Adrian Lester: The king of the cons who also does a mean Henry V

He's been around. He's done Hollywood, Hamlet and Henry Vand, this week, he embarks on a seventh series of 'Hustle'. So, why should the actor lose sleep over a chat with <i>The IoS</i>? Susie Mesure meets Adrian Lester
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The Independent Online

Barely 24 hours have passed since I first met the extremely charming Adrian Lester, but to one of us it feels like a lot longer. Not because I'm pining for his big brown eyes, or face-crumpling grin, but, rather, because the star of Hustle has spent the night tying himself into knots over our chat.

The actor is fretting that in one short hour he managed inadvertently to undo a lifetime's struggle against stereotypes by getting on his soapbox. Which is why not one but two of his publicists have been on the telephone trying to convince me otherwise. They might have saved their breath.

At 42, and with hits including leading roles as Hamlet and Henry V, as well as a captivating Hollywood debut in Primary Colors under his belt, Lester has less need of a soapbox than most men in the business. Nor did he wheel it out during our interview. Instead, he sat, perched on a sofa in his agent's central London office, legs spread, chatting courteously through the issues of the day.

And yes, one of those was his bête noire, the subject that kept him awake in those small hours: colour. As Michael "Mickey Bricks" Stone in Hustle, which returns for a seventh series next Friday, Lester is proud that he plays a non-colour-specific part (although he concedes that this means the con artist was probably written as white), but he knows casting directors don't exactly dish out those roles. It's easier in theatres, he reckons, where these days another black Shakespearean king barely merits a mention.

"With a theatre audience, the suspension of disbelief is much, much greater than on television. With television, people feel much more like they're a fly on the wall. Therefore, the idea of what I'm supposed to be exists not in my experience and the reality of history. What I'm allowed to be simply exists in the mind of a narrow-minded viewer. And it's so small, it's incredible.

"Never mind that British history is liberally dotted with ethnic minorities; to most scriptwriters they simply don't exist. I did a lot of research into the amount of Indian sailors or black people who were gentrified who lived in London in the Victorian age – it just does your head in," Lester says in his smooth, calm voice that bears no hint of his childhood in Birmingham.

"And because most of us learn our history by watching TV programmes, or by watching documentaries, if the documentaries aren't about a different subject, or the TV programmes don't cast widely, then they're left with that same image. There were a lot of people, but because we haven't seen them and it hasn't been dramatised or written about, it remains an area of ignorance."

The reason Lester is so anxious for me not to typecast him as an Angry Black Man is not only because he isn't – although you can hear him picking his words carefully when talking about race – but also because he has worked hard not to be typecast in any particular part. Rather than allow that, he has not worked, if that's what it took.

Thus his breakthrough role as an idealistic young campaign manager in Primary Colors wasn't followed with several other politically minded parts. Nor were his stints in musicals the start of a career dominated by singing. Not that the roles weren't falling into his lap.

"I mean, when I did As You Like It, many years ago, playing Rosalind, people phoned me up and said, 'Hey, I've got this role, and it's a guy, and he's a transvestite.' And I just thought, 'I don't want to do that, I want to do something else'.

"That was basically as businesslike as the thought was. I. Would. Like. To. Do. Something. Else.

"So, I waited until I got the chance, and I did the something else, at which point, people said, 'Ooh that's great Lester's got this part, and he's an American, and he's political, and he's idealistic and he thinks....' No! Now I want to do something else. I'll do a musical," he pauses for breath, clapping his hands for emphasis. "And, 'Oh, Lester's got this great part in a musical'. And so, it just keeps happening, which is all well and good.

"My ego is happy with that, because it kind of means, job done well, but I do want to keep playing different roles all the time."

Which is admirable, but it's hard not to wonder where his career might have gone if he'd taken a few of those early Hollywood roles, or if the funding for the Sidney Lumet and Costa Gavras films he would have liked to act in immediately after making Primary Colors had materialised. Getting typecast didn't exactly hold back Tom Cruise. Or Julia Roberts. (Although, to be fair, it crucified Jennifer Aniston.)

Despite once insisting that he would never do a soap because it's tricky for actors to escape their fictional alter egos, Lester has chalked up six series of Hustle (he skipped the fourth to stretch his wings in a few films). Wouldn't he say Mickey's a long-running character?

Lester demurs. "In a soap, the character is the same character, and within that character you don't get the opportunity to play, to change, to do anything else. Mickey isn't just one person. All the way through, every series I've done, he's always switched and become something else. And for me," he giggles, "who's the kind of actor who gets itchy feet and gets bored and wants to try other things, for me that was a godsend."

