Percelle, or ‘Percy’ as he calls himself, takes nothing in life for granted. Moving from Zimbabwe to the UK at the age of three and watching the sacrifices his loved ones made to provide a better life for him, has enshrined an unbreakable work ethic and eternal commitment to give back to those who have helped him along the way. Armed with a devout love for acting, along with an entrepreneurial mindset evolved from a young age, Percelle has built his own industry; propelling his own talents whilst cultivating the talents of a next generation of actors and industry professionals.
But it’s the commitment to his craft which really stands out to me. Percelle stars as Jay in Netflix’s new thriller, I Came By, as half of a working-class graffiti artist duo who targets the wealthy elite. Alongside Toby (George MacKay), the pair set their sights on a new social elite, but later discover a shocking, unassailable secret that will endanger their lives and the lives of those around them. The film is a rollercoaster of heart-racing highs and heart-wrenching lows, and Percelle is candid about the toll such scenes can take, but reveals his methods to separate himself from that of his character. Working alongside industry legends, and those destined to be, Percelle describes his admiration for his co-stars: their seamless craft and ability to embody characters with every ounce of their being.
However, this isn’t Percelle’s first Netflix rodeo. After attending a Netflix convention in Paris in 2016, Percelle could not imagine his accession to a front role in Netflix’s sci-fi series The Innocents. To most, these achievements are indicative of an upward career trajectory, but Percelle’s humble attitude and grounded perspective ensure he takes each job as it comes, enjoying them as though it may be his last. The same mindset is evident when Percelle reflects on his earlier work, including his guest roles, fresh from BRIT school, in Silent Witness and Wizards vs Aliens, and the creation of his online series Mandem on the Wall which evolved to E4’s Youngers.
In front of the camera is exactly where Percelle Ascott is meant to be. Captured by photographer Rebecka Slatter, this is obvious as Percelle’s eyes are drawn to the camera just as the camera lens is drawn to his. There is a stillness, a calm, which reverberates softly around him, as stylist Jessica Stein combines the gentle tones of Percelle’s surroundings to match the tranquil wavelength he emits.
'I Came By' is on Netflix now.
First of all, how are you?
Yeah, that's a good question. I'm in Greece on holiday so I can’t complain. I'm good, really just keeping well and this holiday came up so last minute - it’s my first holiday away with my family and my sisters which was important to me. I’m obviously away for the release of I Came By as well which is nice to get away before that craziness happens. It’s good to distract yourself and not think too much about the expectations of the film, just enjoying the fact it’s released now and finally getting out there.
If you think back to the very beginning, how has your journey to this very moment made you who you are today?
So I went to BRIT School, and when I first started acting after graduating and getting my first job, I was just really grateful for everything. I remember one time I was shooting as a guest, I think I was part of a school classroom, and I was watching one of the leads and thinking that I really wanted to become a guest lead in something. Soon after, I was lucky enough to become a guest lead in Silent Witness, and after that, I wanted to be a lead in something more, and then I landed Wizards vs Aliens. Over the course of my career, I've always focused on the kind of roles I wanted to do and more so just for the experience to learn more. When I got to do The Innocents with Netflix not too long ago, that was such a cool experience for me because I was leading in something that was really big in terms of the ambition and the size of the project. I really enjoy working alongside really, really cool people: Babak Anvari, George Mackay, Hugh Bonneville, and Kelly Macdonald, Varada Sethu. All of these guys are really exceptional in terms of what they do. So for me, it's always about learning and growing. I think this film allowed me to do that in terms of the genre. I've never done a thriller before and yeah, it was quite interesting to see how it plays out on shoot days. Generally speaking, it's been a long journey, but I think the longer the journey is the better in terms of experience and learning more, and I just wouldn't have it any other way. If it was too quick, if I had a sprinter sort of success, I don't feel I would have learnt as much I have. I'm just so grateful for what I've been able to achieve.
So, let’s talk I Came By. I was immediately hooked. You portray Jay and his journey throughout the film is a real rollercoaster to say the least. How would you describe his story and Jay as an individual?
