Arinzé Kene, Is Set to Dominate Screen & Stage With His Slate of New Projects

Born in Lagos Nigeria, the incessantly talented Arinze Kene describes himself as a creative, a reader and a thinker. His body of work includes roles in prime time TV shows EastEnders, Hollyoaks, Youngers and Misfits. Along with leading roles in major stage productions, The Lion King and Daddy Cool. Kene has also won awards for his stage writing and over the next few months he will be seen on TV, Stage and Film appearing in productions which stretch his acting range as well as prepping for more of his work as a playwright to hit the stage.

Where did your journey begin, acting or writing?

I got into acting as an early teen I followed that with writing, despite parental objections. Nigerians are Lawyers or Doctors typically. My first acting experience was at secondary school, but it was stifled. Everyone had to be hard so you couldn’t fully engage with the class or enjoy the lessons without being called a ‘sissy’ or worse.  But it was there that I turned a serious play we were working on into a comedy, which made me realise I had a talent.  I wasn’t the best behaved student so teachers didn’t push me in that direction, it was something I discovered about myself and decided to follow up.

Which of your roles do you consider your ‘big break’?

arinze_black_star_launchI have never tuned into that type of thinking. It’s great to get jobs which open doors and get you recognised but it may not always lead to more work, or it could lead to work which is great commercially but not artistically. I hope I don’t sound pessimistic but I don’t know if I would recognise a big break.  I just see each part as a gift or a blessing. As humans it is essential to be able to tune into something, watch a story and feel a connection to it. The people who make that happen, the filmmakers or scriptwriters and authors have to see it as a spiritual connection to be able to deliver it to millions of people and that’s what I cling onto.

Is this your personal form of ambition?

I don’t know if it is ambition, I may get a gig one day that the industry considers to be a ‘big break’ but I don’t have my eyes on that. I just want to be able to work on the best programmes with the best actors. What I love about the industry is not the ‘break’ it’s the beauty of the art and being able to perform, and the human aspect, watching other actors and directors do their jobs and learning from them.

We’ve heard a lot about actors, especially black actors who say they can’t get work here but your CV shows a great body of work in the UK, how do you respond to those claims?

Don’t knock the UK. It’s arguable, but we may have the best fringe theatre in the world. But I totally understand, sometimes it is tough here, but it’s equally tough over there too. You can’t get too caught up in the propaganda and politics of the problem, it removes you from finding a solution. The last diversity talk I went to was in 2013, when I was at the height of my frustration. I was in the audience listening to the hurt and pain of people who find the lack of diversity issue really troubling, but I then realised that me being there wasn’t achieving anything.

I’m not above the situation I just think that there is a lot of unchartered territory here in the UK. I encourage everyone to move to where they think is best for them to find work. If I could produce great work in Antarctica I would go there. I just focus on the freedom to create whatever I want. With just being an actor you get caught up in a waiting game, we don’t work all year round and sometimes we are subject to only what is available to us which can conjure a feeling of helplessness and dependency on the industry.  That goes for everyone not just black actors.

There have been gaps in between each project, they are just all coming-out at the same time.  We have down time which we spend auditioning for big TV shows and films in the US. I normally have two or three months in-between each gig and I’m ok with waiting. I’m fortunate enough to have a body of work that now I can afford to only consider great scripts and my hand is never forced.  In the past I have gone an entire year without working because I didn’t feel like there was anything that excited me at that time. If you take ownership of your career, if things become stagnant, create your own stuff.

You are now starring in new E4 series Crazyhead which will also be shown via Netflix…

Crazyhead written by Howard Overman, a brilliant writer who created Misfits which I thought was excellent and has all the elements which I love. I play a character called Tyler, the brother to one of the lead characters Raquel brilliantly played by Susie Wokoma and he also fancies Amy played by Cara Theobold.  Tyler is the moral compass; his heart is always in the right place.

The entire cast of this show is brilliant and the scripts have been awesome. There are some surprising moments and some cool twists to look forward to.  I also did Youngers for two seasons with E4, I was on the writing team for the second season. I have a good relationship with the network so I was really happy that they employed me again and I hope to keep that relationship going.  It’s really cool to have a connection with Netflix now too, I love their programmes, I’ve been watching The Get Down by Baz Luhrmann; that show is giving me life.

