Interview: Toheeb Jimoh, on BBC drama ‘Anthony’

Anthony Walker was a Liverpool teenager with a devout Christian faith and a love of basketball.

Known to his family and friends for his humour, intelligence and compassion, Anthony was halfway through college with dreams of visiting America and studying Law at university.

In July 2005 in Huyton, Merseyside, Anthony was murdered in a racist attack. He was 18 years old.

Inspired by conversations with Gee Walker, Anthony’s mother, about the boy Anthony was and the man he was to become, ‘Anthony’ is the story of the life he could have lived.

What were your first thoughts when you heard about the unique approach this film would take, and how did you feel after reading the script?
I remember finishing it on the escalators down to Brixton tube station and saying out loud I have to do this job. I was completely glued to it and right from the get go I knew how special a show it was going to be. You only really needed to see Jimmy’s name on the script to know that. I remember thinking so many films about similar issues end as soon as the person dies – Anthony was so much more than the way he passed – he had a life that was so full of promise and potential and love and I’m glad we got to imagine what that could have been like. It makes the whole thing all the more heart-breaking. It’s a brilliant way to tell his story.

How did the casting process go?
The whole thing took about a month and a bit. When the email came through and I remember calling one of my friends Ellis (who is from Liverpool) and begging him to help me with it. We did the initial self-tape and got the recall pretty soon after but because I was working on another project at the time I couldn’t meet with Terry the director when all the other recall candidates did. I met with Amy Hubbard and we taped again and a week or so later I was called back again to meet with Terry this time. (I should mention Shaniqua Okwok who is like a sister to me was auditioning too so we had a mini freak out when we crossed each other in the corridor). I’ve got to give a big shout out to Amy – it’s so encouraging to be in a process with a casting director who’s that accommodating – I felt like she was in my corner the entire time and that just allows you to do your best work. A few weeks later the offer came through. I was elated but also immediately aware of the responsibility I now had – it’s a feeling that pushed me (and everyone else I imagine) to give our hearts to the show.

What were the main challenges of this film/your role for you?
The accent. 

Did you meet with any of Anthony Walker’s family before you began work on the film? 
Terry (the director) and I spoke and decided it was best to keep contact to a minimum where possible. It’s a very sensitive and emotional topic to speak about and we wanted to respect that. Also for the most part the version of Anthony we were creating was fictional and Gee had such a close relationship with Jimmy that really all the clues I needed were in the script. That said I did meet Gee (Anthony’s mum) before we started filming. We met at the readthrough. I remember during the readthrough improvising certain lines that weren’t in the script and then speaking to Gee afterwards who smiled and whispered to me: “By the way Anthony didn’t swear”. I was mortified. She also told me he loved to dance, she prayed with me and gave me her blessings to tell her and her son’s story. She also told me he was a God fearing boy which was my little secret as an actor. It was really cool to know I could justify every one of Anthony’s incredibly kind and selfless moments knowing he had God by his side and in his mind. In many ways meeting Gee gave me the confidence I needed to do the job.

How would you describe the version of Anthony Walker you play in this film? What sort of person is he and what are his key characteristics? 
Everyone I spoke to about Anthony mentioned his confidence, his charm, his sense of humour, his ambition, his heart, his love for sport and his love of people. All of this started to come about very organically after realising how much we had in common – we are both young black kids with very similar dreams and aspirations.

What do you feel the main messages of Anthony are?
I think the main message of the show is the role racism plays in our society – whether it’s overt or covert it’s there. It’s not an American problem, we in the UK have just as much to do to rid ourselves of it. It’s being the only black applicant you see at a job interview, constantly seeing images of people who look like you being murdered in the UK and US and of course being attacked in a park while walking your friend home because you are black. Just some of the instances we touch on in the show.
I think the other message is to really highlight the consequences that come with leaving your house with a weapon. Many people who carry weapons don’t understand the gravity of that decision – the ripple effect of taking a life is immeasurable. The grief caused is immeasurable and lasts a lifetime. We hope showing what was lost might help people understand that and also maybe even for a second give those moments back to Anthony’s loved one.

What has working on this project taught you?
This project has reaffirmed my belief in the power of art. It’s sometimes easy to discount abstract solutions to a problem – when I think about racial injustice/inequity I sometimes ask myself: “Why didn’t I become a lawyer?” So much of our subconscious bias comes from what we see on TV, (the news, TV shows and media in general) so of course part of rewriting that has to be through what we see on TV. This project really helped me to remember that. That’s a lesson I’ll hold on to for the rest of my career – It’s why I wanted to act in the first place! 

Finally, why should people watch Anthony when it’s on BBC One and BBC iPlayer?
I think this story has the capacity to change people. Especially now, at a time where we are re-examining our relationship with racism in this country, stories like this are vital. It’s a part of our history and we have to look at it and talk about it. But also it’s a celebration of life – Anthony’s story didn’t end when he died – he lives on in his loved ones and also now with this show. It’s brilliantly written and beautifully executed and I hope it’s a fitting tribute to the real Anthony Walker.

Watch Anthony via BBC iPlayer.