Ghanaian-born, British actor Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is fast establishing himself as one of the UK’s most versatile young thespians. Chances are that over the past couple of years you would have caught at least one of his many TV and theatre appearances. Be it as part of the ensemble cast of the BBC’s sophisticated one-for-the-kids comedy sketch show Sorry, I’ve Got No Head, impersonating Kofi Annan on ‘Star Stories’ or starring as Jeremy Charles, the ambitious mayoral candidate with a slight messiah-complex in Kwame-Kwei Armah’s play Seize the Day – Kobna is popping up everywhere.
Taking a break from rehearsals for his new play at the Young Vic (August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), an eloquent and measured Kobna chats to SoulCulture in the theatre’s sunlit bar overlooking London Waterloo.
Kobna had his sights set on the acting profession early on. He flirted with the idea after completing his GCSEs but – as would be a familiar tale to some creative souls from a West African background – a life in the arts wasn’t one hitherto embraced by the Holdbrook-Smith clan.
“My family are really academic; they’re not artistic so to speak,” he tells us. “My dad’s a doctor. I was about 15, I thought, ‘I wonder if I could [become an actor]’. I hadn’t really suggested it to anyone. It just didn’t seem allowed. So there was a slow exploration of [acting] and by the time I was 18, I was resolute.”
Perhaps it’s this resolute attitude that has helped Kobna thus far carve out such a diverse career. He’s managed to avoid much of the type-casting that might befall an up-and-coming actor of his particular background. Smith puts some of this down to a mixture of being ‘comfortable with exploring the different possibilities’ in Theatre and Television as well as having the ability to completely disappear into a role… A kind of dramatic chameleon, if you will. “I think one of my professional strengths is that people never recognise me from job to job,” he says. “That’s generally a huge compliment. They don’t know Olunde (Death and the Kings Horseman) was Jeremy Charles (Seize the Day). It’s very validating.”
However, with every strength comes a weakness and it’s this very quality of being effaceable-on-demand that might explain why, as Kobna sees it, he is not yet an industry name. Still, that is bound to change as the world continues to discover just how much of an all-rounder he is. Smith is seemingly just as comfortable playing straight roles as he is doing Comedy – notoriously not as simple an art-form as it might appear. Equally, he’s as adept and convincing on the small screen as he is when treading the boards. Does he have any particular medium he prefers?
“You’ve got two layers [to the question] because working on stage and working on TV is slightly different and then working on Comedy and working on Drama is different. On stage, living it with the scrutiny of people who are there- you can’t rewind, you can’t do a take again- you have a very tight, taxing focus.
“On set, the thing about Comedy is you have to be serious for it to work. So to crack jokes, to be insane and not have the camera pick up on your lies is an equally tight focus for different reasons. I’m not a comic but I work with a lot of comedians and they are genuinely funny. In a stressful situation like a film or TV set it’s wonderful to have that comedy available.”
Despite the aggressive advancement of the digital age, Kobna suggests the very nature of theatre means it is in no danger of being rendered obsolete anytime soon. “On stage it’s wonderful to be unearthing these deep, dark truths of characters and situations. You go to the cinema – you can see the detail of a helicopter landing and someone’s blood and guts – but in the theatre – it’s there, it’s present. You can’t download the theatre; it’s live.”
Kobna expounds on what it is he looks for in a role: “In short, I have to want that character to be alive. It has to be worth bothering. When I care about a job I have to want that character to speak. The more I want that, the more I’m willing to try and make him speak.”
It is no wonder then that Smith was drawn to tragic hero Herald Loomis, his alter-ego in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. “Loomis signifies a kind of pain specific to the African-American as a direct result of the prevailing attitudes of the time. It’s just the most amazing character within an amazing play. He embodies the intention to persevere despite the most unjust adversity imaginable. That’s a very exciting and engaging challenge for me. It’s the prospect of bringing these experiences to life; the sort of parallels you can draw with the experience of the Diaspora in general. It really is a pure honour.”
Kobna is very much enthused by the work of double-Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, this being the third play in four years by the American playwright in which he’s starred, having previously been in Gem of the Ocean and Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom for which he was nominated for the Manchester Evening News Best Actor Award. Smith believes Wilson is an underrated genius.
“Each time I do an August play I learn more and more about how important [he is]. Words like talented, skilled and impressive are scoring through my mind and they’re insufficient. He’s a writer of a weight and calibre that’s easily on a par with Chekov and Shakespeare. He has the domestic and the epic of Chekov and he has the verbal might of the Bard. The weight, the profundity, the resonance of this man’s writing is not to be underestimated but unfortunately I think they are.”
Last year Kobna put his acting talent to socially-conscious use, getting involved with the ‘See Africa Differently’ project. Viewers can watch him on YouTube in a comedy clip to raise awareness written and directed by Richard Ayoade -aka Moss from the IT Crowd – and co-starring Hollywood darling Michael Sheen.
“[The See Africa Differently project] was to counter the negative perceptions and propaganda of what’s happening with Africa, where people’s money is going, the scale of its development and its scope for a positive future. Richard asked me if I would come along and do the scene I did with Michael and that was literally how it happened.”
It’s safe to say Kobna is keeping busy – a plus for anyone in as precarious a profession as the dramatic arts can be. Perhaps due to a scarcity of work on this side of the pond, many of his fellow Brits have relocated Stateside to find fame and fortune in hit US films and television. Is this a move that Smith is considering himself? “It’s definitely in my sights but I have a lot of things I want to do here first. It’s not something I would say no to but not yet.”
Generally Smith is positive about the opportunities currently available for actors from an African/Caribbean background. The limitations that faced previous generations aren’t as prevalent now. “At the moment there is loads going on on-stage…You’ve got Sucker Punch that’s coming out at the Royal Court, we’re on at the Young Vic [Joe Turner’s Come and Gone], as is Eurydice. ‘Welcome to Thebes’ is on at the National Theatre; ‘Ruined’ is on at the Almeida. There are lots of plays with prominent black themes. Certainly on stage there’s a lot of work for us.”
Nevertheless, says Kobna, a few more things need to change before a meritocratic Utopia is realised just yet. “I think in terms of improvement, when people can look at us and think we’re as good – or as bad – as anybody else, it will be all right. There’s yet some ground to be gained in just thinking of people as people, in terms of casting, and not having to consider ethnicity as a problem or an obstacle.
“It’s funny, because they have to disregard and they have to consider it. If you’re casting Hamlet [for example] and your Hamlet is black, it would make sense, depending on your production, to have a black dad and a black mum and not just have Hamlet in the middle being this black actor on his own.
“By the same token, if the make-up weren’t offensive, I wouldn’t have any objection to a white actor playing Othello because I don’t think it was written as a black part; in terms of [being] rooted in the culture and ethnicity, I don’t think it was. It’s not about it being unplayable. How many British actors have that greater connection to 16th century Moorish history? If you want to go down that route you come to a dead-end very quickly.”
There’s one acid test, according to Kobna, that would truly signify a breakthrough. “When I can play a robber again without a member of the public watching that and thinking, ‘That’s what black folk do,’ that’s when thing’s will be okay. There is [still] a long way to go.”
‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ –from Thursday 27 May at the Young Vic Theatre, London, SE1. Visit youngvic.org for tickets and information.
Photography by Dan Burn-Forti