I tell you what’s on my mind…
An Open Letter to The Guardian:
Dear Esther Addley
I read with interest your article in the Guardian, Friday Oct 7. I am an actor of colour, born and brought up in Britain of the Seventies and Eighties.
I gained a place at the Guildhall School, my contemporaries including Daniel Craig, Damian Lewis, Ewan McGregor and Dominic West. I believed I was giving myself the best headstart I could and looked forward to being seen for anything I might be suitable for. However, as an ‘Asian’ actor I was only seen for Asian parts: Beating people up, getting beaten up, dealing drugs. Cornershop-owners, doctors. ‘That’s good, but can you do it with an accent?’
I’d been out of drama school four years when I realised, rather than bellyaching about it, if I wanted to see change, I should endeavour to be the change. I made ‘Offending Angels’.. a cast of Shaun Parkes, Andrew Lincoln, Susannah Harker, Jack Davenport, Steve Mangan, among many others. But the point of that Rom-Com was to give two leads to non-white actors, where their roles were not governed by their colour. Only Eastern Eye got what I was doing:
“Eastern Eye 19/04/02
Heavenly Film-making A Breath Of Fresh Air
Opposite this gigantic film (‘Bend It Like Beckham’) with its cliché roles is super-cool indie movie ‘Offending Angels’. The low budget film doesn’t have the glitz and glamour and all round hype of ‘BILB’, but what it does have is a British-Asian playing an original role not driven by colour.
…Highly original film… refreshing, well-written…well made and the battle is on to get people to go and watch this highly engaging tale.
Both ‘BILB’ and ‘Offending Angels’ are good films, but …more films like the latter are needed if Asians are going to get a strong foothold in the mainstream.”
For a great many reasons beyond my control, including but not limited to my Sales Agent, Ardent International being shut down by the furore over Prince Edward making a programme about the young princes at school, the film never got distributed. Thereafter, I managed to land a highly sought after place at the NFTS as a Screenwriter, intent on trying to make the changes at script level.
What is so interesting and depressing in equal measure about your article is that it barely scratches the surface. There remains an unwritten hierarchy at play here. Black actors do indeed have it bad, but beneath them come South Asian and beneath that, Chinese, Japanese and anyone else who doesn’t fit a bucket. And you will not be seen, unless for some stereotyped role. It’s why I got out of the industry. It wasn’t enough for me to be paid as an actor, but lose my soul in the doing. I wrote a play exploring these issues called ‘That Paki Play’.
My acting agent took me back last year, as trying to get a (minority cast) film funded is harder than landing an acting role. In the last year, as a British-Asian casting in his forties, I have been up for a tiny role as a doctor in an American movie, an ‘Indian Dignitary’ in a Dutch toilet perfume commercial, a Muslim man wanting to marry his son off to an eleven-year-old girl from Pakistan (in the name of comedy) and a cameo on Citizen Khan. And that’s it. I look forward to my agent calling about a terrorist role.
I trained in Shakespeare. I don’t have any ‘trouble with the language’. I disappoint countless would-be employers at auditions, with my failure to comply with an Indian accent. I actually herald from Trinidad. But try finding ‘Asian-Caribbean’ on any PC racial profiling form. But I’m English and proud.
As David Oyelowo so correctly points out, if Britain’s history is continually whitewashed, its stories ignored, is it any wonder ignorance prevails and racial tension escalates? My mother was invited here by the NHS from the West Indies. But who knows why there are actually Asians in the West Indies? Perhaps only those that come from that background, but it’s part of Britain’s history too.
Despite decades of lip-service I’ve witnessed being paid by the various gatekeepers of finance and programming, nothing has changed at all. I had hoped, both with my work as an actor, but also as a writer and director, that I would make it easier for the guys coming up behind me, but I have to say, I have failed. I have failed to make any dent, any career, even. All I have done is get older.
I refuse to bow down and get bitter about it, or quit, because what is the point in that? But no one wants to hear your story, just putting it down to bad luck, a lack of ability, rather than an impermeable, frustrating wall, where every time you are considered for a job, it is only because of your perceived culture and colour.
But this situation has to change, not just for black actors, but for all minorities. I fervently believe that if we were allowed to start telling our stories, not only would we be creating jobs for actors of colour, we would also be creating role-models for our younger generation and we would be educating our own population about who Britain is now and how it got to be so.
Surely there has never been a better time to start being inclusive, to start educating those that are ignorant, than now. And I speak of the gatekeepers.