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Meeting David Harewood

18/08/2013 20:23 | Updated 17 October 2013

Thinking about how to prepare to take the interview with David Harewood, I wondered who exactly it was that I would meet. What would he allow himself to divulge? 2013-08-17-Parka.jpeg.jpeg
I wondered because when I had met him briefly, once before, he had seemed amused and a little impatient. If I am honest, I was a little bit intimidated.

We start off in that way that lopsided conversations usually start; polite, informative but not all that revealing. I listen to what I later realise is a highly polished vignette of how he came into the industry. Following the suggestion of two teachers, a popular jock who is also class clown nonchalantly starts to explore what it means to be an actor; two summer stints at the National Youth Theatre in which he first hears it said he has talent; hearing a magnetic Jaques, in As You Like It, speak Shakespeare as if it were a living language. There's the valuable time between the two summers spent people watching, from behind a bar; the comical retelling of the "nonsense of having to fall in love with a chair" - the countless small humiliations that are the audition rounds of drama school. His happy-go-lucky approach to his applications; having done no research he accepts the first offer of a place. There's the unlikely miracle of his second chance to audition for RADA and his subsequent two-day preparations. He digs out his only play, Othello, and then learns a song - Bill Withers' Lean on Me, by writing the lyrics down on a scrap of paper - carefully picking up and putting down the needle and playing the vinyl again and again and again.

He talks of receiving his acceptance letter and only reading the first three words, the "We are pleased" before "fucking leaping up for joy!" and I can't help but smile broadly as if this were my triumph too; this extraordinary achievement by a boy who had read no more than four plays, who knew nothing about the industry, who as he says "knew nothing about anything", getting into RADA. He remembers, with a wry smile, the drinking, exploration and creativity of drama school, and there is something of the comedy and naïveté of Esther Freud's Lucky Break about it.

It's also the first time that I think I learn something of this man. He tells me that it is during this time, away from home and as he throws himself into this new way of life, that he recognises that he is good on his own. He's not one to need crutches; he finds it easy to seek people out and find friends. He has the confidence, some might often say arrogance, of walking into new spaces. This is when I sense loneliness.

As we both relax into what becomes a three hour chat, this impression grows. Is it because, even with a family, this is a man who has essentially been nomadic for three decades? I want to probe. As an actor who did he look up to? He lists Spencer Tracey, Sydney Poitier and Peter Fonda - archetypal, strong men who inhabited their characters completely. I think I've found a thread, for if Harewood is one thing, he is undeniably masculine. That old world combination of gentle and strong, a charm that makes you feel safe and alert. Is this why he has yet to play a lead character with an emotionally developed line? It must be in the offing, but the wait has got to be excruciating.

When we explore what playing Estes in Homeland means and the differences for him between TV and the community of working in theatre, I feel like I am finally meeting this man. Gone is the easy wit with which he recounts the hedonistic days of his youth and the high ideals with which he left drama school, ill prepared for the working world of an actor. I start to notice that there's a soft Brummie accent loosening the register of his received pronunciation. I like it and I tell him so, because I feel as if I am getting a look into a different, closer part of him.

I listen on and the recurring and intertwined themes of our conversation are patience and confidence. I make note of the mental endurance it takes to survive the fallow months of not working and how this wears on self-belief; trying to find equanimity during the planning of and actual breaking into the US market. There's the gratitude for work and then the anticipation of receiving offers of stretching roles that in the event don't come through, especially here in the UK; the dark, night work* of grieving through a devastating loss. All the while, as I hear this man speak with such surety, he is also questioning his ability. It's almost as if, until now, he has never quite believed in his abilities.

I am meeting a thoughtful man, one who is wrestling with a change in perspective; questioning where this experience will take him and sanguine with accepting who he is now becoming. With a near half century of life experience - fatherhood, an understanding of the fragility of life, and a new marriage in an older relationship - there's a re-evaluation of what is important. The earlier casual confidence that things would somehow work out is being replaced with a sharper focus of what he wants to create. Harewood is starting to write more and has his hand in two television projects, one of which he says will be an unusual look at love. He's now exploring in different forms what his creative voice wants to say. There's a new determination about him; a bravery to say things as they are, to be less the affable show-off and more authentic to himself.

There's a brief silence - I've forgotten myself - I've been laughing with, listening to and sharing book recommendations with this man. I have to leave, and I'm surprised to say that I think I met a bit of the real David Harewood, and I enjoyed it. He's an enigma this strong, gentle, careful and very mischievous man.

David Harewood can next be seen playing Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Directed by Julie Taymor, it starts showing from November 2 in Brooklyn, New York, at Theatre for a New Audience.

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* The phrase 'dark night work' is a combination from the Spanish mystic, poet and Carmelite, John of the Cross' (1541-1597) poem "Dark Night of the Soul" and a section heading from the Introduction of Thomas Moore's book "Dark Nights of the Soul".