With a number of theatre accolades already under his belt, Fisayo Akinade first graced our screens in C4’s “channel-defining” series “Banana”, “Cucumber” and “Tofu.” After adding a big screen debut to his resume in “The Girl With All The Gifts,” we caught up with Fisayo to delve a little deeper into the life of this rising star.
Your breakout role was in “Cucumber” and “Banana.” Can you talk a little bit about what it was like?
I had never really done screen before. I did a tiny role in “Fresh Meat,” which is a Channel 4 comedy. And so I had never really had an opportunity to do screen properly for the first time. When the audition came through for “Cucumber,” I was sort of really baffled, thinking: “I’ve never done screen; I don’t really know any of the producers.” Normally, you know somebody to get a role like that in a drama written by someone as prestigious as Russell T. Davies. I soon discovered that Russell likes to find new talent as does the casting director. And so, I just thought: “I’ll go in, I’ll do my best, and see what happens,” and then I ended up getting the role. Honestly, it changed my life. It changed my entire career path. It changed the agent I was with. It changed the work I was going up for. It was a real baptism by fire, because I had to learn very quickly how to be on a set, but luckily, we had the most wonderful, welcome cast and crew imaginable. You have Vincent Franklin leading the whole thing, and he was just so wonderful with me. Any questions I had, he answered without hesitation or without annoyance and you had Julie Hesmondhalgh; she was just wonderful. Although it was a bit of a baptism by fire, it very quickly became a joy and I was able to understand the inner workings of television drama. It was a real learning experience, but a joy, because I was surrounded by the most generous bunch of people. Also, I got to do a lot of crazy things at that job; I was very, very naked a lot of the time! Once you do that, then you can sort of do anything. It made me much bolder, I think, because you can’t half-do those things; you can’t half-do a sex scene ornude scene. You just have to do it. And so, it really emboldened me — the jobs I took afterward. It was a real eye-opener and a real formative experience for me.
It really kind of rerouted your career path. What were some of the best aspects of that happening?
You’re suddenly being seen for roles that you would never have in your wildest dreams considered. You’re suddenly up for a film that has Glenn Close and Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton. “This is insane! When have I ever been afforded that opportunity?” You’re suddenly doing plays with Judi Dench and Mark Gatiss and Nina Sosanya and Hadley Fraser. You’re sort of thrust; it takes your career and not only raises it a level, but sort of shoves a rocket up its ass and fires you forward! So, I was suddenly in rooms, meeting and working with people that I never imagined I would work with.
That series explores 21st-century gay life. Obviously, that’s a hugely culturally important issue. How do you feel that’s impacted the prevailing culture?
The trouble with any drama that focuses on homosexuality is that because there are so few of them, all the hopes of the gay community get pinned onto this one drama, and no drama could ever hope to represent 100 percent of a particular community. And so, as true to life as I think it was and as honest a representation of certain types of gay men it was, I also feel that it couldn’t please everybody. I don’t think any show could. But for the character of Dean, I knew [people by the name of] Dean. I had met Deans. I had spoken to Deans. For me, it was very true to life, as was the character that Vincent Franklin played, Henry. I had seen them and I had heard about them and read about them or met these people in real life, so to see them represented was sort of amazing. It was odd, because we split audiences. Some audiences were going: “oh my god, it’s so true! That’s so me. That’s how I am.” And then a lot of people were going: “I’ve never met a gay person that speaks like that or talks that way in my life.” And so, it split audiences. But I think for me personally, I loved it. One, because the strength of the writing was just phenomenal: it was so raw and honest and so fully realized. The characters that were created were so real and vivid and unafraid to express their genuine feelings, whether that was “I’m really scared, but I won’t have another taste of adventure again, so I’m going to go live with a bunch of teenagers.” Or whether that was “I think my life is pretty boring, so I’m going to lie about my life.” All those sort of themes were the best things about it — those truly relatable things that people have, that they feel they are boring, so they fabricate stories, or they lack adventure, or they get intrigued by a slightly dangerous but incredibly sexy younger man, or whatever it is. The strength of the show laid in those universal truths.
