t have that job.
I know you have been playing Mendy now for slightly longer, but with those characters being two sides of yourself, does one or the other feel more natural or more challenging to you as an actor?
Wow. That’s a good question. The first time I played Mendy was in 2019. I had a ton of fun on set. There was so much laughter. I’d never played a character that didn’t need some sort of emotional arc that was just heartbreaking. [chuckles] So, it was amazing. He wasn’t evil or anything. Then, I played Wolfe. I finished Wolfe a few days before I went to play Mendy for the second time. I literally wrapped on Wolfe, and went straight to Wales and started playing Mendy. This time around, I found it difficult to play Mendy because Wolfe kept wanting to come out.
Ah. No way!
I was angry with Mendy. I kept thinking, “what is wrong with you? Are you blind? Don’t be treated like this. Don’t put up with that.” I think it’s unfair to the character.
I am more Wolfe now than I am more Mendy. But when I played Mendy the first time, I was more Mendy. One thing I’ve carried my entire life is people-pleasing and this massive guilt complex where I feel terrible about everything. I would beat myself up and not allow myself to feel sexy. Wolfe doesn’t have time to think about that shit. He doesn’t feel guilty about anything. He just lives now, and fast, and with this let’s do it mentality. Since playing that character and being in that headspace, I’ve started communicating, exactly what I think. I’m in Marrakech right now, having a little break. I booked myself where I want to stay. I’m eating what I want. I’m going where I want. I’m buying what I want without telling myself that I shouldn’t. I’m allowing myself to indulge myself. There’s almost no apology left in me. There is some because I think we all have that disease. It’s part of being human. But, my level of fear has gone down so much. I felt myself changing while playing Wolfe. I think that’s what happens to you, whether you like it or not, as an actor. if you commit to a certain level, your subconscious just starts shifting. I was being fed this message of, “look, you’re an asshole, but you’re not bad. People love you because you have a big heart, so just carry on, do what you want. Follow your emotion. Stop thinking. Don’t plan. Just do it.” I ended up taking it to heart.
Do you think you would have gotten to this place if you hadn’t played Wolfe?
No, or if I had, it would have taken a lot longer. It might have taken me another 10 years, maybe less, but it would have taken me years and years. You don’t get to practice those kinds of moments regularly in your life. But I’m getting up every day and playing a person who does. Out of 76 shoot days, I was in for 75. I was constantly practicing, saying what I thought, walking away in the middle of a scene, and stuff like that. There are also some challenges with the work, truly. I was away from my family. I didn’t see my wife and kids for six months.
Right. That’s a price, I don’t want anybody to pay. There were times when I was like, “that’s me. After this role, I’m not acting anymore.” But it is rewards like this, that you don’t expect, that make it worthwhile. I came home after filming and my wife was like “who are you?” [laughs] “I like you. I like this. You’re very clear now.”
[laughs] That’s so funny. If you could give Jackson one piece of advice for his journey in the upcoming season what would you say?
Wow, good questions. You’re killing me. I would tell him to be authentic because I think Jackson is bullshitting himself. I think he’s lying to himself. This acceptance and tolerance for other human beings to the point where they can do whatever they want isn’t real. I think he has to get in touch with his own anger and indignation. That’s what frustrated me playing him this time. He’s not mentally healthy and he’s not happy. He’s struggling. I would say, “be more authentic. To thy own feelings be true. Don’t be ashamed of it. You don’t have to be perfect.” No more difficult questions. [chuckles]
[laughs] I’ll try! I only have a couple more and I think they should be a little bit easier.
It’s all good.
As someone who loves a good professional pivot, I enjoyed learning that after your time in school you were first an accountant before making the jump to acting. You trained at Oxford School of Drama. What was the best advice you received while there?
The best advice I received was to leave yourself alone. I never understood it at the time, but we all have that policeman or woman in our heads that constantly says, “don’t do that. You look stupid in that. That doesn’t work.” It’s not necessarily always negative. it approves of certain things and disapproves of certain things. So when you’re in the middle of a performance you have this critic saying, “oh I don’t know why your arm just moved down. That’s weird. You know, the left side of your face is nicer than the right side of your face.” It’s constantly in your head. My teachers would say things like “leave yourself alone” or, “get out of your own way.” Essentially, it’s just switching off that editing inner voice in the moment. Now that I’m older, wiser, and I’ve been doing this for 17 years, I could care less. I just do it. Back then, it was so different. I suddenly was wearing a leotard for dance class instead of a suit. Critiques went from “you missed out on this level of signatories on my audit” to “does that connect to your soul and were you being truthful?” I remember one of the most difficult things I did at Oxford School of Drama was perform a “self song.” You write a song about your own life and you perform it unaccompanied in front of the whole school.