From left, David Ajala (Jim Brown), Sope Dirisu (Cassius Clay) and Arinzé Kene (Sam Cooke) in 'One Night in Miami. . ..' © Johan Persson
From left, David Ajala (Jim Brown), Sope Dirisu (Cassius Clay) and Arinzé Kene (Sam Cooke) in ‘One Night in Miami. . ..’ © Johan Persson

You have also just opened in One Night in Miami at the Donmar Theatre, a play about four back celebrities meeting up at the Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston after party in 1964

The play is directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah who is amazing at everything he does, I have done workshops with him before but not a full production so it is a dream for me to work with him on this.  It’s based on a true story and written by Kemp Powers. I’m glad it’s been given a great platform at the Donmar.  The play takes place the night that Muhammed Ali beats Sonny Liston, it was a huge night for him because he was still known as Cassius Clay and the underdog at the time. On this night you see how Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X and American Footballer Jim Brown celebrate the win in a hotel room, the night before Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay and announced himself as a brother and a part of the Nation of Islam.

Some of the rhetoric in the play surrounds what that meant in those days. We also explore the lives of these men and what it was like to be a successful black man in racist America not long after the Jim Crow era of the 60s.  I play the King of Soul Sam Cooke; I can sing, but I did take singing and guitar lessons to prepare for the role.  One thing that drew me to the play was that it resonates with a lot of what’s happening today in the States; the way black men are treated.

Apart from the lessons how else did you prepare to encapsulate the spirit of Sam Cooke?

I read about him every day, watched videos but the most insightful thing I’ve found is if I really focus and listen to his music and let him take me away with his lyrics and within his live performances, it’s really revealing.  If you look at Hip Hop today, and listen objectively they talk about what really matters to them, if you transcribed it, you would see that a lot of young men in America have a fear of failure, a fear of death is prevalent. Bravado is on the surface, sometimes we find it to be aggressive and threatening but it’s really a defence mechanism to deter societal  predators.  There is the need for approval, defining themselves by the type of women they have in their lives or what you can do for them. Hip Hop, the heart of it has changed.  I find that if you look back at Sam’s music you will understand what was happening in his life in the same way.  Sometimes what people say in their art is very revealing and they don’t even realise they are telling us so much.

Were you a fan of his music, or music of that era before landing this role?

My dad introduced me to Sam Cooke when I was 9 or 10, he is a huge fan of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.  A Change is Gonna Come was the first song of his I ever heard, I don’t think I’d ever heard a song as hypnotic as that. it’s real raw, begging for fairness, equality and hope. The play is not about his music but it would’ve been hard to leave that part of him out if you really want a good representation of his character. I’m loving being able to sing his songs.

Acting, or being a part of the industry, seems like a spiritual experience for you.  Do you get caught up in the business or hype side of the industry or is it a pure creative love?

It’s definitely Love, there is no off button for me in this industry, it’s not work.  You could call me at 3 or 4am in the morning to discuss a script or character and I’d be cool because it’s what I love and I’m drawn to people who share the same love of drama. We have a good mixture of them and those who are very business minded and entrepreneurial.  We need both because if there were only people like me around we would never get anything accomplished. We’d all be admiring the work and missing deadlines.

I meet actors I see on TV and gush. For example, I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in a Foyles bookshop working on something, I waited for him to leave before going up to tell him what a huge fan I was.  I was really shy, shaking and everything. He’s also Igbo and his dad’s name is Arinze.  My parents are huge fans of his, when I told them I wanted to act they always mentioned him as an influence or marker for me because of our ancestral similarities.

Most of my love for the craft comes from being able to witness my contemporaries doing amazing work; My good friend Daniel Kaluuya, I’m glad I get to tell him every day how great he is.  My friend Anthony Welsh has a film coming out with Paddy Considine later this year. I’m a massive fan of Michaela Coel, Malachi Kirby, Tobi Bakari… I’m blessed to be surrounded by such amazing UK actors how can I not be a fan of or have an intense love for this industry.

Going back to the conversation about going to the USA for work, if I leave here I’d be leaving all this talent behind and I hope to work with them all one day.  I’ve known David Ajala for 10 years and have only just got the chance to work with him now. He’s been in the industry for a while now, he’s seasoned and very wise and someone I could comfortably go to for advice.  I couldn’t leave any of that behind.

You also star in The Pass which was opened at BFI Flare this year and was just screened at the BFI London Film Festival this month.

