Currently starring in Dimetos at the Donmar Warehouse, former journalist and hip hop artist Alex Lanipekun seems to have finally found the career path he was looking for. Or has he? asks Caroline Bishop.
Alex Lanipekun is obsessed with writing lists. And top of his list of theatrical ambitions was to work at the Royal Court, followed closely by a job at the Donmar Warehouse “and it’s happened, bang, bang; it’s crazy.” He gives a little shake of his head, perhaps in disbelief that he has been able to tick items off his list in such an ordered fashion, because Lanipekun is currently appearing at the Donmar Warehouse in Dimetos, after spending last Christmas at the Royal Court starring in Wig Out!
They are impressive additions to the CV of an actor who is just 18 months out of RADA, and has already spent a season in hit BBC television show Spooks, his character Ben coming to an abrupt and gruesome end when he was bumped off by the resident MI5 mole. It may have been the end for Ben, but for Alex leaving the show has allowed him to start working down that all important list.
So it is that we meet for a chat during rehearsals for the Donmar’s production of Athol Fugard’s Dimetos, in which Lanipekun stars alongside the considerably more experienced Jonathan Pryce, with the shadow of theatrical luminaries Paul Scofield and Ben Kingsley – who played the drama’s central pairing during its UK premiere run in the 1970s – hovering in the back of his mind. “Wouldn’t even attempt to step in their shoes!” he says about that production, a wry smile turning up the corners of his mouth.
One of the South African playwright’s lesser known plays and, unusually, set outside his home country, Dimetos is named for the title character, a brilliant but exhausted engineer who escapes the city with his niece and housekeeper to pursue a simple existence in a coastal village. Five years later the arrival of a stranger – Lanipekun’s character Danilo – causes their fragile harmony to fall apart.
The narrative of Fugard’s strange, and ultimately tragic, play is underpinned with myriad themes that Lanipekun has uncovered during the rehearsal period under director Douglas Hodge. Unlike many of his other plays, Dimetos is not directly about the anti-apartheid movement, which Fugard ardently supported, though Lanipekun feels the playwright was addressing the subject nonetheless. “I wouldn’t want to comment on his own perception or what his agenda was, but for me reading it I can clearly see the parallels because I think it’s about the flaws of humanity, and altruism versus selfish incentive,” he says. “What gives people the capacity to allow certain things to go on in our world, when they know the consequences of their actions and they still don’t act? And that seemed to be, in my mind, very easily relatable to the situation in South Africa.”
“Learning how to act for the screen in a goldfish bowl with everybody watching was a challenging thing”
It is, says Lanipekun, an important play to be a part of, much as he felt about his last – albeit very different – stage outing, Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s Wig Out!, which was set within the gay transvestite community of New York. And working with “legends” like Pryce and Hodge on Dimetos, and “inspirational” actors Kevin Harvey and Danny Sapani on Wig Out! has given him the chance to take giant steps along the steep learning curve he has been travelling on since leaving RADA.
It was a learning curve that started rather abruptly with Spooks, which he auditioned for whilst still at RADA, leaving the famous drama school early in order to take up the job on the popular spy series alongside regulars Hermione Norris, Miranda Raison and Peter Firth. “I learnt a lot about screen acting from Spooks and it was a massive trial by fire. Learning how to act for the screen in a goldfish bowl with everybody watching was a challenging thing. It’s kind of learn fast or die really,” he says.
Unlike other long running television series, being cast in Spooks is no guarantee of a secure job for a few years; the programme is notorious for killing off prominent characters when audiences least expect it. “I know there’s people going this season but I can’t say anything. I probably would get killed for real if I did,” smiles Lanipekun. But the actor is philosophical about his departure, as it allowed him to focus on the reason he went to RADA in the first place – the stage. “I wanted to do theatre; as much as anything it’s been part of that training and part of my aspiration. So I was very thankful [to leave Spooks] and I think my agent was too because it meant that I could get straight back into what I trained for.”
