Actor Joseph Marcell, who has worked extensively on stage and screen in the UK and the US, was last at the Tricycle Theatre in 2002 when he starred as Emore in August Wilson’s King Hedley II (also in Birmingham), directed by Paulette Randall. Randall has just directed him in Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, and he also appeared in Abram Hill’s Walk Hard, directed by Nicholas Kent - as part of the Tricycle’s current three-play season of UK premieres of African-American plays.
Marcell’s other theatre credits include the title role in Peer Gynt at the National in 2000; Crates in Crates and Barrels for the RSC; Chrysostom in Richard III - Part Two for Paines Plough; Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night at Birmingham Rep; Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, the title role in Creon, and Brutus in Julius Caesar at Leicester Theatre; Ira Aldridge in Black Star at Bolton Octagon Theatre; the narrator in Noble Acts at the Hifa Festival, directed by Admarie Mcdonald; Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet with the Shakespeare Co USA, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh; and Angelo in Measure for Measure on tour for Acter USA, directed by Patrick Stewart.
On television, Marcell starred in Empire Road, the first black directed and written series ever on television. He has also appeared in Fancy Wanders; as Pastor Gittens in Brothers and Sisters for the BBC, Mr Micawber, in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield for NBC TV, Eros in Anthony and Cleopatra for the BBC, directed by Trevor Nunn; and his most famous role as Geoffrey the butler in the hit TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, which starred Will Smith. Guest appearances include Jericho, The Bill, EastEnders, Rumpole of the Bailey and Doctor Who.
Marcell has also had leading roles in the films Sioux City, Cry Freedom, Playing Away and A Beautiful Life.
Date & place of birth
I was born in St Lucia in the Caribbean in August 1947. I was about six or seven when I came to London with my parents, and we lived in Bermondsey.
Lives now in
I live in Ealing, where I've lived for about 20 years, and I've also had a home in LA for the last 15 years. I divide my time between the two because I work in America more than I do here.
I trained in London. I started taking lessons from Nina Finbergh in Hampstead when I was about 18 as a hobby, and then I joined a company in America called Shakespeare and Company in Lennox, Massachusetts, where I had some relatives and friends.
What made you want to become an actor? What do you consider your
first big break?
In the Sixties in London, there was something called the World Theatre Season at the Aldwych, the old home of the RSC, and I saw an entertainment called Black New World. It was the first time I'd seen black actors in monster posters outside a theatre! That was my road to Damascus! The first thing that got me noticed was joining the RSC in 1972. I spoke my first line in Coriolanus, and had six lines in Titus Andronicus; I was also in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Then I was in Sherlock Holmes in London in 1973 that then went to Broadway.
Career highlights to date
In Britain, the highlight of my career was Empire Road for the BBC, the first black directed and written series ever on television, with the late Norman Beaton. That was followed by Fancy Wanders for LWT, a two-hander series with the late Dave King; and of course, the series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in America. I also appeared in episodes of Living Single and In the House.
I do remember with great fondness my time with Paines Plough theatre company. We did David Pownall's plays Motocar and Richard III Part Two, which we took to the National's Cottesloe for a month. More recently, I was back at the National in Peer Gynt, where I also did Master Harold and the Boys.
Dona Kroll is one of my favourites. we were in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Tricycle and also did a series for the BBC, Brothers and Sisters, in which she played my wife. I loved working with the late Norman Beaton. I'm enjoying working with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith at the moment at the Tricycle - he's young and enthusiastic.
John Adams, whom I've worked with at Paines Plough and also just played Claudius for in Hamlet at Basingstoke that we also toured. Shelley Jensen who directed The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. and Kenneth R Williams, who directed a movie I did in 2004 called A Beautiful Life. When I get the opportunity, I enjoy being directed by Trevor Nunn, but it doesn't come along that often!
August Wilson, because he's the foremost modern black playwright, possibly of all time, and his plays always have a purpose to them in my opinion. I also enjoy the plays of David Pownall that I've done - like Motocar, Richard III Part Two, Black Star, Livingstone and Sechele and Crates on Barrels - because he writes for actors and his writing is unpredictable. I find him terrifically challenging. It's also very flattering to have a writer write for you, especially a white writer who writes for a black actor. That’s amazing.
You’ve worked extensively both on stage & screen. Which do
I have no preference at all - except that I sometimes prefer the screen because I make more money! But I actually enjoy what I'm doing now. I love the one I'm with! I'm really enjoying working on these plays at the Tricycle - and the screen affords me the luxury of being able to do them!
What's the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on
you? And the last?
The first thing was a play called Next Time I'll Sing to You, because the acting was just unbelievable. The most recent thing was going to the National Black Theatre Festival last year that takes place in Winston-Salem in North Carolina and of which I am joint chairperson. I saw a one-man play about Thelonius Monk that was just extraordinary.
