It’s been a very long time that I’ve been wanting to catch up with Alfred Enoch. Way before he became ‘Wes’ on the hit Shonda Rhimes show, How to Get Away with Murder, he was ‘Dean Thomas’ aka the most prominent black character in the Harry Potter film franchise. Following his career since his start as an 11-year-old student of Hogwarts, Mr. Enoch has navigated the industry across stage, TV and film relatively quietly and quite matter of fact. Speaking to him, you get a sense that this is who he is as a young man, quite matter of fact, ever so polite, and quintessentially British… to all of you who thought he was African American.
TBB caught up with him during rehearsal time of the Birmingham Repertory Company in association with the Royal Exchange and Talawa Theatre co-production of the Shakespearean play, King Lear in which Alfred has been cast as ‘Edgar’…
Even after avidly watching you as Wes from How to Get Away with Murder, and knowing you’re a grown man, I’m envisioning speaking to Dean Thomas, do you get people typecasting you into your characters?
Well, with the Wes thing, that sometimes happens because that’s I guess how people know me… But in terms of Dean, it’s mostly like, ‘weren’t you that guy?’…
You’ve had a history of working on stage, but what was your first acting intention? Film, TV, or theatre; when was the realisation that you wanted to be an actor?
It was probably stage, because that was the immediate sort of influence [Alfred is child of African-Brazilian mother with Barbadian roots (Dr Balbina Gutierrez Lewis), and his father, British actor William Russell Enoch] My dad has done film, TV and stage, but at the time he was doing a lot of theatre. I remember the opening season of The Globe and my dad was in that and that just made such a profound impression… That was when the thought of being an actor started to concretise into something more specific. I wanted to be an actor because inherent in that is that you get the possibility of variety and telling different kinds of stories and playing different parts. I think seeing that in my dad’s career – he was in a lot of movies that were on at Christmas time, he was in the Great Escape, and a couple of war films and other stuff so I wanted the opportunity to do what he did because it looked fun.
How old were you when you landed your first role?
I performed a sonnet as part of the Sonnet Walk on Shakespeare’s birthday I think I was about 7 or 8 and I rehearsed that with my dad. He stood on a wall and everyone was gathered around him and I came out from behind a tree and took the audience by surprise! Then I did a school play. But the first sort of proper thing, was when I was 10 and I did a play about child actors in Shakespeare’s time at The Globe which was amazing for me, because after seeing my dad there to get to be acting there was implausibly fortuitous. Like stepping into my dad’s shoes. Initially I didn’t think it was going to happen. At first, they came to my school and they were auditioning people and because I knew what it was I didn’t think it was realistic for me. But I talked to my dad, then my English teacher got in touch with them, and then they said come along to the recall and then gave me a part…
How did King Lear find you?
I was in London, resting, and I did a thing with my group of friends who set up a reverse gender Shakespeare company. They were auditioning for that and I happened to be free and I ended up doing King Lear, and it was so much fun and it was a great idea…
Is that when you fell in love with the play, or had you known it previously?
That was the first time that I’d looked at it carefully. But I’d read it a few years before that. But it wasn’t like I said to my agent find me a production of King Lear, it all started with a production of Coriolanus at the Donmar. That was a blast, dealing with the challenges of doing a Shakespearian part. I just loved it. Mid way through the second season with my eye on this break that we have between shooting How to Get Away with Murder I thought that I really want to do a play. I’d said to my agent before that I really want to be on stage and it’s great for me to do different things as I can and keep exercising those muscles. I don’t want to have gone five years with not having been in a rehearsal room and been on stage.
Is it because being on stage is more challenging than being on set?
I want to have a career where I’m doing all of them and developing, and working in each, you learn things and you grow. They all have their own challenges, but I want to be working on screen and on stage. I’m doing 6 – 7 months of the year of screen work, so to just give a bit of balance it was a fantastic chance to play Edgar…
Yes. Tell us about Edgar, and although the play has been around for centuries tell us a bit about his role in the world of King Lear… without spoilers!
