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Josette Simon: 'I don't like labels: you're not a TV actor or a theatre actor'

As she opens in the RSC's production of Antony and Cleopatra in London, Josette Simon explains how she came to acting and why Cleopatra is undefinable

Josette Simon in Antony and Cleopatra
© Helen Maybanks

Josette Simon OBE is one of the UK's most remarkable and versatile acting talents, having carved out a career of equal measure on both stage and screen. Many will have seen her in programmes such as Blake 7, Casualty, Broadchurch and Poirot, but she's also taken on theatre roles in some of the top theatres around the country. She has performed extensively with the RSC and National Theatre and in 1990 won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress for her turn as Maggie in After the Fall.

This winter she performs at the Barbican with the RSC in their Rome season, where she stars as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Iqbal Khan.

My family never really recovered from me wanting to be an actor. My parents came from the Caribbean in the mid-50s and I think that for them, at that time, saying you wanted to be an actress was akin to wanting to be a strumpet. They weren't thinking the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre. It was a big shock. I was on the way to studying French, German and English at university but I had this road to Damascus moment where I suddenly realised I wanted to be an actor instead.

Before the age of 13 I hadn't been to the theatre or been in plays. I had nothing about it in my background. I didn't do drama at school and I was very quiet and quite studious – you'd never have thought I would become an actor. But my friend wanted to audition for the children's chorus of Joseph, which was playing at the Haymarket, and wanted someone to go with her. And I went along. It was a production which kept getting revived and we kept getting revived along with it. It was great fun and people began to say that I should consider being an actor.

I was asked to play Cleopatra at the age of 22, which was really stupid. It's a play about mature passion. I think it was based on me being ‘exotic' and black, but it was daft. It's a role that has followed me through my career. Obviously I really wanted to play her but it's just not been quite the right time or place.

Cleopatra is indefinable. She is quite unlike anything, anyone has ever come across or met. She's not just sexy and alluring and mysterious, she's all those things too, but the one thing she definitely is, is incredibly intelligent. She's a politician, a prime leader, a supreme leader, she has a brain like a computer. She's not always given credit for that, I don't feel.

The first time I was at the RSC was when I was literally just out of drama school. This is my fifth season at the RSC in over 30 years. But the last time I was working with the RSC was 17 years ago. There are two reasons for that: I don't like labels – if you're an actor, you're an actor. You're not a TV actor or a theatre actor. And I think I was getting a bit of a theatre actor label so I concentrated on TV and film. But the other answer is that the RSC have never asked me back. I certainly didn't intend it to be 17 years.

Antony and Cleopatra runs at the Barbican Theatre until 20 January.