Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and raised in East London, Micheal Ward didn't grow up feeling all that inspired by the characters he saw in movies. "What made me feel I could be an actor was the stuff that I used to watch on Disney Channel, to be honest with you," he says. "I used to rush from school and put on Disney Channel and I watched a lot of Hannah Montana, a lot of That's So Raven."
"There's this character in That's So Raven called Stanley," he adds. "And he was so funny. He was a little kid and I just felt like, if I'd grown up in America, I could play a character like that."
Ward made his film debut with a role in the 2016 British crime drama Brotherhood, and has since gone on to star in the rap musical Blue Story and filmmaker Steve McQueen's Small Axe: Lovers Rock. In 2020, Ward won the EE Rising Star Award at the BAFTA Awards, where he first met director Sam Mendes. A year later, Ward received the screenplay for Mendes' next feature, Empire of Light.
"At the time, I was really starting to understand what kind of stories I wanted to tell," Ward says. "As a young Black man, it felt like doing a film where you are representing someone that's so positive is super important. And when I read it, I really felt that positivity, and I wanted to be a part of that."
The character is Stephen, a new employee at the Empire, a seaside movie palace in 1980s England. Olivia Colman plays Hilary, a lonely middle-aged co-worker who finds herself beguiled by Stephen, and brought back to life as the two embark on a romance. The film also explores their respective struggles with both mental health and racism. Empire of Light premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, though Ward was able to screen it in a more intimate setting first.
"I was super emotional. Not because of the plot or anything like that, per se, but because I felt like the representation was amazing, to see a character like this. And also, when I'm watching something for the first time that I'm in, I find that I'm just looking to scrutinize myself a lot. But I was just super proud of my performance within this movie, because I'd done so much work, and I felt like it translated well on the screen. So, I was super happy," he says. When the movie ended, Ward found out there was another screening on that same day. "I went to go watch it again, because I just needed to see it."
Beyond providing a breakthrough performance for the actor, Empire of Light had the added benefit of introducing Ward to an era of films he'd never experienced. (After all, he was born 17 years after the film is set.) "Raging Bull was one of the films that was in the screenplay that would be put on the cinema [marquee]. So, I thought, 'Let me watch it.' I wanted to know the films that Stephen would know. And I was introduced to Peter Sellers, and all of these films that I wish I had known about, and these people that have helped shape my industry."
Below, Ward share with A.frame five films that have had the greatest impact on him.
Written and Directed by: Cess Silvera
Shottas is a Jamaican film, and it's like one of the only Jamaican films that I really know. I don't remember the first time I saw it, but I watched it when I was really, really young and it's something that I keep rewatching it. I watched it again for the first time in ages when I was on my flight to Jamaica and, one of the characters, he has to return back to Jamaica, and he's like, 'It's been 20 years since I've been back to this muthaf***a, man.' And, when I was watching it, it was literally actually 20 years that I hadn't gone back to Jamaica. Which was just really weird. But I just love that film.
To see my people being represented on the screen is always special, so I loved watching that. Also, I left Jamaica when I was young, so it was one of the only films where I felt like, when I was watching it, I felt like, 'This is how it would be. It would be exactly like this if I'd went back to Jamaica,' you get what I'm saying? It would look like this. It would feel like this. And that was a beautiful thing.
Directed by: Jessy Terrero | Written by: Bo Zenga and Chuck Wilson
Soul Plane with Kevin Hart and Snoop Dog and loads of other people. That's an amazing film. I really think, for me, that was the first time I got insight into Black America, outside of the characters I've seen on Disney Channel. And I used to watch that film so much. It's just so funny. We had it on a DVD, and I'd watch it all the time after school, literally every day. Back then, we didn't have access to a lot of films, so I used to just rewatch the same stuff over and over again. But I loved that. I loved how funny it was. I loved Kevin Hart in it. I just really enjoyed it.
Directed by: Martin Scorsese | Written by: Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese
When I watched that film, I was like, 'Nah, this is amazing!' And I only watched it recently, within the last three or four years, so it's not something that I watched from young. It just kept coming up on my Netflix, it kept coming up, kept coming up. And I felt like it was a sign that I have to watch this film, and I did. And I really, really, really enjoyed it. When I watched that film, I was like, 'This is the level that I need to be at.' In terms of authenticity, you feel like all of those people were actually like that, and I love that about filmmaking. Maybe they were! And that's the casting process, but I felt like I really got the essence of them, which I loved. The story was amazing. There's so many iconic scenes, so many great actors, so many great moments. And it made me feel inspired to root myself in authenticity.
Directed by: Menhaj Huda | Written by: Noel Clarke
Kidulthood is an English film, and that was the first time I watched a movie where people spoke like me, and the people felt like someone I knew or that I grew up around, and I felt that that was truly special, for sure. I think the impact it had on me was that authenticity, but authenticity in a way that I knew it. Because Goodfellas and that is amazing, but I don't know that world, and I don't know about the mafia and stuff. But Kidulthood, it was like, 'I know these people.' That was the first time I got that.
Directed by: Jon M. Chu | Written by: Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna
One that I really remember from young is Step Up 2: The Streets. I've watched that loads of times, and loved this character Moose in there. He was so charismatic, but without being the guy that would normally be the main guy that's charismatic. I felt like that was special. You know, you don't have to be this mad cool guy in order for people to love you, because I loved his character. Literally, I loved him so much.
I used to love watching the dances. I used to dance when we was coming out the cinema, when me and my friends watched it after school. Step Up 2: The Streets impacted me in a way where I was just like, 'These stories are just beautiful, and they're just done in different ways,' because even though it's a dance film, it's very dramatic as well. The stories felt so real. And I've always loved stuff like that; when outcasts come together and they end up doing something special. But like I said, I literally fell in love with the character Moose, and it impacted me a lot in terms of believing in something other than just being cool.