Something I learned from Shondaland is to not say anything! That was one of the exciting things with Coriolanus, that it’s a lesser known play, I had never seen it or read it before; it’s a bit of a change when you don’t know what’s going to happen. So to some degree, to anyone who doesn’t know Lear, I don’t want to spoil it for them if they’re coming to see it because it’s a real gift when you have an audience who don’t know what’s about to go on. But, Edgar is the son of the Earl of Gloucester who is one of King Lear’s trusted advisors, plus an important political figure.
Edgar is crucial to the plot. He has status as the legitimate son, and he’s the one who when the Earl of Gloucester dies will inherit his possessions and become the new Earl of Gloucester. He’s from an important family, he’s an important guy. He has a half-brother who is a bastard, who was farmed out and educated somewhere else because he’s a bit of an embarrassment in that world but Gloucester has basically said screw it he can come back – I’ll acknowledge him if I must. So, Edgar’s in a situation where he’s just become reacquainted with this brother. I could tell you more but basically it all goes tits up for pretty much everyone and Edgar is there trying make it through…
Is there any significance with you working with Talawa one of the UK’s premiere black theatre production companies? Were you aware of them?
I was aware of them. I came to see All My Sons at the Royal Exchange because a friend of mine was in it. Don [Warrington] who’s playing Lear was in it and Michael [Buffong] directed, which was great. I was aware of the company as well, because when I was at the National they had a production on there.
The Talawa production of King Lear features a talented cast of esteemed actors ranging from Don Warrington, Fraser Ayres, Rakie Ayola, Wil Johnson… what has it been like rehearsing with this company of actors?
It’s a big play. It’s great! It’s really a nice rehearsal room. It’s got a good atmosphere. People are very passionate about it. Very ready to get their hands dirty and work it out; shoulder to the wheel and all that. So there’s really good productive energy about it.
Then you have the great Michael Buffong directing… is there comparison to working with him and Shonda Rhimes?
Well it’s not really like for like. Because Shonda, we don’t really see her. She’s not the show runner on our show, and she doesn’t direct. She’s the exec, but she’s running two, three other shows. Michael’s obviously the main man, he’s in the room every day, directing us and pointing us through it.
Going back to your early start in film. As a parent of a young African-British child, you can’t avoid the pastime which is treating your child(ren) to the cinema. But with all the talk of diversity in the arts, I feel that children’s films are still untouched by progress. Across popular animations and children’s adventure films non-white lead characters are almost non-existent. So seeing you throughout Harry Potter was sort of comforting. Were you aware of how important to some people it was you being the only black significant character in this popular franchise?
No not at all. It was fun. I wanted to be an actor. I was going to be an actor. I loved Harry Potter. I wanted to be in Harry Potter. It was very basic. I was 11 when I started so I wasn’t thinking about anything beyond that. That’s something I started to appreciate only recently. Because it’s not something I had when I was growing up. I never watched TV or film or and thought there’s no one who looks like me, which is something that I’ve had a lot of people say and eventually you realise, oh that is important. But it’s taken me a long while…
Which is understandable. Most of the time when I took my daughter to the cinema I would be silently shouting at the screen but kept my irritation to myself because I didn’t want my daughter to miss just innocently getting lost in Nanny McPhee, Alice in Wonderland or Spy Kids etc.…
Sometimes it’s nice to have that bubble, so you can just enjoy being a child. I had no perception that I couldn’t be in that story… Well that is and isn’t true… I think the reason for it though, was because my dad’s an actor. I’d watch films, TV shows that he’d done, or on stage; obviously, he’s a white man, but he’s my dad, so I’d never had that, ‘there’s no one like me’ because who could be more like me than my dad! It’s a much more profound perspective. I’m fortunate, because that’s what we want. But we want everyone to have that. You don’t want no one to feel, where am I in the story? Or feel like an outsider because they don’t see people who look like them, or they’re made to be aware that they are treated differently or look differently or whatever it is… But I was fortunate that was never a problem for me.
