You may not have heard her name before, you may not yet recognise her face, but it won’t be long before Katrina star Wunmi Mosaku is a household name, writes Matthew Amer.
On that day a bizarre photographic prophecy will be fulfilled, one of those gasp-inducing twists of fate that hindsight grants you when it wishes to decorate your face with a knowing smile.
Back in 2008, Mosaku was featured in the National Portrait Gallery’s Underexposed exhibition, staged to recognise the talent and achievement of black British actors. At the time she was photographed, the young actress was fresh out of RADA and the least experienced of the photographed performers, which included David Harewood, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Lennie James, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Adrian Lester.
“[The curators] didn’t know who I was,” she smiles, “they just said ‘We want an even number, we want 30 people, we’ve got 29 famous people and it would be nice to have someone who all these doors have been opened to because of these guys.” The photographer Franklyn Rodgers couldn’t have known at the time quite how Mosaku would take advantage of those open doors.
Since appearing in the Young Vic production of Mules in early 2008, Mosaku has spent 18 months building her televisual reputation in dramas including acclaimed Joe Penhall-scribed BBC crime hit Moses Jones and upcoming projects Father And Son and One Night In Emergency. Now she is back on the London stage in a production that brings the personal stories of Hurricane Katrina to the banks of the Thames.
It is somewhat misleading to describe Mosaku as ‘back on the London stage’, as Katrina is performed not in a conventional theatre with a proscenium arch framing the performance space, but is the latest production to take its action to a non-theatrical location, in this case a London bargehouse.
“The news never goes any deeper than the overwhelming tragedy; it doesn’t say how it affects individual people”
“I think whenever you’re somewhere that’s not plain or simple or generic,” she explains, “it always adds more [to the production]. It just makes you feel like you’re transported somewhere. You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of London; the way the light comes in you feel like you’re in a completely different place.”
It is not at the bargehouse that we meet, so unfortunately I am unable to confirm Mosaku’s otherworldly description, instead, it is at the Pleasance theatre’s somewhat less atmospheric rehearsal rooms. Props lie randomly around the room; a trombone in a leather jacket looks teasingly intriguing.
The piece itself, which is written and directed by Jonathan Holmes, uses the verbatim accounts of the catastrophe’s survivors, and those who were supposed to come to their aid, to tell personal stories about the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the natural disaster that brought New Orleans to its knees in 2005.
The images of the city’s inhabitants struggling against the grimy flood water and the stories of survivors congregating in stadiums for their safety stick horrifically clearly in the memory five years after the terrible events.
An 18-year-old Mosaku was in Italy at the time, aware of the televised pictures but unable to understand much of what the Italian reports were saying. Her comprehension of events, which saw a city seemingly abandoned by its government when it most needed aid, was probably only marginally less informed than many of the rest of us for whom the sheer scale of the disaster was hard to fully understand.
This is why Mosaku has relished the chance to understand more while starring in Katrina: “The news never goes any deeper than the overwhelming tragedy; it doesn’t say how it affects individual people. There was so much that I just didn’t think about, like people in hospitals and people in prison, how do they cope? People who need insulin, how do they cope? You think of how you’d cope in that situation. I’m 23, I’d hope I’d be okay. But there’s people in wheelchairs, people who are deaf and blind. It just opened my eyes; I knew about it but I didn’t know how people were affected personally.”
“It’s hard to stay in the tragedy without going ‘I just don’t get how this happened.’”
“What’s hard,” she says of immersing herself in recreating the tragedy, “is that you keep on getting outraged by the government. There’s a line I say ‘How can it be?’ It’s hard to stay in the tragedy without going ‘I just don’t get how this happened.’”
Away from the harrowing subject matter, Mosaku has found another challenge with the production: making eye contact with the audience. Where normally, performing from the safety of a stage to a dark and shrouded auditorium, Mosaku can forget there is an audience watching; the promenade performance at the bargehouse doesn’t allow her that luxury. “I’m terrible,” she admits. “I normally don’t wear my glasses and don’t put contact lenses in so that I don’t accidentally look at the audience and see someone, but now I can’t even do that.” Instead, she says, she has to stare directly into the eyes of theatregoers. “It took me a while to even look at Jonathan [Holmes] while we were in rehearsals. The first week I was looking over his head.”
Mosaku – her hair scrunched back and puffed out, her smile bright and endearing – has a touch of the wide-eyed, eager child about her; everything is brilliant and exciting, every day is the chance to learn something new. She reminds me of the kids who, when their parents look away from them for a split second, are charging away in the direction of something new and fascinating that has caught their eye.
Mosaku too, I suspect, thinks of herself a little like that. She is genuinely interested and intrigued by every aspect of the industry and loves involving herself with and questioning the areas of production away from her own, possibly, she suggests with a nervous laugh, “a little too much”. Holmes, who is sitting across the table from us, disagrees with her self-deprecating thoughts.
Dougray Scott might agree. The Scottish star of Enigma and Desperate Housewives worked with Mosaku on the upcoming ITV drama Father And Son, and was, she admits, bombarded by the inquisitive young actress during filming. The crew of Moses Jones also experienced her unquenchable thirst for knowledge as she would appear on days when she wasn’t due to be filming just to help out and learn. “I’m not doing it tactically,” she stresses. “I’m doing it because I’m very excited.”
In the short time I spent with her, that much was obvious, which is why I’m sure no-one has ever begrudged answering her questions or taking the time to offer an explanation. In fact, her big break in Moses Jones can be partially credited to a casting director who lent her a helping hand, offering her two hours of tips during previous auditions to improve her acting for camera. “We weren’t friends or anything,” Mosaku says, “she was just being really kind and giving me her time.”
“It’s really hard to remember that no-one deserves anything, you get what you’re given”
It may be romantic of me, but I’m sure the benevolent casting director must have seen the spark of talent in Mosaku and, bewitched by her energy and verve, set about helping her free it.
Until she landed the leading role of Joy in Moses Jones, Mosaku’s career was in something of a stalemate. When she first started auditioning, her agents put her forward for leading roles for which she never received a call back. When the constant rejection started to grate, they began also touting her for the smaller roles that regularly feature on an actor’s learning curve. While she is resolutely positive about every job she has ever had – “I had such a ball on The Bill… except I had tonsillitis, which was quite annoying” – once Moses Jones had set her on the path to leading actress status the headline roles began to come more easily.
This led to its own problems; once you begin to play larger roles it is easy to think you should always be offered them. “It’s hard not to expect something because someone said something nice about you,” Mosaku confirms. “It’s really hard not to think ‘I want this one, why haven’t I got this one?’”
She is speaking from experience. Like many a young actress, she recently had a couple of auditions for projects she had set her heart on. She wasn’t offered either role.
“I had to talk to my Mum for a little while to find out why I was so upset. You hear ‘No’ all the time. Then I realised that it’s because I was expecting yes, I was expecting it should be mine. My agent is great at confidence building, but actually you start to believe you deserve it all. It’s really hard to remember that no-one deserves anything, you get what you’re given.”
When Mosaku posed for the Underexposed exhibition, she was the unknown face among a collection of performers who had laid the way for her entrance into the acting world. If it was to be restaged early next year, just 18 months after the original exhibition, once Katrina has been performed, Father And Son has aired and sci-fi film Womb, in which she stars opposite Matt Smith and Eva Green, has been released, she will no longer be the rough-around-the-edges drama school graduate hoping to follow in their footsteps but a fully justified member of that group paving the way for another generation. I am sure, however, she will still be brimming with questions for everyone around her. I hope so, anyway.