Cherno Jagne is a British/Gambian actor who will be playing the lead in the upcoming independent feature film, Haraam, opposite well known Pakistani Actress Ainy Jaffri.
Taking the interracial narrative away from the usual black and white tales, Haraam is a story of unrequited love; and what happens when you fall in love with your best friend, along with the questions that arise when you have two people from completely different racial and religious backgrounds and how cultural diversity and religion can have impact the decisions we make in love.
Born in Gambia, Jagne’s childhood was divided between primary school in the UK, returning to Gambia to complete High School. Moving back to the UK permanently in 2002, he initially studied Law at University, whilst taking a variety of drama classes on the side . Jagne eventually chose acting over a law and hasn’t looked back since.
#TBB10 caught up with him to learn more about his acting journey and how important Haraam is to telling an alternative side to dating interracially…
1# You’ve been cast as the co-lead character in the film Haraam… can you tell us what the film is about?
It’s a love story between two best friends [Geo and Layla] and what happens when one of them falls in love with the other but decides to keep it a secret for several years. What do you do when you’re faced with the choice of either risking your friendship to tell that person the truth about how you feel or live with that massive ‘what if’ for the rest of your life? It also explores themes of cultural diversity, religion and particularly interracial relationships, as one of the main reasons why my character Geo has hesitated to open up about his feelings [is because] he’s from a UK Black African background, Layla is from a strict Pakistani Muslim family. The whole film takes place over one day – Layla’s last day at work, and the dilemma that Geo is faced with, amidst a chaotic and drama fuelled day at work.
2# Tell us more about Geo…
Geo, works as a supervisor at a store called 90 Degrees Picture Framing. He spends most of his spare time writing and developing ideas for screenplays with his close friend, Mensah and sees this job as a stop gap until his dreams of becoming a screenwriter come to fruition.
3# What was it about the script, storyline and your character that attracted you to getting involved?
I thought the script was original and although it’s a simple storyline, if you look at most movies about interracial relationships it’s rare we’re exposed to the dynamics that take place in interracial relationships between black, Asian and Middle Eastern people, and it’s not like people from these communities don’t date.
I lived in Birmingham for 8 years, in an area that was predominantly Black and Asian and I saw interracial dating in these different communities all the time. My next door neighbours were a Jamaican and Indian couple. If you look at movies like, Save the Last Dance, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Made in America, Monster’s Ball, Get Out, The Big Sick… it seems that stories about interracial relationships only focus on what happens when a person of colour and a white person get together. There’s a lack of representation, in film apart from maybe Mississippi Masala with Denzel Washington as a black guy falling in love with a young Indian lady, I can’t remember the last time I saw a something that handles this topic like that movie did and that came out in 1991.
So that aspect of the script was appealing. With regards to the character that I play, I found it easy to relate to what he was going through. I’ve been in that situation before where I’ve fallen for a friend and didn’t quite know how to express my feelings for her because of my own fear of rejection and risking our friendship. When I read the script, I found myself constantly thinking that there’s a lot of truth that I could bring to Geo’s relationship with Layla, which I would either draw from my own personal experience or from what I felt I understood about someone in that situation.
4# Working alongside Ainy Jaffri on such a sensitive topic, how did you guys work together and how did you research your characters to ensure authenticity?
Working with Ainy was fun and really easy. She’s obviously had a lot of experience with the work that she’s done in Pakistan whereas I’m still relatively new to this, so it was nice to work with and learn from someone as experienced as her. We didn’t have a great deal of time to rehearse but we’d done a few table reads in the buildup to filming which helped with getting to know Ainy a little better. I was lucky that my character is based on the real-life experience of the writer/director of the project, Serge Rashidi-Zakuani, so it was helpful to be able to turn to Serge at any moment to ask him questions and advice about his experience. I did this a lot, to the point where I’m sure I got on his nerves but I was bringing his story to life and just wanted to make sure I was doing it justice. It was also really cool because a few weeks before we started filming, I interviewed Serge and asked him a ton of questions which helped me build the character to ensure it had that authenticity, which I hope will come across when people watch it.
