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Malcolm Kamulete: ‘I trusted myself acting wise, but the mental health stuff was foreign ground to me’ – Interview

The Champion takes the stage

Malcolm Kamulete stars in the BBC’s Champion – he tells us why he finds watching himself back on TV so hard, how he wanted to do justice with mental health scenes, and why everyone should be a fan of Carnival. 

This shoot and interview took place prior to the SAG-AFTRA strikes

King Of The Castle: Malcolm Kamulete On Why Starring In Champion Was His Full Circle Moment

Hi Malcolm – how’ve you been feeling about the show?

I’ve been feeling really confident about it, especially after just seeing how well it was received from the first episode screening. I thought that was amazing. 

Because you’re always in your own head about these things, you know… I mean, that you constantly think, oh, ‘did I make the right decision?’ and ‘could I have done this better’, and then you watch it… 

And then the outside reaction was amazing, so it gave me more confidence. I felt like we’d definitely achieved something amazing. And that was just the reception for the the first episode – the series only gets stronger. If you enjoyed that, fasten your seat belt.

Can’t wait to watch it in full. Can I get an elevator pitch for the show – in your own words, what is Champion? 

It’s beautifully described by Candice Carty-Williams, the writer, as ‘a love letter to black British culture and black British music’. I think it is that – and more. It’s like a rundown of so many different things. It is about music, ultimately. But it’s about relationships. It’s about family. It’s about love. It’s about loyalty, it’s about deceit. There’s just so many things in the show. So I guess if I could describe it in a nutshell, I’d say it’s… definitely a rollercoaster. 

Talk to me a bit more about the music in the show?

The music in the show is original music. And it’s been brought to us by some great execs, writers and a great team just behind it. We had Ghetts as one of the music execs, one of the one of the music execs, a lovely lady called Cat, then Candice and Ray BLK were also on board.

It was a proper learning curve, for me, a learning experience. Every day, I felt like I was kind of just a sponge. I was learning something new. I was in the studio. And although I’ve been in the studio a lot, making music a lot, to be in process and working really closely with Ghetts (he wrote my character’s music), just to watch his process – it was an amazing experience. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade that for anything. I feel like I’ve learned so much musically. 

Must have been exciting working with Ghetts – were you ever starstruck? 

We kinda come from in and around the same borough, you know, and I’ve grown up on his music. He’s a bit older than me, and while we always had some mutuals, we’ve never been in the same direct group. I’ve always just seen him as like an older, great figure from the area that has done on to do some great things. So to be actually in his presence, and bless the microphone with his music was an amazing full circle moment for me. Like, literally: I can remember myself at seven years old, listening to him on Youtube, rapping his stuff. Yeah, it was a big full circle moment. 

Which borough are you from? 

Newham.

So unlike Bosco, in the show, you’re not a South London boy? 

No, no. I have to pretend I like South London… Nah, you have to love it. 

How’d you feel when you first got that script? 

I was over the moon – especially because it was a long process. And I also hadn’t been in the process [of casting] in quite a long time, where I was auditioning for a five, six month period. But yeah, when I got the script, I was over the moon. It was really good content. 

What was your prep for the role like? 

Obviously, as you do, you sift through for your character’s arc, to figure out what’s going on with them, mainly. You build a character, create the story in your mind, and then you see what they [the wider team] want from the character. And then you find a collaborative kind of mesh.

You had a pretty challenging role with Bosco – like in the opening episode, the audience is confronted with a man going through a really tough time, dealing with panic and PTSD…

It was difficult. One thing I kind of pride myself on is truthful performance, bringing something that feels real. I hadn’t had PTSD in the past, or anxiety or panic attacks, or anything of that nature. So it really took doing research and finding out what people are going through when they have panic attacks. Candice really wanted the panic attacks to be, like, prevalent. I could kinda just imagine somebody with PTSD watching this and saying… ‘Does it feel real?’ Or somebody with anxiety watching it and seeing that I didn’t hit the nail on the head. 

I felt like I was pretty well rounded within the music, and I felt like I trusted myself acting wise, but I definitely felt that the [mental health aspect] was foreign ground to me. Watching it back now and seeing the panic attacks play out, though, it’s amazing to feel comfortable with them, even though they’re uncomfortable moments. It doesn’t feel like I did it wrong, so I’m happy. 

