"I was so grateful to Stephen (Merchant) for writing a character with so much colour and variety because sometimes, only the stereotypes play out. We've got many different types of people that look like me."
Back in 2001, Stephen Merchant (with Ricky Gervais of course) created The Office and now he's written a new show for the BBC, The Outlaws. A six-part comedy thriller that follows seven strangers from different walks of life forced together to complete a Community Payback sentence in Bristol.
Academic high-flyer Rani, played by Rhianne Barreto has never really known a world outside her overprotective family but her serial shoplifting finally catches up on her, much to the shame of her parents and to the detriment of her Oxford University scholarship.
Inept lawyer Greg, played by Stephen Merchant, has been caught soliciting in a local car park and Gabby, the socialite with 1.5 million followers played by Eleanor Tomlinson, seems to have it all but is prey to drink and drug problems.
And then there is Christian, an unassuming young man with a complicated story of his own, played by relative television newcomer Gamba Cole.
Sole carer of his kid sister Esme, he’s trying and failing to keep her away from a local gang. To protect her, he ends up doing the bidding of the gang’s charismatic leader which leads to him stealing a big bag of cash and hiding it in the very community centre where he and the other outlaws are working.
But Christian doesn’t hide it well enough, and soon some of the other outlaws - including right-wing businessman John, played by Darren Boyd, radical activist Myrna played by Clare Perkins and Frank, an unreformed con-artist and womaniser played by Christopher Walker, suddenly and accidentally take possession of a life-changing amount of money.
Without realising it, Christian and the outlaws have placed themselves in the centre of a highly dangerous criminal turf war and it will be Rani who ends up saving them as the
I caught up with rising star Gamba Cole to talk about his route into acting, working with Stephen Merchant and what audiences can expect from The Outlaws.
How did you first get into acting?
Before acting, I was playing football. It wasn't until I got to my early teenage years where I realised that that wasn't my dream. That was my brother's dream and I had to go in search of what I wanted to do.
It got to picking my options for GCSEs and stuff and as much as I was academic, I did enjoy practical learning as well. BTEC Performing Arts was there, so I chose it on a whim because I wanted to balance up my learning and I fell in love with it. It was amazing. I was learning so much and it allowed me to escape the realities that I was facing at the time and explore different emotions and feelings.
You can be anybody you wanna be on stage. It felt so nice to have a break from me and explore more. From then, I was like "Yeah, this is for me."
How did you then get into the industry? Did you find it quite challenging?
In college, I remember one of my teachers saying to me "You have to go to university or drama school, otherwise it's just not going to happen for you." - and at the time, I didn't have the means to go to either. It was really really hard. After I finished college I just had to get a job to make ends meet and do what you have to do, but I never took my eyes off the prize. I knew what I wanted to do.
At the beginning of 2014, I wrote a list of all the things I wanted to achieve and at the top of that list was to get an agent. Get signed. And book professional work. Then in February, my cousin's drama teacher at the time was in London doing a playreading and needed an actor, so my cousin hit me up and I went down there, met him.
I also met an actor called Clint Dyer who was directing a play at The Royal Stratford East Theatre and auditioning parts. He ended up auditioning me, I got a recall and then I ended up getting the role.
Not only that, he phoned up an agency, told them about me - "I've got this guy. He's unsigned at the moment. He needs representation." - they met with me and we had a great conversation. They said "Look, we're going to come and watch you on press night" - bear in mind I had no idea what press night was at the time - "And if we like what you're doing and what you've got we'll keep you on" - because they hadn't seen me perform at all.
They were just signing me off recommendation which is something that they rarely do. They really liked me, kept me and the ball has been rolling since then.
Were there any actors you looked up to as you were thinking about getting into the industry?
Not so much. But for me, I remember watching stuff like Kidulthood and Aml Ameen has always been somebody that I thought - "Yeah, this guy." - he's such a great actor. So yeah, people like that who I saw myself in a little bit and felt like OK, we can be on screen and we can step away from stereotypical roles, one after the other. We can actually show our colour and nuance and he's definitely got a career that's shown that.
