Adrian Lester: Back on the Hustle

Millions of TV viewers love him as Mickey, the suave, silver-tongued conman in BBC1's Hustle. Thousands of theatregoers flocked to his electrifying performances in Hamlet and Sweeney Todd. And movie critics were blown away by his star turn in Primary Colors. Few black actors have moved beyond racial stereotypes as deftly as Adrian Lester. Christina Patterson meets him
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On Thursday night, a tall, dark, handsome man will leap into an expensive sports car, blag his way into a super-swanky penthouse suite, charm his way into restaurants, con his way into wallets and bank accounts – and win the hearts of millions of TV viewers. And he will do it all with an air of effortless ease and a flash of a sweet smile.

Off screen and in person, the smile on the face of this tall, dark, handsome man is still sweet – so sweet that you feel like telling him your problems, so sweet that you feel like begging for absolution – but that twinkle, that cheek, that sheer, blazing chutzpah is nowhere in evidence. Instead of effortless ease, there is something that I think an actor would call "focus".

"Hustle is fun," says the tall, dark, handsome man with the smooth-as-chocolate voice that could sell you sub-prime mortgages. "It hit the right tone." And he's right – it is, and it did. Hustle, for those who haven't seen it, is a BBC1 drama, launched four and a half years ago, about a group of con artists who undertake a series of intricate scams. It's smart, it's fast and it's hugely entertaining – and the suave-but-sweet charmer played by Adrian Lester, nowadays probably Britain's pre-eminent black actor, is its star.

In the first episode of the new series, filmed some months ago but prophetically prescient about the current financial climate, his character, Mickey Stone, segues from naval officer to restaurant "table host" to financial speculator and City big-shot (one who commands, rather alarmingly, a feature in The Independent). Spoof incarnations in later episodes include a 70-year-old Nigerian and a cockney wideboy.

An actor should, of course, be used to leaping from one character to another, but it's not hard to see why the play-within-a-play complexity of this role would offer particular challenges. "They don't just want personalities," says Lester, of Kudos, the production company that makes Hustle. "They want acting. Especially with the twists and turns the characters take. You have to be believably something else for the audience not to laugh at you. You need that believability to move the plot forward."

It also, clearly, offers particular pleasures. "I'm great at children's parties! Card tricks, cons, the lingo, the whole misdirection thing. Now, when people come to the door to try to persuade me to do something or buy something, you can see the different ways that they're trying to get it out of you."

Lester starred in the first three series of Hustle and then, when his character disappeared to Australia to sell off the Sydney Opera House, he took on a spectrum of roles even more wide-ranging than Mickey. He did Case 39, a horror film about child abuse co-starring Renée Zellweger; Starting Out in the Evening, a small-budget film about an ageing novelist; Bonekickers, a TV drama about a team of archaeologists; Beyond, a Fox drama about the space race; and Doomsday, a blockbuster about a virus that threatens to wipe out the population of London.

"I loved Doomsday," he says, "because I got a chance to do a bit of action, a bit of running and jumping, kicking the bad guys around. Beyond I liked, because I'd never worked with Fox before and we were working in LA. Starting Out in the Evening was really great, and I'd never shot in New York. It was slow-burning, intelligent drama. Bonekickers was the most fun I had on set." Well, maybe, but Bonekickers was universally panned and dropped after one series. Doomsday was, I'm afraid, dire. Case 39 isn't out yet (it's due in cinemas this year), but even Lester admits he's nervous. "It's been a long delay and that makes me bite my nails and think, 'I hope it's not crap,'" he confesses.

And now he's back to Hustle. All great fun, of course, but hardly Hamlet. What happened to the wunderkind who played Hamlet? What happened to the star of Primary Colors? What happened was that the actor who was plucked, in his words, out of "relative obscurity" to star, with John Travolta and Emma Thompson, in Mike Nichols's 1998 adaptation of Joe Klein's novel about a presidential candidate with strong resemblances to Bill Clinton, and who was nominated for a Chicago Film Critics' Association award for "most promising actor" for his role as Henry Burton (a character many took to be modelled on the real-life Washington press secretary George Stephanopoulos) and who was a star guest on Oprah Winfrey's show, didn't work for a year.

The received view was that Lester was asked to do lots of things, but, not wanting to be typecast, turned them down. The truth, as so often, is more complicated. Two promising film projects – one a follow-up to Twelve Angry Men, the other a lead role in a film by Costa-Gavras – failed for lack of funding. The other two offers were to play a paedophile in a low-budget film which, says Lester, clearly choosing his words carefully, "wasn't properly thought out", and a minor part in a long-running US TV series.

"After Primary Colors, to leave London, to leave home, so that I could turn up on set maybe one day every 10 to do a few scenes was ridiculous," he says, "and to be contracted for seven years to do that. It just made me think, 'For God's sake.'"

