Ashley Walters is being hailed as a black role model and a rising star of the British film industry. At 27, he is an actor and musician, and he has appeared in critically acclaimed British films and starred alongside 50 Cent in Get Rich or Die Tryin' as a gangster friend who gets shot in a club. As a stage actor, he has had lead roles in plays by award-winning playwrights like Tarell Alvin McCraney. He is currently working on a hip-hop collaboration with Idris Elba, another black British actor and star of David Simon's The Wire, Tyler Perry's Daddy's Little Girls and the soon-to-be-released Takers, which stars Matt Dillon, Chris Brown and Zoe Saldana.
However, the story could be very different. Walters first made a name as Asher D in the musical outfit So Solid Crew, one of the United Kingdom's biggest garage acts and Britain's response to American hip-hop. The group was also famous for the controversies that surrounded it, including murder charges against one group member which were later dropped.
Walters also found himself on the wrong side of the law in 2001 when he was caught with a firearm, a weapon he says he took around for protection. He served seven months in jail, a period he describes as hell. "I definitely learned a big lesson," he says. "I learned you can be on top and have everything taken away from you. During my time inside, I spent time realizing what my priorities were and that was being a father and a role model for my children. You cannot be a role model in jail."
In addition to his acting and music career, Walters is a father of three, and is CEO of AD82, an independent record label and production company. He has starred in stage productions and in over 10 films including Life and Lyrics, a critically acclaimed British film.
Walters has numerous television roles under his belt, including Hustle, a television series about a group of con artists. It was a role that saw him replace Adrian Lester, another black British actor, who starred alongside John Travolta as Henry Burton, a political campaign manager in the film, Primary Colors. He also appeared in the critically acclaimed television production of Small Island, by Andrea Levy, a film which chronicles a Jamaican immigrant's journey from Jamaica to Britain during and after World War II. In 2004, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the British Independent Film Awards for his role in the film, Bullet Boy.
Walters says he observes actors like Jamie Foxx and Will Smith and aspires to work as much as they do. However, he counts his mother as his main role model and backbone because of the work ethic she has instilled in him.
Walters only had a brief relationship with his father, who was in and out of jail before he passed away. It is a period he counts as crucial to his development because he got to know his father and learned a lot from him. ''Every young male needs to have a father figure, a positive male role model because that will be your definition and your reference for what a man is. I never had that, and I struggled to find that for myself," Walters says. "I took bits off other people that were around me that were male and that became my definition of a man, and it was the wrong definition."
Walters filmed the in-depth conversations he had with his father just before he died. ''I used to look at him as if he didn't know anything because how could he know anything if he didn't want to know me? But watching the videos, I realize there are always reasons why people do things, and every decision is motivated by something," he says. "That was a big lesson for me to learn and having that opportunity for me to change my own perspective as a man and father.''
It is this realization that has made him more focused on his own family and the lens with which he views the world. So he does not repeat the cycle with his children.
Belinda Otas is a freelance journalist based in London.