If there’s anyone who could do with more than 24 hours in a day, it’s Hackney-based Renaissance man Arinze Kene.  He’s currently splitting his time between filming EastEnders in Hertfordshire and rehearsals for his new play Estate Walls which is being staged at the Oval House Theatre, South London.

By the time we meet for our interview this sunny, early September afternoon he’s understandably quite tired.  Yet there are no signs of crankiness; he’s the consummate gentleman, delivering polite and measured responses.  But maybe this level of professionalism isn’t so odd.  There’s a hunger and discipline about Kene that infers he has a good grasp of what it takes to make his dreams come true.  Since childhood he has experimented with different modes of self-expression, be it music or freestyle basketball.  Acting came much later, at the tail end of his teens.

Born in Nigeria, Arinze relocated to East London with his family in the early 1990s as a tot.  The young Kene paid close attention to the sights, sounds and colourful characters around him.  He called on some of his experience growing up near Pembury Estate, Hackney whilst writing Estate Walls; “I spent so many days in Pembury where the actual play is set… chilling with my friends, fighting and talking and all of that.  I thought it was amazing.  I used to hang out but then I could leave and go home.  I think that gave me an extra eye into the Estate.”

Arinze felt there was a dearth of dramatic pieces that accurately reflected Estate life as he knew it so true to his proactive nature, he decided to write one himself. “When I started acting, writing and seeing plays I saw that something was hugely missing- the urban British experience.  That whole generation was, for me, misrepresented.  One of my things is to write it straight.”

Kene once said in an interview that ‘as human beings, people are our favourite subject…’  I ask if he approaches his writing with this in mind; do characters take precedent over plot? “I focus on character straight away.  For me it starts with that.”  Arinze admits.

“I build, build, and build character.  If a character does A, B and C and doesn’t accept D at all under no circumstances and another character does F,G and H and loves doing D all the time and I put them in the same room ,then the D’s are going to clash; through that you get a whole story.”

Arinze, not surprisingly, looks to the Bard for inspiration. “Shakespeare obviously, was amazing. He was able to both  write the most amazing plot lines yet his characters were so defined and so very different.  I work both ways as well but only recently have I started developing plot lines before I think of characters.”

One look at Arinze’s tall, impressively athletic physique and it comes as no shock that professional basketball was once on the horizon for him.  In early 2010 he played the lead in low-budget British B’ball flick Freestyle providing him with another opportunity to showcase his diverse talents.  Kene began basketball when he was ten, having been introduced by his brother.  The sport still holds a special place in his heart.

“This whole summer I have not played at all and it’s a shame because I love it so much.  I had what you call hoop dreams, which a lot of ballers have.   No matter how old you get you still think, ‘I could be a basketball player’.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning and think, ‘Man, if I started taking it seriously from today, I could probably still make it’.”

It’s a wonder where Arinze gets the energy to pursue his many interests.  Perhaps he’s as bionic as his stature suggests.  In any case basketball will have to fit in around his other projects.  Kene is presently making forays into directing.  Earlier this year he directed a production of Ola Rotimi’s acclaimed piece The Gods Are Not To Blame at the Young Vic and he did the honours too for one of his own Little Baby Jesus which was commissioned for a festival – also at the Oval House Theatre – last winter.  I am curious to know Arinze’s thoughts on writer’s directing their own work.

“I think directing a play takes a lot of charisma and enthusiasm,” he muses.”You have to be very perceptive and very, very alert, creative and instinctive.  A lot of writers are quite lonely; it’s a lonely task.  You have to spend that time with yourself in order to get the best out of you.  I’m sure not all writers can double up as director because they might be lacking in people skills. You need to be a master communicator.  You need to be able to know; Ok, he can’t learn this way, she’s best when you ask her to [do things] this way, he only wants to get told what to do and he’ll go away and work on it…”

“Some directors don’t work very closely with the story or the actors.  They’re all about the visuals [but] I think it’s very important to have a connection. I think starting off as a theatre director, I have that edge that some don’t; I can connect with actors the way some directors can’t.  It’s also the fact I’m an actor as well.  I’m what you call an actor’s director. I can direct actors how they want to be directed; I know what I respond to.  I don’t think it’s best everyone [doubles up as writer and director] but if you know you’ve got the skills then don’t hold yourself back.”

Arinze has a lot of regard for Ché Walker, who directs Estate Walls and was in fact chosen by Kene to bring his opus to life at the Oval.  The two met when Arinze featured in the Edinburgh Fringe-Award winning musical ‘Been So Long’ also starring soul legend Omar and directed by Walker.  It must make it easier for a writer to entrust their work to a director that they respect as much as Arinze does Ché.  But is there ever any temptation to take over the reins?

“Thing is, as a writer I have a lot of say.  I wouldn’t let anyone direct my plays who wouldn’t let me have input.  I think people like Shakespeare and Chekov are angry in their graves when they see certain people messing up their work.  They’re not here to sit in the rehearsal rooms and say, ‘What are you doing? That’s not what I wanted it to be’.  But me, I’m still alive and yeah I always give the director suggestions.   Also if the director feels it’s necessary there might be some re-writes needed.”

