Clint Dyer has a name that rings a bell, a deceptively youthful face which is just as familiar, and a long repertoire of work which beggars belief in a climate which has rightly been accused of lacking in diversity for his peers.
For any young actor looking for a role model who has an abundance of experience, connections and talent to match in all three disciplines, Clint Dyer should be the first port of call.
With a career that has spanned 30 years and garnered credits on stage and screen as an actor, director and writer it is hard to introduce the artist by naming his best projects as I would normally, this is a task best handled by the man himself.
What are some of your career highlights?
Working with Mike Leigh on, It’s A Great Big Shame in 1993 which was my first big job at Stratford East. He was massive at the time, and he hadn’t used many black actors so it was amazing to be chosen. That was a big turning point in my career. Making, Sus was massive. Doing the play for Stratford East, then at The Young Vic, then doing the film. The whole Sus experience is something that I will always look back on with pride for being able to do something that was both artistically satisfying and morally and politically necessary. Directing The Big Life at Stratford East and then it went to the West End is another high point. I had gone to New York to study Musical Theatre to prepare for it, this was the first play produced under the workshop at Stratford East. It was a true stimulus for new black musicals in Britain that was borne out of the Black British experience. Particularly satisfying because the reaction was so heartfelt, it wasn’t just about the critical acclaim or success, it really touched the black community that came to see it. The Big Life opened the door for me to write, direct and have a much more daring career than was anticipated. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National Theatre was amazing. The Hollywood stuff was inspiring; working on the film Sahara with Matthew McConaughey, and Unknown with Liam Neeson. I’ve just done a film with Antonio Banderas which opens in America next month, that will be a highlight.
With so many milestones, do you ever find the time to celebrate your achievements?
I don’t. We’re not very good at that within the black community. We are great at recognising what we’re doing now but we don’t look back enough to celebrate those who have gone before us. The young actors coming up today haven’t got a clue what anyone over 40 has accomplished, they honestly think that their struggle is the first time that it’s happened. I saw that, not necessarily about my career, but some of the people that I grew up watching that they just have no idea. Some of these guys will not get the biggest roles in things but to me growing up they were my inspiration. Writers of old as well don’t get their due. For instance, I’ll do a classic play and I’ll look up the original cast of a play and be amazed by who came before me. Because our plays aren’t reprised often enough it doesn’t seem to apply. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been ‘celebrated’ with awards which is always flattering and gives you a sense of connection with the outside world.
I read in an interview that you were turned down for your first role because it was playing a negative character and they didn’t want the only person of colour on the cast in that role. Did that shape your decisions when auditioning in the future?
Yes, I suppose it did. Philip Headley, being a white man, it was so forward thinking of him to have such a great understanding of the political nature of casting in the early 90s. I couldn’t then turn around and play a crack dealer, it certainly helped me to be stronger about my own sensibilities over my career. There are jobs that I could’ve done that would’ve been advantageous and may have propelled me a bit further, but it’s a long game and no matter what people think success is, you have to find your own understanding of it. I’ve never minded people not knowing my name or being broke if I’m doing what I want to do. If it’s a choice between a very artistic job or a job that pays a lot of money it’s very likely I’ll take the art.
I read a quote from you about your play, Death of England – ‘The play highlights our anger at not feeling good enough about ourselves and the blame we apportion to other people for our own inabilities’.
Do you think it’s a simple as just trying harder to forge a path for ourselves?
Ironically the conversation that we were trying to have in Death of England was about white people, we were talking about the British psyche. The ‘working harder’ part wasn’t necessarily meant in the sense of being successful, it was more a case of working harder at one’s self or working hard to understand what the issues of the country are, what your own history is and why the problems we face are happening. It was about being introspective in a productive way as opposed to negative. I’ve seen loads of Denzel Washington interviews recently where he has been amazing, but I was perturbed by some where he was suggesting that it’s just about hard work for us. But I have to remember that maybe in America he’s right, we have a class system over here that they don’t have. So I draw the line at the English understanding that if you just work hard you will succeed because of that very strong class system which makes that impossible.
Regarding the recent comments from Samuel L Jackson about British actor Daniel Kaluuya, did he have point in your opinion?
I’ve only heard about this from soundbites, I don’t know if I’ve heard enough to comment. I read an open letter from Daniel Kaluuya expressing his disappointment about this sudden outburst against his blackness as though it wasn’t enough, he had to also be American now. Which I thought was a very interesting argument, because in the world as it stands you just have to be white to move to America and become successful because that’s the way the world is, but now according to Samuel, in this context, you have to be African American, not just black anymore. Black is no longer the criteria to play ‘black’ for an actor, which is ridiculous.