What would you advise would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I don't think the government would listen to anything I have to say! Before the advent of McDonald’s, Wimpy did what they did and got away with murder. But McDonald’s meant competition, and competition in the theatre requires funding. The British theatre is living on a reputation that is perhaps not earned now, and so it needs more investment.
If you hadn't become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I wanted to be a metallurgist, but I probably would have been an electrical engineer. I was doing industrial training at Southampton Power Station that was under construction, and going to college at Wandsworth Tech, before I became an actor.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Lots and lots. I would like to play stuff by Derek Walcott, I haven't done any of them yet, and I'd like to do plays by more black writers. But I'd also like to do King Lear one day, and some more Shakespeare.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a
day, who would it be?
One of my heroes is the late Ira Aldridge, the 19th-century black Shakespearean actor. I would love to have been there to observe one of his performances, especially the ones in Eastern Europe, where he was the only English-speaking person in a cast of indigenous people.
There are lots. At the moment, I'm into an American writer called Steven Saylor, who writes about a detective called Gordianus in ancient Rome. There are eight books, and I've read four so far. I'm reading Arms of Nemesis now. A book I read every year is James Clavell's Shogun. And then there's the Bible, of course, and Shakespeare.
Favourite holiday destinations
St Lucia - it's just gorgeous! It's also one of the only places in the world I can go where I don't get pestered. The people are so generous and easygoing, there's very little crime and it's safe to go there. It's the most beautiful island in the world.
My favourite website is my own, josephmarcell.com. It's been going for about two years now and has a full archive of my career.
You’re appearing in two plays in the Tricycle's African-American season. What made you want to take part?
Nicholas Kent (the Tricycle’s artistic director) asked me. He knows I am an admirer of August Wilson, and I happened to be in London and he called me. I saw Gem of the Ocean when it was first done in LA in 2001. I was impressed with the play, but it hadn't been done correctly then. The role I wanted to do was the most unattractive role, but it's an absolute challenge. I've done two of August's plays at the Tricycle before, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and King Hedley II, and it's great fun to be working here. I'm a great admirer of Nick's. He's done an amazing job of this place, it's beyond belief and totally unexpected!
How does the writing of Abram Hill (Walk Hard) compare with that
The only comparison is the subject they're dealing with. Abram Hill touches on the plight of the working man a little, and if you go past the obvious racism in it, it's about the black man's fight for an equal shot at the goal, which is the same with August Wilson. But Hill deals with the movement at its inception. Wilson is more direct with his political concept, whereas Hill disguises his - he's a tad preachy. But in construction, Wilson's plays are black plays, about their hopes, dreams and aspirations, whereas Walk Hard is really a white play about how they manipulate black characters.
What do you think it is about August Wilson's writing that has
made his plays?
He's uncompromising. He's a black man writing about black affairs. He doesn't write with any kind of rancour towards white people, he's simply more interested in black people. And he doesn't romanticise them either - he gives you them, warts and all, and doesn't seek to make them palatable. There's never been that kind of writing before. I did meet Wilson once. I heard him talk when he got an award from the Californian Library Association in 2003 in Los Angeles, he was a very impressive speaker, and we had lunch and tea afterwards. My favourite play of his is Seven Guitars, though I've not been in it. It's a gorgeous piece. I also like Jitney very much.
Do you have a favourite character from the plays you’re currently performing in?
I'm actually doing three characters in two plays here. I considered doing the third, too, but I thought it would be impossible to be convincing with five characters in three plays - that might be pushing my luck a bit! And anyway I have to be back in America. When I was playing Mr Berry and Charlie in Walk Hard in the evenings, they were my favourite people in the world; but rehearsing Gem of the Ocean during the day, Solly was my favourite! Solly is the most difficult character I've ever approached. He's not everybody's idea of an ex-slave. He's 68 years old, and the play is set in 1904, 39 years after the emancipation of the slaves. So he was born a slave but is now free, and he spends the play looking at what he's lost and what freedom is and what it costs. He's urbane and very witty.
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened in rehearsals or performances to date?
It's been a lot of fun. For Gem of the Ocean, we have a new member in the company, Patrick Robinson, and he plays a pretty terrifying character. When we did the read-through, it gave us goose-bumps.
Do you think there are more opportunities for black artists than
there used to be?
I don't know the answer to that. I know there are more people going after a shrinking cake, but I don't know what the opportunities are. You still have productions where the black actor plays the king or the servant and is the only black person in it. But a black actor must have a mother, father and auntie!
What are your plans for the future?
I directed a pilot, Realty, that I'm touting around the world, and I'm having some meetings about. It looks like someone might pick it up. I will go back to America and direct a couple of plays in LA. I get to direct a lot there - more in America than I do here.
- Joseph Marcell was speaking to Mark Shenton
Walk Hard ran at the Tricycle from 28 November (previews from 24 November) to 24 December 2005, and Gem of the Ocean opened on 10 January 2006 (previews from 6 January) and continues until 11 February 2006.