Fate brought him to the British stage as Henry VI and now Richard III will take him back to America. Chuk Iwuji talks to Caroline Bishop about the international course of his career.
If Buckingham had ever been late to arrive for a meeting with Richard III, there’s no doubt the hunchback king would have had him killed a lot sooner than he eventually did. Luckily, I’m not nearly as evil. “Chuk Iwuji was late. That’s going to be your first line isn’t it?” says Chuk Iwuji when he arrives late for our chat at the Old Vic. Well, maybe slightly evil.
But I can’t be cross at Iwuji. Firstly, he’s braved a particularly soggy British summer’s day to come and talk to me; secondly, he apologises profusely and genuinely, like the proper gent that he is, and very much unlike the conniving, self-serving, spin-loving character he is currently playing on stage at the Old Vic.
After being a part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s epic eight-play Histories cycle in 2006-8, in which he played Henry VI, Iwuji hadn’t planned on doing any more Shakespeare for a while. That is, until his agent called him saying a casting director was looking for someone to play Buckingham in Richard III. “Buckingham is a great role, but I wouldn’t have said ‘before I die I want to play Buckingham’,” says Iwuji. “I go, ‘well who’s playing Richard?’ She says, ‘Kevin Spacey.’ Who’s directing? ‘Sam Mendes.’ Well of course I’m going to go and meet them! When a dream team like that comes round knocking you don’t say no to that.”
So it is that Iwuji finds himself playing the tyrannical king’s opportunistic supporter as part of Mendes’s transatlantic Bridge Project at the Old Vic. “It’s like we’re gatecrashing a party with those two. They’re not bad, are they, at what they do?”
It’s a knowing understatement. The last time Mendes and Spacey paired up they both won Oscars for the film American Beauty. Their reunion on stage at the Old Vic, of which Spacey is Artistic Director, was always going to be event theatre, for actors and audiences alike.
Iwuji was an appropriate addition to the company. Not only because of his Shakespeare pedigree, but also because his transatlantic background is apt for a company of actors drawn from the UK and US. As the son of diplomat parents who travelled widely, Nigerian-born Iwuji was educated in England before heading to Yale University and spending his early career treading the boards in America.
“It’s like we’re gatecrashing a party with those two. They’re not bad, are they?”
“Why I actually got the role I don’t know,” he says. “But I do know that in the meeting with Sam it was just a very relaxed meeting in which it didn’t feel at all like an audition. We were swapping ideas, we both felt Peter Mandelson’s a perfect idea for Buckingham.”
Watching Iwuji’s performance in Mendes’s boldly contemporary production, I would have put his inspiration as spin doctor Alistair Campbell rather than the former Labour MP. “I don’t know why that was in my head when I went in and read Buckingham. Perhaps it was his [Buckingham’s] use of language, his enjoyment of his voice, his supreme arrogance to think that someone like Richard would be indebted to him regardless, but I think it’s just the brazen cockiness of him that made me think of characters like that. The most prevalent one in my head, in modern history for us, is Mandelson.”
“In the same way he [Buckingham] reminded me a great deal of a lot of people I went to Yale with, this sort of quietly privileged mentality of ‘we will succeed’,” he adds. “All those things came playfully in my head for Buckingham and luckily it was something Sam was looking for.”
Iwuji studied Economics at Yale, having headed Stateside after his English boarding school education left him unsure what career to pursue (it was a student production at Yale that got him into acting). “I had an offer to law school in Durham and Nottingham but I sat there going ‘but I don’t know if that’s what I want to be’.” His father, for whom “the English education system is the greatest thing on the planet”, said he’d let him go to the US if he could get into an Ivy League university, so he did. “I didn’t realise how big a deal it was until I got to America, ‘til we went to shop at Macey’s and the staff found out I was on my way to Yale and they called all the ground staff to come and help me personally shop.”
Did this sense of privilege rub off on him? “What do you think?” he asks, grinning. I think he seems like a pretty confident guy, I reply. “I’m also an actor!” he laughs. Judging by his easy conversational manner and genuine friendliness, I would say Yale rubbed off just enough to give him confidence but not so much as to make him arrogant. “I was lucky enough to be surrounded by grounded people who just loved learning and wanted to do well,” he says. “So yes there’s a quiet ambition but it’s not ambition for ambition’s sake. It was probably at Yale I realised that learning could be something you did not for the grades but because you wanted to. And so the confidence side came from feeling that you deserve the right to be in an environment like that.”
