Samson Kayo turns his head in the middle of our interview, distracted by movement in his Zoom background. “There is a coyote in my garden! he said, enjoying the novelty. Suffice it to say, he’s not at his usual home in downtown South London, but rather out in the wilds of Los Angeles.
It’s nice to see the joy on his face, like he’s still the same wide-eyed Samson Kayo who, on one of his first visits to Los Angeles, was arrested for carrying a suitcase full of Jammie Dodgers (true story). In fact, he’s since landed a starring role in Hollywood supremo Taika Waititi’s latest comedy series (Thor: Ragnarok/What We Do in the Shadows) and became a Bafta and Royal Television Society nominee, with a second nomination. at the RTS announced last week for his performance in Bloods, the Sky series he co-created and in which he plays.
Like buses arriving at the same time, the Waititi Our Flag Means Death series launches in the US days before the second series of Bloods airs in the UK. Our Flag Means Death is a comedy set in the 18th century following “the gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet (played by Rhys Darby) in which Kayo plays a member of the pirate crew who is “the voice of reason in the series, the calm among all the crazy characters around him”.
I want the next generation of British actors to feel that you can make a living and succeed in the town you grew up in
It’s exciting, this hiatus in the US, though one suspects Bloods has more emotional appeal to Kayo. With writer Nathan Bryon, he developed the series based on the prior ambition to become a first responder. It follows odd couple Maleek (Kayo), cheerful Wendy, delightfully played by Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous, Little Voice) and the eccentric paramedics at South Hill Ambulance Station as they find themselves in dire situations. difficult, whether as a result of work or their own misadventures. The series opener, for example, finds Maleek and Wendy held hostage in a fast food joint, just when Maleek is due to fly away on his vacation.
“But with the second series, we’re not just sitting with Wendy and Maleek,” Kayo explains. “New characters coming in, like an advisor [Katherine Kelly]. We touch on mental health, which I think is very important. There are so many different avenues we take that make us feel fuller, bigger, and grander than before.
With Sliced (the first series he co-created, which follows the friendship of two pizza delivery drivers) and Truth Seekers (where Kayo and Nick Frost play broadband installers drawn to hunting for ghosts), there’s more that ties his projects together than endearing duos doing ordinary jobs: they all carry a distinct British identity. Indeed, when I ask Kayo if his stay in the United States is semi-permanent, he looks dismayed that his loyalty is questioned.
“No. I’m a boy from London. I love my house. You can always see that people go more [to the US] because there are a lot more projects for people of color, but for me there’s so much work to do at home, I’m not leaving,” he says.
Comedian and creator London Hughes was particularly insightful on the subject, using her own experience of having to move to the United States to realize her potential as a case study. “There are so many reasons I could give as to why this is happening, but I won’t,” Kayo says. “But I will say that I want the next generation of British actors to feel that you can earn a living and succeed in the city where you grew up.
“My own goal is to find that balance between doing what I’ve always wanted, which is to be part of an American production, but also doing what I love, which is create fun British TV.”
Growing up, Kayo had little interest in playing – instead he wanted to be a footballer. “Every black boy at Peckham wanted to be a sick player because that’s all we did, we just kicked the ball, every day,” he said. But as he got older, Kayo developed a creative side, encouraged by the actors he admired: Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Jocelyn Esien of 3 Non Blondes. “She’s the reason I started acting. She was someone who looked like me in a time when people didn’t have opportunities,” he says.
It’s a notable coincidence that he and John Boyega (of Star Wars and Small Axe) were childhood friends; their mothers were close and they attended the same church in Peckham. Boyega continued playing and made progress early on, but it took a few more years before Kayo gave up on his footballing dream and took hesitant steps into the creative world. It was divine intervention, he says, that when he was in central London picking up an iron for his mum, he spotted an open audition which landed him a role in the Channel 4 comedy-drama Youngers. This in turn got him noticed for Famalam, the BBC’s fast-paced sketch show that also launched the careers of Gbemisola Ikumelo and Akemnji Ndifornyen, among others.
“It was funny when I finally saw John again after all this time. He was like, ‘Yo! We’re both actors! Aiii!’ It was beautiful to see the trajectory of his career and how he inspires so many people who grew up in the same region where we come from,” he says.
Able to inspire the next generation himself, Kayo now aims to create opportunities for new talent. Reflecting his own hiatus, he set up open auditions during Sliced, allowing those with no training or connections to try out.
For Bloods, he planned an initiative where newcomers could follow different crew members “but Covid was kicking us in the loot. Hopefully we can try again if we get another season,” he said.
He is optimistic that now that opportunities for people of color have started to emerge, it will be easier for the momentum to continue.
“Now you see shows from people I came into the game with, like me, Nicole Lecky, Nathan Bryon and the boys from People Just Do Nothing. It’s like people have the ability to create their own things, and their projects aren’t just buried in people’s desks.
As his own career progresses, he continues the approach that has served him thus far and sees where life takes him. “I’m definitely up for more production, but as far as my career goes, I’m just going with the flow. As long as I’m having fun, I’m on board – in the case of Our Flag Means Death, literally.
Bloods Season 2 premieres Wednesday, March 16 on Sky Comedy and NOW.