Young, gifted and criminally ignored

'Secrets and Lies' showed Marianne Jean-Baptiste to be one of our brightest talents, so why has she had to go abroad to look for work? She talks to Andrew Gumbel
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Watch out for Marianne Jean-Baptiste. This week she returns to British screens for the first time since her ground-breaking performance in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies to appear in a television docu-drama based on the Stephen Lawrence murder case. When the critics come to remark on her sympathetic portrayal of Doreen Lawrence, the mother robbed first of her child and then of any notion of justice, they will no doubt rush to praise her, as they did three years ago, as one of the country's more remarkable young acting talents.

But that kind of easy adulation has long since ceased to impress the actress herself. If Marianne Jean-Baptiste hasn't been sighted in Britain since her rapid ascent to stardom, there's a very good reason. She hasn't been offered any parts.

While her co-star and fellow Oscar nominee from Secrets and Lies, Brenda Blethyn, has gone on to scale new heights (she has just been nominated for another Academy Award for her role in Little Voice), and while any number of young British actors, from Kate Winslet to Joseph Fiennes, have become household names with worldwide followings, Jean-Baptiste has been left out in the cold.

Her acting is not the problem, since nearly everything she has done has been met with universal praise. It's not that she has been particularly fussy about accepting work, either: she has kept herself busy fairly consistently with film and television jobs in the United States. But Britain has proved almost entirely barren territory for her - and it is hard to escape the conclusion that the reason is, quite bluntly, that she is black.

"I keep hearing how the British film industry is booming, how lots of films are being made. Well, I haven't exactly been inundated with scripts," she remarks with more wry bemusement than true bitterness. "When you see yourself being treated differently from others in this way, it feels a bit weird. After all the fuss over Secrets and Lies, nothing came through. They tell you there aren't the roles, but the roles are there. They just don't want to give them to you. What happened was that I was a black female. That's all."

And so one of Britain's brighter acting hopes finds herself talking not in her home in Dulwich, or in a suite provided by Granada Television, but 8,000 miles away in the offices of her Hollywood agent, Scott Carp. Jean-Baptiste has been spending as much as half the year in Los Angeles and now plans to settle here - the clearest possible indication of how badly she has been snubbed.

And although she would love to talk about her craft and the emotional and technical sensibilities she brings to her roles, she knows that in the end the conversation is bound to come back to the issue of race. "It would be lovely to be able to talk about acting as a process, but that's not what happens. What I'm telling you now I've said over and over before. It gets painful after a while."

Playing Doreen Lawrence, of course, plunges her right into the heart of the race debate, both on screen and off. She was not the one who sought out the material so much as the director and writer, Paul Greengrass, who sought her. But the murder of Stephen Lawrence touched her right from the beginning, and the thick walls of unspoken institutional racism that were thrown up in the course of the long, tortuous investigation inevitably struck a chord - not just with her experience as an actress, but as a black girl growing up not that far from the Lawrences on a rough working-class estate in Peckham.

"I remember the year that Stephen was killed and hearing it on the news," she recalls. "My first thought was: these people are going to get away with it. Black people have come to expect that there will be no justice, which is an awful thing, but it's shown to be true time and time again.

"Last summer I wanted to go along to some of the inquiry hearings, but I was pregnant and decided against it because I knew it would upset me. Throughout the whole thing, nobody has ever properly acknowledged that racism is a serious problem in the police force. Of course, being Britain, everything remains very proper and polite. There's nobody going around and shouting 'nigger'. It's more insidious than that. If you go for a job interview, they tell you you're not qualified enough. Or better still, that you're overqualified. That's a popular one these days. Or if you're trying to get your kids into a good school, they tell you they've run out of places. There are a million ways to get around the basic truth, which is blatant prejudice."

To prepare for the part, Jean-Baptiste met the Lawrences and spent several hours talking to the woman she would portray. "It was important for me to meet her. I needed to know that she was okay with the whole thing, and I wanted to pick up on her essence. We weren't going for lookalikes but we wanted to tell the story in a truthful way."

