David Harewood: White actors should be able to play Black roles
For some, being a role model can feel like a weight. Emmy-nominated Black actor Samira Wiley said recently it can be “overwhelming sometimes, representing so much for so many people.” And trans artists Travis Alabanza and Ezra Furman have spoken about how being seen as “inspirational” overlooks their daily struggles.
But not for David Harewood. Among Britain’s most successful and influential Black male actors, he has become as famous for talking openly and frankly about his experiences of psychosis as for his acting. Harewood experienced psychosis in his early twenties, believing he could control the weather, which led to him being sectioned.
Nothing should be off limits – if you can make it work, how about it? But if you Black up, it might look ridiculousDavid Harewood talking to City A.M.
His breakdown was a response to the discrimination he faced as a Black man, he has said, and in the past couple of years he has written a book on the subject, as well as making numerous TV documentaries to break what he describes as the “taboo” around psychosis. The day before we speak, Harewood was doing a talk about his new memoir, Maybe I Don’t Belong Here, which tackles the subject, and he’s frequently stopped on the street by strangers to discuss his experiences. Recently, a Black man who was formerly in prison said he hadn’t understood how he had depression until he’d watched Harewood talk on mental health.
For a man open about how he’s still in therapy, does being one of Britain’s most prolific Black voices ever feel like an overwhelming weight? “Not really, to be honest,” says Harewood, sitting crossed-legged in an ostentatious dressing room at the Noël Coward Theatre, where he’s about to play White American writer William J. Buckley in West End show Best of Enemies. “I’m constantly amazed at the effect I’m having,” he continues. “People slide into my DMs with the most incredible emotional stories. People who are dealing with their son who’s had psychosis and just watching you and your success has sort of made us feel it’s not the end of the world that our son’s experiencing a psychotic break.”
Harewood says he is “determined” to break the taboo, to let people know “there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of if you suffer a psychotic breakdown. People are ashamed and I really don’t want them to be. This whole thing has been a strengthening and cathartic experience, talking about it and getting it out, addressing it, understanding it. Facing it is imperative as part of your recovery.”
In 1997, David Harewood made history at the National Theatre as the first Black man to play Othello, and he most recently enjoyed a meaty Hollywood role playing detective David Estes in Homeland. He’s also a regular on influential black power lists. It’s easy to see how Harewood has been successful at both acting and campaigning: he speaks with reassuring confidence on difficult topics with the air of someone who has completely thought through and utterly believes everything he says.
He has played Martin Luther King JR and Nelson Mandela, but next up, in Best of Enemies, transferring from the Bridge Theatre to the West End, Harewood returns for a second time to the difficult portrayal of bigoted writer Buckley. How come? “The more I learned about him, the was smoking weed and having sex and having a great time and he was this Presbyterian, highly intelligent, elitist guy from a privileged background who really went against the grain. Then went off to Yale and famously wrote a book excoriating Yale and I thought, ‘Wow, to have the balls to do that, he really believed in himself.’”
John Boyega went from Peckham to Star Wars. There’s more of a global awareness of the depth of black talent in this country nowDavid Harewood talking to City A.M.
Harewood’s taste for finding and telling unusual human stories led to him founding a production company earlier this year. It’s called Section 52, named after the process that happens when a person is sectioned. “I was looking for a name for my company so I opened my medical records and I just kept seeing section 52,” he says. “It’ll be telling empowering stories around mental health and race.” Despite presently being “just me, my partner and a laptop,” there are five dramas and five documentaries already on the slate and Harewood is hoping to secure funding.
When it comes to his own acting career the 56-year-old has given his agent strict instructions not to turn away any script whatsoever, no matter who it’s sent from. It’s this open-minded approach that led Harewood to star in a short film, Man To Man, about the young male Black experience after an unsolicited script hit his desk. “I was really inspired, particularly by Sel who wrote the piece, and all the young kids I met that day, and I hope it’s not the last time I work with them. There’s a lot of young Black talent out there and I want to be able to harness it, so staying engaged with this younger generation is very important.”
All things considered, Harewood believes Black drama is in a good place right now. “When I was coming out of drama school we were told ‘Black movies don’t work’, and ‘Black plays don’t work in the West End’, and now we’ve got Get Up Stand Up down the road, a Bob Marley story in the West End doing really well.” And he believes the emergence of self tape rehearsals has democratised the process of finding work particularly for Brits. “That young Black kid an American manager is looking for on the streets of Brooklyn, he can find that in Peckham. John Boyega, from Peckham to Star Wars, so there’s more of a global awareness of the depth of black talent in this country now and that’s a good thing for the younger generation.”
How does a man in his mid-fifties keep down with the kids? “Drama wise, keeping an ear open for things that peak my interest, always leaving the door open – like I did with Man To Man – for this younger generation.” And he refuses to be absolutist regarding the debates around White actors playing Black roles. As with Best of Enemies, Harewood is attracted to nuanced depictions of characters that defy simplicity. “Look, if De Niro wants to play Othello, I’m going to go and watch it – you know what I mean?” he says. “I’d be interested to see what he does. I’m not saying it’s gonna be,” he pauses, laughing: “It might be odd, but that’s theatre – and if it works, it works, if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work, it’ll be off. All I’m saying is nothing should be off limits, if you can make it work, how about it? But if you Black up, it might look ridiculous and offensive, so you’ve got to find a workaround.
“I think we’re at a very exciting point in history where we’re not constrained by imagination as much as we used to be. Give it a go and see what happens.”
David Harewood stars in Best of Enemies plays at the Noël Coward Theatre until 18 February; tickets via noelcowardtheatre.co.uk or 0344 482 5151
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