Had I been in David Harewood’s position, I might have run away from The Mountaintop faster than you can say “I have a dream”, writes Matthew Amer.
I might not even have got so far as reading the script for the piece which was to be staged at a small London fringe venue. If I was Harewood, I would probably have stopped when I realised the character I would be playing was the man whose voice I heard when, during my early years as an actor, I suffered a nervous breakdown.
But I am not David Harewood, and David Harewood is not me; which is lucky, as it would have made this interview rather odd. Harewood, when faced not only with the proposition of playing one of the most influential men in world history, but also a ghost from his past, stepped up to the challenge.
His decision to play Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop, an imagined account of the civil rights activist’s final evening of life, spent in a hotel room in the company of a maid, was not made without overcoming serious doubts.
It would, he admits, have taken an exceptional script to entice Harewood, who is better known for performing on the country’s most prestigious stages and in a string of high profile television series, to Battersea’s fringe venue Theatre503. As he read the play on his iPhone, travelling to Cardiff to film Dr Who, he realised that that was exactly what he had.
He had doubts about 25-year-old director James Dacre and whether, with only a quarter of a century of life experience, he would be able to create a stunning production.
He wondered whether it was wise to open a doorway to the past that had long since been bricked up.
It was a lucky coincidence that tipped the balance in favour of taking on the production, which was subsequently so successful at Theatre503 that it secured a transfer to the West End’s Trafalgar Studio 1, where it is currently playing: “I got on the train home and I sat down, thinking ‘What am I going to do?’ A woman got on the train and in her bag was a packet of Pall Malls [the brand of cigarette smoked by King throughout the play]. I just thought that was absolutely extraordinary. It was almost like he was going ‘Go on, you’ve got to do it.’”
“If you’re going to have a demon in you, he may as well be the demon”
In just three weeks Harewood and co-star Lorraine Burroughs rehearsed the show, with Harewood waiting until the final days before even considering his imitation of King’s vibrato tones. “I said right at the beginning,” he explains, “that it’s got to be an exploration of the character rather than an impersonation of the character.”
An exploration it is, but for many audiences it will not be the Martin Luther King they are expecting. This King may be gripping and enthralling with his oration, even when he is doing nothing more than ordering a coffee, but over the course of the evening his fears, paranoia and cheeky side are exposed. “That was one of the hardest things for me,” Harewood says, “being playful with Martin Luther King, because every bit of film I see him in he’s either under pressure or he’s giving a speech; he’s being deadly serious. Yet the morning of his assassination he had a pillow fight with all his aides, which is extraordinary. You never really get a sense in all of the Martin Luther King things you see that this is a man that loved a good joke.”
It was no joke when Harewood heard King’s voice in his 20s. Barely out of RADA, success, overwork, racial stereotyping and media scrutiny caused a breakdown in which the young actor escaped into a world of his own imagination. He would find himself on tubes and buses not knowing how he got there. Yet Harewood, a few decades on, is now philosophical about the episode: “If you’re going to have a demon in you, he may as well be the demon. [King] does move me.”
Preparation for The Mountaintop would have been the first time Harewood had had the opportunity to use internet video-sharing site YouTube to research a role – “You get reams of footage” – were it not for the fact that he had recently finished playing another iconic leader of men, Nelson Mandela, in new TV film Mrs Mandela, his first foray into playing a biographical role.
“Like 60% of the population, I think I fell for the whole 90s Free Mandela thing without really understanding what he’d done,” Harewood admits. Having never been a big fan of books, he found himself sucked into researching the role in a way that took him completely by surprise: “I was getting up and reading, going to sleep reading, off set reading, in pubs reading, in restaurants reading. It was a real history lesson; the whole anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the birth of the ANC, what apartheid was, the birth of South Africa, Britain’s role in South Africa and Rhodesia… It was extraordinary.”
“It was like winning the lottery, being told that I was a match for this man”
The Birmingham born Harewood is not the only one who can use YouTube for research. If you are exploring his history on the internet, you quickly find a 10-minute video of Harewood preparing to donate his stem cells to a leukaemia sufferer. Very little actually happens in the video – he talks a lot about the injections to induce stem cell growth in preparation for the donation process – yet it is deeply moving to watch.
