Whatever 2022 brings, there’s one thing we can bank on: there’ll be some cracking TV. Here we meet the stars of the year’s most exciting new shows, from Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols biopic to the UK version of Call My Agent and the Steve Coogan-led #MeToo comedy Chivalry. By the year’s end, these four new faces may well feel like old friends.
‘I don’t even know who Alan Partridge is’
Growing up in Jamaica, Adjani Salmon wasn’t familiar with the British obsession with Doctor Who. In fact, he only realised the full extent of it in the middle of filming an episode.
One of his first acting jobs was Eve of the Daleks (which broadcasts on 1 January), in which Salmon’s Nick gets tangled up with the Whoniverse baddies, alongside his crush Sarah (Aisling Bea). Fans turned up to the Bristol set, and the crew told him they needed to “‘get the umbrellas, because we don’t want to give away who’s in the special’. And I’m like: ‘Oh shit, this is a big thing!’” he laughs from the garden of his family home in Kingston, where he is for Christmas – a coconut tree-dotted idyll that seems to exist in a different universe to grey UK skies.
Salmon started out as an editor in Jamaica’s reality-dominated TV industry – mainly on Mission Catwalk, the Caribbean edition of Project Runway – before moving to London to follow his film-making ambitions. Once again he found himself studying in the capital (he’d already done an architecture degree at the University of East London), and was soon making his own web series, Dreaming Whilst Black, which was adapted last year into a charming BBC pilot. In it, he plays a frustrated movie-maker toiling in an office job. But Salmon only cast himself to avoid paying a proper actor – and he’s still conflicted about his inadvertent career shift. “You’re so exposed – there’s a level of vulnerability I don’t like. But I do think acting has made me a better director.”
The exposure is about to get much greater. Later this year, the 32-year-old will co-star in Steve Coogan and Sarah Solemani’s #MeToo comedy Chivalry. He plays the husband of Bobby, Solemani’s up-and-coming film-maker who has been tasked with rescuing a flailing project helmed by Coogan’s problematic producer. (Wanda Sykes, Sienna Miller and Lolly Adefope complete the starry cast.) It has hit written all over it – but initially Salmon wasn’t even sure if he should audition. “I thought it’s either going to be really cutting-edge … or really bad,” he says of the #MeToo angle. Thankfully, his Who co-star Bea encouraged him to, even offering up practical tips for making an audition tape (blu-tack is invaluable, apparently).
Part of his reluctance was that, again, he didn’t understand Coogan’s significance: Partridge-mania had passed him by. “I’d tell someone I was doing this show and they’d say: ‘Bro, do you not know what Alan Partridge is?’ And I was like, no.” His cluelessness did wonders for his nerves. “It’s so interesting meeting people who are almost icons – they’re beyond humanisation – and being like: you’re cool as people. It was great.”
Salmon is planning a return to his directing roots this year, too; he’s also hoping there’ll be a series of Dreaming Whilst Black this year. “I have plans, however it has not been commissioned yet,” he says carefully and emphatically, giving the impression of a man bound up in bureaucratic limbo. Even if it never materialises, you imagine Salmon’s 2022 won’t be a quiet one – at the very least, there’ll probably be an encounter with an unfamiliar British institution somewhere along the way.
‘At school all I got to play was leopard No 2 – no lines’
Like many millennial women, Emma Appleton devoured Dolly Alderton’s 2018 memoir Everything I Know About Love, a potently relatable coming-of-age tale peppered with 00s nostalgia. “On the second page it’s talking about messaging boys on MSN – it’s a flashback for all of us,” enthuses the 30-year-old. But unlike her fellow fans, Appleton would do more than identify with the author – she’d actually become her. This year, the actor stars in the BBC adaptation of the book, about two childhood friends – Appleton’s Maggie (based on Alderton) and Birdy (played by Bel Powley) – navigating the peaks and troughs of their 20s in a London house-share.
Appleton presumed playing a character “so similar to me on paper” would be a breeze – but, in fact, the opposite was true. “It is the hardest job I’ve ever done because when someone’s written in such a complex and nuanced way, it’s a lot harder to portray that in the right tone. I so desperately wanted to get it right and do it justice for Dolly. It felt quite precious.”
Just before Everything I Know About Love, Appleton was trying to do another real, but significantly less relatable, person justice. In Danny Boyle’s upcoming Sex Pistols series, Pistol, she plays Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen. Before filming, Appleton had been aware of Spungen as a semi-mythical rock figure, and heard that “no one liked her and she was a nightmare. Which is true but she’s also incredibly complex,” something she learned reading Spungen’s mother’s book, And I Don’t Want to Live This Life, written after her 20-year-old daughter’s violent, unexplained death by stabbing at Chelsea Savoy Hotel in New York. Despite the troubling source material, the shoot itself was “a dream come true” thanks to Boyle. “Growing up watching his work then being able to step on set with him was great!”
For a while, acting was just a dream. She never got the main parts in plays at her Oxfordshire school – “I’d always audition and it would be: ‘OK, you can be leopard No 2, no lines’” – and so instead she became a model.