Exactly. I remember when they told us that that’s what we were going to do. Everyone was like “what?” There is comfort in the fact that the rest of your classmates are doing it as well. Everybody has to get up.
I would be like, “no way.”
[laughs] Yeah, we all say the same thing. But, it was cathartic. Something opened up. With those sorts of experiences, you’re going to grow whether you want to or not. Oxford School of Drama. Can’t recommend it enough.
Looking back on your career- and all the characters you’ve played and with us talking earlier about how impacted you were by Wolfe-is there one that impacted you the most or is it Wolfe?
It is, but it’s a very tight decision. In Best Of Enemies I played a character called Bill Riddick. I think it was a combination of things. I was working in America for the first time, filming in Atlanta. I was working opposite Sam Rockwell and Taraji P. Henson and playing a real person who did something quite extraordinary. He brought the head of the Ku Klux Klan and the leading civil rights activists at the time together and tried to get them to see eye to eye on some level. I got to meet him. In four weeks, a lot went through my mind. It was nice as an actor to be able to go stand in that crowd and not crumble. You go, “okay so I can do this. Maybe I’ll do better next time, but right now I’m not dead.”
Oh, that’s cool.
There was another experience as well that really impacted me. A long time ago, when the world was different and probably not as good as it is now, I played Helena, in an all-male production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a company called Propeller by Edward Hall who is Rebecca Hall’s brother and Peter Hall’s son. We toured it all over the world. We went to Japan, New York, everywhere. That opened up a lot of stuff for me. Some of it was very basic like wearing a tapered skirt. I found I couldn’t really run and I had to run around chasing Demetrius. It gave me an appreciation, not that I will ever be able to know what it means to be a woman, but I will say it changed my relationship with women, in a way. I was with my wife then. We were boyfriend and girlfriend. I remember having these long conversations with her about it. She was like, “I think you look good in a skirt. [laughs]
Another role that’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life is Richard Taylor in Damilola, Our Loved Boy. Damilola Taylor was a 10-year-old Nigerian boy who was tragically stabbed to death in the UK, I played his father, who I also got the chance to meet. That story is personal to me because there were so many parallels between Damilola and myself when I moved to the UK from Africa at 18. I also have parallels with his dad because at that time I was a father already. That’s why I’m saying it’s so tight between these roles, but Wolfe did something for me. It got me to stop people-pleasing, which is something I needed. It’s the one thing I would recommend everyone do.
I’m a people-pleaser. I get it.
You get to the point where your like, “what’s wrong with me. Everybody thinks I’m kind and nice, which is great, but when am I going to do something for me?” Something I don’t think a lot of people understand is you can get rid of the people-pleasing without necessarily losing any of the communal aspects around it. I come from a communal country. In Gambia community is number one. My family’s always first in many respects, but now I have no qualms to say, “no, hold on, that doesn’t work for me and I don’t love you any less.” We have a Gambian saying that in English means, “I prefer myself doesn’t mean I hate you.” It’s just me putting myself first. It’s all good. My mom used to say this to me all the time. I never got it until I played Wolfe. [chuckles].
That’s a really insightful way to look at it. I like that. To close, I watched a short video you did at the end of last year for Serie Series where you were talking about how you believe creatives have power because there is power in telling stories. I have to say, I agree. With this in mind, what are some stories you would like to tell?
Wow, so I’ve already written a screenplay which is a West African adaptation of a pretty famous Shakespeare play. I’m not at liberty to talk about it yet.
Okay. Okay, no pressure.
I also want to tell the stories of Thomas Sankara from Burkina Faso. I believe a film is being made about him now, but it’s not my take, so, whatever. My greatest wish is to tell African stories. I want to see as many African stories out there as possible. That’s part of why I moved back to Africa. I’ve been living there now for two years, I still come to work in the UK. I’d love to work in America. I love to have a global career. But, I want these African stories, which are so rich, that just have a slightly tweaked take on life out there. In the years to come, you’re going to see them and we’ll have another chat. You’ll be like, “Hey, you said we’d be talking about this film.”
Yeah, I hope so!
I hope so too. For me sometimes Africa feels like another planet to the rest of the globe. My wife who is English moved with me and she’s now like “we are never going back. All my preconceptions were wrong.” it’s that richness that I want out there. I feel a responsibility to do that.
Wolfe continues on Friday at 9pm on Sky Max and streaming service NOW
Interview Sydney Bolen
Photographer Sheikh Tijan Secka
Retoucher Yusupha Njie
Design: NFC – NdeyFatou Ceesay