“For three or four years I was going to Afro-Caribbean Leukaemia Trust functions, and I suddenly realised that I’d put myself down for all the publicity and stuff but hadn’t put myself on the register.”
Two years after joining the register, he received a call. “It was like winning the lottery, being told that I was a match for this man. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know where he was, what country he was in, but I just knew that he was extremely ill, that he had leukaemia, that he was probably going to pass away and that my stem cells were a possible match for him.
“Three months later I got a letter back saying ‘We just want to thank you because the guy has pulled through.’ Isn’t that extraordinary? My blood, my stem cells, put into him, they grafted and he’s now better. I just think it’s a wonderful thing to do for a complete stranger.
“What was extraordinary was the nurse that dealt with me in the hospital said that I was the first black patient that she’d performed this procedure on in five years. That gives you an idea how many black people are on the register and what your chances are of getting a donor once you’re struck down with this terrible disease.”
The verve and excitement in his voice as he talks about The Mountaintop, Mrs Mandela and his work with the ACLT disappears like a lemming over a cliff when the conversation turns to Robin Hood. Harewood was brought into the BBC family show at the beginning of the latest series to present a new version of Friar Tuck, but his sense of disappointment at a wasted opportunity is palpable: “I had a fantastic opening episode where I emerged from the sea in a boat; it was really well written. Then the character just sort of disappeared. It was very frustrating to be lurking in the back of shot endlessly for weeks.”
“It was very frustrating to be lurking in the back of shot endlessly for weeks”
With the death of Robin in the show’s final episode, the stage was set for Tuck to take a greater role the following series. That was until the BBC announced the show would not be re-commissioned. “That’s probably why they binned it,” Harewood laughs, before suggesting that in the current economic downturn, Robin Hood will not be the only show that disappears from television screens.
The lack of exploration of Tuck’s character and the show’s demise may be more painful to Harewood due to the mild storm created by the casting of a black Friar Tuck. The reinventing of a role traditionally viewed as an overweight, balding white man caused outrage in some corners of the TV-viewing public. Harewood, however, experienced the reaction of the show’s target audience, finding that, in actual fact, the colour of his skin made very little difference to their experience: “I was taking my daughter into the school playground and the look on these kids’ faces – black, white, Indian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish – they went nuts. “It’s Friar Tuck!” Running over to me and signing autographs on their books. They were just so happy and I thought ‘What do they care that Tuck’s black? They don’t give a damn.’”
Harewood has said in the past that for black British actors to make an impact in TV and film they have to make the transatlantic trip to the US, where barely an eyebrow is raised with the casting of a black performer in a leading role. “They had a black president in 24 years before there was a real black president,” he says, supporting his claim. “There’s still only one series on [British] TV with a black lead, and that’s Hustle with Adrian Lester.”
While America is still very much in Harewood’s mind – not least with the rumoured Broadway transfer of The Mountaintop – he is quick to point out that a lot has changed since he first began plying his trade as a performer, becoming the first black Othello at the National Theatre as recently as 1997. “Nobody’s blacked up in America to play Othello since 1923,” he points out.
“I have been a pioneer to a certain extent, but there were pioneers before me; the generation of Norman Beaton, the generation after that of Gary McDonald and Robby Gee. Everyone in their own way has pushed it forward. When we came out of drama school we were lucky to play third soldier from the left at the RSC. It’s wonderful that the generation under me, the likes of Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and Adrian Lester and David Oyelowo, they’re Hollywood; the only downside is we have to go to America to do it.”
It may be a touch tenuous to compare Harewood to King. He is not organising rallies and preaching to thousands, but in his own way he is breaking down barriers, using his talent, his publicity and his body to help his fellow man.
Maybe King has had a greater impression on him than even he knew. As a teenager in Birmingham he had to read King’s famous “I have a dream” speech as part of a school production. The pastor reappeared during his breakdown and now he is with him again in the West End. “Every time I hear that speech,” Harewood says, “I get tingles down my spine. I do feel as though he’s been with me a very long time. I hope he’s happy with what I’m doing.”