David Harewood nearly quit acting before Homeland

The actor talks about how he almost became a lorry driver, his career and the #OscarsSoWhite scandal

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David Harewood is a failure. I’m sure the 50-year-old Birmingham-born actor won’t mind my saying that. In recent years, he’s had his fair share of success, too. Since he landed the role of CIA honcho David Estes in Homeland in 2011, his career revival has taken in a turn as Oberon in a New York production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as roles in Sacha Baron Cohen’s forthcoming film Grimsby and the cult US TV series Supergirl.

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However, as he makes clear in his forthcoming documentary, David Harewood’s F Word, an actor’s life is likely to contain many more lows than highs. The programme is part of Sky Arts’ Failure season, which examines the crucial role of rejection in artistic creation. Through interviews with fellow actors (including Damian Lewis, Olivia Colman, Eddie Izzard and Zachary Quinto) about their screw-ups and maulings, Harewood hopes to overturn preconceptions about his line of work.

He gets Lewis to open up about his part in the disastrous Dreamcatcher, which one critic described as “a monster movie of stunning awfulness”. Colman tells him, surprisingly, that she didn’t get offered a thing for six months after Broadchurch, which ought to have been a career-defining success.

“There’s this idea that we’re all choosing our roles and casting aside scripts we don’t like – but the reality is very different for most actors,” Harewood says. “We all face rejection.”

We meet in Beverly Hills at “pilot season”, the time of year when most of the major American TV series are cast. “If you look around this area, it’s full of actors sitting in cars waiting for their auditions, mouthing their lines and trying desperately to keep their s*** together,” Harewood says. Last year, that was him – but now that he is taken up with season two of Supergirl (airing on Sky1 next month), he’s more laid-back. “Before Homeland, I had £80 in the bank and no idea what I was going to do,” he says. “I seriously considered giving it all up and getting a job as a lorry driver.”

Harewood’s father was a lorry driver and his mother a caterer. He grew up in Birmingham’s Small Heath, where a teacher saw that his penchant for silly voices might contain the seedlings of theatrical talent – otherwise, he says, he’d have probably ended up as the factory clown. As it was, he secured a place at London’s National Youth Theatre – still a vital access point for inner-city kids – and then went on to Rada.

His career has contained many highlights. He played Othello at the National Theatre, and was such a fierce presence as an African warlord in Blood Diamond in 2006 that the script was rewritten to give him more screen time. However, by the time of Homeland, Harewood was in such a deep depression, he could barely contemplate the audition. He traces this back to 2009 when his best friend from school, Luigi Belcuore, died after a routine operation. “It completely knocked me for six. He was always the one who believed I was going to make it.”

He was so despondent that he dismissed the Homeland script without even reading it – despite the mounting pressure to support his wife, Kirsty, and two daughters, Maize and Raven (now 12 and 9). But his manager pressed him and eventually: “I propped up my iPhone on the window sill, called my wife down so she could do Carrie’s lines, and just pretty much read it. I never even did an American accent.”

As luck would have it, his unsmiling intensity was exactly what the casting directors were after. Since then, his career has been on an upturn – and he feels more able to cope with whatever comes his way. “If I don’t get a part it’s disappointing but not devastating.”

Harewood does worry that the path he took into the profession is disappearing. Failure is something that actors from more wealthy backgrounds can afford far more than people like him. “There’s a lot of talent that never gets to see the light of day. I got a grant to go to drama school – that’s all gone now.”

He remains concerned that the limited opportunities for black actors in Britain mean they go to America young. “There are 17-year-olds who come here now – they don’t want to be doing Shakespeare at the National as they feel it’s not going to get them anywhere. But this place will chew you up if you don’t have that grounding.”

He welcomes the protests over the lack of diversity in the Academy Award nominations. “In England, you feel like a member of the revolutionary guard the minute you even mention race. But I do think that the #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon will have to reflect back on England. What people are essentially saying is that they want to see more diverse stories. It’s not about putting three black people in the back of the shot. It’s about making it normal to see a black actor in a leading role. It still amazes me that Idris Elba is the only black actor in a lead role on British TV.”

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So has all this reflection given him any advice to pass on to aspiring actors? Just a simple, “Good luck!”