5# Have you ever had to question a relationship based on the other person’s religion, race, general background, if so how did you deal with it?
It’s interesting, in Haraam, Geo hesitates to tell Layla how he feels about her because he’s afraid she won’t accept him because he’s not Muslim, whereas in my own life I went through a phase where I believed I’d be judged by girls, friends and even with job prospects because I am a Muslim. So whilst I can’t remember ever having to question a relationship based on the other person’s race or general background, because of the amazing job the media does in portraying Muslims in a negative light, it’s been the other way round for me where I’ve had to question whether people would question me because of my faith. I remember right after 9/11 happened, I was really young at the time and I was terrified to tell people that I was Muslim. As I’ve gotten older and hopefully wiser, if my faith is a problem for someone then it’s good sign that we shouldn’t be together or that I shouldn’t associate with them.
6# Tell us a bit about your acting background…
My training began back in 2008, I signed up to a very short stage acting course which lasted for 6 months. I didn’t enjoy the course but left feeling like I needed to learn more, so about a year later I signed up to another short acting course where this time the focus was more on screen acting. This also lasted 6 months but, again, I didn’t enjoy it. I decided to move from Birmingham to London in 2010 as it seemed the best acting schools were in London. After I’d moved to London, I signed up to a part-time, 3 night a week drama course which I did for about 14 months and even though I thought I gained more of an understanding about what it meant to ‘act’, I really didn’t enjoy my time and left the course completely disillusioned as to whether this was something I was just wasting my time on. As a result, I didn’t do anything acting related for about 18 months but I kept thinking that I should give it one more go or at least keep trying until I found what worked for me.
I’d heard about The Actors Temple London which focused primarily on The Meisner Technique, a style of acting that was developed by the late Sanford Meisner. A friend who’d been there recommended I go to one of their introductory classes, which I did in 2014. I signed up to the 1 week course; by the end of the week I was completely blown away and, up until that point, it was the best experience I’d ever had of acting so I immediately signed up to the 2-year course. Having completed the 2-year course at the end of 2016, I can honestly say that whilst it was two of the most difficult and challenging years of my life, it was easily two of the best. In terms of professional work, I’ve been blessed since completing the course I managed to secure 5 jobs since the turn of this year, 4 short films and 1 feature film (the feature film being Haraam).
7# You were a lawyer at first, do you think it’s important to have a backup career when going into the arts?
I never ended up qualifying as a lawyer. I did all my training up until the point where I was about to qualify, and was lucky enough to get offered a Training Contract, which is where a firm sponsors you to do a compulsory Legal Practice Training Course and then you work in their firm for 2 years doing all the training to eventually qualify as a Solicitor. In the end, I decided to turn it down and find another job in law that would pay me enough to be able to fund my dreams of being an actor.
I think it’s tricky to advise people as to whether they should have a backup plan or not, without knowing the individual’s circumstances. I’ve asked myself this question a lot and can relate to both arguments that would be for and against having a backup plan. One worry about having a backup plan is that if you give yourself too many options to fall back on, the chances are they’ll be easier to pick as the lazy person in all of us will tell us to give up on our dreams when things get hard, as all arts inspired industries are incredibly tough.
On the flipside, there are reasons why it just seems practical to have a backup plan and even though people don’t talk about it that much, a lot of this centres around the practical issue of finances. Anyone who’s familiar with the career of an actor knows that, unless you’re incredibly lucky, at some stage most actors struggle financially. It’s an overly competitive industry where even those who regularly work don’t make much money. People need to survive and people need to eat, and if you’re an actor you’ve already got to contend with the ridiculous cost of living in cities like LA, New York or London. Added to this is the cost of attending workshops, classes, head shots, and travel costs if you have an audition, all of which are important for an actor but are impossible if you can’t afford them.
