Samuel Adewunmi is looking for the stranger who changed his life. Nine years ago, long before he was cast as the tormented central character in BBC One’s Sunday night primetime drama You Don’t Know Me, Adewunmi was working in the House of Fraser department store on Oxford Street. He’d dropped out of not one, but two colleges, and dreamt of acting but didn’t know a way in. One day around Christmas, a man came in and, after briefly chatting, said, “You don’t look like you should be working here, you look like you should be an actor.” The stranger, an actor himself, told Adewunmi about Identity School of Acting, which, recalls Adewunmi, “was leaning towards Black actors at the time, and people who wouldn’t have had the chance to go into mainstream drama schools like Rada or Lamda. I was like, OK, I don’t know where to start, I feel kind of lost, so I’ll start there.”
Some of the most in-demand Black British actors today went to the same school, which is based in Brixton and Los Angeles: John Boyega, Letitia Wright, Damson Idris. They were a huge source of inspiration for Adewunmi. What this mysterious man who ambled into House of Fraser that day went on to do, Adewunmi doesn’t know, but he’d like to thank him. “He changed the course of my life. He’ll probably never know.”
Adewunmi is speaking to me over video call from his mother’s house in Camden Town to talk about You Don’t Know Me, a twisty courtroom drama in which he plays a man on trial for murder. In the opening scene, he fires his lawyer moments before the closing speech so he can address the jury himself. He tells them his version of events, which play out through flashbacks. You have to suspend your disbelief, but it is addictive. Adewunmi is wearing a black bucket hat and T-shirt for our interview, and the only discernible detail in his backdrop is a white netted curtain quivering in the breeze. He’s a nimble, loquacious talker, eager to chat on any subject that comes up. We talk not only about the series but his childhood, his mother, Black culture. That’s despite his late night at the British Independent Film Awards, where he was presenting a prize, the evening before we speak. He says he feels “a bit groggy”. I wouldn’t have known.
In You Don’t Know Me, the 27-year-old gives an intense, sensitive star turn as Hero, a conscientious car salesman, a man who loves cooking carbonara and who prays with his mother and sister, a softie who gets dragged into the hard and unforgiving world of London gangs to save the woman he loves. He is an immensely charismatic presence on screen, deftly switching between light, easy charm and extreme anguish. He is supported by a brilliant, mostly Black, ensemble cast, especially Bukky Bakray (breakout star of the 2019 Brit coming-of-age film Rocks) as his moralistic younger sister, Bless, and Roger Jean Nsengiyumva as local thug and criminal mastermind, Jamil.
Adewunmi was surprised when the drama landed in a primetime slot on BBC One. “I’m Black,” he says. “So are about 95 per cent of the cast. That’s just not something I’m used to seeing. I’ve grown up watching channels one to five and you don’t see stuff like this: a show that lets this kind of character go on a journey, who doesn’t feel one dimensional, who’s fully emotional and has pride and a sense of integrity and morality. He’s a fully 3D character. They all are. But they’re all Black. We’re not afforded these opportunities as often as we could be.”
Often, when there’s a predominantly Black cast, he says, the writing is filled with “sensationalised stereotypes and old ways of thinking”. “What this show does is offer a window into seeing people in a different light,” he adds. “I just wouldn’t expect to see something like this on the BBC.”
You Don’t Know Me – adapted from a novel by Imran Mahmood, a criminal barrister – is Adewunmi’s most high-profile role to date. His first TV part came in 2014, as “Chicken Shack Manager” in child kidnapping drama The Missing, and viewers might recognise him from the fantasy series The Watch, or for his stand-out performance as a shady private investigator in the ITV thriller Angela Black earlier this year. He is finding this new level of exposure overwhelming. But he’s trying to embrace it. “My friend was telling me the other day, ‘Step into your power,’” he says.
Adewunmi certainly possesses a kind of bristling potency. And the grown-ups are noticing. In 2019, he won a British Independent Film Award for Most Promising Newcomer for his role in Shola Amoo’s beautiful feature The Last Tree, as a British-Nigerian boy yanked out of his quiet life in rural Lincolnshire and sent to inner-city London. As with Hero in You Don’t Know Me, his character Femi is a gentle, tender-hearted person who finds himself stumbling into a more callous world. And pretending he belongs in it – Femi listens to The Cure on his Discman, but when his friends ask, he pretends it’s Tupac. Hero, meanwhile, poses as a crack addict in You Don’t Know Me, spluttering as he tokes on a pipe.
Both characters are of Yoruba heritage, like Adewunmi himself. Hero in You Don’t Know Me wasn’t originally written as Yoruba in Mahmood’s book or Tom Edge’s screenplay, but director Sarmad Masud wanted to tailor the character to Adewunmi. “Sarmad is British and he speaks Urdu with his parents,” says Adewunmi, “so he understands the nuances of being a second-generation immigrant. When you’re out, in school, in public places and with your friends, you’re speaking English, but when you get home, when you’re in trouble, you know your mum’s not speaking English to you. She is going to be speaking her mother tongue and you better understand what she’s saying.” He laughs at the thought. “For Sarmad, it was important to showcase that people speaking other languages doesn’t take away from their Britishness, but also their Britishness doesn’t mean they forget their culture or where they’re from.”
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You Don’t Know Me’s cast and creators went to great pains to ensure the authenticity of the story. Screenwriter Edge – who also created the BBC smash Vigil – collaborated with the actors on the dialogue. “The world of You Don’t Know Me isn’t necessarily one he would frequent or inhabit,” says Adewunmi. “Tom wanted us to take things into our own hands with the specifics of the vernacular. He made sure we always had a chance to riff or to change or improvise lines.” Bursting into laughter, he recalls a line in the original script where a character talks about wanting to have space in his car for women with “BBL butt cheeks” – aka implants (it stands for Brazilian butt lift). “No one would ever say BBL butt cheeks,” he says. “Duayne [Boachie, who plays Binks] just changed it, he said, ‘Space for the galdem, innit.’ Like, space for the women. It’s so much simpler and doesn’t necessarily objectify them. But sometimes we’d try to change it but then realise the way it was on the page was the best way to do it. We just wanted our friends and families to watch it and be able to say, ‘Oh, this is real.’” There was a similarly collaborative set-up on Top Boy, a London-based gangland drama written by Ronan Bennett, an Irish writer in his sixties, with a young Black cast.
Adewunmi grew up in Camden, where much of the series is set, with his mother, who is a chef, and his brother. He was a shy, very academic child. His first taste of acting was playing an elf in year three. “Pretty sure I had terrible stage fright, but I got great reviews,” he says with a chuckle. With his local community centre, he put on a play at the Camden People’s Theatre, aged eight. “When you’re shy, it’s nice to have stuff people think you’re good at,” he says. “It gives you a sense of identity.” He cites his secondary school drama teacher Mr Smith and Nollywood films as other sources of inspiration.
Adewunmi was terrified of telling his mother he wasn’t going to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, as she’d hoped, but that he wanted to act. He says the conversation went “worse than I could have imagined”. “She came to the UK from Nigeria because it was a country of opportunity,” he says. “Then I was flunking college. She might have thought I was getting involved in the wrong things, the wrong people.” Eventually, she came around, and even helped fund his acting classes.
“I said, ‘I don’t mind if I don’t make a career out of this until I’m 50. I’m doing it.” Well, he’s two decades ahead of schedule.
‘You Don’t Know Me’ is available in full on BBC iPlayer now. Episode three airs at 9pm on BBC One on Sunday 12 December
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