Gangs of London season 2: Koba’s Harrowing Back Story

Actor Waleed Zuaiter delves into what makes Gangs of London’s “villain amongst villains” tick.

Waleed Zuaiter as Koba in Gangs of London
Photo: Sky UK

Contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of Gangs of London.

Waleed Zuaiter is actually a really friendly guy. The California-born actor who grew up in Kuwait is chatting to Den of Geek via zoom, and we’re having a lovely natter. You could almost forget that he embodies one of the most unsettling characters on TV today, the vicious, lawless Georgian gangster in Gangs of London season 2

Koba blasts on the screen in episode one where he terrorizes the young Algerian gang before invading the home of Albanian boss Luan and kidnapping his wife, who he later buries alive. He has no affiliation to anyone and he “believes that you’re either predator or prey,” Zuaiter explains. But how did Koba get like this? And how did Zuaiter channel the show’s new big bad? We sat down with him to find out.

I’d love to hear a little bit about how you came on board. Did you watch season one? And did you have to audition for Koba?

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I definitely had to audition. I had not seen season one before I auditioned. I just had a great description of this character like less than a page and, and the scenes. And then right after I taped, I just felt really good about it.

I just loved the material that I was given, that I asked to see season one. And I think they had cast me relatively quickly because it was after I knew I was cast, we were waiting to get a meeting with Corin Hardy, the main director and I said Can you send me the episodes for season one. And I binged it. I mean, in like less than two days.

I watched the whole series and just became a huge fan. And then actually, while I was waiting to get the episodes, I just got online and started looking up interviews with Corin and Gareth Evans and Sope and Joe, and I just got obsessed. So I fell in love with all the people behind the scenes before even seeing the show, actually. 

You’re LA based. Gangs really wasn’t a massive thing in the US in the same way as it was in the UK. Does that sound right?

 Yeah, that sounds right. That sounds right.

I hadn’t really heard of the show, until my agents told me about it. But then sure enough once I started doing a little research, I was like, wow, this is like a global hit. It was really well received by the industry here and just critically, it was very well received. 

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How was Koba described?

My agents didn’t say much. They just said he’s a lead for season two. And the description said it all, the description was just so beautifully written. And you could tell that they really wanted to create such a memorable villain amongst villains. And that they felt that what was missing from season one was that there wasn’t like a common enemy or like a real common antagonist. The description had a lot of backstory, there was another document they sent me that was just about Kobas backstory.

He grew up in war torn Georgia, and survived the war with his family, but at the age of 11 his whole family was slaughtered in front of him. And their faces were removed. So it was like their faces were skinned. And that’s the whole idea behind his men wearing these masks. It’s symbolic of that. There was one sentence in there that really stuck with me. And it was that, at his core, he believes that you’re either predator or prey, and he’s always one step ahead of his adversaries. And that to me created this image of this just very primal survivor. And this state of nature, survival of the fittest.

Within that description that said he’s this charismatic, you know, a foodie, and he has such a flair to him, that you can’t help but gravitate towards him because he’s a leader in that way. I was just like, wow, like what a fun complex character to play. You don’t really get that many opportunities to play something like this. And then in the heightened world of gangs, which is like the real nice balance between gritty reality and letting your imagination go wild.

How do you create this character that’s such an unpredictable live wire that he can bring the city to its knees?

You know, it’s funny, because my wife in some interviews, she’s overheard me saying there’s a piece of this character in me somehow, and she gets terrified, and she’s, like, stop saying that to people! But I think in every role I played, there is a part of that role somewhere hidden in you. And it’s just a matter of bringing it out. Throughout my career, I’ve kind of complained by being typecast by just playing the stereotypical Arab character and I’m not complaining at all because I’ve actually really had some incredible material that I’ve played in, you know, these Middle East roles and, and just incredible projects from theater, TV and film.

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But for me, this was so polar opposite to anything I’ve ever played. And my most recent role I played an Iraqi hero, just a very heroic, noble guy, and so Koba was like the exact opposite of that.

It was playtime. It was just, let the imagination go wild. And just play.

How did the hair come about?

I discovered that during the first lockdown with Covid. My wife said if you shave my head, I’ll dye you blonde, because I was like, you have some leftover blonde dye,and we’re not going out anywhere. So when I had this blonde hair I was like, this would be really cool for a role. When am I ever gonna play a blonde?

When I had my first meeting with Corin I told him [about the hair] and he’s like, ‘send me pictures’ and he loved it right away. So I started to play with that. Then I was like, Okay, great. We can really play with costume right now. We had an incredible costume designer, David Wolfe and he was so up for that. 

I feel he’s sexually ambiguous, sex is just power for him. And so I want to play with that. And there’s a seduction that Koba has with anybody he’s talking to or interacting with. So I wanted to play with that. And Corin was really up for that. And so was David Wolfie. I really got to take risks, which was also terrifying for me as an actor. I was like, I don’t know if this will work, but I really have to go all out because it can either be really great or it can be a total disaster.

