Actor Daniel Ezra, star of the hit show All American, chats to Notion about being a leading man, the influence of Nipsey Hussle and Denzel Washington, and how he finds inspiration in the world around him.

There’s pressure inherent in any leading role. The responsibility of being number one on the call sheet, the centre of a story around which everything has to revolve – that’s a difficult task for any actor to manage. It’s also one that the 30-year-old actor Daniel Ezra has stepped up to without hesitation, though.


Ezra cut his teeth on a series of starring roles on some of Britain’s top crime dramas, from Undercover to The Missing to Prime Suspect 1973. It was more than enough to give the ambitious young actor a useful lesson in the delicate art of ensemble television dramas, but this sequence would simply serve as a prologue to a far bigger and brighter stage of Ezra’s career. He has no trouble identifying who inspired him to reach higher, naming his foremost inspiration as “Denzel Washington – most of my time in theatre school was just me imitating him.”


In 2018, Ezra submitted an audition for what would be his first American role. Somewhat paradoxically for the all-British actor, it was for a show named All American – the story of a young American football player building a career as he attempts to bridge the two very different worlds of his native south Los Angeles and the affluent Beverly Hills school to which he is recruited.


It was to be a demanding role, filled with tough physical activity, hard-hitting storylines about racism, mental health, and class inequality, all amidst the hectic schedule of a US network drama, but Ezra dove in without hesitation. He says he was attracted to “the challenge – a role that requires you to learn a new language, a new sport, a different culture all in one project is something an actor like me dreams of”.


Two weeks later, he’d get the call telling him that the role of Spencer James, the all-American of All American, was his.

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The show garnered positive critical notices when it premiered in the autumn in 2018, with special emphasis placed upon Ezra’s performance – Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter described him as a “truly promising lead” with a “note-perfect American accent”. It took a little longer, however, for the show to find its audience, with a ratings struggle that led to a cancellation scare at the conclusion of the first season.


The CW decided to take a chance on season two, however, and as the show and Ezra’s character developed, something impressive happened – thanks to the immense popularity of All American in its streaming home on Netflix, the ratings picked up as it went. Ezra says, “It was like an explosion. We were almost cancelled in season 1, so to go from that to hitting number one on Netflix, being the number one show on The CW, it’s incredible. And overwhelming at times”.


Through it all, Ezra has been at the centre, making him one of the stalwart stars of American network television. He’s frequently recognised on the street, commonly written up by the hottest pop culture outlets in the business, and it’s difficult to count the amount of times he’s the recipient of genuine shock that his American accent isn’t actually real. He shoulders the expectations lightly, though. When we asked him if the ‘one to watch label’ overwhelms, he answered, “Not if I don’t let it. I put so much pressure on myself already, if I let anymore in I’ll crumble. But it’s nice, don’t get me wrong and I’m grateful but some distance from all that is healthy.”


Ezra is aware of the difficulty of being associated so strongly with his breakout role, but he takes that in his stride too. “You want to be formless as an actor. You want people to see you as a blank state so that imagining you in different roles comes easier to them. But having said that, I adore Spencer. He’s my hero. So being associated with him for the rest of my career? I wouldn’t be mad at that.”


There have been difficulties to bear during the show’s shooting. The last two seasons have been filmed during COVID, a tough ask for a show so predicated on close contact, such as during football scenes. Ezra says, “The worst part of it was not seeing peoples faces. We’re a close crew. We hang out, talk, bond. Having these barriers between us constantly was rough. But I always remind myself – It’s just TV. There’s people working fourteen hour shifts in hospitals in full PPE gear. There’s people losing their jobs, homes, family members due to this thing. It’s important to maintain that perspective.”

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Focusing on the negatives isn’t Ezra’s style. He’s clear-eyed about the value of a show like All American in today’s climate, saying that, “These kids are under so much pressure today. Depression, suicide, anxiety are skyrocketing and nobody’s really talking about it meaningfully. All American can’t fix that but I hope we’re at least some kind of light amongst it all. I hope when they all grow up and look back there’s a place for us somewhere within that nostalgia”.


At the centre of it all is Ezra’s Spencer James, the hard-working football prodigy whose story takes tips from the true tale of Spencer Paysinger, the linebacker who, like his fictional counterpart, hopped from the world of south LA to Beverly Hills on his way to the top.


Ezra values his character intensely, working hard to get into his headspace. He names music as a big influence, noting that, “To learn the accent I listened to everything Nipsey Hussle ever recorded. Every mixtape, song, all the videos on YouTube, every interview. I made a ‘Spencer James’ playlist when we got started in Season 1 that was completely LA Hip Hop just to further embed myself in this world. And then for individual scenes, if its a scene that requires me to go to a particularly emotional place I’ll usually find a song that helps me get there too.”


For him, it’s all about the journey Spencer takes, one which he sincerely hopes will do some real-world good. He’s always mindful of the impact that watching a story like Spencer’s on mainstream TV will have on viewers. “I hope when this is said and done, a lot of the young men who rode this wave with us can breathe a little easier. I hope Spencer gives them room to be a little more gentle with themselves. To feel OK being a warrior but also being vulnerable. To give as much to themselves as they do to the world outside.”

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Such a role requires responsibility, and that responsibility can be burdensome. Ezra has put just as much work in finding an outlet from the hard-hitting stories tackled in All American – he says that, “I do my best not to take it home with me. I get to the gym, watch cartoons, ride my bike… anything to flush it and reset”. The long shooting schedules for each season bring their own intensity, but he manages that too, saying his trick is “trying to sleep as much as I possibly can”.


Ezra says describes himself as “a big kid at heart”, an ethos which surely feeds into his sincere love for Spencer – who is far younger than Ezra himself – and his journey to the top. Describing his show’s exploration of mental health in Black communities, a theme not often tackled on mainstream TV, he says that “it’s everything to me. It’s probably what I’m most proud of, our exploration of that”.

Ezra’s star is sure to keep rising. All American is well into its fourth season now as one of the biggest shows on The CW, and it now airs alongside a successful spin-off, Homecoming. At the centre of it all is the all-American star who just happens to be British.


Looking ahead to the future, his ambitions are as bright as always. He reveals that he “started this year off directing for the first time and I definitely want to do more of that. A season 5 of AA would be amazing now that we’re in college. Just more opportunities to be creative!”.


Like his hero Denzel, Ezra isn’t an actor who’s content to settle for the level he is at. There’s always something more to make.

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