Although Covid-19 is the big story in the world today, we thought it’s a fantastic time to interview people and present personal stories that they would gracefully like to share with us, especially when everyone is at home. Consequently, we’re starting a series called Cycle of Inspirational Stories at the African Press Club, focusing on high profile women of African descent.
In this first interview with Mrs. Rakie Ayola, our guest writer Sheila Garcia discovers a woman with a great soul and interesting stories owing to her extensive career as an actress.
Mrs. Ayola was born and raised in Cardiff, Wales, to a Nigerian father and a Sierra Leonean mother. She was raised by her mother’s cousin and his wife. From a young age, Ayola has worked in theatre, film and television her most popular role being Kayla Tyson in the BBC series, Holby City. She was nominated and shortlisted twice for the “Female Performance in TV” award in the 2006 Screen Nation Awards, for her role as Kyla Tyson in the series. Ayola is a philanthropist and mum to two beautiful daughters. She talks about the impact of Covid-19, the future of the industry, black actors/actresses, wigs and demands on black women and their hair, her rise in the industry, etc.
Find below excerpts of the conversation with Ayola:
How are you living in the midst of all the madness, and in particular, how is the artistic community coping with the closure of theatres, cinemas, productions, etc?
A lot of people are struggling, a lot of people were reliant on the job they had or the job they were about to start. There are a lot of people who have been trying to work online as much as possible. So many people are reading at poems online, and anyone that can sing has been singing. Thankfully, we at least have that to enjoy. Tomorrow I have a Zoom conference that a friend of mine set up and there will be fifty actresses there and we are all in the same position. Chances are there might be a handful of the women that I am going to meet tomorrow who have a job lined up when this is over, but there might be forty-five, out of that fifty, that don’t. A Friend of mine said, “We are in the same storm but we are not on the same boat”. That is so true because I know I am here with my family, and we enjoy each other’s company, and we have a home we love which certainly isn’t everyone’s lockdown experience. I feel like we are on a boat just bobbing around at sea with no idea when we will reach dry land. Others are not that fortunate, they don’t even have a boat or they are on a boat with people they can’t stand.
The British government announced that it would cover 80% of the salary of workers and up to a total of 2,500 pounds a month. Is that grant including freelancers and actors?
Initially, freelancers were not mentioned in that package but now we are included. If I am not mistaken they take your last three years earning and you get a percentage of your declared income. It starts in June.
I am curious about what is going to happen with the plays that were already scheduled. Are they permanently canceled? Will they be postponed or rescheduled when the lockdown is over?
It seems a lot of this season’s plays will have to be rescheduled since so many things have to be taken into consideration. When theatres reopen money will be tight, meaning we’re likely to see small cast productions for some time to come. Theatre can and will adapt, but whether individual companies can survive the change remains to be seen.
Are you among the artists affected by the cancelation of their plays?
I had two TV projects programmed. One for the BBC, which was due to start the week after the lockdown, and a second for ITV that was scheduled to start this month. As long as all the cast and crew are still able to do it, and the locations are still available, they will go ahead when it’s safe to do so. I must say, I don’t even know what safe means, and I wonder what the criteria is for now.
Where do you think this whole crisis will take us? Do you believe in any particular conspiracy theory? Such as someone ate a bat or a bioweapon has been released to control us all?
I have avoided conspiracy theories. My husband and I have talked about this situation a lot, but at no point have we asked each other how we think it started. If I say I do not care how it started, it’s kind of irrelevant right now. If an avalanche is coming towards you, you just need to concern yourself with the best way to avoid it. So that’s where I am at the moment.
Let’s talk about you. How did you start in this profession? You always knew that you wanted to be a professional actress?
Yes, it is something I wanted to do since I was a child. When I was nine or ten I saw Barbara Streisand in Hello Dolly on television one Christmas holiday, and I just looked towards the screen and said: “I want to be that lady with the big hat singing in the street”. When I went to secondary school, I was always rehearsing amateur plays and musicals, and then I decided to go to drama school. There were a couple of weeks when people tried to convince me to teach drama, but I decided that since there were people that were making a living from acting, I wanted to be one of them.