Someone as smart, talented and as much as an icon as Samuel L Jackson is, I think he was having an off day. He’s a very insightful person so I refuse to buy into the statement too much. We live in a free global market and this is a very competitive art form, there are a gazillion reasons why someone doesn’t get a part and he knows all of this. British actors in America have no advantages, it’s harder to act out a different accent, it’s bloody hard. What they’re not appreciating is when we go up for these parts, as English actors, we sound completely American, casting directors immediately say ‘wow this guy is amazing’ he can do English, American, African etc. he has range and this makes us a more exciting option sometimes. If American actors could come over here and do a convincing English accent they’d get all the parts because we are completely in love with Americans. I think we just to do the extra work necessary to be able to work abroad.
Tell us about your role in The Kid Stays in the Picture, currently at The Royal Court
I play 10 parts and it has been one of the hardest roles of my career. It’s hard to perform, but also the creation of it was particularly challenging for me because I’m dyslexic. So the process wasn’t kind to me, it was exposing, I haven’t had to reveal my disabilities in a rehearsal room before, I’m normally complete prepared. But the way we are devising it meant that I was ‘outed’. It was tough. I am a black English dyslexic actor playing American parts surrounded by American actors, they were like wow, why have they cast this guy? Rehearsals were only 5 weeks which is not very long to learn and devise a play, and there was a lot of work to do. Luckily, director Simon McBurney is a genius so it’s a great show, people are loving it, the response has been incredible.
For me it’s a bizarre scenario, I never thought I’d be playing real white people, I’ve never seen that as part of my career to be playing Jewish and Italian Americans like Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. We all play a plethora of different parts, genders are swapped, I play a female model too but its all a part of the story telling. We are tools to tell the story of legendary film producer Robert Evans so race and gender doesn’t matter. We are narrating the story as him so we are all involved in an organic process of delivery which means we all play everything. That what’s been particularly exciting for me as well as challenging, where other actors may have had an accent in their back pocket or an idea of how they would play these people I had no idea what to do, so for me it was a lot of work.
At this stage of your career is it harder to take on such challenging roles.
Yes, of course because you have much further to drop! But you have to be fearless working with Simon because he just throws you in, he makes you try so many different things out of your comfort zone.
How did you forge a relationship with The Royal Court, you have a long and successful relationship with them as an actor, writer and director.
It was after I did The Big Life, The Royal Court was the only theatre to take in my first show. They were the only ones who called and even suggested that we could come in for chat or anything. I still find that stunning and ludicrous now. As far as I know I’m the first Black British male to direct a show in the West End, (Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue), it was the first Black British musical to go the West End, I know was the first then, I hope I’m not the only one to this day but I can’t think of any other black British Londoner who has been given the helm of a West End show. So since then we’ve had a relationship, I still had to start from the bottom. They’ve commissioned me to write a lot of things which haven’t come to fruition until I finally got The Westbridge.
You are an actor, writer and director, did you train for all of those skills?
I went to drama school for acting and went on various courses for directing which is the standard way. For writing I haven’t officially gone to any school, that’s something I’ve learnt along the way. I suppose if you’re directing you have to look at writing in a certain way which has enabled me to understand what the profession means as well as acting has enabled me to understand what good dialogue is so they all end up impacting on each other.
What’s next for you? How will you be adding to your already impressive list of credits?
I have another play for Stratford East that I’ve written and I’m directing at the end of this year. And I’m working with the National Theatre, we are devising the short, The Death of England into a full play. I’ve been commissioned by The Royal Court for another play currently under development. I am also writing a couple of scripts for the BBC that I’m hoping to direct and I’ve got a film coming up that Andrew Eaton is producing which should be great.
It’s refreshing to speak to someone else from the UK who has such a full career and still has so much going on, which is a huge contrast to the normal narrative of Black British Actors and creatives not being able to get work. Why is there such a disconnect for some?
I’ve been doing this for 30 years and the only reason that I sound busy is because I do all three, if I didn’t, I could be destitute. As a theatre director, when I was in the West End only one theatre called me up to talk about working for them and then it took seven years for them to give me a full job. I got a few little jobs for them but it took that long to actually get a full production. So if you are just an actor it is really hard, if you’re just a director its really hard and if you’re just a writer its almost impossible. There is a joke that goes round that I’m like James Brown; the hardest working guy in show businesses, because I’m always doing something. If someone isn’t offering me something I make it happen myself. I’m not sure it should necessarily be that hard, but unfortunately that’s what it is.
See Clint Dyer in The Kid Stays In The Picture – The Life Story of Robert Evans at The Royal Court till April 8th. Find out more and book your tickets here.