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War – what is it good for?

Actor DAVID GYASI tells Claire Brine about the epic themes of BBC One’s Troy

I was ranting at God, saying: 'You have to do something!'

ACHILLES may be dead – but the actor who plays him in the BBC One drama series Troy: Fall of a City is enjoying a career that is alive and kicking. Speaking over the phone from his home, David Gyasi – who is also known for his roles in the films Interstellar and Cloud Atlas – talks to me about faith, fatherhood and why playing a demigod in an ancient Greek drama appealed to him.

‘At the centre of this story is war between the Greeks and the Trojans, but there are no winners,’ he says. ‘And that idea attracted me. It’s a story with a lot of pain and everyone thinking that they are right. I’m probably rather naive, but that’s my view of war at the moment: people just going at it. Yet there has to be a better way.’

Playing the role of Achilles meant London-born David had to take on a number of creative challenges. Not only was he embodying a character who is half-human and half-god, but also he wanted to explore how Achilles had been affected by his ‘prolific killing’.

‘Achilles had taken the lives of 1,000 people in hand-to-hand battle and looked in their eyes at the same time,’ he says. ‘That fascinated me. Usually, at the end of a war, there is a promise of glory and legacy. But in Troy, I found Achilles to be quite a melancholic figure with a deep sadness about him, and I was keen to tell that story.’ 

Our conversation moves on to other stories that David has helped to tell on stage and screen. He mentions a number of theatre practitioners, writers and directors he admires. It seems that Christopher Nolan, director of Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises, made a lasting impression on him.

‘Despite how busy and successful he is, I didn’t once see him compromise his family for his work,’ David says. ‘I admire that. One day we were on set, and he was having a little chat with his wife, who’s a producer and had popped in. Later, she told me what their conversation was about: he was asking her how their daughter had got on, going to school that morning. I loved that.’

Family life is a priority for David, who was just 19 years old when he became a father for the first time. The birth of his daughter changed his life.

‘My wife and I felt blessed to be gifted with this amazing, precious child,’ he says. ‘Being a dad meant I became much more intentional in how I spent my time. When I went to university, I was very focused.

‘But I also knew that God was with me, and that eased the pressure for us as new parents. It felt as if he was saying to us: “Look guys, I’m going to take care of everything. You are going on this journey, but this child is mine.” At that point I thought: OK God, you’ve got this.’

Despite trusting God with his future, David faced difficult times in his early years as an actor.

‘After my son was born, my wife and I were living with her parents because we couldn’t get a mortgage,’ he says. ‘One day I took my son out for a walk in his pushchair and I was ranting at God, saying: “You have to do something!” I felt it was selfish of me to pursue an acting career when I couldn’t give my family a home. 

‘I told my wife that I thought I should give up acting to become a PE teacher instead. She said that she didn’t think it was the right decision for me. Just two hours later I received a phone call offering me a part in The Dark Knight Rises. That film went on to have a huge impact on my career – and I’m very clear as to what that meant.’

Having attended church since childhood, David grew up knowing about God and trying to develop a relationship with him. Today he finds the compassion of Jesus compelling. 

‘He had such empathy for people,’ he says. ‘In the Bible story where a woman who has been caught in adultery is brought before him to be stoned, he shows wisdom and love. He writes some words in the sand – and we don’t know what was written. Maybe he was writing down everyone else’s sin. But by the time he has finished, everyone who accused her has gone. I find that intriguing and inspiring.’

Another part of the Bible that captivates David’s imagination is the Easter story. He tells me what the Christian celebration means to him.

‘It’s the biggest one,’ he says. ‘It’s about sacrifice. It’s about the completion of a gift. When I think about the turmoil Jesus faced in the Garden of Gethsemane, it’s very sobering and humbling.

‘But then the Resurrection brings hope. It means that in those moments when I fail and I’m not so proud of myself, I can approach the cross in prayer and worship and find compassion and understanding. And I’m grateful for that.’

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