I am so amazed about how people see the “light” from a very young age. That is very inspirational.
Absolutely, and the intention was never to be famous or anything like that. My interest in Barbra Streisand was not about the fact that she was famous, but about her talent. I was mesmerized by her voice. I thought: she is singing and dancing in the middle of the street, that is what I want to do. My love for her has never wavered and I finally got to see her here in London.
It makes sense. As a child you had no idea what fame was, you just wanted to be that person that was having fun!
Exactly! Now kids have a sense of fame because they are on social media and can see that that person has three million Instagram followers, so they absolutely recognize fame. Unfortunately, they do not recognize talent quite so easily, for instance, I knew watching Gene Kelly that he was an extraordinary dancer. Those films were made in the forties and fifties and I was watching them in the seventies, so I had no cultural connection to what I was watching. I just knew I was watching excellence! Whereas now, in my point of view, people do not care if they are watching excellence as long as they are watching celebrities.
Didn’t you face any resistance from your family? I mean, African parents can be very traditional and believe that you need to become a doctor, for instance, to succeed in life.
I was born and raised in the UK but I was not raised by my parents. I was raised by my mother’s cousin and his wife. He was a Sierra Leonean man settled in Cardiff (Wales), and married a local woman, so the people who brought me up were my “adopted black father” and my “adopted white mother”. Cardiff has a very vibrant, well established but relatively small diverse community. I was quite used to being the only black kid in the play or in the class. My Cardiff mum died when I was 14 but before that she’d been more than happy to facilitate me going to youth theatres and stuff. But I suppose at that age, no one really thought that I would continue on my acting path. After she died, my dad never really got over his grief, so I think I could have just packed a bag and gone around the world, and come back months later, and he wouldn’t have noticed. So while I was auditioning for drama schools, he thought I was at school. I didn’t tell him anything about my plans until I was offered a place at a drama school and had secured a full grant to pay the fees (that’s not possible anymore). Once it was all signed up I told him about it.
How was your childhood?
I am based in London now but I’m still a Cardiff girl. Cardiff is such a vibrant city. I grew up in Ely, which is a big council estate. Since it was on the western edge of the city, Ely was actually more rural than I appreciated at the time.
You have played both in theatres, TV. You even produced your own film back in 2001. Your first work in film was in 1993, called Great moments in aviation. Tell me more about it.
More recently, my husband Adam Smethurst and I produced a version of Shakespeare’s twelfth night through our company shanty productions. It’s available on iTunes and Amazon. Great moments seems like a lifetime ago. I suddenly found myself surrounded by all these actors that I had seen on television and I could not quite believe I was in their company. My dressing room was between John Hurt and Jonathan Pryce. I would look at those three doors, and I would think, how is this happening? And when on set with these extraordinary actors, I would try to learn as much as possible. It was an extraordinary job. The film sat on a shelf for about two years then eventually in 1995, I was doing a play in Birmingham when someone came to my room and said: “I think you are on television”. I said, “in what?” It was unbelievable. There was I waiting for an invitation to the big screen premiere of my first film and there it was on BBC2 on a Saturday night, and I’d had no idea. That taught me a lot about how things work.
I worked for three years on Holby and Sharon became a dear friend. The clue is in the title -continuing drama- is exactly that. It never stops. The payoff is the fact that you get to breathe life into all manner of situations, and you get to work with some fabulous actors.
How are actors coping with working every once in a while? And also, what do you do when you are not working?
Well, I am very much ruled by the timetable of my daughters whenever I am not working and I am quite calm about it. I have chosen to believe that the job I am doing is the job before my next job, so I don’t have that anxiety that some actors have.
But that “chillness” requires having a Buda kind of mind! There are bills that need to be paid etc. How would you plan a holiday, for example, without a regular income?
You are right! And I don’t know what it is but I just believe that the next job will appear. I was working until the 22nd of December last year and if you had met me then and asked, what are you doing next, I would have said: “I have no idea, something will happen”.
People have prejudices about actors. For example, I think most of the people believe that actors always feel beautiful and awesome about themselves, perhaps that they are a bit self-centered. What’s your thought on that?
