As the well-worn phrase goes, the sky is the limit for actor David Jonsson. Or perhaps it would be more fitting to use another: that this exciting new talent has well and truly landed on his feet, given how down-to-earth he is.
His series’ regular role as Gus Sackey on the BBC/HBO series Industry (2020 – ) will without doubt lead to further opportunities for him. Quite a journey, then, from being on report in his East London school, to being selected for a Warner Bros scholarship at RADA.
In the first ever episode of the Film Forums podcast on YouTube and major podcasting platforms like Spotify, presenter Aiysha Jebali discusses this journey with David, who explains how he found ways to relate to his character in the well-received and regarded series about a group of young bankers and traders following the 2008 financial crash.
FF: So, how did you get into acting, David?
DJ: I mean, I guess I kind of fell into it if I’m honest. I was around 13/14 and I was on report cards because I was a bit naughty in school. So, I used to get sent home to get my report card stamped. And I was on report for, like, a whole month. This is a long-winded way of saying, basically, I came home one day and my mom was like, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’. And she was like, ‘You can either go and box’ – because at the time I used to box in a local gym – ‘or what else?’. And I was like, ‘I want to act’. And she was like, ‘Okay’. I guess that’s how I fell into it.
A wonderful start: National Youth Theatre
FF: So, did you start doing amateur drama? Did you join any film groups or go to any classes or anything like that when you were a teenager?
DJ: Well, I did youth theatre, like National Youth Theatre. Which I’m still really close with because it wasn’t too long ago that I did my course. But they were wonderful. And you meet so many wonderful people. And I do productions with them, which kind of got me my agent.
FF: Okay, so your agent actually attended one of your performances?
DJ: Yeah, I did. I got cast in the lead in the show of a book called Pigeon English (2013). And we did the play in Bristol, and we went to Edinburgh with it. And I kind of got like a really lovely flurry of interest from there. And, yeah, and I got my agent from that play, which is just awesome.
FF: Yeah, you’re with United Agents, aren’t you? That’s a massive one so to land that, you know, so, so young, and so early. It’s amazing.
DJ:Thank you. Yeah, it was massive. And my agent’s just amazing. She’s brilliant.
FF: So, tell us a little bit about what you’re doing at the moment with yourself.
DJ: I mean, we’re talking now during lockdown. So, I mean, I guess like everyone else right now, I’m indoors, just doing my bit as it were. But I’ve been doing a lot of prep for another project that I’ve got going, but I can’t, I’m not allowed to say too much on it right now.
Gus Sackey in Industry (HBO & BBC)
FF: I understand that you landed a principal role in an HBO and BBC production, do you want to tell us a little bit about that, if you are able to tell us anything about it?
DJ: Good. It’s a show called Industry (2020), it’s made by these two young, brilliant writers (Mickey Down and Konrad Kay) who are from a financial background themselves. And basically, the show just follows these young graduates coming into the financial sector for the first time. And my character (Gus Sackey) kind of gets caught in this whirlwind of love, money, the bank, and just general life.
FF: Are you able to relate to your character in any way?
DJ:Of course. I mean you find, I guess, you try and find ways to relate to your characters all the time. But he’s very different from me. Like his background and a lot of traits that he has, it’s just very different from me. Which, if I’m honest, that was part of why I wanted to play him. That was part of the perk, because I guess, as an actor, you want to play things that are just not really yourself. But no, I guess it boils down to the fact that we’re both just young men trying to figure out our part in the world.
FF: So, is this your first major role that’s going out to the public? Or have you done some other things before that people may have seen?
DJ: I’m not sure what major really is anymore if I’m honest. Managers do these things and you hope someone’s watching you just don’t really know, do you know what I mean? And no, I’ve done some stuff in the past. Last year, before I got cast in this HBO show, I did a show for Fox and it was called Deep State (2019) with Walton Goggins and Joe Dempsie, and a bunch of other really amazing, cool people. I was a young MI5 officer, got to fire a gun for the first time. And we shot out in Morocco, which was just amazing.
A culture shock? Not a bit of it
FF: Very close to my home. I’m Tunisian. Hence the ‘funny’ name. So how did you find it being in Morocco? Like, was that a culture shock for you?
DJ: Do you know, no man, it weren’t a culture shock for me. My family are mixed, we’re like Creole and I have family from Africa and the Caribbean and Sweden – hence the name. You know, it’s not at all. When you’re in Morocco, or somewhere like that, it’s just, everyone’s just lovely. I mean, everyone’s so nice and open, and the food is always good, it’s so good. Yeah, no, it weren’t a culture shock for me at all, and I loved every minute of it.