Switching into Hustle lingo, Lester explains: "He's the inside man, so once the mark has been roped, and the carrot has been dangled and they want him to have a little nibble, they're given a convincer who tells them that this a good thing to do and who shows them that we're good to our word. Then when they step in for more money they meet the inside man, who completely plays them. As that man, Mickey, has to be their best friend, or the person they want to be, or a possible lover, or whatever it takes to take them down the path.

"Which means his accent flips, his attitude flips, his style of dress changes, everything."

Certainly, in this Friday's opening episode, Mickey has a gem of a part to reel in the scammers' target. "I get to play a really nice character, a fashion designer, and I had a bit of fun, ha, ha. I think at the end of it, I wore a pink suit jacket, with a cane and a cravat."

To get into the mindset, Lester watched "a bit of telly I don't normally watch and a few snippets of documentaries, and I thought, 'I've got to do it like that.' Some of the documentaries, I won't name them, or the people in them, but you just think, 'I don't believe you really exist. You can't exist. So it's nice to dip my toe in playing something like that."

I understand that it's fun, but it's hardly Shakespeare. Still, it pays the family's bills – he lives in leafy East Dulwich, in south-east London, with the wife he met more than 20 years ago at Rada, Lolita Chakrabarti, and his two little girls. Plus it gives Lester time to scratch other acting itches, like playing Brick in last year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which had rave reviews for its stereotype-busting all-black cast.

He is working on his directorial debut, Of Mary, a short film about a wife who struggles to reconnect with her husband when he returns from Afghanistan. And, of course, he would like to do more film – every actor wants to do some box office hits. Happily, there's more work about for "your non-mainstream people", as he puts it, which includes women as well as black actors.

"From my point of view, the spectrum is better than it was." But not good enough? "There's always room for improvement."

He continues. "I think the main point is that you work in the public eye in this industry, and when you reflect, reflecting reality is one thing, but we do have an opportunity to have people engage with stories in a world that's representative of what we want our society to be, as well as what it is. So, those are the two areas that female actors, non-white actors, want to work in. What we," he pauses, "as actors have a hard time working in is a world, a screen world, a perceived world, in which we look back, in our technical filming terms, our story terms, and our character terms, when we just look back and want things to be as they were, as naive, as insecure, as unknowing, as 40 or 50 years ago. And that's when actors have a hard time."

Another pause. "I know that's quite a complicated, but also a very wide, sweeping statement, but when actors have a tough time is when things don't actually move anything forward. And that doesn't mean you don't do costume dramas, it doesn't mean you don't do stories from the Sixties, but if you do do them, you do them with a sensibility that matches the audiences, sensibility that belongs to today because the audience you're attracting is today's audience. And so they have to have another slant, another angle, another way of looking at things."

Deep breath. It's this soliloquy that has him wondering if I'm trying to set him up as having some sort of agenda. But that couldn't be further from the truth: I'm just curious about how, in 2011, minorities – and, in many professions, that also includes women – often still find that the cards are stacked against them.

Not that Lester has made it his mission to unstick them. He is happy with his lot, and who could blame him? Most actors would kill to be as successful as he is, although after a Christmas spent playing sous-chef to his wife in the kitchen, he would like to be a little handier at the hob.

"I'm not a good cook. That's something I need to learn. Somebody once said to me, 'Oh, Adrian, do you want to go on The F Word?' And I just went, "No! You should at least have some ability."

Ability, thankfully, he has in abundance as an actor.

The seventh series of 'Hustle' begins on Friday at 9pm on BBC1

Curriculum vitae: From Birmingham to Beverly Hills, and back

1968 Born 14 August, in Birmingham. The son of immigrants from Jamaica, his mother, Monica, is a medical secretary and his father, Reginald, a contract cleaning company manager.

1973 Educated at St Catherine's RC Primary, Edgbaston, and later Archbishop Masterson and Thomas Aquinas schools.

1977 Becomes a choirboy at St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham.

1984 Leaves school and gets a walk-on role in the TV soap Crossroads.

1986 Wins a place at Rada.

1991 Appears as Rosalind in As You Like It, winning a Time Out Award.

1996 Wins an Olivier Award for best actor in the musical Company.

1998 Stars in Primary Colors alongside John Travolta and Emma Thompson.

2001 Plays Hamlet, directed by Peter Brook.

2004 First plays conman "Mickey Bricks" in Hustle.

2007 Traces family roots in C4's Empire's Children.

2008 Stars in Bonekickers, a BBC drama on archaeology.

2010 Appears alongside his wife, Lolita Chakrabati, in the documentary When Romeo Met Juliet.