Although quite a bit older than Jean-Baptiste, who is 31, Doreen Lawrence came over as "quite girlish". "She looks strong and serious on television but in person she is youthful and warm. I realised that they wanted this film to be made, not to bolster their legal case but as a testament to what had happened. "When she saw the film she said she thought it was very good. That pleased me, because she's the only person whose reaction I'm really bothered about."

As Jean-Baptiste talks, one senses that she is not entirely comfortable with the level of passionate anger in her voice that inevitably comes with the subject-matter. She doesn't consider herself a political campaigner or, worse, a victim looking for vindication. Rather, she sees herself as an artist - not just an actress, but a trained classical singer, a composer and writer too - and finds herself frustrated at being constantly boxed into the issue of race.

In the past she has been described as a "difficult" person to interview, stand-offish and suspicious of the media. Much of that can be ascribed to her refusal to sing the same tune over and over. She is not someone to treat a media appearance as an exercise in showbusiness: ask her a lame question and she'll throw you a lame answer. Harp on an overworn subject and she will make little secret of being irritated and bored. Perhaps her attitude does some damage to her public profile - or rather the lack of it - but it is also, in the end, a compliment to her open, uncomplicated personality.

Jean-Baptiste originally wanted to be a barrister but soon changed her mind and enrolled at Rada, where she graduated in 1990. At first her career was largely confined to the stage, notably a fine performance as Mariana in Cheek By Jowl's production of Measure for Measure. She first worked for Mike Leigh in It's a Great Big Shame at the Stratford East theatre - playing the cold, manipulative part of Faith.

That role was diametrically opposed to Hortense, the warm, emotionally inquisitive optometrist in Secrets and Lies who seeks out her birth mother after the death of her adoptive parents. The contrast, and her success in both roles, is a testament to her versatility as an actress, her aspiration to play women of all different kinds: sympathetic or evil; obviously black characters or ones whose skin colour is secondary to the material at hand.

Unfortunately, that kind of freedom does not seem to be available to her, at least not in the British industry where films tend to fall into categories with little room for her - the traditional costume drama, in which the main characters are invariably white and middle-class, or the plucky northern underdog movie where casting directors seem to feel that black or Asian faces might distract from the film's message. "They don't feel able to cast a black actor in a television drama, say, because then it becomes a 'black drama'. But if there is an all-white cast nobody calls it a 'white drama'," she says.

"They're always trying to compartmentalise people from minority groups. Like all those critics who feel obliged to talk about Indian influences in Elizabeth just because it's directed by Shekhar Kapur. Why? They come up with lame excuses like - 'it's very colourful' - as though that didn't apply to hundreds of films. I find it very irritating."

Jean-Baptiste finds the atmosphere in the States easier but even there she has landed little more than bit parts. Later this year she will be returning to Europe - first for a major role in a British film called New Year's Day in which she plays a counsellor who helps two boys who go on the rampage after their classmates are killed in an avalanche, and then for a stint with Peter Brook's theatre company in Paris.

Meanwhile she is looking for a house in Hollywood for herself and her nine-month-old daughter Pascale. Her husband, a dancer, is looking to move his work to the States full-time as well. Although she misses London - particularly her grand piano - she is getting to like Los Angeles. "You can have a nice life here, drive to the beach and eat in restaurants you can afford," she muses.

She is fully aware, however, of the city's darker side. "People are a bit nutty and you have to watch out for that," she says. "Someone came up to me the other day and asked for an autograph. He had a photo he had taken of me at an awards ceremony, right up close. 'Yeah, I was really close,' he said. That sort of thing gives me the creeps."

But LA does offer opportunities for her musical ambitions. She is recording some jazz numbers she wrote with a group of musician friends - mostly for fun, but also with half an eye to the future. "I'm being urged to go down that road and try to secure a record deal," she says. "They tell me I might even get better film roles that way."

'The Murder of Stephen Lawrence' is on ITV on Thursday 18 February at 9pm.