It’s just like you said; the first 10/20 minutes is that window where you give a film that opportunity to grab you, and I think Babak does such a good job of keeping you hooked and engaged. So I Came By is about Toby and Jay, these two friends, growing up together. Jay has grown up closely with Toby in terms of the fact that Jay doesn't really have his mum in his life or his dad. Toby’s mum has acted as his mother so to speak. Early on, Jay is in this transitional period in his life where he's about to see things become quite serious with his girlfriend as she tells her parents about their relationship, and she finds out that she's pregnant as well. This is a really big pivotal thing in his world, and for Jay, it means a lot to him. For him, growing up without a family, he really wants one. He really wants to do the right thing. Jay has gone through a bit of an adolescent stage of his life, getting into trouble a few times, but now he's at the right place in his life where he just wants to have a steady job and look after his family. He's incredibly loyal, and when people watch the film, you see that Jay is constantly trying, making these choices, and trying to make everyone happy. I think that's his Achilles’ heel; the fact that he's trying to make everybody happy, but not choosing what he really wants. In trying to make people happy, whether it's Toby, Lizzie, or Nas, he makes a certain amount of choices that end him up in a lot of trouble and Jay really starts to implode because of the pressure he put himself under.
Early on Jay finds himself caught between his friendship with Toby (George Mackay) and his relationship with Naz (Varada Sethu). Do any occasions come to mind where you’ve been torn between your head and your heart?
One hundred percent! I feel like that's another thing that's really cool about the film - it's really relatable. I hope people watch this film and relate to the characters and their choices. For me, I've been in the shoes of Jay in terms of your head and your heart and trying to work out what to do. I might also share that similarity of just showing up, wanting to make everyone happy, wanting to look after the people in your life. Sometimes it doesn't always pan out for the best. Jay is 23 years old and I'm 29, so I've kind of grown up to live through those experiences. When I was picking up the script, I was reading about Jay and I really understood the conflict of where he was coming from. I knew there was so much for me as an actor to play around with that kind of emotion. As you’ve seen in the film, when he really starts to feel the pressure - him breaking down - I really understood why.
Was there any part of 23-year-old Percelle that exists within Jay?
Well, I grew up in South London. I wasn't a graffiti artist as Jay was, but I knew that world very well. For example, where I'd be playing football on the estates, on the street, literally next to me are all the guys who are spraying and stuff. I know what that world is, what it feels like growing up as well. In terms of Jay’s background, being from London, there are a lot of things that I naturally connected with, but I wanted to create a character that was definitely away from myself. The big difference between me and Jay growing up is that he's further ahead in terms of experience and what he's lived through. I guess for me, I hadn't gone through the kind of things and challenges that he had gone through, so I'd say Jay is definitely further ahead. He’s under a lot of pressure, having to provide for a child at 23 years old, along with a lot of insecurity in his life and a lack of stableness as well. There are things that I've really wanted to explore that I hadn't explored when I was 23, but I definitely understood.
I found much of the last half of I Came By raw and emotional. How do you prepare for an emotional scene?
For me, the biggest thing about acting is emotion. I remember a director once told me, a long time ago, that “dialogue is for radio”, and it really stuck with me because whenever I watch something, I feel like you really only connect to it through the emotion. I wanted to make sure when it came to those type of scenes, people really did believe in the position my character was in. It's important to get the build-up correct so you really get into those moments of tension and pressure and see it unfold. With Jay, he eventually implodes under the pressure, he's breaking down, and you really do believe why he got to that point. Working alongside George really made a difference - he is such a wicked actor and completely throws himself at everything. I like to do that as well and make sure I reach those emotions you can't control. Crying isn't a sign of breaking down, your body does things that you don't even realise you're doing most of the time. You're actually suppressing the emotion and that's what is allowing you to get there. Hopefully, when people watch it, they resonate with what I did.
On those film days, I use music. George said to me after we finished filming that he did as well, so that was quite cool to find out. But before those scenes, I just focus and have my own time before the scene happens. I'll probably arrive in the morning, and I'm happy, kind of chirpy, just before I get into the costume. Then once I get to set, that's when I'm really in that place. For the car scene at the end, we actually shot more than was in the edit. We probably did about an hour and a half of driving around. I had to keep that same emotion the whole time; it’s definitely a marathon. You have to keep your energy up as well, and not get too drained from it. But yeah, using music and once I'm in there, I'm in there. When I did the scene in the hallway with Varada, even after we yelled cut, I was still there. I had to remind myself that my body was in fight or flight mode. Your body thinks it's still under distress, but my mind isn’t. Afterwards, it’s about taking that time you need because as an actor, you get so connected to your character, empathy-wise, you feel sorry for them, or you really understand where they're coming from. It’s only natural.
How do you decompress after?
I just decompress and take my time again in my trailer, listen to some music, let that emotion run past. I don't hold on to that stuff, I think it's quite dangerous as an actor. If you hold on to what your character goes through after the film, it will get to you. On the day, we get to make believe and pretend, playing these characters and I know not to take it too seriously, it's my job at end of the day, I'll let it go.
