It’s a lonely job being Top Boy’s break out star – as Araloyin Oshunremi found when he began his last season of filming in summer 2022.
“The first day of set, I looked around me and I realised everyone I was with in the first two seasons, I’m not with no more,” the 19-year-old actor tells me. “So it [was] like, sad, sitting by myself in the trailer… but it helped my character. My character is physically by himself this season as well.”
Oshunremi’s character, Stefan Tovell, has been on quite a journey since we first met him as a gangly kid, in the first episode of the show, when it was rebooted in 2019. The younger brother to Micheal Ward’s budding kingpin, Jamie, Stef has seen his family and friends killed around him as a result of the show’s brutal gang violence. “The first season to now, we see Stef become a man. We see him mature quite a lot and have to make decisions, but have to actually think about the decisions before he makes [them].”
There are some big decisions on the horizon, too. This season, Stef is dealing with the loss of Jamie, who was shot by Sully in the closing moments of season two. This loss drives his character arc in this third and final season, as he attempts to seek revenge for what was done to his family. With the lightest of spoiler caveats, Oshunremi found himself learning how to handle a gun properly this season: “You have to actually learn how to hold it in a natural way.”
How did he find it, digging into that side of Stef’s character? “I haven’t really lost someone that close”, he says, so instead relied on research. But in many other ways, Stef has had a big impact on Oshunremi’s life.
“So many decisions in life that I make now, I feel like Stef has an influence in it. He values family a lot. He takes family very seriously. But not just like blood family, his friends as well… Stef has a funny side as well. I’ve become funnier. I feel like there’s a lot of crossover and I’ve also influenced his life. There’s kind of a bond.”
So much of a bond, that he didn’t realise what it meant playing Stef for the last time until he went home. “Then, everything was silent, and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s time now.’”
It’s been a big journey for the London-raised actor, who started his acting career in Top Boy. Growing up in Hackney, Oshunremi originally wanted to be a footballer. But he was leaving a barber’s shop in his local area when he was given a flyer advertising an open-call casting for the show that was being revived by Netflix after it was cancelled by Channel 4. He went after school, and that was it: he was in.
At the time, he was so young, he wasn’t even allowed to watch Top Boy: “My brothers and my sister kind of infilled me [on the plot]” instead. A far cry from today, where his inbox is flooded with DMs from adoring fans.
“Like deep, deep DMs… some of the messages I get sometimes, I actually cry, because I’m glad I’ve had an impact on someone’s life in a positive way.”
Growing up in an estate, similarities between Oshunremi’s world and the world of the Summerhouse estate in the show are actually few and far between. His family, he says, kept him shielded from any gang violence that happened in the area (he had a strict 7pm curfew); but admits there are some similarities when it comes to community.
“Stef is kind of the baby of the area. All of the other people around him take care of him… he has a lot of parental figures,” he says. “That’s the same thing you might have in Hackney as well. My brother’s friends will make sure that I’m good... So yeah, the community aspect was similar.”
Another similarity is gentrification, which has hit Hackney hard in recent years; brunch spots and trendy bars replacing the old inner-city estates.
“There’s a lot of gentrification all around,” Oshunremi agrees. “You see a lot of new buildings and stuff. And like new coffee shops and new cafes, I feel that it just adds a bit of flavour. I feel like Hackney is very, very gentrified, however, we still have a lot of the old, old aspects of it. It’s a mixture, which is good.”
With Top Boy set to make its final appearance on our screens, from this Friday, it’s impossible to overstate the impact it has had. Nominated for multiple awards, it’s become a byword for great, gritty London drama, as well as a showcase for some of the UK’s best acting talent.
“It’s been very, very significant,” Oshunremi says. “I feel like Top Boy has paved the way for a lot of actors. I’ve seen a lot of great actors come from Top Boy, like Letitia Wright, Ashley Walters, Kano, Micheal Ward, the list goes on.”
“There’s a lot of black British actors that are coming in to take over the acting scene. And like they’re doing it at full effect, full force. But we’re not just releasing shows, we’re releasing great shows and movies, which I’m really proud about.”
Top Boy will be streaming on Netflix from September 7