FF: That’s really nice to hear. Because I mean, across North Africa, we have quite similar culture anyway. Obviously, the same language as well. But I think the biggest difference for me anyway, is that in Tunisia, it’s okay to be affectionate and kind of forward and things like that. Whereas, in Britain, it’s very much, you know, arm’s length.
DJ: Absolutely. Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. You know, I was in a hotel and you had room service and stuff like that, which I was just like, ‘What the hell?’. Anyway, we had people come into our room, and they drop off your food, and then they give you a kiss on the cheek, they give you a hug, which is just so lovely.
But I guess the reason why it weren’t a culture shock for me is because my family is like that. You know I’ve got a really amazing, big, loving family and we’re just very tactile. But yes, you’re very right. British people can be a bit…COVID, you know.
FF: Have you been in for the entire seven or eight months of lockdown? Or did you have periods where you were out and doing things?
DJ: Yeah, definitely. I had some periods when I was out and doing things, yeah. Which was, again I feel very privileged, to be able to be busy and stuff.
The financial world: a challenging role
FF: What were your biggest challenges in approaching the role in Industry (2020)? What was your greatest challenge with that?
DJ: I guess it was, you know, it was research. I had to do a lot of research. I remember getting the script through when I was in the desert. I was doing my MI5 training every single day, so I had to be really, really fit. I opened this script, and it was set completely in the financial world. So, we just sat in a bank every single day. Which was just polar opposite, in a suit, polar opposite to me, like with my shirt off.
And, you know, what you realize is that the terminology and the way they talk about things, particularly my character, he’s so, so quick, and he’s so smart. I had to just learn a lot of that lingo and like how you might respond to someone, or what a ‘quant’ is, which is a financial term. Because that’s in the script, you know?
FF: Yeah, I mean, to convincingly play someone who’s in an industry that you’re not familiar with, I can imagine would be quite difficult. Especially people who play doctors and things like that, as well. But I think financial would be, in a way even further away, because we all have some kind of knowledge of health and health care. But most people don’t have knowledge of finance in the way that it’s shown in Industry (2020).
DJ: Absolutely and I think that was something that inevitably was a challenge. But then I think, what I definitely found with the show, which I think is just a testament to the writing, is that it’s way more than a ‘quant’, or the banking terms. Like it’s just, it’s way more about the relationships between the people and everything else is just kind of like fillers in between.
And in real life, if it’s not banking talk, we’re talking about something else when we really mean this, we really mean that, but we use fillers all the time. So, I think it was really interesting to understand that it wasn’t about that at all you know, it wasn’t about the financial thing. But you do all this research to let it go anywhere.
Prestige: Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
FF: And you attended one of the most prestigious drama schools, obviously, RADA. Are you able to tell us anything about how you got in and how you were when you were there? What was the experience for you?
DJ: Yeah, I got a scholarship to go there actually, from Warner Bros. Which I’m immensely grateful for because if I didn’t get that scholarship, I don’t think I would have been able to go. And again, I’m from an East London family that didn’t really have much. And, I don’t know, I had this curiosity of just wanting to read more and learn more and just like, try and mess up and try again. And I think RADA was really cool for that. I read so much on Shakespeare, on Byron, on just like people that, you know, coming from East London, I won’t normally read about. So, to me, that was really important.
And besides that, I think, most importantly, I made just a hell of a lot of amazing friends. You know, those people just stay with you.
FF: Would you say that, in a sense, RADA gave you a network that you now, you are still tapping into now that you’re going into your professional career?
DJ: Yeah, absolutely. I think so. I think it is. I think with training, any training, RADA, anywhere you go to, I think inevitably you learn certain things that may or may not work for you, but you learn them nonetheless.
So, you kind of have this, I guess a metaphor that we constantly got told was, you have this toolbox. And if I’m honest, as corny as that sounds, it’s totally true. You know, you just have this modicum of things that you can possibly do. You just do what’s right for you. And that’s what I always try to do anyway, just do what’s right for me and what works for me.
Advice for working class actors
FF: So, if you could give any advice to, say, a 16/17 year old working-class person that wants to pursue acting, what would you recommend that they do?
DJ: I think the most important thing anyone can do is just, you know, be serious about it. In a sense, I think acting is, it’s play. But inevitably you need to find a sense of, you want to learn, you want to be better. So, I mean, it’s really hard to give advice. But I think, for me, my mom told me when I got that report card brought home, she was like, ‘What do you want to do?’. I think she was trying to tell me, like, be serious about something. So, I guess I’ll pass on my old mum’s advice.