You mentioned Glenn Close. What was it like working with her on “The Girl With All the Gifts”?
It was incredible. So, I was in my hotel room, and I got a phone call from the second assistant director. He said: “Glenn would like to run some lines, and she’s asked me. I told her it’d probably be better if she read them with an actor. Would you like to do it?” I said, “yes! Absolutely!” And so they sent the car and I went into her massive trailer and read the scene with her a couple of times, and then we just chatted. It was really lovely. And I said, “I’m so sorry; I have to talk to you about ‘Dangerous Liasions.’” And then she just told me all these stories: how much fun she had working with John Malkovich. It was incredible. The thing that I love about her is that she’s so generous, because she’s had such an extraordinary career, and she’s so generous with stories from all the films she’s worked on. She’s really wonderful in that respect and so much fun! I think you can build up an image of a person in your head, and you may think: “I hope she’s not this Hollywood diva who keeps to herself,” but she was with us the whole time, played backgammon. It was just wonderful. She was really a part of the team.
One thing that intrigues me when it comes to acting is the horror genre. Specifically, it produces by virtue of the genre itself some very surreal scenarios. What’s it like for you as an actor to try to put yourself realistically into these surreal scenarios and adapt to that world around you and act within it?
It’s odd! We all know the tropes of genre movies. And so when I was reading the script and I knew Gallagher is going to die, you know he’s going to die. I think everyone in the audience knows: “well, he’s going to die. He’s going off on his own in a zombie movie, of course.” And I think the thing is to get rid of that analytical part of your brain that says: “this is the bit where Gallagher goes off and dies” and just go: “no, this is the scene in which Gallagher wants to help his friends and find some food and bring it back to prove himself.” And you start to live in the mindset of the character, which then eliminates that second after-brain that’s floating above you, going “I know exactly where this is headed.” If you focus it down to what the character wants, then hopefully what you’re portraying is completely realistic and believable, even though we are adhering to the horror movie trope of “man goes out on his own and dies.” If you bring it into the mindset of the character, it eliminates that bit, and then you try to pour as much belief into the fake scenario that script-writers worked out as possible in order to make that situation hopefully set apart from all the others that have come before. There will be things that are always repeated in every genre movie, things that are staples. But what you hope is that you can put either a unique spin or an emotional spin or just a new beat in there that just slightly tweaks it, so it is the same trope or the thing we’ve seen before, but it’s slightly different. People go: “Oh, the way it happened wasn’t the way I’ve seen it happen before,” I think. I think that comes from rooting it in the reality of your mindset of the character.
So then, in preparing for the role, how does that differ from a normal role?
Honestly, it’s hard because I don’t think it does differ; I just think there are things you’re aware of. You’re aware that you’re in a genre movie and you’re aware that “this is the scene when,” but I think like with any role, you prepare it through the script and the character and his interactions with the other characters in the screenplay. You go: “so, he’s like this. He’s not seen the outside world for ten years and he’s sort of afraid of Melanie, but also is really intrigued by her. There’s a really nice mirror image of her discovering the world for the first time and him being discovered in the world that he’s not known for ten years. There’s a really nice mirror image there, and that could potentially bring them closer.” All that sort of stuff that is exciting less so than the shooting guns and all that stuff. It’s the character stuff that you focus on rather than the genre stuff, because that will happen anyway, but the thing that makes it interesting and the thing that will hopefully keep audiences coming back for more will be the depth at which you play the characters.
You’re starring in “In the Dark.” Tell me a bit about that.
So, that is a four-part drama based off two novels. They’re completely separate stories. The first two episodes are set in a country setting and have nothing to do with the following two episodes. But the thing that links them is our lead actress, played by MyAnna Buring. She’s a pregnant police officer. She’s the thing that links these two separate situations. In my two episodes, I play a young guy who has a new baby and is desperate for money and like a lot of young people, he doesn’t have a lot of options. He’s not particularly well educated, and so decides in order to get money, he will join a local gang and join in their drug operation. What happens is as part of his initiation, he has to shoot a car. That car happens to kill a police officer. Then, slowly but surely, members of the gang start being killed, and they don’t know whether it’s the police getting revenge or somebody else, and then, there’s a big mystery as to who’s killing off these young boys and why that particular car drove into that bus stop at that time, killing that police officer. So, it’s a mystery that deals with gang culture and being a female police officer in a very male-heavy world. That’s where the two characters meet, and what happens happens. It has a really cool conclusion.
