Empire of Light star Micheal Ward was taken aback working with Oscar winner Olivia Colman in the 1980s-set drama. "It's like she was spitting fire," says the actor, 24, whose credits include the British crime show Top Boy. "Every take, you get a raw energy. For me, as a young Black actor that's not used to being around thespians, it was a great experience."
Written and directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, 1917), Empire of Light follows Ward's Stephen, who begins a secret affair with Colman's Hilary after getting a job at the English seaside cinema where she works. "It's a beautiful relationship to explore," says Ward, "because it's rare you get to see that with a young Black man and then an older white woman, especially when there's an exchange of energies and love and lightness."
Searchlight Pictures Micheal Ward and Olivia Colman in 'Empire of Light'
Stephen must negotiate the rising tide of racism that blighted the U.K. at the time; one scene depicts a lack of support from his white co-workers when a patron refuses to finish his chips before seeing a film. "That scene was quite traumatic to film, really," says the Jamaica-born, London-raised Ward, whose Empire co-stars include Colin Firth and Toby Jones. "It became less about acting, and it became real. I wanted to deliver a really authentic performance, so Black people that walked in that time can say, 'Yeah, these are real things that we used to go through.'"
Ward first attracted attention in Britain for his 2019 roles in the musical Blue Story and the revival of Top Boy, which was produced by Drake. In 2020 he won the BAFTA Rising Star Award — former recipients include Tom Holland and Tom Hardy. While Ward has hazy memories of the ceremony, he is aware of the award's importance for himself and others. "I remember hardly anything mate, I was drunk," he says with a laugh. "But on a serious note, it was just a great night, to be there with my family, [and] it was a win for a lot of guys from my background, to see someone like me winning an award like that for acting, it's a big statement."
Ward scored a small role in Netflix's 2020 action film The Old Guard and has reteamed with the streaming service for the upcoming The Greatest Game, about a soccer team-made up of players without homes, but the actor says he's only interested in starring in a big budget Hollywood movie if the story appeals. "To me, the story is what's important — doesn't matter whether it's Hollywood, indie, Bollywood, I'll do it all," he says. Bollywood? "I could see it," Ward insists. "As long as the story is great, I'm involved."
Empire of Light arrives in theaters Dec. 9. Watch the film's trailer below.