You star alongside some industry legends like Hugh Bonneville and Kelly Macdonald. You’ve mentioned your admiration for George Mackay, was there anything else you learnt acting alongside your co-stars?
What I liked about working with George closely was how he really does throw himself into the role. I have such huge respect and admiration for his craft. He is such a soldier, he has so much energy and I was definitely trying to match it by mirroring him. If George was running on the spot, doing press-ups or squats or whatever it was to get his adrenaline pumping, I was matching him in the same way, especially when we jump over the wall and we're getting changed in the alleyway at the beginning of the film. Just before the takes, me and George shared the same mindset. It's important that you understand where your characters come from. We weren’t actually jumping off these walls and stuff - good thing too - it was our stunt doubles, but it was important for us to match the energy he comes into a scene with. He's very much a physical actor in terms of the way that he likes to embody his roles and his characters and it was a dream to actually witness him. Working with Kelly and Hugh and Varada, they’re such technical actors. Hugh is such a smiley, lovely man, but when you're in those scenes with him, you can really feel him believe in his character. He brings you into that world and you can really feel the tension. He's done such a great job with Hector Blake, and the same goes for Kelly. I shared a lot with Kelly; Jay and her character, Lizzie, have that maternal dynamic, so we both looked after each other. Just before takes, if she needed something or if I needed something, we helped each other. We had that care and consideration and I think that that energy carried itself over into scenes. They're all phenomenal actors. The biggest thing when you're working on a film like this is that we might not have much time to do certain takes. The schedule is tight as it is, so you're working with actors that are able to get to those places quickly, so I was just trying to match their pace and deliver in the same manner they did.
Netflix plays a large part in all of our lives. I read you attended a Netflix convention in 2016 and the rest is history. Back then, did you ever imagine you’d have comprised a main role in a hit Netflix series and a soon to be hit Netflix film?
No way, absolutely no way. When I went to the convention in Paris, they were just promoting all the different shows on Netflix. I actually went there as a YouTube creator, I didn't even go there as an actor, I was doing some content with my friends at the time. In fact, I met the director of The Innocents whilst I was out there and it was a really cool experience just to be there. I remember thinking ‘I want to work with this company’ because I loved what the owner was talking about. He made a speech and explained the ethos of Netflix and the vibe overall. I got to meet a lot of people behind the scenes, a lot of different teams including marketing; we actually went to LA to the first premiere of Stranger Things and I met the whole cast. I knew after I finished watching that screener that that was what I wanted do; I wanted to be part of the same kind of movement and the same kind of family. When The Innocents came up, I remember from the first audition, I didn't know it was for Netflix. It wasn’t until maybe the seventh or eighth audition I found out it was definitely for Netflix and I knew I had to be a part of this. The whole experience of The Innocents was so incredible - from making the actual series itself to the tour as well, going around and speaking about Netflix and speaking about the projects. I didn't know if I was going to get another Netflix project in the future after The Innocentshad finished, but I was so grateful for that experience. So, when this project [I Came by] came up, and it was for Netflix, I knew I had to be a part of it. It was more so the script that I fell in love with first and then I knew the company itself, so it was going to be a really cool ride.
Have you had an ‘I’ve made it’ moment yet?
The truth is, I don't feel like I've had that yet. My friend Joivan Wade is another actor, he says this thing - I really love the statement – “If you met your potential, what would your potential say back to you?” I think that that always has helped me in terms of my hunger, my ambition, and my work ethic. So even though I've achieved what I've achieved, I'm really really grateful for those things, but I'm looking forward to just doing more. I feel like I've got way more to offer and show as an actor and there’s a lot more to explore in terms of roles. I really hope that this film opens up more doors and opportunities. Everything happens in its own timing, it will happen, but I don't want to rush the process because if you do a project and you’re not ready it could overwhelm you. I feel like you have to be really ready in your personal life as well as your professional life to be able to do them. When I did my YouTube series Mandem on the Wall all those years ago, and when it became Youngers on E4, they've been built for myself and my friends, and it's like, those are the moments where I feel like, not we’ve made it necessarily, but we've made a legacy. That's really, really, really important to me: purpose, legacy, building something that's not just for us, it's for the people. Even after we've retired, or we've finished what we’ve been doing during our lives, it’s those things, built for the younger generation. As an actor, I feel like there's still so much for me to do; I can't wait to see what happens next.