Tell us a bit more about Bosco Champion. 

Bosco is… He’s self indulgent. He’s happy but at the same time, sad and angry. He’s on a rollercoaster. Honestly, he might even be the reason why the show is a rollercoaster. Because he’s so many things at once.

I think he has really good intentions, but doesn’t know how to go about things a lot of the time, so it kind of results in him making the wrong decisions. He’s kind of an antihero in that sense, where you have to feel for what he’s going through, but you [the viewer] can dislike his decision making.

He definitely knows he’s going through things. But he’s very, like, [in the character’s mind] ‘manly’ about it and refuses to bring it to the surface. Vita, his sister in the show, seems to be the only person that knows how to help him deal with that, and overcome it. 

He sounds like a lot of contradictions.

Yes, a lot of bravado. He needs to live in his truth a lot more.

Seems like sound advice?

Yeah honestly I’d give him that advice: listen to me, Bosco, man…

The show seems like it’s often exploring the idea and limitations of family – how was working with your on set family, the cast that played the rest of the Champions (and more widely)?

It was really close knit from the start. Definitely felt the family dynamic even auditioning and taping – and outside of just the Champion family, it was a complete mesh of the cast and crew. 

It was a really different experience, because I got to meet Déja [who plays Vita, Bosco’s sister] and Kerim [who plays Memet, Bosco’s best friend] weeks before filming, as we were auditioning. Those kinds of things build a great bond before you even reach the set, because you’ve seen each other, taken each other’s numbers and you’re talking to each other about the auditions and get to say: ‘oh, I went in again this weekend’. It builds a really tight bond that felt natural even before we got to set, you know what I mean? 

I haven’t been on a set that was so loving and caring as this one. I honestly would come onto set each day and give every single person a hug before I started my day. To the point that they’d be like, ‘yeah you can do your hug ceremony but we need to get you in first!’

That’s really lovely. Who did you learn from the most on set?

Definitely the older characters, like Nadine Marshall, who played my mum, Aria Champion. I learned so much from her. I loved to watch her process, like – even the way she held stillness. I. mean, how she acted with her eyes was out of this world! I’d do a scene with her and she wouldn’t even move her head. Just her eyes. 

I also learned so much from Ray Fearon, who plays my dad. Just how he processes lines, going back and forth with himself, seeing them in different ways. 

So many more people, too.

Just being in a room with these people, it makes you better, it honestly really does. You absorb, and if you’re willing to learn, you basically get to come to school every day. 

Cultural Quick Fire

What would be your dream role one day? 

Miles Morales. Miles Morales definitely – if they can make a live version of that Spiderman, I’d be all over that. 

What’ve you been tuning into? 

I watched Black Mirror recently. I liked the Joan Is Awful episode.

Reading anything at the minute? 

Not today, but I bought some books yesterday at a black owned book store, and I’ll be reading them this week. 

Favourite film? 

Too tough. Too many. 

Favourite painting? 

There’s a picture with a man with an apple on his head… I can’t remember… Rene Magritte’s The Son Of Man… And also Banksy’s Gorilla In A Pink Mask.

Song on repeat? 

A lot of R&B, like TLC. I listen to a lot of Drake as well.

Ultimate cultural recommendation? 

Go to Carnival. Everyone should experience Carnival at least once in their life. It’s the most multicultural, multifaceted kind of event where you’re able to experience everything from the food to the vibes to the music to the people to the languages. Yeah.

Cultural guilty pleasure? 

Grime music. I know it’s a little bit outdated now… But I love to sit and listen to Grime.

Styling Credits

Photographer: Joseph Sinclair @josephsinclair
Stylist: Sarah Rose-Harrison @styledbysrh
Hair and make-up: Lauraine Bailey @laurainebailey

Fashion Credits

First look: Jacket, Avirex. Top, Diesel. Rings, 7879. ​​Trousers, All Saints. Socks, The London Sock Co. Trainers, Sandro. 

Second look: T-shirt, Diesel. Jewellery, 7879.

Watch Champion on BBC iPlayer now.