The Pass explores what it would be like to be a gay footballer because of how ‘manly’ football has become. It stars myself and Russell Toby playing premiership footballers.  The script is very powerful and heartfelt about these two athletes who struggle with their identity and sexual orientation and the ramifications that would come with being a popular footballer who may be out of the closet.  Right now I don’t think there are any footballers who are openly gay playing in the UK.  The playwright John Donnelly has done a great job with the story and turning the original play into a film.  My favourite film role so far.  I’m very proud of it. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.

[For this role Arinzé has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 2016 BIFA awards. Winners announced at the British Independent Film Award Ceremony on Sunday 4 December at Old Billingsgate.]

You also feature in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by JK Rowling released in the UK this November…

I turned up on set and everything was huge. We filmed at Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden last year, I had never been on a set of this magnitude in my life. I play Auror Johnson, say a few lines, and I get a few close ups on screen. You need those roles sometimes.  It was an experience you can’t really prepare for. It made me have a lot more respect for movie stars because it’s not easy doing a big movie like this. I felt the pressure even in the smaller role I had. I was cast without seeing a script, which for movies of that scale is completely normal because of leaks and confidentiality, but also JK Rowling was rewriting the script when we were actually on set filming. In those types of productions, no matter the size of your role you have to give it your all.  It’s not the same type of acting as in One Night In Miami for instance or even Crazyhead, it’s a different beast.  I learned loads on set, I always asked questions when I wasn’t being used.  If there was one thing I took away, it’s being patient. Everyone has to be flexible and to do something great you need a lot of help.  Everyone was working their asses off so you have to show up every day and not have a bad day.

Can you name a role which you auditioned for and were upset not to land?

Honestly, there has never been anything that I’ve gotten upset about after seeing the finished product.  There was a Steve McQueen HBO project that I auditioned for a number of times with an incredible script. After taping and re-taping a few times the last meeting was with Steve McQueen himself, he was in the room directing me through the scene which was surreal. I’m not sure if that pilot got picked up but I really wanted to be a part of it. I also auditioned for Star Wars and the part went to John Boyega but that’s ok because John is someone I admire greatly. Ultimately I’m just grateful that they bring me in for some of the best things out there.

You are also a prolific writer, and have a number of projects coming up in the future…

I have Misty coming next year which I also appear in and I’m very proud of, I don’t want to give too much away on that.  Good Dog is touring in 2017. I’ve been writing that for the last year, it’s a play which looks at the life of a young man from the inner city, he pours his heart out and we explore his mind and follow his journey through his psychosis.  He’s struggling to be a good person, or what we, society, have decided is good. The main character is an amalgamation of a lot of people I know. I try to make the characters I write seem natural and as human as possible and to do that there is sometimes an essence of truth in the story.  I am also developing another play called When Courage Comes, with a view to it hitting the stage late next year.

Is this where you start to feel some pressure; you seem unflappable?

No pressure yet, distractions are a wonderful thing and one great thing about loving what I do so much is that I become fully immersed and entrenched in the creative process. I never have time for the outside pressures about acclaim or reception.

I get the impression that despite doing so much in a relatively short pace of time, having amassed an enviable career, ] you still feel like you have a long way to go…

I have a lot of life left in me.  I don’t have any goal posts; I don’t have a ‘made it’ point.  I do what I love, and to me that’s all that matters.  The next job I do could be a very small part or a small film by a new writer or film maker but if I love it I’m in. Life should be rich, we should only do things that we love and I don’t take that for granted. I don’t tell myself I have to have certain things in my life or on my CV by a certain age (for example) because I don’t believe in failure. In life or work it doesn’t exist when you really think about it, what you think is a failure is just an experience, or something you need to go through to get the lesson.

I have never failed.

Catch Arinzé Kene in the following projects:

  • Arinzé can be seen in One Night in Miami which will run at the Donmar Warehouse from 06 October until 3 December 2016. Go to the Domar Warehouse website for tickets.
  • Crazyhead airs on E4 Wednesdays 9pm – Read TBB’s interview with Susan Wokoma here
  • The Pass will be released in UK cinemas 9th December.
  • Tiata Fahodzi’s production of Good Dog by Arinzé Kene will opening at the Watford Palace Theatre on Tuesday 14th February 2017 before embarking on a National tour. Find out more here

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