I think some people see us as show-offs and think we all have massive egos and like to be the center of attention. Maybe sometimes that is true. What they often don’t see is the incredible camaraderie that we have. Yes, the nature of the job means we are constantly trying to get work, but we are more like athletes running for the same team than boxers in a ring. I will be having a Zoom meeting tomorrow with forty female actors. We are not enemies. We’re friends and colleagues.
What are the challenges of being an actress nowadays compared with the times when you started?
I think there were more chances to practice your craft when I started. There were more theatre companies. I think right now there is much interest in having that “big break” very quickly, so a lot of young actors go to drama schools and they want to get on to Netflix, and they want to work at the National Theatre, then they want to go to LA. And a lot of them are achieving that, which is brilliant. When I started the ambition was to get a job, and you would celebrate if your job involved traveling around the country in a van, or if you were going to a regional theatre to do a Shakespeare play or whatever. I think young actors think they maybe haven’t quite achieved so much if they get a job that is not going to be in the headlines. So that’s different.
Is it more competitive to work in this industry being a woman, and being a black actress?
There is more work now because we are telling more stories. Old stories are being told in a new way, and at last new stories are being written and produced, so there is more work for black women definitely. Our contribution is more recognized now but our work is still not promoted as enthusiastically as our male counterparts. There’s a long way to go but people certainly see us more than they used to.
Have you found yourself caring too much about the image you should have as a black actress? Is there a room for actresses not projecting that westernized image?
It is CHAN-GI-ING…The success of Black Panther is immense. The way people viewed women of color in that film changed everything. Before the advice regarding auditions for the American market was to put your wig on. If you had twists, braids, or whatever, they would advise you to hide them under your wig. For years that was the case. Black Panther was hugely influential for showing black women in lead roles with natural hair, which weren’t playing slaves. Even so, the way we feel about our hair is as complicated.
What do you mean?
I don’t have any problem with wigs. I have several and there was a time in my life when I wore wigs and weaves constantly. But the contemporary parted wig has me baffled. Fake hair I understand. Fake scalp I don’t. Someone needs to explain to me why we feel the need to wear visible fake scalp in order to make our long luxurious fake hair appear a bit less fake. What kind of problem do we have with ourselves? It must say something about me that I often play women wearing wigs that don’t look great. You know why? Because I see those women all the time and, for some reason, they think that their wig looks better than whatever is underneath, so I am interested in whom those women are.
To become a professional actor in the UK, it is recommended to belong to a union trade called Equity. How is equity helping/promoting actors from ethnic minorities?
It is not compulsory for actors to be part of equity anymore. They make sure that everyone is treated fairly. Personally, if I had an issue with racial discrimination on a job, I would not relay to the Union, which is a sad thing. I would try to deal with it myself. Equity is currently supporting people with grants and advice.
Can black actors play a typically white role, prince Hamlet for example?
Yes, definitely. Shakespeare particularly lends itself to all actors playing all the parts. Even women playing traditionally male roles, and men playing traditional female roles. People who get upset seeing a black actor playing Henry V for example, simply aren’t able to deal with the artistic license when they see it.
Do you see more black actors and actresses in the UK than a decade before?
Yes, the community is full of very good actors and artists in general. They are writing, producing, directing and they are really confident. There are a lot of us supporting each other. We need to stay visible because with the world swinging to the right, we cannot afford to let things slip back to how they were before. We need to stay in people’s faces.
How do you see the future of the industry after this lockdown? Many sectors are considering teleworking on a regular basis. An actor needs (in principle) another colleague to do the job. Do you see a future where people will watch a play online from home?
I think theatres will be the last to reopen so we will definitely be seeing more people performing monologues and reading poems online.
What do you think should change in the entertainment industry? Do you believe that entertainment companies like Netflix are a double-edged sword?
I believe that the benefits are huge. If you go on Netflix and you scroll through, you will see that they are the ones telling stories differently. So I would say Netflix has been a positive force on-screen diversity. I am a big fan of what they are trying to do.
What role would you like to be offered?
A lavish costume drama on screen would be nice.