By the end of this year, you might have seen Arinzé Kene in starring roles on cinema screens, on TV, or on a London stage, playing characters ranging from a wizard to a demon hunter, and from Sam Cooke to a gay footballer. We sat down with the actor the week before the release of his new film The Pass, to talk about his busy year, juggling vastly different characters, growing up in London and much more.
2016 has been good to Arinzé Kene. Within the year, he has starred in multiple films (The Pass, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), E4’s TV show Crazyhead (created by Misfits’ Howard Overman), the Donmar Warehouse’s production of One Night in Miami, and written a play himself (Good Dog, set to debut in February next year). How the hell did he manage to keep all these roles separate, without accidentally playing Sam Cooke in a demon-hunting universe, or shouting 'Expelliarmus!' as a pro footballer? Kene chuckles into his black Americano: “Timing was on my side. We shot The Pass last year; I focused only on my role, Ade, getting into character by speaking to an ex-footballer and researching the world of football and the many secrets within it, the players' mannerisms, their characteristics, their habits.” He shot Fantastic Beasts right afterwards, preparing by watching all previous Harry Potter films over the course of two weeks, while simultaneously training in “wand workshops”. After a four-month stint in LA at the start of this year, he was cast in Crazyhead in the same week that he got the part of Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami. After shooting the E4 show in Bristol, he workshopped his upcoming play and prepared for the show at the Donmar.
I meet Arinzé in midst of this very busy period, on a crisp autumn morning in London, tucked away under a Soho rooftop. He’s softly-spoken, considers questions thoughtfully, and never breaks eye contact when speaking to you. The only time he looks away is when I congratulate him on his recent award nominations (more on these later) for The Pass, causing him to divert his gaze and sheepishly smile at the table between us. Kene’s co-star in The Pass is Russell Tovey; in it, the two men play premier league footballers who unexpectedly share a kiss the night before a big match, and the affect this has on their lives a decade later. How was it working opposite Tovey? “That was special for me,” Kene smiles. “I’ve been watching him for years, I’ve always been a fan of his work.” The praise reaches even higher levels for their director, Ben A. Williams, whom Kene refers to as “our fearless leader". What did he bring out in the actor? “Under his guidance, I was able to really feel like I was free, mentally and creatively.”
"When you’re without experience, you say yes to anything."
Did Kene know that this would be a pivotal role for him? “I feel like it’s a really important role, the role of Ade,” he nods. “He has a beautiful journey – he has universal similarities with things that we’ve all experienced. Covering up who we are, pretending to be someone else in order to fit in with the masses. He learns in quite a tough way, but ultimately, he’s happier being who he is.” Is this something he has experienced, trying to be something he isn’t? Sipping his coffee, Kene nods again. “When you’re starting out, you can form a habit of taking on roles that you’re not particularly right for. When you’re an actor, not working for a while can be soul-destroying, so you just take on any role. And one of the disadvantages of that is being a square peg in a round hole. So sometimes you have to shoehorn yourself into a role, and sometimes that can become even more soul-destroying than not working.”
Kene’s career spans almost all mediums on offer to a working actor. From musicals to plays to TV and to films, the breadth of his roles is impressive, considering he’s yet to turn 30. And that doesn’t even include his writing. In the past, he has said that as a young, black man, the roles initially offered to him were usually unsavoury characters, such as dealers. “In the beginning, there were parts that were one-dimensional. When you’re without experience, you say yes to anything,” he remembers.
"It's a game you have to play. It's chess."
It’s clear he’s thinking of one or two jobs in particular, here, but Kene politely declines telling me which roles he rather wouldn’t have accepted, in retrospect. When he didn’t agree with the direction of his character, or didn't enjoy his surroundings, he would think of one of the greatest chess players of all time: “It’s a game you have to play. It’s chess. You have to be Bobby Fischer, know when to call the other person’s bluff. It doesn’t have much to do with acting; it’s the business side of it, and sometimes you take on things that you know are going to be a bitter job.”
