Top Boy has achieved what few other television programmes have done: translating a gritty tale of UK inner-city life to a worldwide audience, dealing with themes of race, representation, and gentrification, all while tapping into the power of youth culture, seen in its roster of talent, like Kano and Little Simz. The drama tells the hard-hitting story of life on an East London council estate, and in not holding back from authenticity, Top Boy finds its power.
The show ended abruptly in 2013 despite earning critical acclaim for its two Channel 4-broadcasted seasons. It left fans of the show confused and hard done by, wanting more. This is when Canada’s favourite roadman and anglophile Drake saved the day, teaming with Netflix to rejuvenate Top Boy with open arms.
As part of its Netflix revival, a then-unknown Araloyin Oshunremi would be given a life-changing opportunity to play Stefan, the youngest brother of the Tovell family. Having lost his parents, Stefan finds himself in the care of Jamie, his oldest brother, who balances caring for the family with his goal of becoming the “Top Boy.” This pursuit for power sees Jamie being killed by gang leader Sully in the season four finale. In season five, Stefan lives in a care home following his middle brother Aaron’s departure to university.
Oshunremi’s route into the show happened by chance, following a dodgy trim in his native Hackney. “I went to a barbershop on a random Sunday to get a haircut, and then I was about to leave early because I didn’t like what the barber was doing. A streetcaster came up to me with a flyer and asked me if I wanted to audition for Top Boy,” he tells Culted.
“From then I was like, you know I’m 13 years old, football is not really going my way, I enjoyed drama at school, so I thought ‘let’s go for this.’ I had four stages of auditions, and then they contacted my family and said I got the role.”
At this point, Top Boy was a well-respected name in television – both in its homeland and across the pond – so landing the job was a huge deal for the young actor. “I was overwhelmed, I couldn’t believe that I actually got the role. When I was going for the auditions, I was like, ‘This is an experience; just go there and try something new.’ To actually get the role, I couldn’t believe it. I was over the moon.”
“I feel like revenge could also be on his mind”Araloyin Oshunremi
Unfortunately, Oshunremi’s character, Stefan, is a victim of circumstances he didn’t ask for. He longs for a normal family life that he cannot live because of Jamie’s criminal activity, and while trying to stay on the straight and narrow, the risk of falling down the same path is a very real threat to the character.
When asked why Stefan is holding a gun in the trailer, Oshunremi expands on the impact of Jamie’s death. “In the new season, we see Stefan finding it hard to deal with Jamie’s death. There’s a lot of scenes where he’s alone, we see him upset and thinking about Jamie.”
The now-19-year-old reflects on the hard-hitting storyline. “When [Stefan] looks at a photo of Jamie, we see him quite upset, and he starts crying. And he handles it quite well. If I was in that position, I would be more distraught than he was.” He adds, “I feel like revenge could also be on his mind, but he also knows the consequences if he takes that step.”
Obviously, for Dushane or Sully, life as the “Top Boy” comes with its own stresses and the threat of the mantle being taken away. When asked if there is a way out for Dushane or Sully, Oshunremi remained tight-lipped: “You’ll have to wait and see.”
But it’s not all so secretive, as he continues to note that “this season, he’s going to become a man.”
In becoming a man, Stefan’s characteristics develop with a deeper, and more complicated, understanding of the criminal world, which is reflected in his uniform – something Oshunremi was involved with. “Wardrobe called us prior to filming. They always sent ideas or [asked us], ‘What do you think your character will wear this season?.’ [This season] I wear black from head to toe. I loved the jacket I was wearing. The Nike Tech Fleece as well, it’s very similar to the one Jamie wears.”
In the first season, “Stefan wears a lot of bright colours because he is always happy and joyful. [In the] second season, we see him wear colours that are a bit darker. Third season [it’s] very dark colours. His clothes and fashion reflect his mood and character for the season.”
Outside of criminal activity, the show reflects real-world issues. Summerhouse, the fictional estate depicted on the show, is located in Hackney. As an area, the East London borough has undergone drastic changes since the show first aired in 2013 – put bluntly, gentrification has impacted the lives of East London residents including Oshunremi, a Hackney local himself. However, he doesn’t see the changes as wholly negative. “I don’t think it is causing a lot of friction because it is making the city better at the same time, but in Top Boy, we see friction. In Hackney not so much. They’re rebuilding the estates and stuff [and] it is making it more secure and look better. Where I live, they’ve fixed it up and it looks better.”
As Hackney has developed, the area has attracted an increasing number of high-profile residents, with Drake supposedly purchasing a property in the area in 2022. Of course, Top Boy wouldn’t be here without the input of the rapper, who famously pushed for a new series following the abrupt end to what is now known as Top Boy: Summerhouse. Oshunremi, a fan of Drake, described his first experience of meeting the rapper. “I met him at a read-through, and I was shocked because I was into Drake’s music, so seeing him in the flesh was shocking. I was over the moon. But I met him at the premiere as well for a second time. He’s a very lovely guy, and he made everyone feel special.”
Alongside time spent with a GRAMMY Award-winning executive producer, Oshunremi also mingled with an extremely talented cast and crew. Undoubtedly, time spent on the Top Boy set has been formative for the star, having to quickly learn scripts and adapt to day-to-day schedule changes. Oshunremi was left feeling particularly inspired by a performance given by Howard Charles’ character, Curtis, in the second season. “He’s not actually Scouse, he’s from London. When I spoke to him the first time, I couldn’t believe it, yeah, he’s a sick actor.” Spending time with his fellow cast members and witnessing first-hand the powerful performances delivered has inspired Oshunremi.
Despite the series finale being out, Oshunremi isn’t resting on his laurels. The rising talent has big ambitions: “I want to be an American black influential figure [from] the past. For example, someone who was part of the Black Panthers. Those figures are very influential in Black culture and history, so to play someone in the past and nail the accent to a tee and their mannerisms would be a pleasant thing for me.” His time on Top Boy has taught him to “work hard… if I really need to learn an accent, I would have the work ethic to do it and achieve it to the highest level I could do it.”
Araloyin sums up his time on Top Boy as “amazing, emotional and extravagant,” and it is clear the show has had a profound impact on him. Indoctrinating the star amongst a star-studded cast (with Adowah Aboah featuring in the latest season), and allowing the emerging actor to explore a highly impactful and thought-provoking plot, has set Oshunremi in good stead for future acting gigs.
With a career that started by cheating on his barber, his fated acting path is just getting started. Featuring in Warhol, which comes out soon and with ambitions to play key figures in history, Araloyin Oshunremi is a break-out star on a mission, already leaving a legacy loaded with acting feats.
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