‘I was only able to go on stage hammered’: David Harewood on acting, racism and his new role at Rada

This is the first time David Harewood has stepped through the doors of Rada’s London headquarters since he became its president in mid-February, and he’s immediately struck by flashbacks of his time as a student here. “Stunning memories,” he says. “Memories of my audition, the paintings … and that staircase will always be memorable because you walk in and go: ‘Oh my God, I’m at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts!’ It’s very evocative.”

Harewood, 58, is the first person of colour to lead Rada, and he follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as Kenneth Branagh, Richard Attenborough, Princess Diana and John Gielgud. It is the most prestigious of acting schools – some would say the luvviest of them all – and has been a training ground for everyone from Anthony Hopkins to Tom Hiddleston, Fiona Shaw to Phoebe Waller-Bridge. But like many British drama schools, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Rada issued an apology acknowledging that it “has been and currently is institutionally racist”.

Harewood’s appointment, alongside that of another black actor, Cynthia Erivo, as vice-president, could be seen as a move towards righting those wrongs, but he is not just here for the symbolism. In fact, his experience makes him uniquely qualified, he says: “I’ve been to the Golden Globes and the Emmys. I’ve seen the glamorous end of the industry. But I’ve also been in a mental institution because of this industry, so I know both sides of it. And I want to make sure that I can give the students access to as much of my experience, good and bad, as possible, so that they know what to expect.”

Alumnus … Harewood in the Scenic Art Studio at Rada. Photograph: Anselm Ebulue/The Guardian

We’re in a sunny meeting room, just off that staircase. A pile of unopened letters awaits Harewood on the table. He’s been filming in Canada for the past few months, he explains, but he seems fresh and full of energy. “I came into this room a few weeks before I was sectioned,” he observes. This would have been in 1989, a few years after he had left as a student. “In my psychotic state, I came in to pitch an idea to the then principal, Oliver Neville, about how to teach the students.” Harewood has spoken and written about his breakdown since, which was, he reasons, partly induced by the racism of British society in general, and the entertainment industry in particular.

Race issues continue to plague British drama. In February, Rishi Sunak condemned a West End theatre for its plans to stage two performances of Jeremy O Harris’s Slave Play (out of a 13-week run) for “all-black-identifying audiences” in order to make it as accessible as possible. “Restricting audiences on the basis of race would be wrong and divisive,” said a government spokesperson. Earlier this month, it was reported that the black actor Francesca Amewudah-Rivers had received a “barrage of deplorable racist abuse” on social media as a result of being cast as Juliet, opposite Tom Holland, in a new production of Romeo and Juliet.

Harewood can sympathise. His first professional gig, in 1988, was playing Romeo in an all-black adaptation of Shakespeare, which provoked a similar reaction. “Oh my God, I got slaughtered,” he recalls. “One reviewer said: ‘Apparently this man went to Rada. Why did they let him in? Why did they let him out?’ Another one said: ‘He doesn’t look like Romeo; he looks more like Mike Tyson.’” And rather than social media, this was coming from broadsheet newspapers. “Every interview I did was about my colour: why are you playing Romeo? Should you be playing Romeo? Did Shakespeare write it for a black actor?”

The experience affected him deeply, he says. “My second job was with the same director, and that’s when things really started to go bad. Literally the only way I could go on stage was to get hammered. I really didn’t enjoy my experience: I hated acting, hated the profession, hated what I was doing, totally lost my confidence. I think that was the start of my breakdown.”

Harewood “slowly came undone”, he recalled in the Guardian in 2021. He was smoking a lot of weed at the time. He “spent weeks walking all over London, sometimes throughout the night, talking to strangers and following them wherever they led me. I’d black out only to regain consciousness in a completely different part of town, hours later, afraid and with absolutely no idea what had happened in the interval.” Friends intervened and he was sectioned, after which he went on to rebuild his career, getting by on what small roles the UK industry had to offer. He married in 2013 and has two daughters, now aged 18 and 21, both of whom are in higher education. But, like so many black British actors, he only gained mainstream recognition when he went to the US; in 2011 he was cast as the CIA chief in the hit counter-terrorism series Homeland. He hadn’t worked for a year before that, but he’s been busy ever since: on stage and on the small screen, from a juicy role in DC’s Supergirl series to BBC documentaries on his psychosis, on Covid’s disproportionate impacts on people of colour and on the history of blackface.

The classics … Harewood with Matthew Macfadyen in Henry IV Part One in 2005. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

He wasn’t seeking a role at Rada; about a year ago, the chairman, Marcus Ryder, offered him the job out of the blue. Harewood’s first reaction was: “What? It doesn’t make any sense. No, I can’t do that,” he says. “And then I sort of thought: ‘OK, I’ll give it a go.’” It was only when it was announced that he realised what a big deal it was. “I had calls, letters from all over the world. My Instagram blew up. And it was such an incredibly positive, excited response. I suddenly realised: this is actually fucking huge. And I’m really proud of it. Probably more proud of it than anything else I’ve ever done.”

Drama school was something of a haven for Harewood, it seems, especially compared with his experiences immediately either side of it. The child of a working-class, Barbadian immigrant family, he grew up in Birmingham, where being chased by skinheads and having bricks thrown through his window was part of his daily experience. “I knew nothing about drama,” he says. “I blagged my way through school, always doing plays, being a bit of a mischievous little bastard, being kicked out of classes on a regular basis.” It was only when a teacher suggested acting that a lightbulb came on in his head. He was accepted by the National Youth Theatre, came to London for a six-week course, and “found this tribe of people who messed about just like me, and had funny voices just like me and were very mischievous, just like me”.

