Clint Dyer is a bit of a renaissance man having forged a career not only as an actor but more recently taking on the roles of director and writer. It all started at the Theatre Royal Stratford East where, under the mentoring of former artistic director Philip Hedley, Dyer attended Stratford East’s Youth Theatre from the age of 14.

As an actor, Dyer’s stage credits include Mike Leigh’s It’s a Great Big Shame, Barrie Keeffe’s Sus, A Carpet, a Pony and a Monkey, Black Dove and Babycakes. On the small screen, he’s been seen in EastEnders, Prime Suspect II, Linda La Plante’s Commando, Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Lock Stock, Dalziel and Pascoe, Holby City and The Smoking Room. His films include Sahara, Shopping, The Low Down, Everyone Loves Sunshine, Mr In-Between, Tube Tales and the forthcoming The Trail.

Dyer’s directing work was borne out of the Theatre Royal’s Directors’ Course. He was also part of the original Musical Theatre Workshop Committee and attended the Tisch School in New York to help build the Musical Theatre Workshop started five years ago at Theatre Royal Stratford East. He has also recently taken up writing, with his first short film having now been commissioned as a feature.

The Big Life marks Dyer’s directorial debut. Following two sell-out seasons at Stratford East, it transfers this week’s to the Apollo Theatre – the first black British musical to ever be seen in the West End.

Date & place of birth
I was born in Newham in east London on 4 November 1968. My parents carried on living there until late last year when they left to go back to Jamaica, where they had come from in 1958 and 1961 respectively.

Lives now in…
I now live in Islington (north London).

Professional training
I did a performing arts course at the Barking College of Technology, doing A-Levels in film, drama and English literature. My professional training was really at the Theatre Royal Stratford East and was thanks to Philip Hedley there. I first joined the workshops there as a kid at the age of 14-and-a-half, after I did a play at school and the teachers recommended it. Then when I was 17 or 18, I did an Alan Bleasdale play at Hornchurch called No More Sitting on the Old School Bench, and Philip happened to come and see it. I didn’t know he was there. After the play, going back home to east London, I happened to get on the train in the same carriage as him! I reminded him that I’d been in his workshops, and we struck up a friendship that has stayed constant ever since. It was a real Sliding Doors moment – if it hadn’t happened, I would never have entered his consciousness, perhaps, in the same way.

Philip then took me to see plays all over London, and in terms of educating me through what I saw, no one has done more than him. I was so privileged to have someone who mentored me like that. Philip lets you fly and fail, and learn from failing, and learn from flying. I don’t know anybody else who has ever taken so many risks on black people, and that’s why I exist – because he took a risk on me. I suppose one of my other biggest influences after that was Mike Leigh - we did a play at Stratford East together called It’s a Great Big Shame.

First big break
Probably the first notable thing, theatre-wise, was working for Ian Brown. I took over from Adrian Lester in Hanging the President at the Traverse in Edinburgh, which then came to London to BAC.

Career highlights to date
Working with Mike Leigh on It’s a Great Big Shame is obviously one. We worked together for about six months, building the characters through improvisation - and Philip had insisted that Mike use black people. It was set in the 1900s, and then again in the same house now. The cast also included Ruth Sheen, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Kathy Burke. A film I did in 1999 with David Bowie and Goldie, Everybody Loves Sunshine, was my first big film thing, doing a good meaty role that changed the perspective taken of me as an actor. And then I went on to do Lock Stock, the first TV series in which I was the lead baddie. Just last year I finished a film called La Piste with the director Eric Valli who was Oscar-nominated for Himalaya. This is his second film, and it’s just opened at the Cannes Film Festival. So this month has been mad: there was that in Cannes, The Big Life opening in the West End, and the first short film that I directed is going to be at the Seattle Film Festival this month, too. And I’m in Sahara, my first big Hollywood film, that’s out at the moment!

Favourite writers
David Mamet, Woody Allen, Lorraine Hansberry – I adore A Raisin in the Sun, it’s an amazing piece of work. I haven’t yet seen any of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s plays, but I’m going to see Elmina's Kitchen and I’ve seen a couple of Roy Williams’ plays. The problem with nailing down black writers as such is that, if you look at my favourite playwrights, the type of work they do is not necessarily the type that black playwrights who are being allowed to flourish in our theatre world are doing. This may be to do with commissioning, but it seems that all of our black practitioners are writing about young, disaffected kids with guns. Those stories aren’t necessarily what I want to see. I would like to see work that’s introspective about black people and still shows us with enormous heart. I sometimes find that they the way we’re portrayed in film and theatre is slightly negative. There’s no heart. There’s no colour. It’s all, “I’m a bad boy – I start as a bad boy and I end as one.” There doesn’t seem to be much love for these kids who are disaffected, fucked up and desperately need help, and know they’re in need of it.

Which other directors do you most admire?
In film, Spike Lee, Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. In the theatre, Trevor Nunn, Mike Leigh, Philip Hedley, and the genius of them all, Simon McBurney. Oh my God! In terms of theatrical experience, Simon just blows everyone away. He should be right at the top of the list! But I also love Cheek by Jowl’s work. I saw Declan Donnellan’s production of Othello recently. For years I had a bugbear about the play, not necessarily because of the actors playing it but because of the take on it. Directing a play isn’t just about the text – the director has an opinion and a slant on it of his own. I still think I could push Othello further as a black person, but this was the closest I think I’ve ever seen to understanding the position of a black man, and ironically, it did that by really understanding the position of women. It was such a smart production of the play. I’d also really like to work with Wilson Milam. I really like his work.