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How about the accent?

There was a great dialect coach that we had all my dialogue recorded by a Georgian with a very thick accent. And, and then the dialect coach helped me break that down. And for me, I was listening to this real Georgian, who by the way, was 20 years old, but his voice sounded like he was in his middle age, a like very deep, very rugged voice. And when I finally met him on a zoom, he was this 20-year-old, so you could tell he had lived the life.

Koba’s distinctive look is a big part of the character, isn’t it? There’s something about walking into a room where everybody’s wearing a suit and you’re wearing this tracksuit and trainers…

In the scenes that I taped, it said that he walks in with sneakers and a brown leather suit. So we didn’t find a brown leather suit, but the idea was it’s got to be as drastic as that. And then the sneakers were on, this guy is really light on his feet. So that was a really nice image that I had. And I was like, I really want to have fun. And between takes I was dancing, honestly, the whole time, I just just felt so comfortable. I was like, this is the most comfortable wardrobe I’ve ever worn for for anything that I’ve done. And it just really helped with being free.

My first day of filming was going into the Algerian cafe, and it was Arabic music playing and of course, I recognize the song. And so I just came in and started dancing – that was partly nerves but also Corin immediately was like, don’t stop dancing, that’s great, keep doing that.

Koba quite often gets his men to do the heavy dirty work, you do have a fight scene…

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The only real stunt that I had was the punch in the boxing ring. And that wasn’t written as me doing it. It was written as me telling one of my guys to punch Luan, and when we got into the space, and we’re in the boxing ring, and Marcella [Said – director] was like, how about you do the scene from outside the ring and we get the cords there and it looks beautiful visually, and I’m like, “No, I want to get in the ring with him!” It was just a spur of the moment decision, I hadn’t really thought it through. But when you’re in there and you’re in character, I’m like, I’m gonna punch him. I’m not going to tell one of my guys. We had training with the stunt team, and they’re just one of the best on teams I’ve ever worked with. Tim Connolly, who’s the head – this is my third time working with him. So it was such a nice shorthand and they trained me. I actually appreciated that because I was out of shape!

Most of my stuff is psychological torture with which for an actor, don’t get me wrong, I love the physical stuff, the physical stuff is like a dance. And it kind of it’s like, you know, you’re not thinking and you’re in the moment, but the psychological torture for an actor is also very fun. Because the way this character was created and conceived, he is a bit of a psychopath. There was ust great direction from Corin. He’s the kind of guy who likes to play with his food before he eats it.

He’s addicted to power and to dominating others. It was those choices that I think sets Koba apart from other violence in the show.

I’d love to hear a bit about the dynamic between you and Orli Shuka [who plays Luan] and what was like working on those scenes.

Orli is such an amazing human being and such a great actor and his wife Eri is equally as talented. They’re such a gorgeous couple, my wife who was with me the whole time, we really hit it off with them, and just really got along. 

The dynamic with Orli especially, was that I can really trust him, and I can really play with him. And I think he felt the same. And they, as a couple, were one of my favorite things from season one. Yeah, that dynamic was so real and raw.

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He’s a killer, but he’s such a family man. That’s the exact opposite of Koba.

Maybe in the back of Koba’s head, he’s like, “God, I kind of wish I had that…”

In the second half of this series the dynamic becomes more about you and Sean Wallace. Did that feel different working with Joe Cole?

Joe and I also really got along very, very well. The very first scene we shot together was the big scene in the bowling alley, where Koba and Sean come together. We just hit it off. One of the rehearsals that we had, I told him,”I think the thing that Koba and Sean share is we both have daddy issues.”

I think the closest that Koba ever gets to family is his relationship with Sean Wallace because he probably sees some of himself in him. 

Was it always the plan that Koba wouldn’t make it to the end?

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Throughout the filming, there was talk about him surviving and, and there were questions asked but I think that in terms of what the show was trying to say about family, it just totally made sense. It was sad to let go of Koba, but then the other part of me was like, I totally got it.

And that death scene, that’s such a signature Corin Hardy.

Everything is frame by frame and this idea of horror is an area that he thrives in. He wanted it to be memorable, but also sad, scary.

At one point, we were going to do a whole shootout. This very stereotypical kind of gangster thing. And he said this character really deserves an epic send off. And, and the best way to show that is the longest method of somebody dying. And so that’s where the idea of poison came in. 

It was Alex Gunn, the SFX supervisor – something that Alex said to him that just resonated with Corin about that length of time when you know you’re going to die. And what do you say, in the face of somebody who’s doing that? It really resonated with all of us because it’s so intimate. 

Gangs of London seasons 1 and 2 are available to watch on Sky Atlantic and Now in the UK, and AMC+ in the US.

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