Gangs of London Q&A — Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù On Why He Put His Body on the Line to Play Enigmatic Fighter Elliot Finch
Gangs of London star Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù plays Elliot Finch, the driven fighter who goes from grunt to key player in the Wallace organization, all while hiding a few secrets of his own. In this conversation with amc.com, Dìrísù teases the stellar fight scenes that fans have to look forward to, what drew him to the genre-defying series, and why he decided to do 95% of his own stunts.
Q: What initially drew you to Gangs of London and to the role of Elliot Finch?
A: Gareth [Evans]. And it's not even his back catalog of work. Well, there's the script—I should probably start there. The script I was sent was incredible, and the character breakdown as well. This guy was gonna go on a journey, and he was so complicated, nuanced, and torn, and I thought, "This is going to be a real challenge." I love a challenge and I love to push myself and put myself in a lot of different genres. I love finding out what my limitations are. Hopefully I don't have many. [Laughs] We'll see.
When I actually met Gareth and Matt Flannery in the audition, I just thought, "Those are just two of the coolest, sweetest men that I've ever met in this environment." I just thought that I'd have absolutely no problem working with them and going through the difficulties of production. I could rely on them and ask them questions, and they're never going to make me feel small, and no question is going to be too ridiculous. Without that comfort in the audition room, I wouldn't be doing this job.
Q: How did you work with the creative team to bring Elliot to life? Do you remember what specific choices you made to better define his character?
A: They've done years of research, and I did as much research as I could between being cast and starting. I read a number of books. I found that almost every trait in the books that I read, I wanted to see how I could apply those to [Elliot] and his duality... I'll call it for now. And that was really exciting. I went on through all of the different stages that people like him go through. Then I would say, "Gareth! What about this thing?" And he would be like, "Yes, great idea." And I'd be like, "How about this?" and he'd say, "Uh, that doesn't really work for this," and I'd say, "Ok cool." And we negotiated constantly. There were times where we were under pressure and we'd do a certain take, and then I'd say, "If we've got time, I'd love to give you this option or this thing that I've thought up." And he'd say, "Yeah go for it," and then he'd be like, "Wow, that was so much better, why did we spend time shooting the other stuff?" That collaboration was key and really beautiful, and I'd love to work with Gareth again because of how rewarding it was to build that character.
Q: Gareth Evans has spoken a few times about how the creative team knew you were special based on your fight test. What was that fight test process like, and what do you think it is about your onscreen fighting style that sets you apart?
A: I have absolutely no idea. Sometimes as an actor, you can never tell what someone likes about you or doesn't like about you. If I knew, either I wouldn't be working anymore because I wouldn't like the thing that everyone likes about me, or I'd just be booking every single job because I'm a mind reader. I think it helped that I had no expectations. I think it helped me be really free, flippant, and loose with the character. Don't get me wrong, I really wanted to work on the project, but I think if I had been really tight and desperate, maybe they wouldn't have found the potential for what they were looking for in me. I went in there being like, "I'm probably not going to get this, let's just have some fun," maybe that's what helped. Apart from that, I don't think I could tell you!
In regards to the fight test, I've got this real fear of hurting people. I think I've always been a large framed person, and I remember my dad telling me when I was really young that I can't fight with people because "If you hurt them, that's gonna be on you." So when we were in the fight test and I was just hitting, I was like, "We gotta do this safely, right? Because I don't want to hurt anybody." [Laughs] And that attention to other people, or respect to other people's bodies is really important. Because those fight scenes look really, really brutal, but they have to be done safely so they can be repeated, so people don't, like, break a leg and go, "Yeah I was on Gangs of London for one scene."
Q: You said in an interview with GQ that you did probably 95% of your own stunts. What motivated you to put your body on the line for the series?
A: There were definitely some major stunts that they wouldn't let me do, especially in the meat cleaver fight with the guy in his underwear. But the thing is, I wanted to know what [Elliot's] body had gone through and perfect the performance that comes directly afterwards. The way that Gareth shoots his scenes, it's pretty chronological, so if he had taken a really bad bang to his right leg in one scene, that might affect the moves that he does later, because he can't bear weight on that leg now. It's easy to forget in the freneticism of shooting where your injuries are sustained, and also when you do shoot out of order, you need to know where on your body needs to be weaker in your next scene and performance. So that's why I was desperate to be as involved as possible.
