Adrian Lester on Undercover: “It would be so much more powerful if we did all the press for this show without once mentioning colour”

The actor on why he thought about turning down his OBE, the power of saying 'no' and why it's character that matters - not skin colour - even when he's breaking new ground...

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Adrian Lester can smash a brick with the back of his hand.  It’s not a party trick, and there’s not much call for brick-smashing in the life of a classical actor. It’s just something Lester, a black belt in Taekwondo, can do.

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His hand, sketching the move in the air, is soft and loosely curled; the gesture, precise as ballet, couldn’t be farther from the cartoon “karate chop”, but it’s powerfully suggestive of withheld force.

“It’s all about discipline,” he explains.  “Martial arts are as connected to fighting as making tea is to culinary skills. Fighting’s a part of it, but it’s much more about self-discipline.”

On stage and off, Lester, 47, is the master of contained power.  As Shakespeare’s Henry V at the National Theatre in 2003, his savvy, statesmanlike performance made Laurence Olivier’s iconic incarnation of the same role look like a trigger-happy hysteric. His equally acclaimed Othello in 2013, also at the National Theatre, was all charisma and quiet authority.

Today, wedged into a hotel sofa to promote BBC1’s new political thriller Undercover, Lester adopts the attitude of actor-at-leisure – arms crossed, powerfully built legs flung out. Every other thing about him – his careful speech, the way he listens to each question as if combing it for subtext – signals a man on high alert.  

 “Concentration is my thing,” he acknowledges.  “I enjoy the rigour of acting, the accuracy and the technical challenge.  But it’s also about the level of what you convey.  What you sing is deeper than the tune. “

Undercover , written by  former barrister Peter Moffat ( Silk, Criminal Justic and The Village) is a  tense, six-part multi-level drama, that lifts the lid on covert operations within the UK security establishment. Lester plays Nick, husband of high-flying human rights lawyer Maya (Sophie Okenedo). Maya is tipped for a politically significant appointment as the first black Director of Public Prosecutions, but Nick has a secret which threatens to blow their family apart.

With the BBC under pressure to address diversity issues, media coverage of Undercover has stressed the significance of a prime-time drama with two black actors in leading roles. This, in itself, is not completely remarkable – there is a line of distinguished black performances on British television, stretching back to the 1950s.  There have been all black sitcoms (Desmonds), dramas with a black lead (Luther), all black ensemble casts (BabyFather). What’s different about Undercover is the fact that the ethnicity of the lead characters is largely irrelevant to the plot. 

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Colour-blind casting is old news in theatre. TV and film, lacking the distancing effect of stage performance, has been slower to catch up.  The trumpeting of Undercover’s ethnically diverse cast has been well-meaning, celebratory. And it drives Lester nuts.

“It would be so much more powerful, “he says, “if we did all the press for this show without once mentioning colour.  That’s not going to happen – it’s just my pie-in-the-sky thought – but it would be a real kick along the path to where we all should be going.”

It’s a reasonable, if unfashionable stance. Should we be marvelling, in 2016, at a drama where black professionals sit down to pasta in a smart kitchen?

“For me,” says Lester, “that’s what a family looks like.”   He has no intention of weighing in to the diversity argument. “Issues and numbers and representation can be talked about without my commentary,” he says firmly. “I no longer feel the need to join with that conversation.”

This is as much as an aesthetic consideration as a political decision.  “If,” he goes on, “you reduce everything that’s contained in a drama to skin colour, to surface, then you lose everything that has been created. “

 Fair enough.  Nobody assesses the achievements of, say, Kenneth Branagh, in terms of his blue eyes. And there is much in Lester’s career to celebrate without which, he points out, is “literally skin-deep.”

The drama also speaks to current concerns about the deployment of undercover surveillance among activist groups.  Last year the Metropolitan police paid out £425,000 in legal damages to a woman who discovered that the father of her son was an undercover officer with the Metropolitan police.

“The best things I’ve been involved with, the very best things, always point at something in our world that we haven’t sorted out yet, that we haven’t got right,” says Lester.  “As an actor you can do wonderful things with this kind of script, because although the audience understands they’re watching a drama, they also understand that this kind of thing goes on.  The characters, the story, are imagined but they’re rooted in reality, and it’s something we should be talking about.”

“I did some reading and research on undercover surveillance,” he goes on, “and it pointed to a world that is really quite questionable.  Most of us have no problem understanding that a section of the police force is infiltrating groups who, to further their own cause, would harm the public. Infiltrating those groups to find out what they’re planning to do, that’s fine. 

“But then when you find out that many of those groups got their organisational capabilities from the undercover officers who were infiltrating them, that the groups benefited from money, transport etc [supplied by the police], that the infiltrators were marrying activists and having children… it’s murky. You start to think ‘What is going on here?  Who is serving whose ends?’

In a profession where the jangling of silver spoons grows ever more insistent,   Lester, whose parents and grandparents immigrated to Britain in the 1950s, came up through the traditional route of graft, talent and ambition.  His mum worked as a medical secretary and his dad ran a cleaning company.  

 “My access to the greatest stories I had seen or heard was through television.”  he recalls.  “Just kids’ stuff, nothing classical.  I loved Doctor Who, and I remember countless westerns and war films where the directors built tension by silence on the screen.  Around the age of 14, I got involved with youth theatre at Birmingham Rep. 

“Actors I admired came in, and I was astounded at how they would transform themselves with different accents, different dress.  I watched their commitment, and was profoundly affected by this process of shape-shifting.  I remember thinking ‘How do you do that?  To me, it was like alchemy, creating something precious out of nothing.”

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Lester went on to RADA – “there were grants in those days” – where he reconnected with fellow-student Lolita Chakrabarti, who grew up on the same street in Birmingham (the couple married in 1997 and have two teenage daughters).  A modest debut in the daytime soap Crossroads kicked off a career of serial mould-breaking, “I make it a policy to step away from the thing I’ve just done.”

Acclaimed for his performance as Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl’s all-male production of As You Like It  in 1991,Lester side-stepped to musical theatre, winning an Olivier Award in 1996 for his part in Stephen Sondheim’s Company.  His Hollywood breakthrough as Henry, the idealistic presidential aide in Mike Nicholls’ 1998 film Primary Colors turned out to be a frustrating false start.

“When was in LA at that time, I met everyone on the ground – this was way before Idris Elba or David Harewood did it – and I remember sitting in the room of a casting director who looked at me – because I was a British actor who had played an American –  as if I was this kind of alien being.  He said to me, ‘Well, if we have anything like Henry, we will of course think of you.’ I was absolutely adamant that after doing something like Primary Colors – the film opened in Cannes, for god’s sake – the least I could do was get a good bit of telly.  I was offered a small part here, or a touring play there, and I turned them down.”

It was a brave – and deeply considered – decision.  “As an actor, your only power is saying ‘no.’ For every job I do, there are a hundred other jobs that I didn’t get, that I wanted. Equally there are jobs that come your way and you say, ‘No, thank you’.   So it’s only when and how you say ‘no’ that dictates your career. “

 Mistrust of “pigeon-holing” steered Lester away from long-term commitments, though he made an exception for the role of Mickey in BBC1’s hit drama series Hustle. “That was a chocolate box of a part. The whole point of Mickey is that he is a shape-shifter, every episode felt like a new role.”

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Undercover is on Sunday 3rd April at 9pm on BBC1