I grew up in Cleveland, which has a big gun violence problem, so gun culture is always interesting and relevant to me.
I think what’s sort of amazing about it is actually the reason why you get into it. The co-director and I had a lot of conversations about why people get into it in the first place, and I think a lot of the time, it isn’t about wanting to be the big, tough guy on the street. It’s actually just about survival, and they’ve got no other options. They have seen they have no other options. Even the gang leaders, they become father figures, I think, to a lot of these boys, because a lot of the time, they don’t have fathers in their lives, and so, this guy with all this money not only gives them work and money, but also protects them. I think there can be a sort of genuine love there with those characters.
What are some of your hobbies when you’re not working?
I am very into comic books. I’ve just started the new Batman 52. It’s absolutely stunning. There is a myth, a Gotham myth, about a Court of Owls that have been running Gotham City for centuries. Batman doesn’t believe in it because it’s a myth. He’s never met them, and he thinks it’s just ridiculous and silly. There’s going to be a new mayor of Gotham. Bruce Wayne is helping this new mayor get into power because he thinks he’s the right guy, and they meet at one of the old Wayne buildings, and an assassin from the Court of Owls turns up, almost kills the guy who’s running for mayor and almost kills Batman. It’s incredible, and you go, “whoa! Who are these guys?” So, then they write the very next day on a wall in fire, “Bruce Wayne will die in 24 hours.” That’s before this assassin shows up and attacks Batman. So, you go: “do they know he’s Bruce Wayne?” As the comic goes on, you realize how powerful these guys are and how many people they’ve killed. They seem to always target Waynes, and so, there’s a mystery about whether they were responsible for Bruce’s parents’ deaths. It just gets more complex and complicated and dark. It’s very dark and scary, actually. There’s a point in the comic where he’s in a labyrinth. You have to turn the comic landscape, then upside-down, then the other way around. So, it sort of reflects what’s happening in Batman’s head. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s really beautifully drawn as well. It’s incredible. You have to read it. So, that’s sort of my main hobby, and I’ve started writing. I have a few writer friends, and I’ve spoken to them, and they’ve sort of given me the confidence to put pen to paper and start to write, which is really scary, actually and really daunting. But if you have an idea, I think it’s only best to follow through, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m writing a short film at the moment and I’ve got an idea for a series that I’m hoping to make eventually.
What’s the short film about?
The short film is about bereavement and the lengths a person will go to to achieve their desires, I suppose. I don’t want to say too much.
What’s it like coming from one side of the script to the other?
It’s quite daunting, but one of my friends said to me that if you watch a film and it isn’t a particularly good film and you sit with your friends and say: “oh, what they should have done is this, and they should have taken out that scene and done that” — he says what you’re already doing is editing the script. So, if you can edit a script, then you understand the story structure and narrative structures, which means that you can create your own narrative structure. And then, what it all becomes about is your voice as a writer and how you like to write, rather than whether you can or can’t, because you can, because you understand narrative structures. Then it becomes what your voice is like, how you want to present your story, your narrative to the world, your attitudes about your narrative voice. So, I think it’s quite nice and quite freeing, and it’s really nice to type three pages and see it, and go: “that’s the beginning of something.” And then you write a bit more and go: “actually, I can take out those first three pages and just start here.” And that’s really exciting. You’re building something, sort of like how a carpenter makes a table. It’s just a big hunk of wood, this really ugly thing, then it becomes this beautiful, ornate table or chair. I think it’s sort of the same thing; you just have an idea, you plop it onto the page, then you start chipping away until you’ve made a narrative you’re happy with, I think.
What would your dream role be?
