Ariyon Bakare is a face you will recognise, but probably not one whose name you’ll readily know. Boasting a fantastic career since graduating from Drama Centre London, his credits include the role of Greeghan in the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending, Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight, The Secret Laughter of Women opposite Colin Firth and Nia Long and After The Rain alongside Paul Bettany.
Bakare is best known for his extensive and varied television work. His earliest leading credit was Mehuru a slave in Bristol in the 1700s, who falls in love with a wealthy married white woman, in the BAFTA nominated BBC mini-series, A Respectable Trade. More recently he starred as Stephen Black in BBC’s, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and as jazz band manager Wesley in Stephen Poliakoff’s Golden Globe nominated, Dancing on the Edge, opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew Goode and John Goodman.
He’s also a writer and director who wrote the TV movie, Stealing Lives and directed multiple episodes of long standing BBC drama Doctors. On top of all this Bakare has appeared in many theatre productions in the UK. He was nominated for an Ian Charleston Award for the role of Florindo in The Servant of Two Masters with the RSC. Most recently Ariyon played Todd in Kate Hewitt’s, Far Away at the Young Vic.
Now we get to see him as scientist, Hugh Derry in Daniel Espinosa’s Sony Sci-Fi film Life opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson. The film, explores the possibility of extra-terrestrial life on Mars.
Having worked with Ariyon Bakare on a short film for the BBC, where he played lead, the time spent with him I learned that he’s a humble guy who is unassuming about his jam-packed acting CV. So seeing him in a major lead role, in a blockbuster Hollywood sci-fi was a proud moment for me. My first words to him were, “You’re in a big old movie!” (think Eddie Murphy dressed as an African Chief in Trading Places, saying “we are moving, we are moving!”) Yeah… that excited… I tried to contain myself for the rest of the interview…
I just came from a screening of Life and my first reaction was, you look bloody good up on the big screen. Have you been working out?
I did a lot of training for this. I wanted to learn what it would be like to be an astronaut; they have to train every single day before they go up and I wanted to have that sensibility in my mind. I trained every morning before I would film. So, I’d get up at 5 o’clock, go training then go to set. We had a fantastic trainer on there, who trained me every day. Set days were about 12 hours, so I’d have a 13-hour day…
You’re not easy?
No, I’m not. If we were climbing up a mountain and there was a pathway, I’d be the one climbing up the rocks. Just for the challenge…
Did you find this role challenging at all?
It was really challenging having to be on suspended wires all the time. [Also] I was working with people who are considered top of their game and amazing to work with. I had that African sensibility that these are A-star people, I’ve got to be A-star star.
Did you feel intimidated working with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson etc.?
No. Not at all. I just had to work harder and make sure that I wasn’t the weakest link.
Your face is quite recognisable in your own right, but your name isn’t the first mentioned when we talk about British Black talent doing exceptionally well … has that been a problem?
It’s my fault. I don’t do enough press. If I did press on everything I do, then people would have a totally different perspective of me. It’s been good for me not doing press, because now people go, ‘oh, where’s he come from?’ I could have done press for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2015, ITV), Dancing on the Edge (2013, BBC) – I was working with Chiwetel, who’s a big star. Colin Firth I’ve worked with; Nia Long… I’ve done my grafting. It may have been a problem to a certain degree, because maybe my trajectory would have been quicker. But I’ve always just believed in the work. Now I know, there’s the craft and there’s the business, and I’m not good with business. So, for the first time ever I’ve hired a publicity person, [got] the manager… When I was younger it was just me doing me. If had all this then, I probably couldn’t have handled it. When I exploded into the acting world, it was such a big shock for me. I come from Leytonstone, then I’m hanging out with Vanessa Redgrave, Jude Law, they’ve got all these white elite qualities, and I’m this kid… I believe in God, and I believe he said to me, this is where you are now; you just let go and let me handle it…
What else outside of your faith, kept you sane in this madness?
Seeing the madness. Sometimes I got too involved and it got too much. But thank God for my Leytonstone background. I had this resilience. Has it been painful? Yeah, when I see people do so well, and I think, goodness I was there when you were doing that. But then also, there’s the quick drop off.
But this is where your head down, work hard motivation has paid off…
I did A Respectable Trade [BBC series, 1998] and I remember at the time people asking me what I wanted to do next. I wanted to do a remake of Some Kind of Black, by Diran Adebayo, and they weren’t interested. Then at the next level, I did After the Rain (1999) with Paul Bettany, then Dancing on the Edge. I believed in England, but there was never more for me. It was hard to get people to write for me.
