There were kids riding past on scooters, like: ‘Nah man, I don’t know what they’re filming, man! Move!’” David Jonsson dials his London accent up, laughing breathily as he recalls a film shoot a few weeks earlier in south London. He was working on a new romcom created by two of the writers of the BBC comedy Famalam, soaking up the culture in the sweltering city, and – somehow, despite being 27 and looking precisely nothing like him – being mistaken for another actor by a group of teens. “They were like, who is that … is that Idris Elba?”
It is one of many bountiful laughs that pepper a conversation with the star of the BBC/HBO TV series Industry, a rare show to live up to the hype that prefaced it in 2020. We meet at the Almeida Theatre in north London to speak about And Breathe … , his new one-man play.
Self-possessed, funny and “quite a quiet person” (I nudge my Dictaphone closer to him to make sure it picks up his voice), Jonsson is an “east London boy” who grew up in a working-class family of Afro Creole descent, near London’s Docklands. His life is worlds away from the character that brought him to critical attention last year: Industry’s Old Etonian Gus. Set in the hyper-competitive world of City banking, Industry is a show that makes The Apprentice look like kids’ TV. Drawing comparisons with everything from This Life to Skins and Mad Men, it also pulled the rare trick of making viewers feel nothing but anguish for its lead characters – even the one earning a £50,000 bonus.
Jonsson was in Morocco when he first heard about the role. He was making a spy series, Deep State, “playing an MI5 officer, shooting guns in the desert each day. I remember getting the email and being like: ‘What is on this page?!’ It was grounded in a reality that I knew was real but hadn’t seen. My family have always looked at bankers sceptically – money means deception. I thought it would be an interesting thing to challenge.”
Challenge it he did, bringing complexity and humanity to Gus, the cocksure City boy forced to deal with heartbreak, via a relationship with a closeted university friend, and a toxic workplace where he had to prove he was more than a ‘diversity hire’. “Talking to people about the show always surprises me,” he says. “We filmed it for six months in rural Wales. I was doing this character – trying to understand him and get under his skin – but when people say he was this or that, or he felt so true [to life], I’m like: ‘Wow!’ I think it’s very relatable to young people in their 20s trying to figure out who they are or who they’re meant to be, let alone being black, let alone being gay.”
If filming a London-based drama in the countryside sounds unorthodox (“You walk off the trading floor, and there’s one guy outside on a tractor”) it also came with its perks, not least getting to know Lena Dunham, who relocated to Wales to act as executive producer (“She had teacakes and scones, which she thought British people ate every day”). Working with the Girls creator made its mark: she spoke “in a language young people can understand”, and guided the cast, having made her hit series at a similar age. And, one night, in the company of Jonsson and his co-stars Myha’la Herrold, Harry Lawtey and Marisa Abela, she even introduced them to an A-list friend. “We heard this American voice and she was like: ‘Hey, meet my new cast,’ and turned the phone around. And it was Brad Pitt. On FaceTime. Just casually. I was like: ‘All right, mate?’ He was lovely, although I’m pretty sure he had no idea what show we were doing.”
While Industry announced Jonsson’s arrival as one of the UK’s most promising young actors, it had been a long time in the making. As a teenager he had a period of getting into fights at school, and was excluded. “I remember the moment when my mum asked me: ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ I was like: ‘I want to ACT!’” he jokily shouts. After his GCSEs, Jonsson convinced his parents to let him move to New York, alone, when a rare opportunity arose to study at a conservatory on a scholarship. He ended up staying in the city for two years, learning about the finer points of Greek tragedy, indulging his passion for skating, and living off instant noodles. It was “a real special time” he says, even if he refused to drop his accent in acting classes. When he returned home, his friends studying at college, Jonsson beavered away in shops and pubs before the National Youth Theatre and Rada beckoned. On graduating, he soon landed impressive theatre roles, including in Mary Stuart at the Almeida alongside Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson.
Pre-pandemic he should have been on stage again at the Almeida in the play Daddy, the London transfer of Slave Play writer Jeremy O Harris’s acclaimed melodrama about a relationship between an older white art collector and a young black artist. Jonsson was set to play the latter role when Covid struck and the theatre had to deconstruct the lifesize swimming pool it had set up on stage, and around which much of its narrative revolves. The cancellation was difficult but, he says, “incredibly humbling. I find it really hard to pull away from my characters. And then here is this thing in real life, happening to everyone. Here’s me chasing human experience inside the theatre, and there’s one happening around us.”
Daddy is sadly still to make it to the stage, but Jonsson is happy to be back at the theatre with another production. When we meet, he has just finished a day’s rehearsals for And Breathe … , based on poetry by the Nigerian-British writer Yomi Sode. A story of blackness, family and grief, rooted in London, it fizzes with youthful energy but is also touched by trauma. While technically a one-man show, on stage Jonsson will be joined by the jazz musician Femi Temowo, with the pair taking cues from one another and adapting the show with each performance. Reading a draft script, the profundity of Sode’s words – about the death of a matriarch, and being a black man in London – feels all the more poignant in the time of Covid-19, a pandemic that has disproportionately claimed the lives of people of colour.
Jonsson sees the present moment as a time of rebirth for the arts, but is keen for culture to acknowledge the pain and trauma of the past year. “If theatre acts like [the pandemic] never happened,” he says, “I think it’s wrong. With this, it was about honouring that shared experience that we have as human beings. And this is one of those: it’s about grief and guilt, and all the things that we all go through, told through the eyes of this young poet.”
Representation in the arts was pivotal for Jonsson growing up – even if he only realised it later – and remains so. “If we’re talking about the wider sense of theatre: what do we see on the stage? Who do we see?” says Jonsson. “How do we relate to it? For me, that was really important.”
And Breathe … is, he says, “frank and raw”, and the kind of theatre audiences won’t forget in a hurry. But, really, everything Jonsson does is pretty memorable. Industry series two has been commissioned; I tell him that Gus will surely be on to bigger and better things, away from the poisonous culture of Pierpoint; indeed, at the end of the first series, he seemed to have checked out of the company, purposely sabotaging his own pitch for a permanent role. “I can’t say too much,” he says with another laugh, before adding tentatively: “But I think you’re on to something … ” As with his character, there’s clearly a lot more that Jonsson has to show us. He might not be Idris, but seriously: watch this space.