Featuring Babou Ceesay – The Accountant Now Professor Wolfe Kinteh in UK Tv Series
As he takes the lead in Paul Abbott’s new crime dramedy, Babou Ceesay talks to Emily Baker about acting with corpses, feeling like an outsider, and how he learned to stop being a people-pleaser.
Before Babou Ceesay became an actor, he was an accountant. He loved science at school, studied microbiology at Imperial College London, and dreamed of becoming a medic. Still, after years of struggling for money, he eventually accepted an offer to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the financial sector. “I thought, ‘If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.’”
But he became increasingly unhappy and couldn’t shake the advice his science teacher (who also directed him in plays at school) gave him: you should be an actor.
Telling his parents he was leaving his steady job “did not go well.” But it didn’t exactly go badly: he had waited until he had a place at drama school before breaking the news. “I told them I was going to train for a year and that I could probably go back to my job, but I might lose it. They asked what would happen to my house; I had to tell them I was definitely going to lose that.”
Three years studying microbiology was “a walk in the park” compared to the Oxford School of Drama, he says: “They’re trying to excavate something in you. You’re being attacked emotionally, psychologically, and put on the spot. It’s a very personal experience that really affected me.” And he loved it. “I was where I needed to be. I’ve never felt so alive.”
First lead TV role as forensic scientist Professor
The gamble – to the relief of his parents, I’m sure – paid off: almost 20 years later, Ceesay has appeared in Jack Thorne’s searing National Treasure, in Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, in detective thriller We Hunt Together, and was Bafta-nominated for his portrayal of Richard Taylor in 2016’s Damilola, Our Loved Boy. In addition, he has his first lead TV role as forensic scientist Professor Wolfe Kinteh in Paul Abbot’s new crime dramedy Wolfe.
“He’s funny, charming, lovable – a rogue,” says Ceesay. Asked to describe himself, the actor says he is a bit of a “people-pleaser,” a quality he’s not proud of, and so was glad to step into the shoes of a man who doesn’t care what people think. “I’ve taken a bit of Wolfe with me and lost nearly all my people-pleasing habits. I worry less about how I’m perceived… Obviously, without being an asshole.” He needn’t worry; lounging on his sofa, Ceesay is a relaxed, jolly open book.
Ceesay was born in Barnet, north London, in 1979 and left the UK at 10 months old to live in The Gambia. Most of his childhood and teenage years were spent in Togo until war broke out, and they had to leave. Aside from a few holidays and holding a British passport (“I slipped in before Margaret Thatcher changed the rules”), Ceesay didn’t return to the UK until he enrolled at Imperial, aged 18.
“I’ve always considered myself a foreigner,” he says. “When I first arrived, people were telling me because of the situation I was in, maybe I should apply for a council flat, and I thought, ‘It’s not my right.’ So I struggled to accept free schooling and the NHS – where I grew up; you pay your way.”
The idea he was undeserving followed him into his early acting career. “I wasn’t surprised whenever I was discriminated against or kept out because that was my experience. That’s what I knew,” he says. “I thought, ‘well, this doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to British people.’”
Not going to worry about whether I’m black or not.
Ceesay’s mindset has changed drastically since. “I thought to myself, ‘I can sit here and convince myself that I’m fat, black and ugly, so can’t act,’ but that would be giving myself an unnecessary beating,” he says.
“But I decided I’m not going to worry about whether I’m black or not. I told my representatives to start going after roles I was unlikely to get.”
Wolfe is straight from the Abbot (Shameless, No Offence) playbook: it’s set in the north of England, it’s sweary, funny, and often vulgar, with vomit, blood, and guts all found within the first half-hour of the opening episode.
“Paul Abbot’s name carries a certain amount of weight,” says Ceesay from his home in The Gambia, where he has lived with his British wife and their two children for almost three years. “You know you are working with someone who is making something interesting.”
Wolfe and his team spend each episode solving different grisly murders, and the show isn’t afraid to throw the viewer (and its actors) into the often gruesome depths of pathology – Wolfe’s first case involves a man whose top half has literally been turned into mincemeat in a deboning machine.
“It looks real on screen, and in person, it looks really, really, awful,” says Ceesay with a look of disgust. “I really struggled with it, especially in the mortuary. We had some experts there, and they said the only really different thing is the smell. Apart from that, it looks the same. There’s an exploding body in one episode, and they brought in real-life flies. It’s too much for your brain.”
Ceesay may step away from acting for a while
Ceesay is serious about the characters he plays – his most sensitive, a devastating portrayal so far was as the grieving father in Damilola: Our Loved Boy. The role of Richard Taylor resonated deeply. “I felt very ready to take on a responsibility like that,” he remembers, of auditioning for the part. “I’m not Nigerian, but I understood what it was like to come to the UK from Africa – there was something on a DNA level that I just got.”
The actor takes Damilola’s story very personally, too. He thinks something similar could have easily happened to him while studying in London. “I remember hearing about his death [in 2000], and I saw a lot of parallels. At 18, I had some run-ins with a gang in Barnes Green, who terrorized me for a week and a half. I wasn’t safe. It saddens me that it’s still happening. Not all of it is getting reported – it’s not 10-year-old boys, necessarily, so maybe it’s not newsworthy, but it’s still there.”
Ceesay’s next projects may see him step away from acting for a while. He has started to write a screenplay – an “off-piste” Shakespeare adaptation set in West Africa, which he says is getting interested. In addition, he collaborates with Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) on a horror series. “At the moment, it’s dark as ever,” he says. “I’m waiting for him to sprinkle some comedy on it.”
Ceesay thinks he has been “lucky,” but his past tells a different story – his success comes from hard work and taking risks. When it comes to his career, he says, “I’m not going to sit around and wait for someone to give me permission.”