Oh gosh! Theater-wise, I would love to play Belize in “Angels in America” or Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Those are two roles that I loved when I first read them and have stuck with me ever since. And then in terms of tele and film, it’s less about roles and more about genre. I’d love to do a big blockbuster film, just because I think it would be fun — like a proper big space odyssey blockbuster would be really fun. I’d really love to also work Paul Thomas Anderson. I think he’s one of the best directors in the world and his films constantly fascinate me. He shoots in a way that is really interesting and he writes in a way that’s really interesting and really dynamic. He really gets into people’s heads and his ideas are always so well-thought. I just think he’s incredible. And then you know, everything else! They’re the sort of main things. Also, I think TV is heading in such an amazing direction; over the last couple of years, we’ve seen some of the most outstanding writing from people and on TV. That’s something I’d love to get involved with, whether it be Netflix or HBO — whomever it is. I’m really interested in complex characters and fine writing.
You’ve worked in stage, TV, and movies. How does it compare, what’s your favorite? Tell me about the contrasts.
It’s hard because I don’t really have a favorite. They all offer merits of their own. Theater is such a great training, and it keeps you so sharp and alert, because you have no choice but to be completely in the moment with a person, because it’s happening live. So, it’s such great training: being in the moment, being spontaneous, because anything could happen. You could forget a prop, a set could fall apart, the actors could forget their lines and instead of saying: “can we go again?”, you’ve got to just improvise something and help your fellow actor. It’s such a collaborative, wonderful thing, theater, and I really love doing it. And then you’ve got film, which again is another medium that challenges you to be honest. You can’t really lie in front of the camera, because it picks it up. As soon as you lie or have a false moment, the whole illusion is shattered, and the audience go: “huh? That was weird.” And so I think the challenge for TV and screen is to be as truthful as you can, which is often about being relaxed. It’s about being relaxed and knowing your lines. I think what you need to do is be so relaxed and confident with your lines that all you are thinking about when you’re acting is what you are doing to the other person and what they are doing to you, so you can just react. So you’re not going: “what am I saying next?” Because all the audience will get is a sort of confused, half-performance, because your brain is occupied with remembering lines rather than being in the moment with your other actor.
Speaking of stage, you’re starring in “Saint Joan” at the Donmar. How did you prepare for that role?
Because it’s all based off historical fact, I read as much as I could about Joan and particularly about King Charles VII. It was fascinating, and the thing is: all that research, the audience won’t see about 90 percent of it. A lot of it isn’t in the script. What it does is color certain lines. If I hadn’t done the research, I wouldn’t have known that his mother and father disowned him, and that has an effect on a person. It’s suggested in the script that he’s a coward, he can’t fight, and he’s not a soldier. He’s not a military leader in the way that a lot of kings were. He was more of a strategist. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t done the research. So, what happens is as you do more research, it props up and fills the text that is already there with another layer of complexity, which is always really interesting to play, because then, rather than just saying the lines, you’re saying the lines with a sense of the history where that line has come from and what that line means. So, when he talks about his father or talks about his great-grandfather, it has a certain weight to it that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t done the research. Then, you just go into the script and you read it as many times as you can and get those lines in your head and make some choices and then get in the rehearsal room and genuinely just play: “I wonder if I could try it like this. And do that thing there…” And then you slowly, with the director and writers, build something that makes sense and serves the play and the story.
He’s historically such a complex character. I imagine that’s a really rich character to play.
It’s so lovely, because he’s incredibly funny. He’s written incredibly comically. That comes from a sense of wit, which is again George Bernard Shaw highlighting the character as much more brains than brawn, because wit is about a sort of intellectual dexterity, I suppose. So, you’re able, through his wit, to see that he has brains, and his brains ended up winning the Hundred Years War. It wasn’t him going into battle and wearing armor, it was him going: “if we make a treaty with these people, ally ourselves with these people, then we can amass these numbers and go to war with them and prepare ourselves.” He was much more a thinker. So, then at the same time, having that strategic brain, he’s a terrible coward — just likes to stay in bed and eat sweets and cakes and be looked after and not really have to do anything or have any responsibility. And so, you’ve got these two sides of him that are doing battle, I suppose, which it is his birthright that he should be king, but he’s terrified of what that means, which is really lovely and fascinating to play.