Also, you'll find in Gareth and Matt's work that you'll see a lot more of the fight. The way Matt's camera moves is so precise and so elegant, that you'll see a punch be thrown, as opposed to cutting away to a wide and seeing a person pretending to be hit. So I wanted the edit to be as simple as possible, so they wouldn't have to hide any stunt men's faces or anything like that. So part of it was for me, and part of it was for them.
Q: How different is it to go from staging a fight scene to practicing on the actual set? Especially for the "Butcher Fight" sequence, to go from practicing with mats and cardboard, to coming on to this hellscape of a set seems like a major leap.
A: Hellscape is a beautiful way to describe it, and I was — I don't know if the word is "overwhelmed" or "shocked" — but I was just so charged to see the set, because it adds so much more to the fight sequence. The fight sequence is just a series of moves, it's like a dance, when you're in rehearsal doing it safely. But the tone of the fight, all of the horror aspects, the grit, the fear — all of that is added to by the setting. And I think that Matt Gant, who is the Production Designer, has done an incredible job, especially on that scene.
Gareth says that every fight has a story, and every fight has a different genre as well. The pub scene sequence is more like a cavalier Western, whereas the meat cleaver sequence is a horror, or a thriller. Seeing not just the blood on the walls, but also the graffiti, the dirt, and grime — and I suppose also the blood in the bathtub if you look closely enough — just ramps up the horror in every single moment. It was super transformative.
Q: We find out at the end of Episode 2 that Elliot is an undercover cop. Can you talk about what you think is motivating him to consistently risk death to infiltrate the Wallace organization?
A: He has very little to lose, and I think that has given him a sort of recklessness. He's lost a lot already... He's finding purpose in his work, and if he can't find it there, I think there's not enough in life for him. So I think that really informs this bullheadedness.
Q: Elliot is a police officer, but he doesn't seem to have a problem with leaving some carnage in his wake. Where do you think he places himself on the spectrum of morality? Where do you place him on the spectrum or morality?
A: I don't think he's rude enough or nonchalant enough to be an anti-hero. Maybe that comes with believing in your characters and their motivations, and living too long in their skin. But I still think that he's quite a good guy, and I think a lot of his motivations are like, "Well if I've got to beat this person up, they are a criminal. They are doing something wrong and they are hurting people further down the line." There are some interesting moral sacrifices that he has to make as we go further along in the series, particularly I think in Episode . But there is still this greater good. However, the brightness and quality of that greater good does get a bit sullied, diminished, and a little less polished as the season carries on. I think if you asked me this question at the end of the next season, we might have a different answer.
Q: Did you have a favorite sequence to shoot this season that fans can look forward to?
A: There's another fight sequence in Episode 4 that we were just really proud of. When we finished shooting it, we were like, "This is quite good." The action department as well was like, "This may be one of the best fights that TV has ever made." And that's really high praise! I didn't buy into any of it, so I was like, "Yeah, I'm gonna go shower, you guys can be really happy with your work because it's great." But when I did watch it back with my mom and my sister, it was pretty good [Laughs]. So the fight closer to the end of Episode 4 is one to look out for.
Read an interview with co-creator, executive producer and director Gareth Evans here. The renowned The Raid director discusses crafting a dynamic family drama and subverting audience expectations, how much of Gangs of London can be traced to true stories, and that one time he came hilariously close to London's criminal underbelly.
Gangs of London airs Sundays at 10/9c AMC. Check out the full schedule here. Looking for where to watch Gangs of London? Full episodes are available to stream now on amc.com, the AMC apps for mobile and devices, and on AMC+. The entire first season is available to watch now with AMC+, which is available through a variety of providers, including AppleTV, Prime Video Channels, DirectTV, Dish, Roku Channel, Sling, and Xfinity. Sign up for AMC+ to stream Gangs of London now on amc.com, on mobile for iOS and Android devices, and on your TV streaming device with the AMC app, available for Roku, Apple TV, FireTV, Xbox One, Android TV, and Chromecast.
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