To call Fisayo Akinade a ‘rising star’ would be something of an understatement after the 2015 he’s had: earlier this year he shot to fame as the irrepressible Dean on Russell T. Davies’ shows Cucumber and Banana, before appearing opposite Dame Judi in election day themed play The Vote at Donmar Warehouse. Now, he’s embarking on his first starring theatre role in Barrie Keefe’s Barbarians. He plays Louis, one of three youths in 1970s Lewisham who leave school to find that nothing but unemployment and disappointment await them. We spoke to Fisayo during rehearsals at The Young Vic to talk diversity, zombies and getting advice from Russell T. Davies.
Barbarians was first written in the 70s – were you aware of the play before it came to you?
No, I had no idea. I’d seen Barrie’s film The Long Good Friday, but I had no idea it was written by him. So I had no idea this play existed until the audition came. Then when I read it, I knew I had to do it. It’s just so brilliant. Even so many years later it still resonates with what’s happening now with the state of our government and with the state of unemployment in the country. You can draw so many parallels with what the play was saying then and with what’s happening now, so in a way it’s remained timeless. It’s just so well written and so darkly funny and honest – brutally at times. It was a real privilege to just to read it.
So was that what attracted you to the role of Louis?
There are actually quite a few similarities between me and Louis. He comes from a very loving family, not from a broken home like Jan and he hasn’t got abusive parents like Paul. So even though he’s a part of this culture with the jeans, the Dr. Martins and the braces, he’s coming at it from a much more comfortable place, which immediately sets him apart from the other two. His home life isn’t terrible, although outside this sphere he’s not doing too well – he’s unemployed, he’s got these skills but he’s got no work. That was a really interesting thing to play. Then to play the fact that he really really wants to make a go of things, he doesn’t want to be broke, he doesn’t want to be on the dole and he doesn’t want to be unemployed. So every time an opportunity comes along he just throws himself in and I thought that was a really lovely quality. You see that develop as the play goes on. The play spans three years of their lives and out of the three of them I feel that he matures the most, which is a really great arc to play – that sort of slow realisation that actually your mates may not be the best thing for you. He’s just a really interesting character and as soon as I read it I just said “yes, please!”
Would you say that you’re more drawn to roles about social issues?
I think it’s more about good stories, and I think good stories are often relatable. When people can see a bit of themselves in it, it resonates with everybody. I was part of some shows I was really proud of – Refugee Boy was amazing because we had Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees come up afterwards and thank you because they hadn’t seen their stories told before, so it was really amazing to be a part of.
What’s it been like returning to the theatre?
You don’t realise how much you miss something until you go back to it. It’s been really lovely to be back in a rehearsal room with the other actors and to have conversations about the characters and the story at length. Whereas on TV you sort of have to do that on your own in your room.
This year has been huge for you, especially with your roles on Banana and Cucumber – do you feel like this has opened doors for you?
Definitely. I hadn’t done any TV until Cucumber came along and ramped my life up a gear! There have really been lots of incredible opportunities that have come off the back of that, it’s been a really great springboard for me.
My aim was never to be a star, it was simply to produce good things with good people and I think I’ve really managed that. Working with Russell on Cucumber and Banana was like a dream come true. We all know Russell’s work and we all know he’s a genius, but for him to really get behind me and take me under his wing has been incredible. He’s a really wonderful man.
He’s done that with a lot of the cast of Cucumber and Banana – newcomers who are now really on the map because of his investment in them.
Definitely – you’ve got Letitia Wright, who in my mind there is no doubt that she is going to be a mega star. Charlie Covell is just excellent, Dino Fetscher did an episode – Russell has just been really great.
He said to me once “I’m a middle class white man and it would be very easy for me to write from this perspective – but I’m aware of that so I change it.” So in the script it says ‘Meet Dean, he’s 19 years old and black’; ‘Meet Scotty, she’s 21 and black’ – he writes it in so Producers and Casting Directors have no choice but to cast the roles that way. He really pushes for representation on screen.
Who would you really love to work with? Do you have a dream role?
There are people that I would love to work with. Steve McQueen, Dominic Cooke – Paul Thomas Anderson would be a dream come true. I just want interesting characters!
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m really enjoying the ride – there’s a lot of cool things coming up and I just hope I’m in the mix for them.
And you’ve just finished shooting a zombie movie?
Yes! That was called She Who Brings Gifts with Glenn Close, Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton. I got to shoot some guns which was really fun! It was a bit surreal to wake up every morning, get to the set and Glenn’s there to greet you.
Can you remember the best piece of advice you’ve been given that you’d like to pass on?
I know often you can get impatient and want the big job right off the bat, and a friend said to me “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” If you sprint you’re there now, you’ll have a great six months and then that will be it. Whereas if you methodically go from job to job and just enjoy the ride you will have a longer career.
Russell also gave me a good piece of advice about being out in the media. The question is: are you gay? Yes you are. And that’s it. If you say it right off the bat and you’re open in your everyday life then you can talk about the thing you’re there to talk about, which is normally the work and not your personal life.