What do you want to do in the future then?
I’ve been very, very lucky, I think, actually. I’ve been able to work with some fine people. I mean “fine” from casts, to crews, to directors, to writers, and I just would like that to continue in whichever medium it takes, whether that be screen, stage, or TV. I’m just interested in good, complex, interesting work, work that I can stretch myself in, because sometimes, I think there can be a danger of being typecast, and so you end up playing very similar roles. I feel I’ve been quite lucky in that I’m not really too many parts too similar. I’d like to keep that trend going, because I think it stretches you as an actor and as a person, because you get to learn about a varied range of people and situations. I had no knowledge of the Hundred Years War or of Joan of Arc or of Charles VII at all until I started “Joan.” I’d like to say now I can hold my own in a conversation about them, and I think that’s a real asset. I think it’s one of the big positives of being an actor: you get to explore things you wouldn’t normally choose to look into. On an average day, I wouldn’t decide to pick up a book about Joan of Arc, but I have been — quite a few of them now — and it’s opened my mind to Joan and the Hundred Years War and all of that stuff. I think that’s the one of the best things about being an actor: you get to explore things you wouldn’t normally choose to.
You mentioned that you’re getting into writing. Are you looking to try your hand at anything else like directing or?
I would quite like, because I have a visual brain, to direct. I’ve done a bit of tele and a bit of film, but I don’t know the inner workings of directing yet. I’m getting there, and every time I do a job, I ask everybody: “what’s that you do? How do you do it? How does that feed into this? What’s your role? Ok cool.” And so I’m amassing a knowledge of how to direct and how one would even begin trying to. I would love to direct something, something I’ve written as well, but not star in. I don’t think I have the sort of impartiality to watch me. I think we’d end up doing my scenes for weeks on end until they were perfect. I’d give that to someone else. There are amazing people that can direct and star in their own stuff. I don’t think I could do it. I’ll hand it over to someone else.
Is there anything else you’d like to chat about?
The cast of “Saint Joan” are so collaborative and open. I’ve been so lucky with casts, actually. It genuinely feels fresh every night, because everybody is so on it and so focused that the tiniest little change in intonation is picked up by everyone, and sometimes, entire scenes can feel differently because one person does something slightly different, which then has an effect on everyone on stage. You can only achieve that stuff if you are working with actors that are completely and totally with you. They’re not acting for their own sense of ego, they’re acting to serve the story. So, what happens is a collective “ok, we’re moving in this direction.” It’s really, really wonderful to be a part of and to work with people that intensely connected. I just want to give shout-out to them, because they’re amazing.
That sounds like a wonderful experience.
I’ve been lucky. My “Cucumber” and “Banana” cast were exactly the same. It was just wonderful; it was a joy every day. And the thing is, to me personally, I have to work from a place of joy. I can’t do it otherwise, I don’t think. I think if I’m not happy or there’s just something amiss, I find it really hard to then give the best of myself. I think you’ve got to come from place of joy and warmth. I’ve been very lucky with the casts I’ve had over the years. They’ve all been wonderfully joyous. It just helps.
What is your fault?
I think I’m quite ambitious, which is great, because it means I work hard at the roles I get and the work I get, but it also means that when things aren’t going my way or I feel like they’re not going my way, it can really negatively affect me. I do get a bit down when an opportunity that I’m really excited about passes me by or a job that could lead me close to say my goal of working with Paul Thomas Anderson or HBO — whatever it is — slips through my fingers. I think the fact that I’m so ambitious and the fact that I want those things so badly or to experience those things so badly can sometimes make me get a bit down in the dumps about it. Me being ambitious is a double-edged sword, because it propels me to do well, but also, when things don’t go my way, it makes me a little sad.
“SAINT JOAN will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday, 16th February. For tickets go to: http://ntlive.
Words – Alex Cooke
Photography – Stephanie YT
Styling – Plum O’Keeffe
Grooming – Justine Jenkins
Photography Assistant – Erica Fletcher
Styling Assistant – Natalia Schegg