Supacell star Tosin Cole: ‘Our show highlights many issues that Black people go through’

‘We’re just trying to give a truthful depiction of what we see’  (Tosin Cole)
‘We’re just trying to give a truthful depiction of what we see’ (Tosin Cole)

Imagine a London where delivery drivers can jump through space and time. Where telesales people can hurl cars over their heads and nurses can move objects with telekinesis. In Supacell, Netflix’s groundbreaking all-Black sci-fi show, that’s what goes down. And at the centre of it all is Tosin Cole. He plays Michael, the aforementioned driver who, along with four other south Londoners, develops superpowers overnight.

“It was intense,” says Cole, speaking about the shoot over Zoom from his kitchen in the real south London. “Those massive action sequences were tough. Some scenes took two to three weeks. You ain’t got a jacket. Outside. You’re tired, cold, wet. You’re grumpy. But at the end of the day, you’ve got stories you have to execute.” He says the cast “went delusional” after a while. “‘Let’s do push ups, let’s rap, let’s freestyle, let’s cuss each other.’ Then we’re having a quick five-minute power nap. Sleeping on the floor. On chairs. All types of madness going on.”

We speak on a sunny June morning, hours before England’s match against Denmark in their second game of the Euros. The 31-year-old, previously seen as Jodie Whittaker’s companion in Doctor Who, punches his fists in the air in mock hooliganism. Despite being born in Florida and raised in New York, before moving to London aged eight, Cole says he feels like “the south of the river” is all he’s ever known. “It gets a bad stigma. But south, you’re always local. It’s home. It’s your attitude. It’s the way you’re thinking. Good food, playing football – this is a place of fun memories and history.”

Supacell, the Jay-Z-backed debut series from British musician Rapman – whose thriller Blue Story examined the pressures of gang life in 2019 – is a turf-wars-infused superhero story that speaks to multiple anxieties around racial inequality in the UK. The title plays on the prevalence of sickle cell disease among the African or Afro-Caribbean community, and the show has been likened to Channel 4’s 2009 hit Misfits – but in Rapman’s fantasy London, only Black people have powers.

Superhuman abilities present themselves in moments of danger or frustration: Cole’s Michael discovers his when he’s fatally stabbed by a gang on a tower block estate. Drug dealer Rodney (Calvin Demba) uses super speed when desperate to deliver weed. Nurse Sabrina (Nadine Mills) telekinetically trashes her ward after a patient is condescending towards her. Ex-convict Andre (Eric-Kofi Abrefa) has a surge of uber-strength that destroys an ATM after he loses another job thanks to his criminal record. Teenage gang leader Tazer (Josh Tedeku) turns invisible when cornered by a rival crew determined to kill him.

At one point, Michael’s discerning social worker girlfriend Dionne (Adelayo Adedayo) highlights how little effort the police have put into finding Black youngsters because they don’t “look like Madeleine McCann”. “We highlight many issues that Black people go through,” Cole says. “It’s a social commentary. We’re just trying to give a truthful depiction of what we see. What Rap[man] perceives the world to be.”

“Obviously, we want people to be entertained,” he adds. “Feel some kind of emotion: laugh, cry. But at the same time, we need to plant the seed of certain conversations. You need to be affected by what the character is going through because, sometimes, you can hear about certain issues, but if you hear a song or watch a show then it’s like, ‘Oh!’ That unlocks the consciousness,” he says. “In terms of the last publicised manhunt for a missing person, it hasn’t been the same since Madeleine McCann. I think, if someone goes missing – kids, your uncle, your dad, your friend, whoever – everyone would like to feel like the world cares and put as much light onto it as possible.”

Adelayo Adedayo and Tosin Cole in ‘Supacell’ (Netflix)
Adelayo Adedayo and Tosin Cole in ‘Supacell’ (Netflix)

Cole stumbled into acting aged 16 thanks to a girl he had a crush on. “I was tricked into doing Shakespeare on the weekends,” he says, coyly admitting it was someone he “used to fancy” who dragged him to a workshop for Intermission Youth Theatre. “I had a horrible time with Shakespeare at school. I was very intimidated by the language,” he says. Then Cole did his first play: a modern version of Julius Caesar. “I just caught that bug, man,” he reflects. “Got addicted to being on stage, making people laugh, telling a story and getting applause.”

He quickly scored an agent and learnt his craft on the job in roles for the BBC teen drama The Cut, the soap spin-off Eastenders: E20, and a recurring role as Neil Cooper in Hollyoaks. Two seasons as the companion Ryan Sinclair in Doctor Who came before standout roles in Chinonye Chukwu’s historical drama Till and the 2023 remake of Reginald Hudlin’s comedy House Party. When Cole finally returned to the stage last winter, as Dre in Benedict Lombe’s Shifters at London’s Bush Theatre (which has just got a West End transfer), the show sold out – and he was heralded a heartthrob. “Being a heartthrob doesn’t necessarily get you the best parts,” Cole says. “For me, it’s about finding roles that excite you – almost scare you.”

I’m always being mad critical to better myself

The actor, who has Nigerian heritage, was raised in a large family – five siblings, too many cousins to count, and parents who weren’t always certain about his acting ambitions. “They’re supportive now!” he laughs. “When I was a kid, that wasn’t always the case. But thank God for growth and perseverance. You know what I’m saying? I’ve started making a little bit of money,” he jokes, adding his dad was particularly hyped about his role as the legendary Wailers’ keyboard player, Tyrone Downie, in the biopic Bob Marley: One Love earlier this year. “He was in Nigeria for a holiday and he was so gassed to watch,” beams Cole. “He showed me he’d bought the ticket, showed me a picture of him in the cinema. Those things make me so happy and proud.”

Proud? Yes. But keen on watching his own work back? No, thank you. “I’m always being mad critical to better myself,” Cole says. “But then you have to put on your cloak of arrogance and be like, ‘No. This s*** [success] is gonna happen.’ You have to wear a mask and just keep going.”

Cole at the UK premiere of ‘Bob Marley: One Love' (Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)
Cole at the UK premiere of ‘Bob Marley: One Love' (Getty Images for Paramount Pictures)

That mask is working. He’s the lead in a hit Netflix show and is set to star in Kyle Balda’s comedy Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Movie alongside a star-studded cast including Hugh Jackman and Emma Thompson, adapted from Leonie Swann’s bestselling book.

But, for years, Cole calmed his career nerves by looking at the paths of actors with legendary status: Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro. “I used to go on IMDb and order all their films on Amazon for like three or four pounds,” he says. “I’d basically get their filmography from the beginning of their career and see how they progressed – what choices they made. I realised there’s no one way to do it. When I looked back at some of their early stuff, it was shocking. Like, so bad I had to turn it off. But it made me realise there is no perfect career path. Everyone makes mistakes.”

For now, Cole’s ambition is simple: “I’m trying not to make my career so much of my identity,” he says. “Because, when your career takes over your whole life and you’re not working, you feel invalidated. So, I think I’ll just live life: try to be a good son, good brother, good friend. Play basketball until my knees give out. And if I’m doing the work, I’m doing the work. I’m still telling stories, that’s the most important thing.”

‘Supacell’ is available to stream on Netflix now . ‘Shifters’ begins at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 12 August