20 Questions: Lucian Msamati – 'Hold your nerve when holding it is the hardest thing to do'

The actor and director is helming ”Boi Boi is Dead” at West Yorkshire Playhouse, and will play the RSC’s first black Iago later this year

Lucian Msamati in rehearsals for Boi Boi is Dead
Lucian Msamati in rehearsals for Boi Boi is Dead
© Richard Davenport

1. How would you describe your upbringing?
I’d say I had a good, solid educated African Middle-Class upbringing: no frills, but comfortably far from the poverty line.

2. What made you want to become an actor?
It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I remember watching films and thinking, "I want to do that. I know how to do that".

3. If you hadn’t become an actor, what might you have done professionally?
I’d have stayed in advertising. I’d probably be running my own agency, be very rich and quite bitter and nasty; that would not be to do with the industry, it would be my own self-loathing.

4. First big break?
Meeting Lesley Duff, my friend and agent. I literally had the bag on my back, a rich but unknown-in-UK CV, and ambition. She took me on. That was the biggest break of all for me: for a relative stranger to take a look and say, "Okay I believe in you".

5. Career highlights to date?
Sorry -I truly and honestly cannot pick one; I have been blessed with many.

6. Any regrets?
Yes and their names are…

7. What was the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you?
It was a Christmas student variety show at the University of Zimbabwe – my father lectured there so we went along. A woman was singing a ballad on stage. This man in a brown jacket got up during the song and slowly and emotionally made to leave the hall as though she were singing to only him. But he kept making false exits and the crowd and the singer couldn’t stop laughing. He appeared again during a more upbeat song and broke out some amazing dance moves but then stopped himself midway through the song and again made a long, wistful exit. To this day I don’t know for sure whether he was a part of the act or not but I just remember being utterly compelled by him and what he would do next.

8. And the last?
The gloriously gifted, powerful and beautiful women who gave us The House That Will Not Stand.

9. Who are your idols?
My parents, Stevie Wonder, Binyavanga Wainaina, Teju Cole, and Michael Faber: people whose gifts and abilities I could only dream of touching.

10. What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Hold your nerve when holding it is the hardest thing to do.

Jack Benjamin (Boi Boi), Lynette Clarke (Stella), Andrew French (Ezra), Debbie Korley (Una) and Angela Wynter (Miriam) in Boi Boi is Dead
Jack Benjamin (Boi Boi), Lynette Clarke (Stella), Andrew French (Ezra), Debbie Korley (Una) and Angela Wynter (Miriam) in Boi Boi is Dead
© Richard Davenport

11. Could you sum up Boi Boi is Dead in a sentence?
There is nothing that exposes truth like grief.

12. What attracted you to the play?
It had poetic elegance, honesty and wasn’t ashamed or afraid to be grown-up.

13. You left as artistic director of Tiata Fahodzi last year. Have you got
ambitions to lead another company?

Not at the present moment!

14. You started your career with Over the Edge Theatre in Zimbabwe – would you
like to work there again?

Yes and no. Yes because it is where I became a man and an artist; no because you can never step into the same river twice.

15. You're playing the RSC's first black Iago later this year. Do you think
this will change the dynamics of the play?

You’ll have to wait and see…

16. What comes more naturally to you – writing, acting or directing?
Every discipline developed out of the desire to act; directing, writing and producing were a natural follow-on from that. Acting is my first love but it really depends on the project.

17. For what role do you most often get recognised?
At the moment probably Game of Thrones but I am always pleasantly surprised by the things people remember from stage or screen. It’s a valuable lesson in appreciating every single gig, big, small or in-between, and investing each with equal professionalism, passion and dedication.

18. How do you unwind?

19. If you could swap places with anyone for a day, who would it be?
Robert Mugabe. I am fascinated to know what goes on inside his head and to experience the world through his eyes.

20. Have you got any dream roles?
Yes. But the only way I’ll play it is if I write and finance them for myself; so watch this space…

Lucian Msamati directs Boi Boi is Dead, running at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 7 March 2015; he will play Iago in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Othello which opens on 4 June 2015