This, after all, is the man whose Rosalind in the Cheek by Jowl theatre company's delicious all-male As You Like It in 1991 held audiences rapt, the man who won an Olivier award for his role in Sweeney Todd in 1993 and another for his Bobby in Sam Mendes's Company at the Donmar Warehouse three years later. At 29, he was all set to play Othello at the National when the call from Hollywood came. A star, it seemed, was born – and then there was silence. So how did he cope with the disappointment? Can you prepare for that?

Lester half-grimaces, half-smiles. He has refused even a glass of water, is sitting two feet away from me and listening to my questions with such polite concentration that I can't wrest my gaze from his puppy-dog eyes. "You can't," he says in the end. "I defy any actor to say that they can. Because the process of actually going for a job has to contain a certain amount of want. Because if you don't want it, you're not going to do yourself justice.

"There was a period about two weeks ago when I'd been to America to do some auditions and then I came back to London for one at the BBC, and then had a series of three auditions, back to back, for American films, and had to come in with all the parts learnt. For two of them, I got recalls and I did them and then went away. Now, three of them have fallen by the wayside. And that's even before you get the part and have to research your role and learn your lines and learn how to dance or sing or save the world or maybe do the splits."

Lester's a fabulous dancer, actually. His tap-dancing routines in Kenneth Branagh's nutty but charming Thirties Hollywood musical version of Love's Labour's Lost are extraordinarily impressive on a physical level alone, and it's no surprise to hear that he has a black belt in taekwondo. While rehearsing for Henry V (which he played, brilliantly, at the National in 2003) he "over-projected", he says, in order to prepare his voice and diction for the auditorium. "You do all of that and you're absolutely knackered, and I cycle to and from rehearsals. And then we open and run it for two straight weeks, eight shows a week. But at least you get a week off. The West End stuff is so much more gruelling, because you're doing eight shows a week and you live at the theatre. When I was doing Company, I wouldn't speak in the evenings when I got home."

Well, lucky, I point out, that he's married to an actor. He's married to Lolita Chakrabarti, a fellow Brummie he met at Rada. Both feeling a little lost as students in London, they fell into each other's arms and have been together ever since. Like Jimmy, the calm, wise and, it seems, all-seeing cabbie he played in the offbeat and rather charming romcom Born Romantic, Lester has the air of a one-woman man. He is not, of course, responsible for the set of his honest-as-the-day features, but I'd be surprised, I'd be really surprised, to hear news of a roving eye. So, lucky is Lester to have Lolita, who understands the mechanics of acting, understands the pressures. "Hmm," says lucky Lester. "It can still drive you up the fucking wall!"

Like a maiden aunt encountering a flasher, I almost gasp. Nice boy swears – shock, horror. When the character he plays in Doomsday, who strides around in a strikingly manly manner, suddenly says "Fuck it!", I felt much the same. The world might be ending, but there's no need for bad language. It has something, I think, to do with the iron discipline of the man sitting opposite me, the sense that this is a man who rarely lets down his guard.

The discipline, apparently, was not in much evidence when he was younger. "I wasn't very good at school," he admits. "For me, learning stuff has always been a voyage of discovery and if it isn't, then I didn't see the point of it." It was a teacher at his primary school who encouraged him to join a choir and do some acting. By the time he was 14, he had walk-on parts in Crossroads. At sixth-form college, he did a performing arts course, and then auditioned for Rada and got in. His (Jamaican) mother, a secretary for the council, was supportive. After his father, a joiner (also Jamaican) left, when Adrian was nine, she held the family together. "She held her standards high," he says "and made sure that no matter what, my brother and I adhered to them."

It was at Rada, however, that Lester really discovered the meaning of discipline. "That sprung," he says, a little sheepishly, "from the fact that I couldn't do anything else." And it was there that he discovered that there were always going to be limits to your ambitions as an actor if you were black.

"You can only guess at your potential by looking at what's already received," he explains, "what you see praised and rewarded. And there wasn't very much at all. There was a definite sense about the generation that left their training a few years before I did, that they had to take things into their own hands, and change things. Every subsequent generation has looked to America and said, 'Wow, we should have that here,' but Britain's roots are in a class system, which is defined by wealth and colour and all those things. So, it's much harder to find the niches to do that regular work."

Lester has certainly done more than his fair share to confound the stereotypes. Very few of the parts he's played have been "black". The colour of Mickey Stone was never specified, which means, as Lester points out, that he was probably written as white. Rosalind. Hamlet (an astonishing Hamlet it was too, in Peter Brook's astonishing 2001 multi-ethnic production). Henry V. Sondheim's Bobby. Shakespeare's Dumaine. Which would be fine, but every single time there's the same media song and dance. A black Rosalind! A black Hamlet! A black Henry V!

