Adrian Lester on hustling to make it big in Hollywood

The Hustle star is leaving the frustration of being a black actor in Britain behind - to try his luck in Hollywood

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Adrian Lester on…typecasting

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“The response to some of the jobs I’ve done has been, ‘I thought you were really like that’, which is great, because you reap the rewards of your hard work. But the other side of it is you’re stamped as being that. The same thing happened with Primary Colors.”

“I went back over to America when the film [Primary Colours] came out, wearing my baseball cap and trainers, and said [exaggerated English accent] ‘Hello’… and they thought I was a method actor studying for a new role: ‘That’s great! And when we have another role like Henry Burton, we’ll call.’ But that kind of middle-class, preppy Oxbridge-American didn’t come around very often for people like me. And I thought, ‘You must know that it’s just an act? I can do other things as well. Look, I’m not even American!’

“It was kind of hard to swallow, because surely if you executed a role like that to any degree of believability you were a shoo-in for major auditions for other major roles… But it didn’t happen.”

...Hollywood

“Costa-Gavras wanted me to play the lead role in a movie. And Sidney Lumet was doing an updated version of 12 Angry Men and offered me a choice of two roles, so I went home thinking, ‘Great!’ Then both films fell through – they couldn’t get the money – and I sat at home unemployed for a year.

“It was tough. I remember my wife – my girlfriend then – saying, ‘It’s going to be difficult because you’ve done a film that opened on the red carpet at Cannes. Go and fill in the blanks.’”

“The iron [in the fire] is quite warm after Hustle. It’s been nice knowing that for the past nine years, every summer there’s this great job… This is the first time the slate is completely clear. I know I’m definitely going over to America. I’ll spend time doing three meetings a day. There’s lots of talk and stories flying around. We’ll see what lands.”

…Hustle

“On Twitter somebody said, ‘I like Adrian Lester – so suave, sophisticated, dresses so well’ and I thought, ‘Very nice, but you’ve never met me.’ I guess that comes through with Mickey. But I also have to entertain the possibility that I’m an actor and that I can switch and do something else. I know that a lot of people will say, ‘Can we have that calm, centred, suited-and-booted performance in this, please?’ and I have to say, ‘No, I’m not going to be Mickey with another name.’”

…black talent

“Talking to [fellow actor and writer] Lennie [James] was interesting. He’s had a great deal of frustration. Hearing about ideas he’d had for Channel 4 and the BBC that had been passed over. For some people it was a cultural thing, others a cerebral thing – but that was a real eye-opener.”

“I’ve had so many opportunities. And out of them I’ve created more. But when a producer puts their money behind a project, that money is at risk, so you’re not generally going to say to an actor, ‘I’m going to let you be someone you’ve never been before.’ Unless you’re a big enough actor.”

“As an actor you’re constantly trying to guess how valuable you are to the industry. If you’re a woman you’ll put certain negative things against that, be it age or weight. As a black actor you do the same – you’ll only see yourself travelling as far as people like you have travelled. And if no one like you is doing what you’re doing it’s very hard for you to see yourself going further, and you get frustrated.

“It’s not possible to sustain a film career by just working in Britain. Black or white, whoever you are. I left Rada in ’89. Apartheid was still going, it was a very different world. When people leave drama school now saying, ‘It’s frustrating, I want to change things,’ I think, ‘Yeah – but, mate, we’ve done a hell of a lot of work!’”

“But things have changed. There are kids who, when they speak in whatever accent, you can’t tell what colour – even gender – they are until you actually look. That’s what Britain is. It’s impossible to move backwards. And anybody who is intent on not moving forwards is moving backwards, and that’s an exercise in futility. At the moment a lot of dramas with non-white actors in them feel as though they have to justify that presence. Fine – but the presence is there, justified or not. We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s getting better.”

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 23 December 2011.

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The final series of Hustle begins tonight at 9pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD