Riann Steele is one of the cast of new E4 / Netflix series collaboration Crazyhead …
Created and written by BAFTA-winning Misfit’s creator Howard Overman, the six-part series follows the angst and exorcisms of an unlikely duo of demon hunters, Amy (Cara Theobold) and Raquel (Susan Wokoma).
After relocating to her birthplace New York to shake up her career for new opportunities, Steele said she accepted the role of Suzanne [Amy’s best friend] when she realised that this time getting to be the pretty best friend involved challenges not quite what she’d been used to.
I caught up with her after the pilot episode screening, and after the most old-people-esque conversation lamenting phones and technology, we got into it…
Riann, I’ve been following you for a while. Let’s start at the beginning … why acting?
As a kid, I was running around as you do, and then you grow up and think, ‘oh what do I want to do with my life?’ I thought I could be a lawyer or a doctor, I could see myself in the coat, I could see myself in a courtroom, then when I thought about all those years of studying I realised I didn’t actually want to be a doctor or lawyer, I wanted to pretend to be them.
Who was your inspirational TV doctor or lawyer?
There was no one character. It was just the thought, of you know, carrying books, and having the wig and looking stern and saying ‘no!’ It was playing those roles.
You studied your craft at the renowned Arts Ed drama school in West London …
Yeah, I loved Arts Ed. It’s a great school. Andrew Lloyd Webber just donated over 3million to redo their theatre and I know they’re doing more film and television, but they were always top for musical theatre. To be really honest I didn’t audition for RADA, I grew up in Ealing, west London, and I just assumed RADA was for rich white people. But I’d never ever do that again. I’d tell anyone, aim for the top. I auditioned for LAMDA and I got a 3rd recall, but I was really nervous. Then Arts Ed accepted me and though it wasn’t my first choice it was the best thing for me. Things happen the way they’re supposed to happen.
So you’ve done drama school, graduated, the next logical step would be to get a theatre job?
Yes I went straight into the RSC, that was amazing. I was at Arts Ed, and I was in some sort of competition where they nominated me and a guy and girl from our year and I remember doing this audition for the RSC; Gregory Doran was great and the RSC is brilliant for getting unknowns in. I was there for two years.
When did you drop your insecurities about who you were going into this industry?
Through the three years of training. I mean it’s still a process. This [Crazyhead] is rare for me. Two black leads and a black guy supporting! I live in New York now; I left about two years ago.
Did you leave because of a lack of roles? (Which would be surprising as there’s an assumption that you being mixed-race; attractive fits the image of success in the industry, especially the requirements for black women. Your journey should have been easier …)
See this is the problem. You grow up and this is the skin you’re in, but then it’s, ‘why do they treat me differently?’ Being mixed, you’re really not accepted by either, and people assume that you’re light-skinned so you have a much easier time. But no. Now I live in America, they talk about passing. A lot. So I get, ‘you’re almost white’. This role is great for me because people assume, you’re the light-skinned pretty friend. But no, God put soil on me, let me come out of the ground.
Does this mean you feel like you have something to prove, to challenge the box you’ve been put in?
I don’t get these parts. I play the pretty friend on the arm of a guy. I actually auditioned for the role of Amy and then they came back and said they’d cast her already but were interested in looking at me for her best friend. I’m not going to lie, my first reaction was, ‘I’m always the friend’. But then I read the script and loved her.
What jumped out at you about Suzanne?
All the stuff that happens to her, she gets possessed, she … [Riann says more but TBB doesn’t do spoilers] … So that was fun. Being two hours in make-up and getting more and more dishevelled by the end of it. I didn’t wash my hair for about a week. So I felt bad that when I read the script I judged it, because I’m just so used to it.
Have you worked with the other girls before, or met them?
I randomly saw Susie [Wokoma] in New York she was in a Henry IV play, and there was an Equity party. I kind of was watching Downton Abbey, so I vaguely remembered Cara in it. So first day on set was our actual first introduction. The first scene we did was the exorcism which was a great bonding session.
Some British shows don’t do well with natural fluidity and chemistry between characters, especially when comparing them to a good American show, yet Crazyhead ticks all those boxes … How do you get to the point of losing all inhibition and a bit of that stiff-Britishness?
I think it really goes down to the writing, the directing as well; the directing makes it very safe, but the way Howard writes, it just jumps off the page. You instantly say I know this person. I’ve had scripts where it’s been hard work, where I’ve had to really put two and two together, and do a lot to it to make those things up in your head, or you have those long conversations with the director – so what’s the vision, where are you going?
Al [Mackay] the director is a brilliant catch. He comes from a real Indie background; really loves horror movies. There’s an amazing shot where you just see Cara’s eye in the bowling alley when she’s hiding, and those touches are Al. The way he would direct us, you would instantly have a clear vision of what he wanted and you’re willing to do whatever. He’s trustworthy. I had to wear these big heavy chain, they could have given me the lighter chains, but I thought I know that if my character is as dangerous as they say she was then I need to have the heavier chains, I had bruises by the end of it but it’s because Al would talk through it you automatically want to do it. There are some jobs that you do that you stay in your trailer and come out, but when you work on a project where everyone gets on, everyone is happy, everyone is excited to turn up…
Are you a fan of horror and fantasy?
Yes. I’m also a big scaredy-cat. I can’t watch horror without having my hands over my face or turning the music down. I believe in ghosts; I’m scared of the dark. This was fun, but the research part of it, I couldn’t sleep for three days.
Is this the role you’ve been waiting for?
I think so.
There’s a bit of irony that you moved to New York to find more opportunities, but you end up back here…
I think that’s what you have to do though. I was born In New York but grew up here. I always wanted to return to my roots, I’m a Brooklyn girl, but then I had a career here and people. I never really wanted to do the LA thing, unless it’s to be in something amazing. Somebody told me that quote by Einstein – the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. I realised that I wanted this industry to give me something different, I’m frustrated with it so I needed to change it. It’s like not booking a holiday because you might get a job, you can’t do that. You have to live. So it was a great experience in New York.
Did you find work in New York?
That’s the other thing, I’ve jumped into an ocean, but I’ve been very close. There’ve been a couple of pilots where it’s been between me and someone else but it didn’t quite go my way and I auditioned for this from New York. I sent quite a few tapes, then they flew me over to audition. But I do think things are changing here. Act for Change started a big thing. Shows like this. I did another film called Powder Room, which was directed by a woman. That’s where you feel things are changing. It’s not only the diversity side of things it’s the female-led stories. Not being, oh my boyfriend.
I’m going back to New York, and if this gets picked up for a second series. I’ll be back.
Crazyhead starts Wednesday 19th October on E4 at 9pm. Find out more about the series here.