A year later he was walking into this building for a daylong audition, at the end of which almost all of the other applicants had been eliminated. Then Neville, the principal, said to him: “You’re quite a humorous lad. Can you make me laugh?” What did he do? “It was terribly silly. It was almost like a Lenny Henry sketch. I was, like, a Rastafarian Santa Claus breaking into people’s houses and talking to himself.” He went home thinking he’d blown it, but the acceptance letter came through days later. “I just read the first three words: ‘We are pleased …’ and I leapt out of my fucking skin.

“I just had an absolute ball here. For me, it was the first time education made sense. I was learning about literature, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Molière; all these fantastic classical writers, what they were writing about, the analogies they were using and things that they were trying to point out to society – it just completely sparked my imagination.”

The boss … Harewood in Homeland in 2011. Photograph: Teakwood Lane Prods/Cherry Pie Prods/Keshet/Showtime/Kobal/Shutterstock

In retrospect, there were some aspects that were pretty racist. “I was singing negro spirituals,” he says, laughing. “I wanted to sing jazz and my music teacher was like: ‘No, no, no!’” He pounds the table as if playing a piano and sings in a loud, Paul Robeson-style baritone: “I got plenty o’ nuttin”. “And I’m like, ‘What the fuck is this?’” His impersonation is so funny I can’t help laughing as well, even though we’re talking about institutional racism.

There was only one other black man in his year at Rada, he recalls, though times were already changing; the year below him included Adrian Lester, Sophie Okonedo and Marianne Jean-Baptiste. People of colour now make up about 40% of Rada’s intake, it says. It gets 3,000 to 4,000 applications a year for the 28 places on its acting BA, and successful applicants must get through four rounds of auditions.

Today’s students of colour are far more aware of race matters, says Harewood, though this comes with its own challenges. He has heard of students rejecting suggestions that they study Shakespeare or Chekhov. “A younger black actor now will say, ‘I want a black playwright, I want black directors, I want, I want …’ So it’s a different perspective.” Alternative routes are now available; he praises London’s Identity acting school, whose alumni include John Boyega and Letitia Wright – actors who are comfortably themselves. “When when we were coming out of school, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre were the peak of an actor’s career … Kids aren’t necessarily interested in that any more; they can come out of drama school and get a six-season Netflix show.”

‘I was learning about literature, Shakespeare, Chekhov and Molière; all these fantastic classical writers …’ Photograph: Anselm Ebulue/The Guardian

There are other issues facing today’s generation that he doesn’t envy, though. Rada was once caricatured as a bastion of poshness, but at least actors from lower-income families, such as Harewood, could get a student grant; now there are fears that drama school is exclusively for the well-off. It’s a problem across higher education, Harewood points out, “so I don’t think it’s specifically to do with Rada. But I do think we have to find ways of making that ladder to success accessible to all. It would be a shame if the only way you could get here is if Mum and Dad can dip into their pockets.” (Rada’s fees are set by the government at £9,250 a year for UK students, just like other undergraduate courses, a spokesperson tells me, and it supports 60% of its undergraduates through its scholarship fund.)

Harewood is also concerned about where identity politics could be headed. “We’re at this strange point in the profession where people go: ‘Oh, you can’t play that role because you’re not disabled, or you can’t play that because you’re not really from there.’ The name of the game is acting. Yes, we’ve got to be representative, but I do think we have to be careful … That even extends to Othello in blackface. I say, if you want to black up, have at it, man. It’d better be fucking good, or else you’re gonna get laughed off the stage. But knock yourself out! Anybody should be able to do anything.”

Harewood has practised what he’s preaching. Last year he played the notorious white conservative William F Buckley in the play Best of Enemies, based on Buckley’s legendary right-versus-left TV debates with Gore Vidal in 1968. “I knew the minute I walked on stage, 99% of the audience was thinking: ‘Why is he playing that?’ But by the end of it, everybody was going, ‘Fuck me, that worked really well!,’” says Harewood. “Hearing his words coming out of my mouth, many people went, ‘Why am I liking William F Buckley?’” This was a far cry from the 23-year-old Harewood who played Romeo. “You bring on to the stage what you are. I’m not pretending to be white; I’m bringing my full self.”

How will his Rada role affect his acting career? “Well, Ken did pretty well, didn’t he?” he laughs – as in his predecessor, Kenneth Branagh. “I’d like to be involved here as much as I can. And I would have to be honest and say that my career has slowed down. No one’s banging down my door right now.” That said, there seems to be plenty in the pipeline. In Canada he was shooting a movie about Denham Jolly, the founder of Canada’s first black-owned radio station (way back in, er, 2001). He is returning there next week to work on a new TV show, Happy Face. And he’s set to appear in the second series of the BBC’s hit show Sherwood, among other projects.

Being an actor is a weird balancing act, he suggests. On the one hand you’ve got to be sufficiently resilient to handle all the criticism, rejection, anxiety and stress. On the other, he’s realised, the goal is to be open and vulnerable. On a personal level, Harewood seems to have squared that circle. “I always thought you had to puff your chest out on stage and be rock solid. And then after my breakdown, the first time I got on stage, I was terrified. And there’s something interesting in that, because I was vulnerable … I’ve embraced that. And it adds something to my level of character because I’m safe in that vulnerability. I’m in a much better place now than I’ve ever been.”

A few days later, Harewood contacts me by email. When he got home that day, he says, he got round to tackling the pile of unopened mail that was sitting on the table during our interview. “It was all wonderful and complimentary … except the second to last one that began: ‘The true patriots of England will be turning in their grave at your appointment …’ I didn’t read on, but I could see it was full of the usual. My wife read the first line and laughed but I could see her expression change as she read on and she very quickly ripped it to shreds and threw it in the bin. I’ve already put systems in place, as I’ve had to do before, where such mail is opened by others first. That way I don’t have to deal with such garbage.”

The Guardian