Favourite composers
Sondheim and then there’s Sondheim! But I also loved Mel Brooks’ The Producers - I couldn’t believe my eyes!

What made you want to direct?
I got tired of being in things that were supposedly about black people and racism that made me feel like I’d sold black people down the river, because the take on it was so misguided. It wasn’t because it was necessarily bad. Rather, it was a case of not really understanding the fundamental issues around racism. You can only say that as an actor a certain number of times without being complete trouble!

What roles would you most like to play still?
I’d like to do Macbeth. I’m in a quandary now as to whether I’d prefer to act in it or direct it! But of all the Shakespearean roles, I probably like that one the most.

Which plays would you most like to direct?
Loads! I’d love to do Glengarry Glen Ross - I shouldn’t tell you that, because someone is bloody going to do it now! I asked my agent to tell the Tricycle about my idea to do it using a black man for the lead part that would change it completely, but no one wanted to know!

What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I saw Simon McBurney’s Complicite play at the National, A Minute Too Late and The Producers. And I saw Pina Bausch’s company at Sadler’s Wells – that was stunning.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
To come and sit down and have a coffee with me sometime! To listen to the artists, instead of the politicians or bureaucrats. It’s a real shame that they only listen to white people talking on behalf of black people.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
It’s got to be Nelson Mandela! I shot a film in South Africa last year and went to Robben Island, and I couldn’t believe what that man achieved in that space. People talk about what he’s achieved since he came out, but that stuff was easy in comparison to what he achieved in the prison itself. To sustain any sense of spirit and to not let it beat him. Most people would have been defeated – their spirit would have been killed so they would only have been left with anger.

Favourite books
I’m a big Paul Auster fan. He manages to keep the magic of life within really desperate scenarios, so that you somehow still believe in the unbelievable. I love the film of Smoke. Auster is one of the only white writers who writes really well for black people. He makes them human. They’re not just serving a function in the story; they actually seem real.

Favourite holiday destinations
Zanzibar is gorgeous. I’ve only been there once, but it’s probably the most amazing place I’ve been to. I also go back to Jamaica a lot, which is fantastic, especially now that my parents are living there again.

Favourite after-show haunts
I virtually live in Black’s in Dean Street. I’ve been going since it opened more than ten years ago. I used to live across the road from it, so became very familiar with it, and undoubtedly it’s the louchest, most relaxed social arena that I know. It’s in a beautiful Georgian house.

You participated in the first Musical Theatre Workshop at Stratford East where The Big Life began its development & you’ve participated in every one since. What have you learnt during this process?
It started with Philip and me going to New York six years ago, to the Tisch School to observe how they taught musical theatre. We learnt a lot about musicals ourselves. We then came back with the idea to set up the workshops here, and we thought we could use two of the teachers from the course. The whole thing came out of an argument I had with Sarah Schlesinger from the Tisch School at a TMA (Theatrical Management Association) meeting about the future of musical theatre. Her school only allowed graduates to study there. I piped up, “So that means that Prince, James Brown and Marvin Gaye would not have been allowed to go to your school”. At the end of the seminar, she came up to me and apologised. She told me, “you’re right, musicals will stay the same and there will be no modern music in them unless we change.” She invited me to come observe what happens at the Tisch School. About three weeks later, Philip said, “here’s a ticket, let’s go to New York!” I don’t know what Philip saw in me, but I was taken along this road. We went, watched, then came back and set up the Musical Theatre Workshop at Stratford.

I was a sounding board, to help tap into what Philip wanted to get on the stage – but things kept evolving as my experience grew. I was on the committee as a mouthpiece for what we should be doing on the stage, then for the type of people, then for the type of work. As I understood more about musicals, I did more dramaturgical work on the shows, including The Big Life - and four years later, here it is! In the meantime, I’d done a directing course in 2002 that Philip ran, with directors like Mike Alfreds teaching on it. I owe a helluva lot to him, too.

How did you come to direct The Big Life?
It was a canny decision on the part of Philip. First, I knew Paul Sirett (who wrote the book) from a play of his that I was in called Skaville; second, it was me who got the composer of The Big Life, Paul Joseph, on the course, through a friend of mine; and I think Philip obviously thought it was up my street! When I look back on it now… what was I thinking of? Not knowing what I was in for is what helped me carry on doing it! The summer musical workshops carried on every year, and that gave me a new shot of inspiration!

How do you feel about The Big Life being the first-ever indigenous black musical to make it into the West End?
I’m amazingly proud. The wonderful thing about being black in this country and how backward Britain is that, as a black person, you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things! That’s an exciting prospect and one reason to keep bashing at it.

Why is diversity in the arts important?
Because it’s what the arts is, actually. What I believe art to be is a comment - no matter how absurdist, straight, heightened, whatever – on humanity. You’re always saying something, and theatre is a medium to express what I think of things.

What are your plans for the future?
I’ve also got two film commissions I’ve got to continue with – the short film that I did they now want me to do as a feature, and there’s a film script that I started on about six years ago. I’m also still acting. I’m going up for a film today actually that I really need to get. I’m concerned that everyone is going to just see me as a director now, so I’ve got to keep the acting work bubbling. There are certain things that I feel I can add something to as an actor – and there are certain takes on things that I would love to express as a director. The two will always be different.

- Clint Dyer was speaking to Mark Shenton

The Big Life opens on 23 May 2005 (previews from 11 May) at the West End’s Apollo Theatre. It’s currently booking until 5 November 2005.