Arinze greatly appreciates a director’s insight.

“It’s a beautiful thing when someone can understand your piece and bring more creative ideas to it.  I can see how it would limit a writer directing his or her own play.  Sometimes you just need someone to come and see it and say, ‘You don’t need that. You’re saying that line to death; let’s cut it.’ Because you’re such a part of it, you created it and some things you might not be able to let go.”

One would assume that because Arinze wears so many creative hats at different times it would be hard to draw a line of demarcation when he’s trying to concentrate on one.  Nevertheless he doesn’t appear to have this problem.

“On set when I’m being directed, I don’t have the director’s hat on me at all.  I don’t think so anyway.  I don’t re-direct actors.  If they ask for my advice then I would think ‘OK cool’…in the nicest way possible, not trying to tread on the director’s toes or anything like that.”

Still, there’s no denying that being a jack-of-all-trades has its advantages. “I think that doing all three – directing, writing and acting – they complement each other.  I can’t read a script as a director and not play it properly in my head and stage it, see everything.  I’m so analytical now as well.

“When I see a play I can tell between brilliant direction, lazy direction, poor direction or very difficult direction.  It goes the same with writing.  I’m looking at a lot of plays at the moment.  I’m starting to create a much better opinion of what I think is amazing and what I think is OK.  Some pieces are universal so people think it is genius but it’s not; it’s just that it appeals to everyone.  But some pieces are actually pretty much genius…”

Wow, genius?  I demand examples; Kene’s face contorts slightly into a playful grimace.

“I knew you were going to ask me that.” There’s a moment’s pondering before he replies “I thought that August Osage County at the National last January was awesome.  Clybourne Park [currently at the Royal Court Theatre] was wonderful. These are really good pieces of writing.”

It’s difficult to believe Arinze has only been acting for four years; he’s already got his teeth into some meaty roles (no pun intended).  At 20, for instance, he landed the part of Simba in the French production of Disney’s The Lion King.   He was in the wildly successful musical for eight months and considers it a valuable learning curve for developing a rigorous work ethic.

“It was the hardest rehearsal process of any job I’ve ever done,” he shares.  “There’s a lot of dance, a lot of singing; it’s very challenging especially on the voice.  It’s such an exhausting show.  When you do it every single night for so many months you become used to it; you’ve been conditioned to be able to work that hard.”

Arinze also featured in the short-lived Boney M musical Daddy Cool.  Nevertheless it’s probably his role as Connor in the British institution that is EastEnders that would be most familiar to some.

For Kene, television presents actors with a different challenge to that of theatre; it’s tougher maintaining the audience’s attention.

“Television is in some ways too accessible,” he explains, “People dress up to go to theatre and they expect to be entertained.  With TV you don’t always expect that; you can switch when you want.  When television works, it really works because [the actor] actually needs to do a lot more.”

Arinze has already got a taste of instant recognisability thanks to playing Connor, something he discovered during his first stint on the show.

“I went to the bus stop one morning and everyone was looking at me.  And you don’t realise straight away; you’re like, ‘Oh, I was on telly last night’’.  It’s quite strange having all eyes on you. A lot more people watch [EastEnders] than you think. It’s scary.”

Arinze might be in demand but he’s still selective about the characters he chooses to portray. “I’m beginning to pick roles more wisely.  I turned down the lead part in a film this summer just because it involved the unnecessary beating of a woman.  I was like, ‘What is this?’’  The fact that this film is getting made is a joke.”

Ladies, never fear; chivalry is alive and well and Arinze Kene is the standard-bearer.  For the young actor, it’s all a question of foresight.

“It’s the choices you make that mark your destiny,” he adds.  Too right.

There’s something singularly admirable about Kene’s general attitude. “I’m always up for learning,” he tells me, and it’s evident. You get the impression Arinze could have done anything to which he applied himself.

He was bound to be successful eventually whether as a thespian, scribe, director, sportsman or musician (an old collaboration he did with one of London’s finest singer-songwriters, Szjerdene, can be found floating around the ether, too).  At one time he even flirted with the idea of being a journalist.  Right now, however, Kene’s focused mainly on the dramatic arts… although he’s not ruling out a return to singing someday.

“Music is my first love; it’s what got me into the arts.  I’m just confused [about] the state of the industry.  People don’t really like good music anymore but for those who do, I will make music in the future.  I don’t want to sell records or any of that. I just want to perform on certain nights, invite people who’d appreciate really good live music; get some other A-star artists on top of it…”

And so our time is up.  I’ve got a bus to catch. Arinze bids a courteous, if abstracted, farewell; his mind possibly on his next venture.  There are, after all, only so many hours in the day.

–Tola Ositelu

Photography by Steve Rutherford

Arinze Kene’s new play Estate Walls opens at the Oval House Theatre in London tonight.