Which could be a good thing because it gives you a different type of confidence. Because when it does inevitably happen, you potentially won’t be blindsided, rather you could say well I have a different perspective…
That’s true. I say all this. But I remember, the same thing that happened with a play that I did at the National Theatre, it happened with Harry Potter. Again casting directors came to my school, and that’s another massive issue. I don’t think casting directors turned up at every school. I was fantastically privileged; the education my parents were able to give me; I went to a fancy posh school, and they sent casting directors there, that was how I got my opportunity. I wouldn’t necessarily have had that if I went somewhere else. But when they came for Harry Potter yet again I didn’t audition and partly, again, the scale of it seemed implausible which seems strangely hard bitten and realist for an 11-year-old which isn’t a great representation of who I was, I was very free about things. But I remember thinking that there’s only one black character in Harry Potter and that’s Lee Jordan and he’s older, but Dean Thomas could be black because they don’t talk about this freckles and his pale skin or whatever it is… So I could be Dean Thomas. I was aware of that… but I wasn’t bogged down by it. In this case, it didn’t put any limit to me of the likelihood of me being able to be an actor or getting a part in play. It didn’t contribute to my nervousness about auditioning. I wanted to be an actor. It mattered to me so I didn’t want to do it and not get it.
Well my daughter and I are grateful for seeing you. So thank you…
It’s amazing because as I was saying it’s so outside of my personal experience that I’ve only just started processing it and I think that’s great and quite amazing for you to say that and have people saying it. That I unwittingly and unknowingly managed to sort of do something positive.
Have you relocated to America and in regards to being a British actor in America are you getting those rumbles of the Brits are taking our jobs?
No. I live in London. It’s home. I wouldn’t say by any means LA is my home and no it’s not like that. Partly that’s also because of the world I’m in. I’m on set all the time. We’re all very close, we’re a little community, so that’s not the place where it will ever be evident. It’s so full on when I’m there, I’m there for 6 and a half months. I basically sort of go out there, prep, adjust to being back in, I work and when we wrap I come home because I want to get back to family and friends…
Again, being so obviously British, how do you prepare your American accent…
I talk in my American accent the whole time I’m there…
Is that to get you acclimatised?
Yep. Acclimatised that’s a very well chosen word because Americans say ‘a-cla-mate’. Because I do it the whole time my girlfriend’s always correcting me when I come home. But little things like that start to become the norm. But I talk in the accent all the time because I’ve never worked in an American accent before, and I thought I can’t cock this up working on American TV. It gives the accent a life outside, and you don’t have that awkward gear change. I could do it just on set but this is what I established just to get as much practice.
Starting off so young, how have you developed as an actor, and I must ask what it’s been like working with Ms. Viola Davis?
She’s great. Obviously, she’s great. That’s evident to anyone who’s seen her work and it’s a real privilege to get to work with people who are so talented and impressive and in command of their craft because that’s how you learn. You learn by working with different people. That’s a huge part of working in a different country and in a different medium. I haven’t done much TV before, so it’s a steep learning curve. In many ways, you start finding things that help you shape your way of working whether it’s on a specific job that you take into something else or that you learn things from working in different media which influence others. Not getting to do theatre for how many months of the year because I’m doing the show I thought it would be good to do a play and then having the space to think about how I approach the rehearsal room, what can I use and how, How to Get Away from Murder informs me… Is there anything useful?
What do you want the audiences to take away from this King Lear production?
I just want them to be gripped by the story. Sometimes people say they don’t know much about Shakespeare, but if you’re in the audience. You know it’s for you. Our job is to bring the story to life and make the story work for everyone whether they’ve read Shakespeare or not. My hope is that everyone will be able to follow and buy into this world. Because when then that happens theatre’s just fantastically exciting. We have to invite the audience in, but the audience have to come too. Not just literally come to the theatre; it requires you to engage. That’s what I like about theatre. It challenges me. It’s the most immediate form of storytelling we have. You’re seeing characters live the most extreme, and pivotal moments of their life in front of your eyes. I love TV and film, and it’s certainly an opportunity for an actor if you get to work in all three medium, but you’re not in the same room, in the same space as King Lear. So that’s my hope, that we manage to bring the audience with us!
Finally, what’s next for you?
Season 3, it got confirmed recently. So I’m just happy to go back to something I like, with people I like… that people like as well! I didn’t know if people watched How to Get Away with Murder here but it’s becoming more and more apparent that people do, in quite large numbers which is amazing. It’s a privilege to have that job. I’m excited to go back to it. So it’s Lear, then back to LA.
King Lear runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester from 1 April to 7 May, after which it transfers to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 19 to 28 May 2016.
To find out more go to Talawa