British born actor, Babou Ceesay, is more than ready to take his seat in the Oxfordshire police car alongside Inspector Lewis, played by Kevin Whately. As DC Alex Gray, Ceesay picks up his police notebook beginning tonight in the second installment of the 6th series of Lewis.
Ceesay, who grew up in Gambia, has taken a bit of a non-traditional road to the world of acting as he started out studying micro-biology. Following University, he worked in the London financial district as an internal auditor for Deloitte. Personally, having taken only one semester of accounting myself at the University of Texas, I can completely understand his career-changing decision to abandon the straight and narrow for a life of acting by studying drama at the Oxford School of Drama where he graduated in 2004. In 2009, Ceesay came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, traveling the world performing Shakespeare (you need to get him to tell you what his favorite role was in The Merchant of Venice) and, as they say, the rest is history.
We caught up with Ceesay back in January prior to his UK introduction as Lewis’ new sidekick, where he takes over for DS James Hathaway (Laurence Fox has played DS James Hathaway since the series began in 2006) while he’s ‘on sabbatical’. “Ramblin’ Boy”, the new two-part episode of Lewis airs tonight on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery series.
Tellyspotting: Having been formally trained in the theatre and, subsequently, having considerable stage experience, including work at the RSC, what’s the takeaway from this formal stage experience as you approach a role on the small screen?
Babou Ceesay: The thing with the stage is that it is continuous action with the story going chronologically. You start to learn how to tell story on a journey arc. You learn how to take a character from A to B to C to D right down to the climax to the end of their journey. When you go to TV, it’s all broken up so that its filmed back to front. You could be filming your climax scene on day 1 and your introduction scene on day 10. Because you have the grounding of knowing what it feels like to run through a character from beginning to end, you know how to prepare and learn how to do the jumps. The biggest thing I learned was confidence, being on stage in front of people. Confidence and concentration. Concentration to do your job amidst all the distractions on set with an ‘audience’ in a sense of the endless production personnel doing their jobs, not to mention the camera.
TS: What do you look for in a script?
BC: Whether it is comedy or drama, you look for a story. A story that you would like to be involved in the telling of it. A story that flows from beginning to end. From the very first read, if the story speaks to you, you get a good sense as to how you are going to feel about it. I look for a good character journey.
TS: With respect to your character of DC Alex Gray in Lewis, did you try to understand a ‘back-story’ to get a better grasp on your character?
BC: Absolutely. One thing I always try and do is figure out what this person compulsively thinks about. I think all have something that lurks in our mindset that if, given half a chance, we would compulsively think about it. It was important to research what it was like to become a policeman, how long it takes to become a Detective Constable, what kind of work to they do, what kind of crimes would I have solved and what’s the worst thing I would have encountered. It’s also important to look through the script to see what people say about you.
TS: Were you familiar with the Inspector Morse series growing up?
BC: Definitely. When I was growing up, there would be re-runs on TV or people would be in England and record a day of TV and bring back home and Morse was a part of it so I was quite familiar with the series.
TS: Even though you were the ‘new kid on the set’ of Lewis, filming in Oxford must have been a bit like ‘coming home’ given your knowledge of the Morse series and having attended school there.
BC: It was nice. The principal of my old drama school came and saw me. We had a nice afternoon tea and a chat. I owe that school a lot. They took me from being an auditor who hadn’t really performed as an actor and during the time I was there, they pushed and stretched and forced us to mold ourselves and become much more intelligent as an actor. It felt like I had come back to somewhere that I knew. It felt like the risk I had taken jumping in to this was the right one.
TS: Speaking of your previous life as an auditor, I wonder what experiences you might have been able to draw upon as you prepared for your role in Lewis?
BC: Well, auditing is very forensic. It’s financial forensics, really. As an auditor, the need to always know the detail, asking what does this mean and having the ability to pin people down to an absolute statement translates to the world of crime forensics where you always have to ask the question of ‘…what did you mean by that?’.
TS: Your character is introduced tonight in part one of “The Ramblin’ Boy” on Lewis“. Tell us a little bit about who DC Alex Gray is.
BC: He’s a Detective Constable, which isn’t very high up. The Detective Inspector is definitely high up so he would always call him ‘sir’. The other fact is that he volunteered for this job. Hathaway is away on work leave and Lewis is left without a sidekick and he volunteers to work with Lewis. There’s a bit of background because he has an emotional attachment to Lewis from something that happened in the past that he knows about and Lewis doesn’t remember. He looks up to Lewis a lot, wants to impress him, but with his being inexperienced at bit, Lewis is irritated with him at times because he’s squeamish, doesn’t like seeing dead bodies, doesn’t like blood and, he’s trying to quit smoking. Lewis finds it difficult that he’s not as quick as Hathaway is in helping him solve the crime. Over time, he becomes more confident, Lewis is more nurturing in terms of trying to get him to see that he doesn’t just need to follow the rulebook to solve crimes.
TS: And, maybe, Lewis should think back a bit as to how he was with Inspector Morse.
BC: There’s actually a sentence in the show something like “…was Morse easy on me so why should I be easy on him”. It’s intrinsically hierarchical in that way. There’s a respect as you go up the ladder. The DCI is basically unleashed. They can put the rulebook down and really try and figure out cases. They don’t have to be nice to anyone or explain themselves to anybody.
TS: Finally, having intruded on your weekend far enough, what do you watch in your spare time?
BC: I love American series. Right now, it’s Oscar time so I’m catching up on all the Oscar films. Also, I watch Homeland. I love Homeland. And, I recently got a boxed set of Breaking Bad but haven’t had time to watch it yet. Something I’m very much looking forward to.
Later in 2013, look for Babou Ceesay in the feature film, Half of a Yellow Sun, which is based on a book about the Biafra war in Nigeria. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out Lewis’ new sidekick, DC Alex Gray, beginning tonight on “Ramblin’ Boy”, the second episode of the final series of Inspector Lewis episodes on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! series.