Photo Credit: Netflix
You may recognize British actor David Gyasi from his work on films such as Interstellar and Cloud Atlas, and Prime Video's original series Carnival Row. Currently, he stars opposite Keri Russell in the hit Netflix series The Diplomat, created by Deborah Cahn of Homeland and The West Wing.
David was born in London to Ghanaian parents who supported him in whatever he wanted to do with his life, as long as it was a profession tied to an academic degree. “For many children of immigrants, there are three professions: the lawyer, the doctor, or the failure,” he explains. While early on he displayed an interest in pursuing engineering, or even history, he realized he was not great with dates but enjoyed the stories of past eras. He eventually discovered plays and the theater world, which felt like a comfortable space and was something he would be interested in as a long-term career.
While David honed his acting experience in theater, film and television over several years, he has garnered much attention for his latest role in The Diplomat. He stars as British Foreign Secretary Austin Dennison, who works with Russell’s character US Ambassador Kate Wyler to manage an international crisis. In learning more about the role of Dennison, David knew the research would be substantial because there hadn’t been many foreign secretaries of color.
He did significant work to make the character seem comfortable and natural in the space and in that position. Because Dennison is a member of the current governing political party in the U.K., which is akin to the Republican party in the US, he found himself reading about and researching different perspectives from both conservative and liberal outlets.
There was also internal processing to identify Dennison’s authority and persona. “To be able to hold a position that [Dennison] does, there has to be an element of posturing and arrogance,” he explains. “There has to be something within you to allow you to do that job.” Once he internalized that, although David disagreed with certain aspects of Dennison's mindset, he could better understand and connect with the character.
When broaching the topics of inclusion and representation, it was noted that three of the show’s key characters were of Ghanaian descent: David, Ato Essandoh, who plays Stuart Heyford, and Nana Mensah, who plays Billie Appiah, an infrequent occurrence in a series of this scale. David admits the casting was a pleasant surprise for him and thought it was wonderful that there was not a lot of ceremony about it.
“These actors are portraying beautiful relationships, and Ato has such an amazing command of the script, while Nana brings a gravitas and a gorgeousness to her role, and I love that,” he says. “Obviously, we all bring elements of ourselves and experiences to our characters, but I think it’s quite amazing that it seems we are moving toward a space where we can have people of color on screen simply doing their beautiful, wonderful work.”
With news of The Diplomat’s renewal for a second season, David was excited to learn more about the trajectory of his character. Season one viewers will pick up on some of the seeds already planted, and he teases there will be more excellent writing for Dennison in the second season. This is, of course, optimistic news, as at the time of publication, the Writers’ Guild of America is in the midst of a strike. However, David understands “as a fan of and a beneficiary of good writing,” that a discussion about parity must occur.
David keeps an open mind when thinking of other roles and opportunities, particularly as a Black actor. When asked about the possibility of being considered for the role of James Bond, for example, he notes that the character’s evolution with the times has been quite interesting to see. He references a saying by a friend, “The work is the work is the work.” If there was an interesting and unique script where he felt the character was written in a way where he could contribute something new and different, he would be honored to entertain a conversation. But there have been no such conversations, and he is currently happy to don tuxedos as Austin Dennison.
There has also been a controversial conversation about the uptick of Black British actors taking on prime lead roles in US-based productions. David is focused on the bigger picture: How can we work together to advance our industry and tell stories to get to a situation where [Black] people are on screen without ceremony? Growing up, he was personally inspired by many US-produced television shows and films and acknowledges that Hollywood is the key destination for most aspiring actors.
“If you want to achieve a goal in whatever profession you’re in, it's understandable that you’d want to strive for the pinnacle. I think it's great to now have so many of these opportunities in America after constantly being told no, even in our own country. I love that The Diplomat has this combination of American and British cast."
He also understands the importance of creating and producing his own art and has formed a production company with his wife Emma called Wednesday Morning Productions. The company was conceived during the early months of the pandemic when work had slowed down, and he would meet with his wife on Wednesday mornings to discuss creative ideas for film and television projects. They are developing a project with several other prominent British actors, which they hope to submit to upcoming film festivals. In the meantime, David continues to lay his own path and is busy preparing for season two of The Diplomat.
Catch David in the series’ first season, now streaming on Netflix.
Check out the full interview below.
Photo Credit: Joseph Sinclair