You’re an actor starring in films and series spanning various different genres, and you’re also a YouTube content creator and producer. What’s the secret to balancing your time?
I'm really fortunate, because when it comes to the company that we've got, we've got a really good team. We've got about 20 people now working with us, and I've got one of my best friends Tafara Makopa, he's our MD. How it works is that myself and Joivan, we founded the company, and we have Tafara who sits with us as the managing director. And so, where Joivan is doing Cyborg Doom Patrol for HBO, and then I'm over here kind of thing, we both can act and do our own projects, as well as maintain the company's growth. Also, when we’re on set, it's like a holiday. It’s funny, sometimes I like to meet other actors and I might be on my phone checking emails, talking to people, and people around me are like “What you're doing?”, and I'm like, ‘oh, yeah, you know, we're about to do X, Y, Z, produce this project or produce that project’ and they're like, “Where do you find the time to do all this?”. It's because we just love it so much. I love acting, I love producing, I love directing, I love writing; it's all these different parts of myself that are all related to expression that I don't want to let go of. When you look at American talent, they all do loads of different things, whether it's Kevin Hart, he's an owner of his company, but same time, he's on stage, doing a worldwide tour, and then he's doing a film the next day. That's the kind of trajectory I would love to have in my life. I would love to be in a position where I’m acting in films that we're producing as a company. I really want to make these two worlds collide and work together. For I Came By, my company is doing some of the promotion for it. The fact that my own company is promoting the film that I'm in, I guess that's my two worlds in one place.
Were you always destined to be an actor, or once upon a time, was your heart set on a different career path?
So my dad and my stepdad, they're both entrepreneurs, so I grew up with two dads who really were ambitious. I actually had my own book business when I was 16 years old. What I did was, I used to go to charity shops and buy a book for 50p, and then I would go and sell it on eBay or Amazon for like £2. I did this and I scaled it up - started to sell like 600 books every week. So at the age of 16, I was seeing a little bit of money coming into my account that I never thought I'd see in my life. I was so surprised, I think I knew I wanted to be some kind of entrepreneur.
Also football. I was so passionate about football, but I didn't understand that you had to put in more hours than I was doing at 16. At 14 years old, I quickly decided that football wasn't what I was going to go into, and it was going to be acting because of my drama teacher. She inspired me to get into acting, she really was such a good teacher. In her lessons, I felt comfortable and safe. I just wanted to help out and clean the costume department, it wasn't even so much acting. But when I was 14, she asked me “I think you should be an actor, do you think you're going to be an actor?”, and I said yeah. So that was when I made that choice. Even with acting at a young age, I was also trying to set my own plays. That's where the entrepreneurial thing came in; me and my classmates were trying to set up our own play outside of the course itself. It didn't quite happen, but again, I was still trying to do new things and even when I was at the BRIT School, me and Joivan, we basically tried to get our own classmates over there to try and create a YouTube series and it didn't quite pull off. But, it pushed me and Joivan to then set up Mandem on the Wallwhich became the series it became. So, looking back at my childhood, from the entrepreneurial side, choosing acting, I always knew that I was always going to find a way to marry those two traits of mind together. Of course, now working on the production company and all of the entertainment stuff, I'm living that dream.
It's clear family is a big part of your life: you're on holiday with your family, you just mentioned your dad and your stepdad. You're of Zimbabwean heritage, how have your roots guided the way you view life? I know different cultures influence people’s attitudes to hard work and graft...
Massively. When The Innocents came up, I've always been in touch with my roots, but when it was released, I did a piece for BBC Africa. I remember talking about coming to the UK when my mum came over to London when I was three years old. I was born in Zimbabwe, I came here, my mum worked two jobs, trying to look after me and my family. I grew up in South East London, so there were six of us in a two-bedroom flat, so I really understand the sacrifice it takes just working hard for your family. I've definitely picked up that from my mum, but simply when we did the piece for BBC Africa, I had so many messages from so many Zimbabweans, it overwhelmed me. I didn't realise up until that moment how much me doing what I was doing was reaching back home or inspiring others. Even seeing Munya Chawawa, he's a good friend of mine, rising to the heights he's risen to and the fact that he's from Zimbabwe as well is so so cool. But just for me, as my career grows, I definitely hold on to my roots because it keeps me grounded. I went to Uganda about two weeks ago for friends wedding, but more so, it was my first time going back to Africa since I was five - going back there and feeling the African sun and experiencing my culture again. My dad grew up in Uganda for a few years and my dad travelled out with me as well, so we got to experience Africa together. It's just the celebration of who I am, down to my dreadlocks. These are choices I made. It's so important to embrace who you are, embrace your roots, but also just celebrate yourself. For many years, as an actor, I used to always have my curly hair and always try to keep myself on brand. But look, westernised beauty standards, that type of like curly hair, I guess my complexion too, I look mixed race as well, so there were loads of things I did to further push my head for my career and be more open to a lot of roles. But now, I just want to be me, I'm not really caring about the consequences today. If I don't get as many roles as I did before, it’s fine, you know, because at least now I'm really happy inside.
