TV

Supacell star Calvin Demba on race, male bravado and breaking the modern superhero formula

Calvin Demba plays super-speedy weed dealer Rodney in Supacell – Rapman's new Netflix drama showing superpowered black South Londoners

Calvin Demba, star of Netflix's Supacell

Calvin Demba stars in Supacell on Netflix. Image: Ashley Verse

Calvin Demba is one of the brilliant young stars of the brilliant new Netflix series Supacell. When the Big Issue meets him, it is two days before Demba’s life will change. Because, if there is any justice, Supacell will be massive.

He arrives for the interview with an old video camera, a tape and a bag full of random wires. Demba plans edit his analogue video of the previous night’s London premiere in Leicester Square into a memento for his family. He’s an analogue fan. A filmmaker as well as an actor. And he’s in no rush for the instant hit of fame that may be approaching.

“I don’t necessarily want to be famous at all,” he says. “Maybe I’m being naïve, but I don’t think my life’s gonna change. I’m just going to crack on, chilling with the missus and the cat, a bit of gym, reading books, trying to make my films. Look at Cillian Murphy. I can’t tell you a thing about him – but I can tell you what he’s been in.”

Over six compelling episodes, Supacell captures the energy and excitement of South London, depicting a diverse and disparate group of Black Londoners. And when five of them develop superpowers? Well, then you have a potential global smash hit.

“It’s an extraordinary show about ordinary people,” is how Demba describes it. “We can relate to the characters when we meet them. And once you feel for them, then you’re willing to go with it when we take liberties with reality.

“But without that feeling for the characters, it’s just, ‘Oh. He’s flying, who cares?‘”

The superpowered quest catches the attention. But more than that, there’s a well-observed, brilliantly acted and filmed London story with the charm of Rye Lane, some of the grit of Top Boy, and just a dash of small-screen sci-fi classics Misfits and Heroes.

Supacell is created by triple threat rapper, record producer and filmmaker Rapman, aka 35-year-old Andrew Onwubola.

“You hear the words generational talent thrown about. But I think he is one of them,” says Demba. “Raps is a very clever writer and a great director. He’s told this story with a lot of soul. And it’s also a lot of fun.”

Demba brings barrel-loads of cheeky-chappie charm to the character of Rodney, the hapless but hopeful small-time weed dealer with a lurking sadness behind the eyes. Actor and creator worked hard to create a backstory for Rodney that set his big-hearted optimism and this-time-next-year-we’ll-be-millionaires bravado against a tricky family history.

“I got to collaborate with Raps in shaping who Rodney was,” says Demba.

“In the script he was a bit of a glass-half-full type character, so he always had a positive spin on things. But I kept listening to Freddie Mercury’s The Great Pretender. That song really resonated. Because I feel like Rodney uses his jovial persona to mask that he is covering up a lot of hurt.

“Not to stereotype or anything, but a lot of men have that bravado and feel the need to mask what they’re feeling or their vulnerability. Rodney also lives in a hostel. So I was asking Raps all about that because, he won’t mind me saying, he lived in a hostel at one point.”

Rapman directing Supacell for Netflix
Supacell creator, Rapman: a ‘generational talent’ according to Calvin Demba. Image: Kevin Baker / Netflix

These days, Rapman is flying high. He signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label after impressing with early videos blending rap and smart storytelling.

His debut feature film, 2019’s Blue Story – which grew from an earlier YouTube trilogy – was an uncompromising coming-of-age tale set among rival gangs in South East London, infused with Rapman’s own hip-hop Greek chorus interludes. Like Supacell, there was a lot going on. Yet, similarly, it never wavered in its authenticity.

The stories in Supacell could not be more varied. Ambitious delivery driver Michael (Doctor Who’s Tosin Cole) works hard at his job and his long-term romance with Dionne (The Responder’s Adelayo Adedayo). Sensible nurse Sabrina (Nadine Mills) is trying to fix her sister Sharleen’s wild love life when she isn’t healing patients. Struggling dad Andre (Eroc Kofi-Abrefa) is recently out of prison and desperate to find a job and make up for lost time in his relationship with his teenage boy, while Tazer (Josh Tedeku) is leading a younger generation from his estate into an increasingly dangerous gang situation.

“What’s interesting is that it is not a monolith,” says Demba. “In this show, we have all got our own lives, independent of each other. Rodney could not be more different to Michael, who could not be more different to Tazer or Sabrina.

“But we all live in the same vicinity. I think Raps is very clever with the social commentary aspects of the show. He’s not too pushy or earnest with it. Raps is not coy about what happens on the streets. Some of it is partly his lived experience. So he doesn’t shy away from it but he doesn’t glorify it.”

While Rapman’s script treads lightly with its social commentary, it does foreground sickle cell – a blood disorder most prevalent in Black communities and historically under-researched, discussed and understood.

“It highlights this it is a condition that affects predominantly people of colour. And this is a show that features mainly people of colour. So that visibility is important,” says Demba. “Perhaps there will be more awareness. It is a good thing, and clever of Raps to have made this the angle.”

All the individual threads are fully drawn. Each character is giving enough screen time to feel real. As they realise the implications of their new superpowers and learn to control and use them, they do not rush to the lycra section of the local costumier. Nor do they set about saving the planet, one heroic deed at a time.

Instead, we see their superpower within their own local worlds. At least at first.

“Rodney considers himself to be an entrepreneur, but he’s not very good at it,” Demba smiles. “But when he discovers he has got a superpower, which is super-speed – so he can run really quick – he, quite sadly, uses it as his USP to sell his products. So he can deliver his products faster than anyone else or your money back!