Which is why you went to America as so many British Black talent do…
I had no other choice, and I felt saddened by that. I wrote Kodak Cowboy. I wrote about Nigerians in this country. I think my final thing was when someone said to a piece I had with Fela Kuti in it, [that] no one knows who Fela Kuti is. I was so upset that every story I’d been told, that Fela Kuti was the Elvis of Africa, and I can’t bring this to life? That was hard for me and that was when I said if I can’t even get a film off the ground… I did everything, went off and learned to direct, I tried to write, I wrote for other people and every door I kept knocking on I was being told my storytelling wasn’t commercial. Then today we have Moonlight and Hidden Figures, with everybody saying why didn’t we know these stories.
Well your CV certainly validates you as someone to listen to now…
I think now may be the time to look for the stories that are beyond the norm. People don’t realise that being of the diaspora, we have our own stories, and the stories we have are so different.
I really don’t want to ask you this, but how can I not… Samuel L Jackson… How many times have you had to give your opinion on this today?
Every single interview. So, I’m going to give you the stock answer [reads his quote] acting is not about waiting for a perfect role that suits your history, it’s about being able to act and be diverse.
Have you met Samuel?
Yes, I have, two weeks ago. I was star struck because I love him. I was at a petrol station in LA and I saw him, he was in his car. I ran over banged on his window; I literally would have sat on his bonnet. Then he opened his window, he looked at me and probably assumed I was American. Usually when I go to meetings I speak American, but I went ‘Hi My name is Ariyon’… and he went [straight face] ‘Hi’ at that point I hadn’t heard about what was going on.
But in honesty I wish this debate wasn’t in the arena. We’ve just come out of one big debate with #OscarsSoWhite. We’ve continuously as black people fought against each other, we’ve always been divided, so let’s not anymore. Tell me that guy’s not good enough for the role, not because of where he’s from. Because none of us are from where we’re from. The difference between British Actors and American actors is we are geographically able to move. We can go to so many different countries, we have our stories from Africa in our mouths, because our fathers are talking to us, our mothers are talking to us. Or if you’re from the Caribbean. We’re much more integrated. We have a well of knowledge that we need to use.
I understand their nervousness, but they also need to have an understanding of other cultures…
America is such a big continent, it’s hard for people to get out of it. We have a totally different history. We have a pride in Britain that’s totally different to what Black Americans have. My pride comes from an African sensibility. I’m wired differently. I’ve always had to lose myself as a black man here. I had to lose my accent influenced by my dad who had a heavy Nigerian accent, I had to continuously… I don’t like the word assimilate because I don’t agree with that… I’m scared of losing myself.
It’s survival. I don’t think Samuel is wrong because he’s entitled to his opinion, just not at this point when we tie it in with what’s going on politically in the world, so they can say, look now they’re fighting each other. Come on, l want the best person to work with me. America has Swedish actors, they’ve got a plethora of Australian actors, it’s a culture of immigrants, so don’t do this.
When you got the script for Life what made you say yes?
It just jumped off the page. I had this visceral emotional reaction to it. I went in to meet Mindy Marin the casting director, who creates a wonderful warm audition room. After my audition Daniel Espinosa (director) and I did a Skype call. The final thing was my screen test which fell on April Fool’s day. So I prepared for it, psyched myself up. I was just about to leave the house, I got a phone call telling me I had the role. I said, ‘whatever stop mucking around I know it’s April Fool’s’ and I put the phone down. Then the phone rings again, and they went, “no, it’s Daniel the director” … I fell on the floor and gave praise. It was a great moment because I had to travel all the way to LA to get this part, and I don’t know if I would have got it if I was in Britain.
What’s your character, Hugh Derry’s motivation?
He’s a microbiologist. His whole thing is that he is at the top of this game, he’s the best of the best a Black scientist! He has a connection with the specimen which he believes could change life as we know it. He’s thinking this could do stem cell recovery, it could cure cancer, he thinks that this could be the answer to all our ailments on earth.
Do you believe there’s stuff out there, would you admit it out loud?
I do. I believe there’s stuff out there. I’d say that out loud. If I can believe in God why would I not believe that God’s made other nations?
Would you go off and explore like Hugh did?
Hell no. When you go, you have to come back, and you’re gonna be blind, you might have cancer. There’s so many things that people don’t realise happen when you go into space. It’s not the most easiest thing ever. I like earth.
What’s next and how are you feeling about all this exposure?
I’ve got Doctor Foster coming out, and I’ve just written a boxing film, in which I play a boxer. It’s so weird, because everyone’s saying to me, this is it… I’m the overnight success that didn’t happen. I’m excited, moved and touched that the response to this has been good. I’ve worked hard. I want success like everyone else, but I want success to come from my work. I really want to do the right work. I want my nephews to be proud, my nieces, my family; my friends to be proud. Like I’m proud of my friends, Chiwetel, Idris, David, Marianne Jean Baptiste… all these people who have inspired me to do what I do.
Life is released in the UK Friday 24th March 2017