Let's talk about The Outlaws then. How did that role come about?
It's been so long! It must have been around this time in 2019. I met with Amy Hubbard who was casting for The Outlaws, for a different project. We were just talking. It was my first time ever meeting her and as an actor, you have casting directors on your list that you really want to audition in front of, and she was number two.
So I met her and we were just talking, telling her about myself and that I was from Bristol and she told me how she was starting to cast a show that's going to be in Bristol. So I was like "Err... hello!" - so anyway, I didn't get that part that I was recalled for but then I got through the self-tape for The Outlaws. A couple of weeks later I got a recall and I went in to meet Amy again and Stephen (Merchant) was in there as well which was super nerve-wracking.
He's so relaxed. So chilled. But obviously, everybody knows who Stephen Merchant so I tried to play it cool, but inside I was like "Oh my, it's Stephen!" We worked on some scenes and worked some stuff out and it was great. Then I left and as you leave auditions you always think of what you could have done better and convince yourself that you didn't get it.
So I was in that stage, then a week later got a chemistry read with Rhianne Barreto and I was so excited because I'd worked with Rhianne before. We were doing a scene from episode three, where we're on a boat and I made Stephen laugh. To make a comedian actually laugh, felt good to me. I thought, even if I don't get this, I've made Stephen laugh.
How would you best describe The Outlaws?
It's everything! Which means it's really hard to describe sometimes. I feel it's like nothing that we've seen before. And I know that's a cliche but I think the blend of comedy and its timing - especially in dark moments, really brings to light the nuance that we have as people. It's got something in there for everyone.
As an actor, being able to play the light and dark within one role, the comedy and the drama, must be a dream?
Oh for sure. It's lovely when you get to exercise those sorts of things. It's quite nerve-wracking as well, being with Stephen and Christopher (Walken) and Darren Boyd and Jess (Gurning) - because they're all so funny.
For me, how do you stand next to these guys? They're so well-accredited amazing actors. I was there studying. Understanding their processes. Talking to them and asking questions. I'm one of those people never afraid to ask a question. Especially when I'm on set because I want to make sure that this story is told the right way.
I was doing my best and at any moment where I felt a little unsure. I would either talk to them or the directors and it's so great to look back at it now and just watch it and see all those things work.
How open was Stephen Merchant with the script? Were you able to work together on the character of Christian?
He was super open. He was super conscious that he was creating a character that's outside of his world. He knew when he hired the person that he wanted to play that role. that they may have some lived experiences that may need to be weaved into that script, or adjust the script a little bit. He was super open to that.
We would have Zoom calls, phone calls, he would text me and we would adjust certain things. He was super flexible.
Tell us a bit about Christian then...
Christian Taylor is a bouncer at a nightclub. He's the sole care of his younger sister Esme who he's trying to keep on the straight and narrow. For him, it's about giving her the opportunities that he never had.
He had quite a rough childhood, growing up with his mum who's an addict, and he doesn't want that for his sister. He wants her to go to university and study and learn and forge out a great career for herself. Because for him, he feels like he missed out on that because he had to grow up fast.
And what's nice is that as the series goes on, we find out so much more about Christian. There's more to him than the person we first meet. Is that what attracted you to him?
For sure. I'm always attracted to roles that show people of my demographic differently from what we normally see.
I was so grateful to Stephen for writing a character with so much colour and variety because sometimes, only the stereotypes play out. We've got many different types of people that look like me.
Yes, at first, the whole point of it is that you see him as a stereotype. He's got tattoos. He's got the silver tooth. So you make those judgements. But by episode three, you can see that there's so much more to him. So much more colour and depth.
That really drew me to the role because even as a performer, in my real life, I've gone through those transitions so it's nice to be able to showcase that through Christian.
The relationship between Christian and Esme is beautiful to watch. What was it like working with Aiyana Goodfellow? There seems to be real chemistry there that comes through on the screen.
Oh, thank you. We worked really hard. Aiyana is such an amazing actor. She's superb. The best thing about working with those types of actors is that we're both present and both listening.
