It is a rare thing for an English actor to be as popular and recognisable in America as in Britain, and as comfortable on stage as on screen, yet Joseph Marcell has perfected that subtlest of balancing acts. The classically trained performer, who, against type, is most famous for playing Geoffrey the butler in sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, returns to the London stage this month in Let There Be Love at the Tricycle. Matthew Amer met the transatlantic star.
“I do what all actors do, you know? You kind of panic because you have so much to do and so much to learn, and then you realise, well, that’s what I do!” Joseph Marcell, veteran stage performer and sitcom icon, is slightly concerned as he breaks from rehearsals for new show Let There Be Love. It is not that he doesn’t believe in the play, the writer, the director or the rest of the cast, the problem is that, even with a shining career’s worth of credits to his name, he is still daunted by the amount of work it takes to bring a production to the stage. He is not grumpy about the size of this task, just surprised that the lines do not simply pop into his head, and then equally surprised that he ever thought they would.
His newest stage persona, though, is of a more surly persuasion. Alfred Morris has been described as “a black Victor Meldrew”, a title that both flatters and concerns Marcell in equal measure. Alfred, the protagonist in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s new offering, is a cantankerous old man who is evicted from his daughter’s Croydon house, returning to his Willesden home where he strikes up an interesting relationship with his Polish cleaner. Marcell describes it as “a play about young people and old people who have lived in Britain a long time, whose outlook is not Caribbean, but British.”
Let There Be Love marks the first time that Kwei-Armah has directed one of his own plays in London, and though Marcell was excited about the project – and initially surprised as he thought he had blotted his copy book by turning down a role in Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen – he was sceptical about the writer’s dual role. Any misgivings have since been put to rest: “Thankfully [Kwei-Armah] does not wear his writer’s hat when he’s directing,” Marcell confirms.
"It’s the nature of the actor to seduce the director"
Marcell has a constant smile on his face as we conduct the interview in a quiet corner of the Tricycle’s café. He seems naturally happy and retains the ability, as he heads towards his 60th birthday, to resemble a cheeky school boy (if you were to ignore the tufts of white which highlight his hair and beard). It may be due to the curve of his cheekbones or the widening of that ever-present smile that he takes on the air of someone who is trying to get away with an act they know is just the wrong side of right. “I think that it’s the nature of the actor to seduce the director into thinking the way you want to think,” he says with that expanding grin, before mockingly berating the absent Kwei-Armah. “It’s alright you writing it and sitting in your garret and creating these wonderful words, but bloody hell, I’m the one that has to do it!”
Marcell and his character Alfred have a history in common. Though Marcell is not as curmudgeonly as his on-stage persona, both are immigrants with British citizenship. Marcell’s home, though he works a great deal in America, is London, and has been since his family emigrated from St Lucia when he was just five years old. “I remember how cold it was,” he says, “the fact that there were no leaves on the trees. I came in winter.”
As the second generation of a migrant family, Marcell’s views, choices and decisions were very different to those of his parents and their contemporaries. He talks of: “Going to school and deciding, like the sons of all the immigrants, that I did not want to be an accountant, a doctor, a factory worker, an engineer, that I wanted to be an actor and having to cope with that because it was completely foreign to not only myself but also to my family and what they expected of me.”
In fact, Marcell did train as an engineer, working at Southampton Power Station. He would return to London at the weekends to meet his mates, “get pissed and meet the girls”. It was one such weekend jaunt that turned his life towards the stage. A little early to hit the clubs, he and his friends walked past the Aldwych theatre where they noticed a sign advertising Black New World. “I’d been to the theatre before,” explains Marcell, “but it was the first time I’d actually seen a 12 by whatever-it-was poster of black actors.” The impression the show made convinced Marcell to change his career direction. He completed his HND, but acting, not engineering, was where his heart led.
This was a difficult decision for a multitude of reasons. He did not receive the support of his family, his father telling him to “do what you want to do, I have no interest”, and he was trying to make it in the acting world at a time before colour-blind casting was recognised. In Marcell’s words: “It was at a time when, if you weren’t playing Bosamba Of The River in Up The Zambezi, there was nothing.”
"I remember how cold it was, the fact that there were no leaves on the trees"
Drama coach Nina Finberg took pity on a young Marcell, coaching him to a place at drama school. On setting out as a professional he picked up a few roles before working for Sheffield theatres and then the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he joined as Trevor Nunn, then an up-and-coming young director, took the helm. Marcell credits his time with the RSC and training with practitioners such as Cicely Berry and John Barton as key to his success as an actor.
Marcell’s CV, in fact, is packed with classical credits, yet he is most easily recognised for one role as a television butler. The part of Geoffrey, butler to the Banks family in 90s US sitcom The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, was written with Marcell in mind and, though it was last filmed in 1996, it is still the role which will cause him to be recognised in the street. “It continues to take me by surprise,” he smiles. “Wherever I go in this world that God has made, wherever, the backside of beyond, somebody will come over and say ‘Eh, what’s up Geoff?’”
The show revolved around the antics of a young Will Smith – now one of the world’s leading movie stars, who at the time was a family-friendly hip hop artist – a streetwise kid from Philadelphia sent to live with rich relatives in Los Angeles, and Marcell, as Geoffrey, delivered a very British line in dry, cutting wit. He also sported a typical British RP accent, which, in reality, is not far from Marcell’s own tones, though as we chat casually the hint of his West Indian roots can be heard in the depths of his voice. “The strange thing is that Will continues to make films and the programme continues to get more and more and more of an audience,” exclaims Marcell, though this is not necessarily a bad thing: “I still have a few years before my pension is due,” he smiles, “I need it to continue that way.”
Though he enjoyed working in America, and continues to return to the United States to work both on stage and screen, Marcell decided not to chase the Hollywood dream – “I don’t have movie star looks” – so continued to live his life from London rather than camping out in LA. “I think absence makes the heart grow fonder,” he explains. “I prefer that they want me and I’ll go, rather than I stay and become like everybody else, fighting for a crumb.”
It is unlikely that Marcell now has to worry about fighting for morsels and scraps, having built a reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. Previously to Let There Be Love, his most recent London outing came at Shakespeare’s Globe – where he is also a member of the Globe council – playing Cominius in Coriolanus. “What I really loved about it,” he says, “was that there was nowhere to hide; the moment you stepped through the curtain you were there. It’s a warm, understanding and empathetic audience, it really is. They’re standing through the rain and the snow and the pigeon droppings, being dive bombed by gulls, the noise of the helicopters, the fireboats on the river and the tugs. It’s amazing.”
It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to find him back at the Bankside venue in years to come, as the two roles he most wants to play are products of Shakespeare’s quill, King Lear and Othello.
"I don’t have movie star looks"
Marcell has already played the Moor of Venice in a 1984 production at the Lyric Hammersmith, but a meeting with John Dexter, who directed Laurence Olivier in the role, plays on Marcell’s mind. The late director told him, after seeing his Lyric Hammersmith performance, that he would like to revisit the text with him in a decade or two’s time. Dexter’s death in 1990 came before the collaboration could happen, but Marcell’s heart still hankers after it.
A return to the RSC for this role, of course, would be ideal, yet Marcell is unsure it would happen as it has been some years since he appeared with the company. “There’s a kind of love affair,” he says, “but now that I am older and they really have to put up or shut up, I think the love affair has soured a bit.” Let us hope not, for if no-one stages it over here, the Americans who, through Fresh Prince and numerous classical outings have taken Marcell to their hearts, may steal a career defining performance from the city he calls home.
Let There Be Love runs at the Tricycle until 16 February.