Arinzé Kene was born in Lagos in 1987 and brought up in Hackney, London, the fourth of five children, his mother a nurse and his father a taxi driver. His screen credits include EastEnders, Our Girl and the role of a gay footballer in The Pass (adapted from John Donnelly’s play).
On stage, he played Simba in The Lion King and Sam Cooke in One Night in Miamiand got rave reviews for his current role as Joe in Girl From the North Country, Conor McPherson’s play that uses Bob Dylan songs. His plays have been staged at Soho theatre and the Royal Court and he is rehearing Misty, a one-man show blending verse, music and video projection for the Bush theatre.
Tell us about Misty…
It’s a weird, quite absurd version of my experience as a creative in this industry, but also a universal story about struggling with confidence and responsibility and artistic freedom – about who gets to tell what story. The main character is called Arinzé. It is really quite nerve-racking and exposing to put yourself on stage, but I am enjoying being able to play and be more silly than I usually am. This is a hard left from more naturalistic forms of storytelling.
I gather the show addresses the catch-22 of being a black man in the industry – that to combat stereotyping you have to become a “spokesman” for your race – and also gentrification.
We do touch on both those things and my working-class background also comes into it. I grew up in Hackney and have seen it change before my eyes, for better and for worse. Over the years, I’ve been asked a lot about the lack of diversity [in the arts], but I happen to think that whole conversation is incredibly boring. I’m a writer and I tackle these things when I am alone and can think about them from all the angles, and this is my response to it.
What dictated the form of the play?
Omar [Elerian, the director] and I decided early on to use music and recorded sound because it’s hard to tell an epic story in a one-man show. When we needed to create an image, we asked a projectionist or a graphic designer or a videographer to help us. There are two worlds in the play, one naturalistic and one in verse; when I first started writing 20 years ago, it was rhymes, raps that I made up to beats in my bedroom.
What does writing give you that acting doesn’t?
The two inform one another and writing gives me more agency. I don’t prefer one to the other, but there is something in me that says writing is more important. The Pass for example: some young kid who is in the closet might see that play and decide not to kill himself.
Has Bob Dylan been to see Girl From the North Country yet?
[Laughs] Your guess is as good as mine.
Are you still based in Hackney?
I’ve just moved back, after moving to LA, which was a baptism of fire. I did a film called Been So Long[a musical co-starring Michaela Coel] that Film4 financed and Netflix bought it in the summer for the most they’ve ever paid for a UK film. Their way of working out there is a million miles a minute – everybody loves you but a lot of it is blowing smoke up your arse. Then you come home and realise you are not the best thing since sliced bread.
Race, gender and class are hot-button issues here and in the US right now – are you hopeful or pessimistic?
I have hope. I was very proud to be at the Baftas, wearing my Time’s Up badge and speaking about the women who have influenced my life, my mum and three sisters. I was there with Daniel Kaluuya, who’s been one of my closest mates for 17 years – we were at school together – and who’s now in Black Panther and was up for an Oscar for Get Out. Seeing what we’ve both been able to do in the last decade and knowing what we’ve been up against – I think there is going to be a change. Because I know too many people who won’t let there not be.
How was it to appear in One Night in Miami [a play about four black figureheads] at the Donmar?
It was eye-opening. I had no idea Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali [then known as Cassius Clay] and Jim Brown were friends, let alone that they spent an evening together when Ali became world champion. The play is provocative; it’s really in your face. We don’t talk about race the way Americans do. That was one of the leaps we had to make. That rehearsal room was enlightening and I am delighted our director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, is now artistic director of the Young Vic.