Fisayo Akinade: 'Judi Dench made me feel her palms'

The ”Cucumber” actor on a couple of phenomenal years and why Judi Dench asked him to feel her palms

Fisayo Akinade (The Dauphin)
Fisayo Akinade (The Dauphin) in Saint Joan
© Jack Sain

Fisayo Akinade has a quiet kind of magnetism. It was there in his performance as Louis in the Young Vic’s revival of Barbarians and it was there in his portrayal of soldier Gallagher in the recent bat-shit crazy zombie apocalypse film The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s probably why Russell T Davies took him on for his TV shows Banana and Cucumber on E4 and Channel 4, and why directors Dominic Cooke, Dominic Dromgoole and Josie Rourke are making space for him in their productions. He makes his soft approach work in comedy too and his petulant Dauphin in Saint Joan – currently at the Donmar Warehouse – manages to be both funny, silly and real. We caught up with him to talk about the show and about the phenomenal two years he’s just had.

Saint Joan is famously about four hours long, is this production a beast?
Ours is a bit more streamlined. We’ve cut it down to two hours 15, and we’ve been quite savage with our cuts. Poor George Bernard Shaw. We wanted to focus on specific ideas: nationalism, heroism, utter faith and what a miracle is. Those things have become even more prominent because of the edit that Josie [Rourke, the director] has put together.

Gemma Arterton is playing Joan, you've performed with her before, what’s she like to work with?
If I could work with her every year for the rest of my life, I would. We have a right old laugh. The rehearsal room is fun and cheeky and really playful. She sets up a non-hierarchical rehearsal room and there’s no room for ego.

You play the uncrowned king in Saint Joan, but you’re a bit of a brat…
He’s so fun to play. He’s bullied by his courtiers and he has none of the kingly attributes: he’s weedy, although he is quite smart. He’s like a little child who stays in his room all day and eats sweets and cakes. It’s Joan’s job to convince him to try to become king. The second time you see him, there’s a real change, which is really lovely to play. It’s brought about by what Joan does and is probably her biggest miracle.

It’s not the first time you have worked at the Donmar Warehouse…
No, I was in The Vote, which was the most surreal experience of my life. We rehearsed separately and the first time we got together for a run through, Judi Dench sat next to me. Everyone was getting teas and coffees and I was looking around the room and suddenly Judi Dench was like: ‘Oh hello!’. She said: ‘Feel my palm’ and I said: ‘Sorry?’ and she said: ‘I have cold sweats, I’m terrified’. I am sure she was doing it to put me at my ease because I was sweating buckets at the time.

Do you feel like you’re on a roll with the jobs you’re getting at the moment?
There are no guarantees as an actor, but I think I’ve just been given really good opportunities and run with them. I feel most fortunate about being able to do theatre, TV and film. I think doing each one keeps you sharp. I’ve been really lucky to work with some of the most incredible people in the industry.

Any highlights?
Dominic Cooke was a great highlight and he did not disappoint. I was very fortunate. I want to continue to do new things, I’d love to go to Broadway. The thing about being an actor is that anything could happen and none of it could happen. I was touring in Leeds and Newcastle when an audition for Cucumber popped up and that was sort of it. It changed my career path a little and there was no indication that that was going to happen.

How did you get into acting?
My family wasn't really into theatre, I used to want to be a gymnast, but I injured my back doing it and had to stop for a while. By the time I came back, the gym I went to had closed down so I started going to Contact Theatre in Manchester for a drama drop in session. I just really enjoyed it so carried on. It wasn’t a pressured path, it came out of a place of joy.

Saint Joan runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 18 February.

Click here to read our review of Saint Joan