FF: It’s quite good that she kind of put you on the spot like that. ‘Right, what are you gonna make of yourself?’ You know, I love that. I mean, it was obviously decision time as well. I think 14 onwards, that’s when you start choosing your subjects and deciding, you know, what you’re going to do, where you’re gonna go. Which I think is, it’s kind of a shame, because most people do change paths. I wanted to be a vet, you know, did not consider the fact that I have an allergy to animals. So, I took all the sciences and never used them.
DJ: It’s like, I reckon I could have said to my mum, ‘I want to be an actor’. And then, I could have said the next day, ‘I want to be a musician’, and she would have been like, ‘Okay, cool’. She just wanted me to be serious about something.
FF: Yeah. Well, it’s worked out. I mean, look at you.
DJ: A little bit.
FF: Do you have any other creative interests, like do you do music or writing or anything else?
DJ: Yeah, I mean, all those things that you just said, I definitely do some writing. I guess you kind of, especially as an actor, which I’m loving by the way, you kind of have these experiences, and you want to like, you want to become other people and you want to live that to the fullest.
But then there’s definitely a part, coming from where I’ve come from, and where I know hundreds of thousands of other people are coming from, you want to be able to give back opportunity. So, I think for me, I definitely have like a long-term goal. I wanted to be able to give back and also, you have ideas, you know.
FF: Yeah, so creating your own work is a strong possibility?
DJ: I think so. I mean, I’d love to, but I’m having a really good time right now.
FF: And you talked about boxing as well. So obviously, you enjoyed the role that you already played, that was action based, would you quite like to pursue more action roles?
DJ: Yeah, I mean, I’d love to. Part of the appeal of Industry (2020) was I got it through at the time when I was like, in a completely different mindset. So, I think I’m always going to have that sense of play and wanting to do something that’s different. But I’m a big fan of action films.
FF: That’s my favorite genre as well.
DJ: That’s awesome.
FF: I gave up doing martial arts as well. Yeah, I don’t look like it at all, but yeah.
DJ: What a treasure trove. You’ve got so much stuff that I feel like I should be interviewing you.
FF: No not at all, I’m a no one. But yeah, I love martial arts. I’m crazy about it, I’m not like, I don’t watch roms or anything like that. I’m more, ‘Yeah, let’s go see an action movie’.
DJ: That’s so awesome. That’s me too.
Making your own luck: a scholarship with Warner Bros.
FF: Is there anything that you would say in terms of people applying for scholarships? Because obviously, you mentioned that you got a scholarship to go to RADA. And that’s one thing that when I was younger, I really didn’t know enough about, in terms of how to go about it and I just didn’t think that that was a possibility for me as a working-class performer as well. So, could you maybe talk to us a little bit about that? Like, what was the process?
DJ: Of course, of course. I mean, for me, it was I hate using the phrase, ‘I got lucky’, because it’s so ambiguous. But I feel like I did kind of get a bit lucky. Because at the time that I auditioned, Warner Bros. had just done this thing where they rolled out a set of scholarships to up and coming actors across the UK. And RADA had like one place, and when I auditioned, they put me forward for it.
So, it wasn’t a case of me, finding it and applying for it. It just kind of happened, which again, that’s why I’m so grateful. I think it’s out there, you know, I think people have to – one thing I’d say actually is – don’t be deterred of it. I think for me, that’s one thing that I was like, ‘Regardless, I’m going to try’. Even if I never got the scholarship, I thought I’d rather know that I got in and didn’t go than be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know’. You know, something could have happened, but I didn’t try and at least go for it. Try it, because I think that’s what life’s about, just going for stuff. If you fail, you fail, you get up.
FF: Yeah, failure is better than not knowing isn’t it.
FF: So, what do you think is next for you? What do you see as your career path?
DJ: I don’t know really. No, I guess I just hope to do, you know, different things and continue to grow in a really unique way. I don’t really want to be like anyone else, I only want to be like myself. You know, I just hope I get the opportunity to do that.
FF: Have you ever attended any film festivals or anything or taken part in any networking that way?
DJ: No, not really. I mean, this is funny, this year I was meant to go to a lot more. But I have got, someone sent me a – which I’m so grateful for by the way – I got sent this thing for Aesthetica, which is really cool. So, it’s an online festival, and shout out to them for sending me a link to it. So, I’m like watching just loads and loads of short films at the minute, which is just really interesting. And you learn so much from how people can make that short film a full on narrative. So, I’m doing that online, but apart from that, not much.
Interviewer: Aiysha Jebali
Artwork: Richard Williams
Transcript: Ben Kelly, Keren Davies
Second Editor: Richard Williams
Industry (HBO/BBC2) Images: Courtesy of HBO
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.