There’s this assumption that, if you pursue another solid career while starting out as an actor you’re somehow not committed. I completely disagree as really, it’s about ensuring that you can continue to nurture your skills as an artist whilst ensuring your standard of living is sustainable. Having a day job can help reduce the financial burden and the emotional stress that comes with this industry as the constant rejection that many actors go through and the level of competition can easily make any aspiring artist feel miserable. At least if you’re pursuing another career on the side you’ve got something else to channel your energy into when things get tough.
Ultimately, if you’re constantly falling on your backup plan and you find it hard to build up the strength to keep pursing your dream of becoming an actor then maybe that’s a good indication that it’s not for you. When I first started looking at acting courses, I would love to have trained at a LAMDA, RADA or Central School of Speech and Drama but there was no way I could afford the courses at those schools. The alternative would’ve been to apply for one of their scholarships but the reality is thousands of people apply for them, they only offer out a handful and I didn’t believe I would get one, so I decided to fund all my training myself, which still wasn’t cheap.
Juggling 2 careers is in no way easy but unless you’re fortunate enough to have someone pay for your training, you’ve got to find a way to do it yourself and that has been my way. If I manage to make a living off acting, it won’t be because I had no other choice but because I worked twice as hard to make it. So I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have a backup plan nor do I see it as a sign of giving up; in my situation it was just about being practical and realistic with my circumstances.
8# The stereotype of African parenting is that whenever their children bring up wanting a career in the arts, there’s always push back… How did your parents/guardians react and how did you prove them wrong?
Believe it or not, my mother doesn’t know that I’m actor. When I was younger I would tell her that I wanted to be an actor when I grew up and even though she didn’t discourage it, she never took me seriously. It’s because of that stereotype of African parenting, that I’ve not told her, because it’s uncommon for a child growing up in Gambia to tell their parents that they want to pursue a career in the arts because, for most parts, they don’t really see it as a career but more of a hobby. Looking back now, drama wasn’t even offered as an extracurricular activity at my school in Gambia.
Nevertheless, I can see the discouragement coming from a caring place because, if you’re the 1st generation son or daughter of an African immigrant like I am, the chances are your parents had it hard when they first came to the UK and had to make tons of sacrifices, sometimes even doing jobs that they hated and were probably overqualified for, just so that you didn’t end up going through the same struggles that they did. So just imagine telling your parents you want to pursue a career where 95% of the people are unemployed. Plus, when I was growing up, other than Desmond’s and The Real McCoy, it wasn’t like there were many UK TV programmes with a strong black cast for me to convince my mum that there was an opportunity for me to make this work.
I do think that attitude is changing as there’s a wave of African actors and actors of African descent that have come through over the years. I always keep a look out to see if there is any Senegalese as well as Gambian actors out there and slowly but surely, they seem to be coming through. My friend, Babou Ceesay, is Gambian and doing tremendous work at the moment. Also, Gabourey Sidibe and Issa Rae who both have roots in Senegal are doing great work, so they’re all great examples to show the previous generation of how a career in the arts can be just as interesting and reputable as a career as a lawyer, doctor or accountant.
9# Where and when can we see Haraam?
It’s still in post-production at the moment but I spoke to the director a few weeks ago and once the film is out of post production in October, he aims to have it entered into film festivals both in the UK and internationally. Discussions are already taking place with distributors to try and either negotiate a cinematic release or via a platform like Netflix. Having Ainy attached to the film has meant that it’s already had some attention in Pakistan and that might help it get some exposure which will help it filter to the UK.
10# What’s next for you?
I’m working on another project with the Director of Haraam in August. He sent me the script for a short film written by a talented playwright named Mariama Ives-Moiba a few weeks ago and asked me if I wanted to play the lead in it and I agreed, which should start filming at the end of September. Off the back of the mini buzz surrounding Haraam I recently got signed to an agency which I’m excited about so hopefully they’ll be putting me forward for some interesting roles (hint hint, if you’re reading this). I’ll also be heading out to LA in October doing the typical actor thing of seeing what opportunities are out there, as you never know.