We talk a bit about the people that have inspired him most along the way so far; Kene mentions Kwame Kwei-Armah, who directed him in One Night in Miami. He speaks of watching fellow actors such as Danny Sapani, Eamonn Walker and Chu Omambala on stage during rehearsals for another play: “What I gained from watching those guys, I’ll never forget. No one can ever take that away from me.” Who does he still really want to work with and learn from? Kene’s answer is immediate: “I’d love to work with Steve McQueen. I was lucky enough to get down to the wire for a series that he was writing for HBO a few years ago, and I met him in the final audition and had him direct me. That was incredible.” How about fellow actors? “Chiwetel Ejiofor,” he answered just as swiftly. “I think he’s incredible. He’s from the same Nigerian tribe that I’m from, Igbo, and he’s nominated in the same category as me at the Evening Standard British Film Awards. Just to be included in the same category as him, that feels incredible.” It was Kene, in fact, who ended up winning said award a few nights later.
Born in 1987 in Lagos, Nigeria, Kene and his family moved to London when he was four years old. He refers to his family as academic, wanting him to seek an academic profession, too: “My parents wanted the best for me, and 'the best' to them is academia – becoming a lawyer, becoming a doctor, an accountant.” He did as he was told for a while, studying science, before following his passion. A tough pill to swallow for his parents, surely? “I definitely had to prove myself,” he knowingly nods. “It took some convincing. My dad still wanted me to go back to university, even after I began acting professionally. It took a while for him.” The job that changed his father’s mind? EastEnders. “That show has been on the television since we came to this country in 1991; my dad was already here in the mid '80s, and he was watching it back then, too. So for me to be a part of that show, it was something he and his peers recognised. I had to convince him all over again when I decided to leave Eastenders, though,” Kene laughs.
He mentions a few times that he feels lucky to be a Londoner. “London is the theatre capital of the world. You can really cut your teeth by working at all the theatres, by working in small roles. I was in the wings for a bit. You learn, you watch, you make notes, you keep a journal. And then when your chance comes for that bigger role you feel more comfortable, more confident at giving it a shot.”
"I used to think that I knew what it was to be British. But now I realise that my definition as a Londoner is very different to the rest of Britain."
Kene started writing plays in his teens. He has staged numerous productions since then, and is about to release his first in four years, Good Dog. He explains that writing came at the heel of acting for him: “Very soon after I started performing professionally, I started writing. It was more than just a past-time. I felt like it was a calling for me to tell certain stories that I wanted to tell, that I was experiencing or saw experienced.” Kene is currently redrafting the play, “every second I get”. “I found early on that I preferred to write during my downtime, it kept me in the world of performing. It’s about being proactive. Figuring out how best to use that time.”
With so many different roles and different mediums, does he see a red thread running through the characters that he now takes on and creates? “The stories that I love to tell always have some hidden survival information. Whether you’re going to leave the cinema or the theatre feeling that you know how to deal with one situation better in your life, those are the kind of stories that resonate with me and that I try to tell. I don’t like to preach.”
As a near lifelong resident of Hackney (“It’s like night and day how Hackney has changed since the Olympics!”), I ask the actor what he feels it means to be British right now. After a long, long pause, Kene thoughtfully replies: “I used to think that I knew what it was to be British. But now I realise that my definition as a Londoner is very different to the rest of Britain.” He expands, “Being a Londoner, you feel free. I think it’s one of the greatest cities in the world, where people are allowed to be themselves. I feel uninhibited. I feel united.” Even right now, with everything that’s happening around us, politically? He nods once more, emphatically, saying, “I feel there’s solidarity in London. The rest of the world is bonkers. It does worry me, but living in London kind of makes me feel lucky. Of all the places in the world that I could have ended up, I’ve ended up here. My dad chose to bring us all here, and I’m so indebted to him for that. Here I am. Free. If anything, what’s happening in the rest of the world has made me feel even happier to be here.”
I ask if he feels a glass ceiling over him in the industry – after a short beat, he replies: “I feel we can get there. We can write better roles for women, us writers. And diversity in casting, of course, needs improving. Being all-inclusive, of all kinds of walks of life. Who you see walking along the streets of London, they're not represented on its stages. It feels a bit dated. The theatre world, we should be contemporary with our work – we should include everyone, and not look back as much.” The moment he says this, though, he plays devil’s advocate to his own statement, thinking about the three black actors he shared the stage with in One Night in Miami. He reconsiders, slightly: “There’s progress. All I see is positivity; all I see is light.” If this last year is anything to go by, then that certainly is true for Kene’s future.