Black British actors told to head for Hollywood if they want big roles

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Black British actors should head to Hollywood as quickly as they can because they won't find leading roles in the UK, David Harewood, the acclaimed National Theatre performer, has advised.

Harewood, the first black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre, was recently awarded an MBE and has enjoyed a successful stage career.

He played Nelson Mandela in a BBC film but after supporting roles in a number of television series, including Doctor Who and Robin Hood, the Birmingham actor, 46, has only now made his big breakthrough after securing a leading part in Homeland, a Golden Globes-winning American drama about the War on Terror.

Harewood said it was a “fact” that young British actors have to follow the example of Idris Elba, Adrian Lester and himself by accepting that they will struggle to find roles that match their talents in Britain.

“There really aren’t enough strong, authoritative roles for black actors in this country,” Harewood told a Bafta screening of Homeland, the series to be screened by Channel 4, in which he plays the CIA’s head of counter-terrorism.

“A lot of my contemporaries have gone to the US. I would encourage young black British actors to get to America if they have ambition.

“They do seem to embrace a more diverse palate there. I think that’s sad but that’s the facts. I would encourage them to get there as quickly as you can.”

Harewood cited Idris Elba, the Hackney actor, who won the lead in the BBC1 detective drama Luther, after he had established himself as a charismatic drug lord in the award-winning HBO series The Wire.

“I was talking to Idris about his frustration and he said ‘I’m going to America’,” Harewood said. “It took him a long time to crack it with The Wire but he wouldn’t have been given a role of that weight and authority in the UK. That’s a fact.”
Harewood added: “There’s a lack of ambition in in terms of telling a global story here. We are quite parochial. The best of US television is risk-taking.”

Adrian Lester, the Hustle star, is also departing the UK to try to break into Hollywood, saying: “As a black actor…you only see yourself travelling as far as people like you have travelled.”

Harewood, who returned to the NT to play Theseus in Moira Buffini’s Welcome To Thebes, said: “I’d like to replicate the variety of those roles on screen. I’ve played Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela but those great roles are few and far between for us.”

Harewood won his role in Homeland, named by President Obama as his favourite series, after sending the producers a video audition. “I’ve been auditioning for US drama series for years. I forgot all about it for two months until I got a call from my manager saying I was close to getting it,” he said.

He is now contracted for seven years on the hit Showtime show which stars fellow Brit Damian Lewis as a US Marine Sergeant who may have been turned by al-Qa'ida after being captured in Iraq.

Doors are now opening to Harewood for Hollywood films after impressing with his performance as intelligence chief David Estes in the series, which also features Claire Danes and is produced by the team behind the counter-terrorism series 24.

British black actors who found success in the US include Lennie James and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Laurence Olivier award-winner who starred in the $200 million Roland Emmerich blockbuster disaster movie, 2012.

The young black British experience was the subject of a Channel 4’s Top Boy, set amid Hackney’s gang wars, which starred Ashley Walters. Despite becoming a Hollywood name, Ejiofor took the lead role as a troubled police detective in the BBC2 series, The Shadow Line.

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