‘Reading Lenny Henry’s findings, it feels kinda weird talking about it all now. It’s been a part of the wallpaper -a given- for so long that for it to become newsworthy now feels strange. As a British Asian actor leaving drama school, it soon became apparent what you would and wouldn’t be considered for and you would have to sit and wait for a more-often-than-not stereotyped role to rock up in order to be seen for anything. I tried to make it a point that I get seen for anything, for everything – that suited me as a British male of a certain age, but that really cut down the opportunities for me to work. I’d worked out though, that I preferred to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning, knowing I had done the right thing, done the thing that I could live with, rather than add to the problem I saw, running like a rash across the industry. Being on TV is a big statement. It’s in the living room and in the playground the next, day, like it or not. So.. If you are going out and playing a negative or stereotyped role, with no re-balance, no opportunity to redress that in the meantime, then you are reinforcing what is already the prevalent sentiment and feeling as to what Asians are, what they are capable of, so they remain figures of ridicule, or worse, of threat and nothing moves forward in terms of representation and perception in an already divided country.. For me, it started out as portraying drug-dealers, then moved on to rapists and inevitably, terrorists. For others it was as figures of sadness and ridicule and many bought into that, as it was the only way to pay the bills, put food on the table. I mean, as an actor, who doesn’t want to play a baddie? But when you contemplate how rare it is to see an Asian face on the telly, you are forced to consider the wider impact of so doing. When there aren’t commensurate, counterbalancing three-dimensional roles to compensate and provide a fuller picture.
But this stance made me very unpopular with my agents and our partnerships tended not to last very long, as they began to regard me as a liability in terms of refusing auditions, or work. Rocking the boat didn’t do, regardless of the fact that it was a point of principle, not simply being arsey for arsey’s sake. As an actor of colour, whether you liked it or not, you became an ambassador and you were faced to a greater or lesser degree with a decision as to whether this was a role that furthered our cause, or hindered it. None of my white colleagues ever needed to consider this when looking at jobs. And that was before one began to deal with the racism one was facing both in the audition and on the job.
Lenny Henry –