But when Appleton’s agency offered her a short film casting, she won the part, and it all happened very quickly: a lead role in BBC teen drama Clique and 1940s-set spy series Traitors soon followed. Not long after, she was cast as the vengeful Renfri in the sensationally popular Netflix series The Witcher, a role that required her to master a whole new skill set. “I just wanted to get my sword-fighting right and try not to blind Henry Cavill, which I was successful at,” she smiles. “It took about a month of training, six days a week, six hours a day. It was a lot!”
‘Elton John gave me a huge hug’
He may only be 17, but Kit Connor has already endured one of the most daunting moments in any actor’s life: playing a real person in a film, then watching the finished product right beside them. Not any old member of Joe Public, either: that person was Elton John, and that film was Rocketman. “We were sitting with him in Cannes and he was getting a bit emotional,” recalls Connor from his Croydon family home. In a good way, clearly: during a photocall at the festival John made a beeline for the teenager to give him a huge hug. “I think it might have been the best day of my life,” he grins.
It was his 2019 performance as the musical wunderkind that introduced Connor as a very promising young actor – but it’s his next project that’s destined to make him a household name. He plays Nick, a “popular rugby boy” who falls in love with Charlie, a boy in the year below at school, in the new Netflix adaptation of Alice Oseman’s beloved graphic novel, Heartstopper. It’s a particularly contemporary gay love story: homophobia doesn’t really seem to enter the equation. “It’s a very optimistic, hopeful portrayal – looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles,” explains Connor. “The show is a ball of sunshine.”
Connor hadn’t read Heartstopper before he got cast as Nick, but he was immediately made aware of the book’s fervent fanbase after an outpouring of love and support on social media. Did he feel the weight of expectation? “Nick is a 6ft 2in, big, built lad and I was very skinny – I don’t know how I got the role to be honest. I was thinking, OK, do I get on a pogo stick?! But I managed to gain some weight and did a lot of rugby training.”
Like other Netflix schools – namely, Sex Education – the setting of Heartstopper is a joyful, technicolour place, says Connor. (Unlike the transatlantic hinterland of that show, however, there is a decidedly British vibe to this: “We played it very apologetic. Everyone saying sorry all the time!”) After filming, his real school felt “very drab” – and a lot more stressful. Having spent his childhood juggling education with acting jobs – at 10 he starred in comedy caper Get Santa, and later lent his voice to the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials (he played Lyra’s dæmon Pan) – the fact he was 17 on Heartstopper’s set meant he was treated like an adult, with no time to study during the day. “I was working 12 hours a day and thinking: ‘I could go home and do my homework right now, but I need to sleep for tomorrow.’ I got back to school thinking this is going to be hell!”
It doesn’t seem to have put him off, though. Connor’s already primed for more Heartstopper: “I can’t wait for it to come out – hopefully people like it and we’ll be called back for another instalment.” As teenage dreams go, it doesn’t seem particularly outlandish.
‘I asked Helena Bonham Carter for a selfie on set’
In the British version of the cross-Channel hit Call My Agent, Fola Evans-Akingbola has been plunged into a cast swimming in national treasures. When Helena Bonham Carter came on set, the 27-year-old “didn’t even attempt to play it cool, I was so embarrassingly like: can I take a selfie with you?!”
She plays Zoe in the showbiz satire, the equivalent of the original’s Sofia, the talent agency receptionist who is desperate to become an actor. She initially struggled to capture Zoe’s pushiness, but identified strongly with her character’s battle between ambition and “crippling self-doubt.”
That self-doubt stems from the fact Evans-Akingbola decided to become an actor relatively late in life. “I envy people who knew they wanted to do it since they were five – I didn’t, so I’ve always felt some insecurity about that.” She was a sports scholar at her school in Dulwich, south-east London, and did no performing arts. “People from my school would be like: ‘What? Fola’s an actor?!’”
After deciding not to take a place at university to study philosophy, her mother encouraged her to find some hobbies. She wound up at acting classes, which led to a stint at the Identity School of Acting (other alumni include John Boyega and Letitia Wright). The student body was far more racially diverse than her school, which changed her sense of what was possible. “It was the first time in a classroom with all sorts of different skin tones,” says Evans-Akingbola, whose father, Sola, is a Nigerian-born percussionist who plays with Jamiroquai. “That awakened something for me.”
She consulted her uncle, the actor Jimmy Akingbola (soon to star as Geoffrey in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot), who urged her on. The milestones of British acting both old (“got to get Holby City on the CV!”) and new (Black Mirror) quickly racked up. A big US show soon followed: between 2017 and 2020, she spent six months of the year living in Canada, filming the mermaid-themed series Siren.
Despite such a swift rise, she is still eager to pick up acting tips – and the set of Call My Agent was the perfect place to do it. “It’s been so exciting to watch these amazing actors do their thing,” she says of her castmates, who include Dominic West, Jack Davenport, Maggie Steed, and Phoebe Dynevor. If the success of the original is anything to go by, it surely won’t be long before Evans-Akingbola joins their ranks.
Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks is on 1 January, 7pm, BBC One