Stephen was there and John Butler - another director - and we all worked on cultivating this relationship and understanding the dynamics of when it's right for those moments of sincerity and tenderness. What is my job role as her elder brother? For me, I really did enjoy working with her. She's incredible.
You mentioned earlier how you've worked with Rhianne Barreto before. Was it nice to work with her again? Because Christian and Rani form quite the friendship, don't they?
They do. She's another one. It's rare when you meet an actor and you just click. I felt like that with Rhianne when we worked together on Hanna. So when it came to The Outlaws, we were both aware of each other's styles and how the other likes to work.
We also knew what was required of the roles, developing them with Stephen and John, but also aside from that, we both knew what needed to happen. For me, it's just easy. It's easy working with Rhianne because she's so open. I'd work with her again and again!
What was the legend that is, Christopher Walken, like on set?
He's magnetic. He's vibrant. He's funny. He's charismatic. At his age as well, he's got so much life in him and is so much fun to be around. He's so wise. We'd have conversations about the industry and it was so great to be around him. And just watch him as well. I was learning so much from him.
Being an actor is very technical at times - standing in the right place, eyelines and making sure certain movements are caught - and he's so precise. So precise. He was great to work with.
As a Bristolian yourself, how important is it to have a show like The Outlaws set and filmed in Bristol?
I think it's important to have stories that show different worlds and different sides of the UK in general. Bristol is obviously close to my heart, being from here and having family here. So it was nice to be a part of a project that showcased Bristol in its entirety.
I think a lot of people don't really know about Bristol too much. They don't really go to Bristol. Even some of the shots in the series, show so many different parts of what Bristol really is. For me, Bristol is that melting pot of culture where you can find anything. You go to certain areas and there's loads of beautiful murals and graffiti and you go to another side of Bristol which is completely different. But there's always that underbelly of acceptance and happiness, which is really nice.
I really enjoyed being in Bristol and am grateful to the people of Bristol as well because we were shutting down roads, taking over streets and neighbourhoods! When we were doing the community centre work, it's in a neighbourhood and one of the neighbours baked us a cake which is so lovely.
Everybody has been super patient and I think that's a testament to the people of Bristol. I just really hope that they're proud of what they see when they watch The Outlaws. We tried to do our very best in showcasing Bristol in its full capacity.
As well as BBC One, internationally The Outlaws will be available on Amazon Prime Video. How do you think an international audience will take to it?
I think this will be a great learning experience for them because a lot of the time, people will always attribute the UK to London. Or they might even just say Manchester!
But now, for six hours at least, you get to experience Bristol, a different city, hear a different accent - understand something completely different, away from London, which I think Bristol is. Also, it could possibly even draw people into even going to Bristol and seeing it for themselves.
You're about to wrap filming for series two. Does knowing you've got a second series ahead of the first one airing, take the pressure away and fill you with confidence?
To be honest, I've always believed in the script. So whether it was season one or two, I always felt like the story was great. To be part of this project is really special, but yes. Of course. When you get another series it fills you up even more. I really hope people enjoy season one because season two gets crazier!
How are you hoping people will react to The Outlaws when it airs?
You're not going to get everybody who's going to love it but I hope people enjoy the story. That's all I want. I want people to enjoy the story and feel and connect to the characters in this. Because I feel that there's a character that can represent most. At the end of it all, what this story shows is that we all have a part to play, we can all have a say and we can all be involved. It doesn't have to fall down to one group of people or another in terms of class. We're all important.
You're still early on in your career, but what role would you love to play in the near future?
I would love to play a detective spy - something active! I would love to do something like that. I'd love to do a war movie as well. Before I wanted to be a superhero as well, but I feel like my dreams are over. Not sure I'll get there. Let's put it out there!
For this role, I had to gain over 10kg so I was eating 3000 calories a day! Training twice a day. Getting myself in shape for this role. I love the art of transformation because it brings you even closer to your character. You're committed all the way. When you get to that size and the stature that you want, it's then about maintenance.
I really love that change and adjustment you have to make for a character.
The Outlaws starts Monday 25th October at 9pm on BBC One