“He’s also got a big heart. He has this deep platonic love with his friend Spud [Giacomo Mancini] and to some degree he is coping with abandonment issues. He struggled with his relationship with his mum – which is hinted at in episode one. His motivation for earning money is to find a bit more stability and get out of the hostel.”

Calvin Demba (right) as Rodney in Supacell, with Giocomo Mancini as Spud. Image: Netflix
Calvin Demba (right) as Rodney in Supacell, with Giocomo Mancini as Spud. Image: Netflix

There’s a lovely slowburn to Supacell. “Just wait until episode six,” teases Demba. Even after Michael discovers that he needs to find and assemble the other superpowered South Londoners to help save his fiancée’s life – told via spooky flashforwards into the near future involving a menacing Eddie Marsan – there’s not an instant coming together.  

The series was filmed in location in Deptford, Peckham and Brixton. These South London hotspots really add to the potency of the series.

“It was great we got to show those communities,” says Demba, who grew up in East London. “They could be considered low-income areas – although obviously they are gentrified now – but Raps is a working-class man. And we weren’t from silver spoons. So we want to see and hear these stories.

“And when we shoot in those locations, it informs our work. You’d be acting and then look up and you’d be by Deptford Market and madness would just be occurring. We’d feed off that energy, because we were immersed in the environment, not in front of a green screen.”

While it takes a while for Michael to find speedster Rodney in the series, off screen Demba and Tosin Cole go way back. They used to share a flat.

“That was the icing on the cake of this project,” says Demba. “My sister was at the premiere with me last night – and she’s hugging me and hugging Tosin like a brother. He used to come round to my house and I wouldn’t even be in. he’d just be chilling with my nan, you know?”

Demba has been acting for many years. After landing a breakthrough role in Hollyoaks – such an important staging post in so many careers – in 2011, he went on to roles in Youngers and The Red Lion – Patrick Marber’s superb football and masculinity play at the National Theatre (alongside Big Issue ambassador Daniel Mays). “We’ve still got a WhatsApp group,” grins Demba. “If I could have half the career Danny is having – working with Mike Leigh, everyone, comedy, drama, TV, film, theatre. He’s a working class actor who’s made good.”

Demba was then cast in big-budget film Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a role in 2018’s vital BBC3 Bafta-winner Killed by My Debt with the late Chance Perdomo, played artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in Sky Arts’ comedy Urban Myths: Madonna and Basquiat, appeared in Idris Elba’s film Yardie, Last Christmas – with Emilia Clarke, and most recently on screen with Martin Compston in The Rig and on stage in Boys On The Verge of Tears at the Soho Theatre.

Like so many working-class actors in this country, Demba’s route into the business was helped greatly by a cheap, accessible, brilliant local drama group. With arts and drama education at schools underfunded and undervalued under the recent Tory government, these spaces have become increasingly vital to try to maintain and improve participation and representation in the arts.

“I didn’t think it was accessible at all,” says Demba. “I’ve got no family members who were in the same game as me. I did drama in secondary school and I just lost myself in in acting. I loved it. But I didn’t think it would be something I could take on.

“My mum took me to my local youth theatre that works with kids from lower income families at the Half Moon theatre in Limehouse. And it was free. It was like a youth club, to be honest. And I did that at 16, and I was found.

“So I love to big them up because that’s how I got here. So these things need to exist.”

I tell Demba it is a story we hear a lot – whether it is the Oldham Theatre Workshop, Nottingham’s Television Workshop…

“I was prepared to move to Nottingham because of the calibre of actor coming out of the Television Workshop,” he says. “Jack O’Connell, Vicky McClure, Aisling Loftus.

“I did a Skins audition and got very close to being cast. And Ian Smith, who used to run the Television Workshop, led the auditions. I just thought, I need to learn more from this man and told him I would pack my bag. I was ready to move.”

For now, Demba plans to continue to build a career with an impressive work ethic. He’s already directed short films and plans more, the roles are getting bigger and Supacell will only add to the attention.  

“Obviously it’s nice to get attention on your work. But in terms of being a face? Not for me,” he says.

“And my partner’s the same. She likes her privacy. The work’s very important to her, but being the it girl isn’t. And respect to her for that – I think we’re of a similar mindset, and that’s probably why we’re together.”

Calvin Demba’s partner is Louisa Harland – aka Orla McCool in Derry Girls. In a recent interview, she spoke of Demba helping with her accent for her starring role in Sally Wainwright’s Netflix show Renegade Nell. He’s having none of it.

“It’s a nice story, isn’t it?” Demba grins. “My natural accent is East London and Louisa was portraying a Cockney. And she lived with me and my family in East London, so she was able to pick up certain words. But when she was doing the show, she had it nailed. I didn’t need to coach her. Sometimes she might ask how I would say a certain word, but that’s as far as it went.

“She’s a fantastic actor. It’s great she’s getting the props she deserves, because her part in Derry Girls was great but sometimes she could be the unsung hero. So to see her full force as Nell Jackson was quite some feat. I’m always championing her and she is championing me because we know how hard each other works.”

Demba is straight back to the hard slog of turning his BFI-funded short film BabyDolls – exploring masculinity, a recurring theme in his work – into a full feature film. He is also hopeful his super-fast superhero Rodney could be here for the long run.

“If the opportunity comes, we are all there,” he says. “That’s the nature of the game when you sign up for something as epic as Supacell…”

Supacell is available on Netflix now.

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