The TV show certainly opened up opportunities – Pryce saw the younger actor in Spooks, which led to him being seen for Dimetos – however, Lanipekun is not one to sit back and wait for life to come to him; he is a firm believer in making your own opportunities. “It’s kind of the theme in the play almost, you have to feel like you reap what you sow,” he says, before going on to tell me that he knows it doesn’t always work out like that. “Everyone’s got friends who never did a day’s work in their life and they just went bang, and other people who slaved away their entire lifetimes and they are still there, trying to make something happen. [But] you have to believe it, otherwise how do you get out of bed in the morning? I worked my f***ing arse off at RADA, I was the first one in, with about two or three people, in the morning; we were there as soon as the door opened and we were the last ones to leave. Because we believed that we get out what we put in.”
“Do I feel like a failed musician? That’s kind of how I took it. I do sometimes.”
There is a seriousness to Lanipekun that gives me the impression he is not someone to take anything he does lightly. The 27-year-old comes across as a deep-thinker, an analyser, who perhaps bears the weight of the world a little too heavily on his shoulders, even if it does translate into an admirable work ethic. However, given this dedication at RADA, it seems strange that it took him longer than some to decide to make acting his career. Despite being a member of the National Youth Theatre and first applying to drama school aged 18 – he wasn’t accepted – Lanipekun spent several years pre-RADA involved in an eclectic and intriguing array of activities, including working for a music label, performing and writing for a MOBO-nominated hip hop collective, freelancing as an entertainment journalist and studying Anthropology at university.
Music was the initial distraction for his creative energies. His time in hip hop group One was “a solid focus and we thought we were going somewhere”. But despite that MOBO nomination, and 2002 album Onederful World, the group didn’t work out. Does he wish it had? “Do I feel like a failed musician?” he retorts with a smile. “That’s kind of how I took it. I do sometimes.”
Yet in the middle of making music, Lanipekun decided to go to UCL to study for a degree in Anthropology. “I just wanted to do the degree because I thought it would inform me as a person, I didn’t think it was going to get me a job. I just thought it would be interesting.” Fair enough, and yet it wasn’t quite that straightforward. He chose Anthropology “because I was naïve enough to think I could find out some answers about anything and Anthropology sounded like an interesting way of doing it. But then I got to the end of it and was even more confused than when I started.” But what questions did he want answers to? “Exactly!” he laughs, shrugging.
There is a sense, throughout our discussions about his pre-acting career, that Lanipekun was struggling to find his way. His time as an entertainment journalist – both freelance and for Icon magazine – stirred the creative juices, but he found himself on the wrong side of the fence. “I was doing a lot of reviews for albums, films, concerts, things like that. Sometimes it’s great when you get to meet someone and talk to them and find out about them and try and see the wood for the trees. But I started finding myself trying to find creative ways to be critical about a project. It just felt slightly soul destroying for me; I wanted to just be creative, I didn’t just want to be critical.”
“It’s kind of the theme in the play almost, you have to feel like you reap what you sow”
So he decided to apply to RADA again, and this time was accepted. You might think his varied experiences would help him in his new career, and yet Lanipekun’s tendency to over-analyse seems to debilitate. “I’m really ‘heady’ that’s the problem,” he says. “When you go to drama school, you arrive and the youngest people there, they don’t have the life experience but they are just pure heart, you know. And then you’ve got all these grads and oldies” – in which he includes himself – “they can talk about a play for an hour, you’re going ‘oh God, stop dissecting it!’ But we’ve developed all these mechanisms and armour plating and you just have to chip away at it. The experience can inform you but it can also leave you guarded. It’s that thing of building walls, trying to keep people out and keep yourself in.”
If he can get past his own obstructions, it looks like Lanipekun could be at the beginning of a highly successful career. So has he finally, after all his various guises, found the right channel for his creative talents? There is no doubt he is excited about Dimetos and the acting opportunities that could follow, and yet his face lights up more than it has done throughout the rest of our conversation when I mention a sideline he has going on: writing a screenplay. “Oh sh*t, to be honest, I’d pack it all in and be a writer any day; love it, love it! I just love telling stories.”
Perhaps, like Fugard, he could be both writer and actor. That is, if he has the time to do both. “When I was rehearsing for Wig Out!, I would get up at some ridiculous hour, go to the gym for about an hour and a half, then I’d go and meet my writing partner for a few hours and then I’d go and do the show,” he says. “I just think if you want to do it enough, then you make it happen. If you want to do it you’ll never do it, if you need to do it you will. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.” I get the feeling that when Lanipekun puts his mind to something, he can make it happen.