What advice would you give to your younger self when you landed your first role?
Always keep yourself authentic and original. But honestly, I wouldn't change anything because I had to learn all of those things in order to understand who I want to be and who I am. I've had different experiences when I was younger, when I used to conform a lot, and what I needed was to be in this industry. Ten years ago, the industry was very, very different to what it is now. Even a lot of the conversations that are happening now, if we look at 2020 and what happened there with the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of the conversations were about our industry. There's been so much conversation and progression, but I think there's still so much more to do in that sense. I can definitely feel a lot of things moving forward and there are a lot of people that are trying to pioneer it forward as well. So, I would say to myself to always be original, but I'm so grateful for the losses I took when I was younger, and the wins as well. I'm grateful now to be at peace and be content in who I am and the choices that I make. I didn't have that before. When I was younger, I had a lot of anxiety over what I had to do and what people needed me to do as opposed to what does Percy want to do? Now I know who Percy is. I know what he wants, and I'll live in that truth, whatever happens.
What does the perfect Sunday look like for you?
If I could paint you a picture, the perfect scenario is: wake up in the morning on a Sunday, go watch my football team’s match, see my boys, go and win. Afterwards, maybe go get some breakfast with the boys as well as a sort of post-match celebration over breakfast, then maybe just go back home and go for walks. Man, I really love where I live now. I'm at my mom's currently, and she lives in Coulsdon which is the outskirts of Croydon, but we've got hills and green everywhere.
Is that your happy place?
One of them! Either going walking with my family or even just by myself man. Like I get my speaker - love, love, love music - attach the JBL speaker to my chest or wherever it is and then just like going in the mud, walk, and just listen to music and taking in all the views. Even before the film, that was what I was doing pretty much almost every day before we started, just to not become overwhelmed and keep myself grounded. Long walks in Surrey Hills. Is that my dream? If I could buy a house there as well, that's when I’ll say I made it.
It’s hard to believe we’re still in a pandemic. What lessons - if any - have you learnt from the last two years?
So at the start of the pandemic, I was getting through, and we still had work to do so we were lucky to keep producing stuff. We were working with Footasylum in that time, so we created loads of content for them. We were doing home videos with the talent, so we were keeping ourselves busy, keeping ourselves occupied. I was also going to the park and training and had my set routine, but I think it was when we were in tier three lockdown at the start of 2021, I just got really frustrated and upset. There were a few things: usually at the start of every year I’d make some plans for what I’d like to do by X, Y, Z, but we never knew when we might be going into another lockdown, so what was the point in making a plan? That's what really hurt me because I was so frustrated because I'm always making plans and stuff. I got through that, and the moment we got out of the tier three lockdown, I knew I wanted to travel more. I told you about my trip to Uganda in February, I was in LA, and Atlanta, now I'm here in Greece, and next month I'm going to be in Jamaica and Ghana. So, I think just seeing the world, because we were limited to London, and as much as I love London, I realized we really have the ability to travel so why haven't I done more travelling? I’m turning 30 next year as well which probably has a part to play into that, but I just want to travel more and more man.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
There's so much to say. But about one… Thank God I'm not a politician because I don't think I'd be good enough, I'm too empathetic for that. I touched on it earlier, about legacy and purpose, I'm a big brother to five siblings now so I've always felt compelled to be a role model. There's a lot that goes into that in terms of giving back to a younger generation. Even now, I'm a manager as well, I manage these two YouTubers called Mkfray and Asmxlls, and I'm so proud of them, they’re my little brothers basically. But just for the younger generation, I don't want them to go through the same things that we went through. Around the world, I don't want children and kids to go through poverty and not having access - just not being able to be happy. My generation is working hard to try and change the way we had it growing up. When I do look back at my childhood, I sometimes wish I had people telling me the stuff that I know now, but that's okay. It was important that I went through that to pass on the message and pass the baton. So, if I could change one thing, it would definitely be to change the experiences that we had for the younger generations.