Catching his breath after a rush to get to the ballroom in time for a post-screening Q&A for “Empire of Light” at the Middleburg Film Festival, star Micheal Ward was further thrown as he sat down in his director’s chair and noticed a woman crying in the audience, having been moved by the Sam Mendes film’s conclusion. “It’s such an amazing feeling to know that someone’s grasped something from the film,” he told the audience.
Though he’s garnered fans worldwide by leading the Netflix relaunch of the groundbreaking UK crime series “Top Boy” in 2019, and even won a BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2020, the 25-year-old Ward is fully aware that starring opposite Best Actress winner Olivia Colman in a romantic drama written and directed by Oscar winner Mendes has introduced him to an entirely new audience, and he can’t help but feel grateful.
Describing how collaborative a process it was to work with the filmmaker, figuring out who his character Stephen was, Ward later mentioned to IndieWire how Mendes has said in interviews that “‘every question I asked has been important for the film,’ which I found was nice, because he doesn’t have to say [that]. He’s already given me an opportunity that will probably change my life and my career trajectory forever, which I really appreciate. So he doesn’t even need to be doing all of that. But when he’s being honest, it just makes me feel more comfortable to do what I can do, and to be on set with these amazing people that he’s handpicked.”
In the film, Ward plays Stephen, a young Black man living in a British coastal town during the 1980s. He’s aspiring to study architecture, and soon starts working at the same cinema as Colman’s Hilary. As the unlikely duo bond, he helps her feel less alone. Although he was a part of the development process with Mendes, meeting with the director to answer questions like, “How I felt about the script? What kind of stuff would I like to see in there? What kind of stuff would I want to see removed?”
Ward said he still would help out his peers who went into audition for the role “because I was like, ‘If I’m not gonna get it, I’d love one of my friends to get it.’ So everything I spoke to Sam [about], I was telling them.”
When he did book the project, and finally got to meet Colman on set, Ward felt like life was imitating art. “Stephen and Hilary’s relationship is like mine and Olivia’s relationship in a sense. Olivia’s been doing it a long time. She’s working, acting a lot, obviously. When I’m coming to set and I’m seeing Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins, I’m like, ‘Whoa,’ the same way Stephen was looking at the cinema when he walks in, ‘This is crazy!’ And I’m so wide-eyed,” said the actor. “And what also helped us was we filmed it chronologically. So a lot of the scenes that you saw at the beginning, I was literally in Margate waiting to get on set, like itching. So that smile that you saw when I first got introduced was not fake. I was so excited to be there on set.”
The only difficult time Ward had was filming a scene toward the middle of the film, after things have gotten romantic between Stephen and Hilary, where an old white filmgoer played by Ron Cook clearly acts discriminatory toward his ticket-taker character, and is still welcomed into the cinema after by Hilary.
He found it even more traumatizing than acting out Stephen being jumped by a white mob toward the end of the film. “With the physical one, it’s that more also just understanding physically how your body reacts to things like that. And actually just going through the motions,” said Ward. With the scene opposite Colman and Cook, he as Stephen thought, “We’ve really had sex a couple times, so surely you can step in and say, ‘Yo, that’s not right. You need to leave.’ And that’s all Black people just want, [is] that support from white people a lot of the time, because it does change their perspective. When you’re trying to tiptoe around it, they start to think it’s okay, and it’s not okay. I think that’s what Sam was saying within that scene.”
Those scenes in particular are often mentioned in criticism of “Empire of Light,” which has so far gotten mixed reviews, mostly for how it tries to tackle big ideas surrounding race, mental health, and human connection, but does not commit to any enough to reach true poignancy. It’s criticism that Ward has caught wind of already, months before the film’s release.
“You’re gonna get negative comments, anything you do,” said the actor. “You have to learn from the work that you do. But [I’ve heard] nothing to do with my performance. Although sometimes I do wish it was that so I can understand how I can become a lot better, but working with Sam made me become better. I’m constantly learning anyway, so it doesn’t even matter. I’m so proud of the film.”
Thinking about his career ahead of him now that he has another significant starring role under his belt (one that even won him the Spotlight Actor Award that same night at the Middleburg Film Festival), Ward recalls some advice that he heard from “Top Boy” executive producer Drake.
“[He] said, in terms of his success, just try not to get too invested in the highs or the lows, because the lows will come. And it’s not like I’m prepared for it, but at the end of the day, if I’m in the lows now, and I’m just thinking, ‘Oh, man, I remember those days when my name was in those Oscar conversations,’ it’s like that’s not really what validates me as a person,” said the actor. “What validates me is the work that I do for myself, and the reason why I told those stories that I wanted to tell.”
Ward added, “That’s so important for me in terms of moving forward as well, any story that I want to tell, I just want to be passionate about it, bro. And I want to be passionate about the character that I play, and hopefully not have to do anything for money, or clout, or fans, or anything like that. I just want to do it, and everything else will come, which is super, super important.”
Searchlight Pictures’ “Empire of Light” is now in theaters in NY and LA.