In a notoriously insecure profession like acting, a spot of confidence comes in handy. “I’ve had to call upon all of those [experiences] at certain points in this profession. Of course it doesn’t hurt when someone like Sam decides that you are the person he wants to use in the show, but then it’s building blocks; you have to find the confidence for the next one and the next one. There are times I wish I was more assuming of my right to be there. I feel like I’ve always won a race when I get a part, as opposed to assuming this part belongs to me.”
There was one role, however, that Iwuji had every right to feel belonged to him. Playing Henry VI for the RSC – his breakthrough role – had a strange sense of destiny about it.
“Buckingham reminded me a great deal of a lot of people I went to Yale with, this sort of quietly privileged mentality of ‘we will succeed’”
He was working in the States in 2000 when his older brother Daniel called him to say that the UK theatre climate was changing; David Oyelowo was about to become the first black actor to play a Shakespearean King on the British stage, Henry VI. “He said ‘you should think of moving back because there’s a black guy playing a king at the RSC, it’s never happened before’. I said ‘ok I think I might’.”
It was the last conversation Iwuji had with his brother, who died soon after of complications related to his sickle-cell anaemia. Five years later, Iwuji, who had indeed moved back to Britain, got a call from RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd, who wanted to see him for an ensemble part in the Histories cycle. “It was really weird, I went in to read the role, which was the polar opposite from Henry VI, and I did the speech and then Michael took a beat and he picked up a book – I couldn’t see the title – and he opened it to a few pages and he found something and he said ‘read this.’ It was Henry VI, the molehill speech. I remember being very shaky.
“Literally it was five years to the day when my brother died that I got the role,” he adds. Did it feel like fate? “There was something beyond me about it,” he says slowly. “And that’s why I knew it would be fine, the season. It was a big gamble, the RSC had based a big season around unknowns, but for me personally I just knew it would be fine. When things like that fall into place it’s beyond anything you can do.” Indeed it was fine; the company won the 2009 Best Company Performance Olivier Award.
Henry VI became his “calling card”, helping Iwuji to major stage roles in The Observer and Welcome To Thebes at the National Theatre and The Misanthrope in the West End. But it seems fateful, too, that this current production will take him back to the US – the company will perform at Brooklyn Academy of Music following an international tour – at precisely the time he feels he needs to return. “I think I’m due back there soon, which is what is great about this job; finishing off in New York is fantastic for me because I feel connected there, those were formative years for me. Also there’s a volume of work out there that’s quite extraordinary.”
As much as his stage career is flourishing, I sense a frustration in Iwuji that his film and television career has not done the same and he has not, to date, been able to indulge his “childhood passion for film”. The reason he gives adds weight to an article in The Stage this month about black talent leaving for the US.
“I say this with a pinch of salt because I’ve made my career playing characters that would often be cast as white so I don’t want to seem like I haven’t been very fortunate, but I still think in film and TV in this country casting is still rather limited. Not just for black actors; for Asians, women over 40, white or black. Casting is still very narrow-minded.”
He references Idris Elba, who made his name in US television drama The Wire before being cast in the BBC’s Luther. “It breaks my heart that these really talented English actors of colour have to go over there to come back,” says Iwuji.
The time has come, he feels, to attempt to make his own name in such a way. “America is a desire for me and an intrigue for me but I fear more and more potentially a necessity,” he says. Is it easier there? “Not easier, but more plausible. I just feel that it’s just more ready for that really.”
“It breaks my heart that these really talented English actors of colour have to go over there to come back”
Starring in a hit television show like The Wire – whether in the US or the UK – would do no harm to his stage career, either. It was something he was well aware of when appearing in The Misanthrope in 2009 alongside film star Keira Knightley, who was making her stage debut in the leading female role. “It’s the economics of it and it makes sense,” he says. “Keira is a lovely girl who works her arse off and good for her. But yes if you can get yourself to a position where people say, ‘well if he wants to do this show in the West End we know that he would have a good enough following’, then of course they’re going to go with you.”
“I love stage, and the idea of ever not doing it just wouldn’t work for me,” he adds, “but yes I feel that if I want to go on to the next stage of my stage career I do need to have that sort of exposure. You’ve got to go with the times and that’s what the times require.”
Inspiration comes in the form of his current co-star Spacey, who has the profile of an international film career but remains equally dedicated to theatre. “If you ever get the chance to see Kevin, this international star, how he glows and is gleeful on stage, because this is his habitat also, it’s quite extraordinary. He’s an example of exactly what I’m talking about.” It’s quite a career to aspire to. Let’s just hope that in trying to scale similar heights, we don’t lose this quietly ambitious actor to the States forever.