"When I went to school," he says, "there were many words that teachers would use that I found offensive. Whereas now, no one can get away from that. We've moved on. But, the point is, in America, they've had the conversation loud – the argument about colour, about race. We haven't had the argument yet in Britain. When you have something like the Stephen Lawrence case, you're shown a mirror held up to society. It showed you that when push comes to shove, when the crime involves a black family, or a black teenager who looks like he has no power, there is a feeling that we can actually do this to them. But on this one occasion, it bounced back in their face.

"And then half the black community said, 'Thank God, at last you're listening.' I was on tenterhooks, because in so many cities we were on the edge of major race riots. With this one catalyst, this crucible which was burning, it was so interesting that the media response was so good, and the public outcry was so good, and the police response in general was good. That's how we avoided meltdown. But when the police chief wouldn't admit there was institutional racism in the Met, our greatest opportunity to have the conversation was missed."

And now I realise that Adrian Lester is angry. That this quiet, polite, highly intelligent and extremely talented man is quiet and polite, not because he lacks passion, but because he has so much of it, because it would not be circumspect to let it leak out. And because if you want to be successful in this culture – in its theatre, television, film or media – it's probably best not to be an angry black man.

For all his polite enthusiasm about recent projects, and the challenges of Hustle – projects which have fed and clothed his two young daughters, Lila and Jasmine – it's pretty clear that none of them have really kindled his passion. It's pretty clear, too, where his true passion lies. "When theatre started with the Greeks," he says, "and storytelling in Africa, the point was to use the stories to reflect human nature back to the public. There has to be some part of a human being that I feel I can slice open and say, 'Look at this.' And some people in the audience can say, 'I don't live in that space, but I've passed through it.' That emotional response is why we do the job. If you don't have that effect on people, then actually what are you doing?"

Surely, then, it's time for a nice, big, fat Shakespeare. Isn't it? Lester smiles, and now his smile isn't just sweet, but warm. "A nice, big, fat Shakespeare – yeah, I'm working on that. We'll see what comes up."

The new series of 'Hustle' starts on Thursday at 9pm on BBC1

Leading man: Lester's legacy

As You Like It (1991)

In this all-male production of the Shakespeare classic, by theatre company Cheek By Jowl, Lester played Rosalind. 'The Sunday Times' theatre critic John Peter described director Declan Donnellan's attempt to conform to Elizabethan practice as "not a question of merely transcending sexuality or of being in drag, but of actors reaching out toward a different experience and communicating a different mode of being".

Hit or miss? Hit. Lester won Time Out's best actor Award.

Company (1996)

Stephen Sondheim's musical was performed at the Donmar Warehouse in London and directed by Sam Mendes. The plot revolves around a single man, five married couples who are his best friends, and his three girlfriends, an ensemble Sondheim describes as "middle-class people with middle class-problems".

Hit or miss? Hit. Lester won 1996's Olivier Award for best actor in a musical.

Hamlet (2001)

Lester played the hero in this production directed by the great Peter Brook, which toured France, Switzerland, the UK and the United States.

Hit or miss? Hit. Raised eyebrows for portraying the tragic prince as a black man with dreadlocks, and won plaudits for his natural, expressive and youthful take on the role. He received a Carlton TV best theatre actor award for his efforts.

Henry V (2003)

Lester playing the lead again, at the National Theatre. The play, which shows a warring Britain, was rehearsed as modern Britain was preparing for conflict in Iraq.

Hit or miss? Hit. The actor won widespread critical plaudits with his portrayal of the eponymous king as a supreme manipulator and ruthless politician.

Primary Colors (1998)

Lester switches stage for silver screen and wins over America, playing a political adviser in the film adaptation of Joe Klein's novel about a presidential candidate.

Hit or miss? Major hit, with Lester receiving a nomination for Most Promising Actor in the Chicago Film Critics Association awards.

Hustle (2004)

First of the BBC TV series, in which Lester plays Michael "Mickey Bricks" Stone, the leader of a con-artist gang.

Hit or miss? Hit. Greatly admired series with a legion of fans. Lester has said he thinks the character is more challenging than some of his celebrated Shakespearean roles.

Empire's Children (2007)

Documentary for Channel 4 about Lester's grandfather and those affected by the fall of the British Empire. Lester is British by birth, his family came to Britain from Jamaica when it was still a colony.

Hit or Miss? Miss. It received generally mixed reviews, falling short of the best roles on the actor's CV.

Bonekickers (2008)

Written by 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes' creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, this BBC drama about team of archaeologists was set at a fictional Wessex university.

Hit or Miss? Miss. The show debuted in July last year for one series but was not commissioned for a second. It courted controversy for showing images of a Muslim being beheaded.