How ‘Gangs of London’ Season 2 Star Waleed Zuaiter Helped Bring to Life TV’s Newest — and Wildest — Bad Guy
After a week of pomp, ceremony and royal snootiness courtesy of the latest season of The Crown, the British capital is now about to get showered in blood and guts once again.
The second season of Gangs of London, the super-violent crime series originally created by The Raid writer/director Gareth Evans and produced by Pulse Films and Sister, has arrived on AMC+, grabbing the entrails of the first outing in 2021 and managing to up the eye-watering carnage — and body count — some more.
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísu is back in the lead role as ex-squaddie turned undercover cop Elliot Finch, now forced to work as a hitman for a group of shady billionaires known as The Investors, while many of the (still alive) mob bosses from season 1 return to battle for control of London’s criminal networks.
But there’s a new — terrifying — addition to the mix in Koba, a Georgian drug kingpin and arms dealer brought in to restore order. Sporting peroxide blond hair and an OTT wardrobe (think shiny velour tracksuits, colorful shirts and excessive amounts of chest hair), Koba — played by veteran Arab-American actor Waleed Zuaiter — is arguably the wildest new antagonist on TV screens this year; a ruthless, unpredictable, psychotic and peacocking control freak who sees the city as his for the taking and has no issues with breaking unwritten gang codes and targeting his rivals’ families in order to terrorize them into submission.
For Zuaiter, most recently seen on TV in Hulu’s highly-acclaimed Baghdad Central, but whose lengthy list of credits includes House of Cards, London Has Fallen and the Oscar-nominated feature Omar (which he also produced), Koba was a total break from the norm, a rare opportunity to step into the shoes (in this case, sneakers) of someone totally different.
As he explains to The Hollywood Reporter, not only was Koba not from the Middle East (Zuaiter rejected an offer to make the character his own nationality, Palestinian), but he was a unique character he could pour his own creativity into (the hair was his idea) and really have some fun with.
You’ve played bad guys in the past, but they’ve been more devious than out-and-out terrifying like Koba. How did your role come your way?
When I was out in London for the Baghdad Central premiere in 2020, my reps had set up meetings with various casting directors and producers, and one of them was with Kelly Valentine Hendry, who cast Gangs. Apparently, she had me in mind for the role of Koba from that meeting.
What on Earth did you do in the meeting!?
Ha! I guess it was because I told her I was dying to play something different. Baghdad Central was really great in the sense that it was this heroic Arab character, which you rarely see. But I said that I wanted to do more what I was trained to do as an actor, which is to just step outside yourself and explore and learn and challenge yourself. And then, when I got the scenes, I was just really blown away. They were scenes that you could really sink your teeth into.
Was Koba fully-formed when you got the role or were you able to build him out yourself?
Kind of both. I had about three-quarters of a page description of the character. The terrifying part of him was very clear to me in this one sentence where it said that Koba at his core knows that you’re either predator or prey. And so he was one step ahead of his adversaries. And to me, that was like such a primal description of him. But then, right after that, it said that he was a foodie, and that he was really interested in the London cuisine. So it was very clear to me that he was something else, and he was seen as a character that we were meant to enjoy. So I fed off that and then I kept on feeding it back, and the creatives were so open to my ideas.
What were your suggestions?
The first one was that this character is so different from me that I want to physically look just very different. During the first lockdown of the pandemic, my wife said, “Listen, we’re not leaving the house for a while, I want you to shave my head.” So I was like, “Okay, I’ll shave your head if you dye my hair blond.” So that’s how I discovered the blond. I had done this before I even got the Gangs audition. But then I had to dye it again, because I had to read for Oslo. I was this guy from Gaza and I was like, well I can’t be blond for that! But I did take a lot of photos, and when the Gangs role came, I told [season 2 lead director] Corin Hardy that either I go bald or blond, because I just have to be extremely physically different. He said they’d seen bald before on the show, so I sent him a bunch of the blond photos and he really loved it. It fitted the description perfectly, because Koba is like this new fish in this much bigger pond, like a kid in a candy store when he comes to London and thinks he can own the city, and he’s somebody who peacocks.
And Koba’s blond hair really feeds into his wildly colorful wardrobe, which includes a particularly cool-looking maroon tracksuit. Were you involved in this as well?
The tracksuits were already in there, but I felt that the tracksuit look was something we’d seen before with Eastern European gangsters. So I said, look, Koba makes a lot of money, he’s got blond hair, and he’s new in London, he’s like a tourist… he needs to dress like he’s on vacation and just enjoying every single minute of it. So there was a gold jacket with blue pants, and these Cobra sneakers. I took about three-quarters of my wardrobe home — half of it for my wife to wear. But Koba is a guy who really is trying to seduce you, so I wanted to show as much chest hair as possible. But there were months where it was really cold when we were shooting and I was like, God, I kind of regret this!
Koba is described as being Georgian, but to be honest I never really felt he had a particular nationality. He seemed very international and could have been from any number of different places.
That’s such a great reaction, because when I looked up the Georgian accent, they said that it’s often mistaken as Israeli, Russian or Turkish. And it is really this kind of mixture.
Actually, when I booked it, they said that, because I’m Palestinian myself, I could make him Palestinian. I’ve played the Arab bad guys in a lot of things in my career, but I wanted to have fun with this and not have this cultural responsibility, and wanted to just be an artist. So because I had never done the accent before, I just got really specific and found a Georgian in London to record my dialog. And there were these really great mispronunciations of words and emphases in the wrong places. So I really had fun with the cadence and the rhythm.
Koba isn’t a particularly big or tough guy himself, but has this absolutely terrifying presence, like you can’t predict what he’s going to do next and could snap in a second. He reminded me a little of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. Did you have an inspiration for him from other on-screen characters?
I was a big fan of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds and remember thinking that the character himself was enjoying what he was doing in terms of the villainy of it and the manipulation of people psychologically. And also I felt Christoph Waltz was enjoying the job that he had to do. To me, that was very much similar to myself with Koba. I’m just always more intrigued with characters that are psychologically torturing, to me that’s scarier.
After the first season of Gangs came out, many people immediately linked Ṣọpẹ Dìrísu to the James Bond job and said he’d be perfect to take over from Daniel Craig. Now you’ve worked alongside him, what do you think?
Totally. And he’s an incredible human being as well, just very, very disciplined. He’s such a soulful actor and I think he’s gonna go really far. He’s played American Football and has some boxing experience, and those kinds of things really help actors. It becomes very instinctive and just heightens all your responses. He’s also a very meditative person. Between setups and takes, he’s not chit-chatting. He’s somebody you’ll see in the corner with his eyes closed. And I tend to do the same thing too, and I feel like that kind of grounds you. So whenever we had a scene together I just felt like we were really connected on a deeper level.