INTERVIEW: 'DANIEL THE TRANSLATOR'
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Wednesday, May 20, 2009.
Chuk Iwuji should be perfectly suited to the role of Daniel the Translator in Matt Charman’s new play The Observer. This thirty-something son of Nigerian diplomats has an easy, eloquent charm. It’s borne out of his international upbringing. Having grown up in Nigeria, spent time in Ethiopia and Kenya, followed by boarding school in England, he concluded his global education with an economics degree from Yale University. Add his time at a United States based Drama School and a successful career with the Royal Shakespeare Company it’s no wonder that the actor has an air of confidence.
Premiering at The National Theatre’s Cottesloe on 20 May and directed by Michael Eyre The Observer examines the political and moral dilemmas faced by a group of multi-national observers sent to oversee an election in a fictional African country.
Recalling the influences his early experiences as the child of diplomats has had on his life, and the roles and work he is interested in he asserts that: “Everything you observe can come in to your life whether you realise it nor not. One of the great things about my upbringing is I wasn’t on just one path’s, I was interested in a lot of different things.”
A familiar conception of Nigerian parents is that they encourage their children to pursue careers in professions such as law or medicine. I ask him if his chosen path in the performing arts is now seen as equally prestigious amongst those fable pushy Moms and Dads.
“My Dad said to me: “you have to have something solid for a profession”; but my parents wanted what was best for me and they were absolutely 100% supportive of me. Now my Dad knows more about movies and theatre than I do.”
Having already played small parts and minor roles, on TV and stage, as well as high-profile leads in Henry VI and The Playboy of The Western World, such versatility and curiosity hasn’t made him complacent.
“I really feel I am in the infancy in my acting. I have been lucky enough to work with the late great Edward Hall, his father Peter Hall, Michael Boyd; and with Richard Eyre” (director of The Observer). “
As to stage or screen work, Iwaji is comfortable in either forum but reveals that about 70% of his resume is Shakespearian or classical.
“I don’t know how that happened” he says. “The only preference is the nature of the work.”
With recurrent crisis and different forms of European interference in Africa The Observer is a topical and political play. As to the patronising colonialist custom of observation of elections, this new means of interference in the internal affairs of African countries is a dilemma the actor understands. As to his views on this type of intervention in Africa he is thoughtful in addressing the broader issues.
“It’s a very real play. There are tensions between African people in this play. It is a really topical play that highlights conflicts and shows that a family can have different views, as opposed to being just a Black and White issue.”
As a classically trained actor he is aware that Black British actors still have to face the prospect of playing stereotypical roles - if they get work at all. Black actors in the classic roles with no reference to their own heritage or colour is one of the ways in which such racism is being addressed.
Reflecting on this controversial practice of colour-blind casting he enquires provocatively: “How we would feel if there was a biopic of Martin Luther King and a white guy played him? It’s a really tough question. If the director wants an actor of whatever colour - it is his prerogative.”
As for his own experience: “How can I complain?” he states. “I have just played a British king, a historical figure - and I am Black. That opened doors in my career.”
“The film I just did (Exam - written and directed by Stuart Hazeldine) wasn’t a stock, stereotypical Black character. To complain about the casting of Black people - from my own experience - would be slightly hypocritical. I am not aware of the roles that I might have got but didn’t get. I am only aware of the roles I have been asked to play; but I am not naïve enough to believe that the opportunities are equal.”
He intends to be busy promoting Exam for the rest of this year. “It’s quite exciting; it is a really good piece, it’s like Twelve Angry Men.”
Many of his peers - Idris Elba, Eammon Walker, Adrian Lester and others - have successfully made the move to the United States. He understands why a lot of these actors moved: “If you really want to make it in film that’s where you need to be. The most important thing for me is to be playing good roles; that is the core. If you step on the right path things will open for you. Whatever happens for me will it will have to come out of the calibre of work I am doing.”
So far he has made good choices.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.