By Moonah Ellison
Photography: Antar Hanif
“…Who would’ve thought a black kid from Birmingham would’ve ended up at a place like that—the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. So I know I was very lucky…”
“…what’s encouraging, is that people are speaking out, all around the world people are speaking out, and you just gotta hope that continues and people don’t fall into the trap of being … just believing some of this nonsense that’s being put out, you know…”
“…It’s like playing Lear or Hamlet, the humanity that you are exploring. It kind of just stays with you a little bit and changes your perspective and deepens your assessment…”
While listening to David Harewood speak—with his silky, broad vowels anchored by clipped cadence—is pleasant, following him on Twitter is a damn delight. It’s everything from insider peeks into Awards season, to his discovery he’d filmed for a whole morning with his zipper down, to helpful RTs trying to return a cat-stolen stuffed animal in his neighborhood. Go follow him now, and come right back. His complexity is captured in those 140-character messages, as well as the dozens of characters he’s played during his decades-long career. This classically trained member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, dances between highbrow and pulp. He’s played everyone from Shakespeare’s Oberon to Supergirl’s Martian Manhunter, the powerful creatures having more in common than just the deftness with which Harewood breathes them in to being.
From aliens to faerie kings, to very real heroes, one of Harewood’s latest projects has him bringing history to life, with Lawrence Fishburne as Nelson Mandela in Madiba. Harewood’s portrayal of Walter Sisulu, an anti-apartheid activist who served more than 25 years in prison alongside Mandela and succeeded him as Deputy President of the African National Congress, is not only timely—it takes time. The BET miniseries spans six, one-hour episodes. It’s a story so epic, a regular movie couldn’t hold it. “In six hours, you can tell the story from the boy up to the beginning of his struggle in the beginning of apartheid, to the struggle against the apartheid, taking up of arms, going underground, the equivalent of like 27 years of imprisonment and then switching into—it’s incredible—it’s a massive, massive, story.”
He’s the son of immigrants playing an anti-segregationist leader at a time when the impact of division is being forgotten and new walls erected, Madiba stands to remind and warn a new generation. Not everyone, however, sees Mandela as a hero. “It’s quite shocking to me. Many regard him as a sell-out, because money is very much still in the hands of White South Africans. There’s been a considerable amount of corruption and a lot of people no longer see him as a political movement. It’s no longer a kind of a populist underground movement; it’s been a government evolving for the best part of the past eleven years. It’s completely lost its identity. So, I think Mandela for his praises from a historic perspective—a peaceful transference of power, his politics and his principles, and determination is amazing. But still, I think there’s probably a lot of South Africa that probably hasn’t changed that much, and that has a lot of frustration.” Harewood walked the present-day streets, visiting Mandela and Sisulu’s old neighborhood. It’s an actor’s preparation that usually isn’t as tangible. “It’s kind of moving to actually be around that kind of environment.” But the part doesn’t have to be a real person to follow an actor well beyond the final scene. “A part like that just doesn’t leave you very quickly. It’s like playing Lear or Hamlet, the humanity that you are exploring. It kind of just stays with you a little bit and changes your perspective and deepens your assessment.”
Perspective is a critical commodity with splits looming seemingly in every crack previously patched. “It’s a shame that it’s gone a little dark,” he turns to current politics. “What’s encouraging, is that people are speaking out, all around the world people are speaking out, and you just gotta hope that continues and people don’t fall into the trap of being… just believing some of this nonsense that’s being put out, you know?” The parting and dividing includes Brexit. “I didn’t want it. You know, I didn’t vote for it,” Harewood says of the split in his home country. But from #Brexit to #Resist, the one advancement of modern political movements is the role of technology in the spread of social change.
While @DavidHarewood is a comfortable world of pixels, the task of policing screen time as a parent is dicey—even for someone who lives in video games, having voiced characters in Battlefield 3 and Killzone: Shadow Fall. Out here in “meat space” with two daughters, he recognizes the challenges. “It’s a completely new environment to grow in. Screens everywhere and personal computers—we have created our own mini universe, that’s kind of motor-built and we’ve been able to connect us with people all over the world—but it’s kind of connected us with smaller groups of people.” Encroaching technology is a hard beast to slay as a parent. “I think it’s a shame, but that’s the world that they’re growing up in.” His British pragmatism tinges his musings. “Of course they get lots and lots of affection from their parents, and I think that’s all that really you can do. Do your best, and that’s what I tend to do.” It’s a no-nonsense philosophy that extends to the prospect of his children following him into the business. “Guide your child to the best direction to take, in the best way that you can. I’m not going to let my child go up on X-Factor singing badly. I’m just gonna say. ‘You can’t sing. Don’t go up there.’ It’s just a plain fact.”
That good-humored approach to the flat truth is part of what keeps him grounded. A proud Brummie, Harewood’s parents left Barbados for England just before David was born. He will staunchly promote his hometown and favorite local football team, Birmingham City—even during a “dreadful” season, chalking it up to salt-of-the-earth, get-on-with-it grit. “You know, ups and downs of Birmingham is well-documented. We’re just down, but we live on. Till the end of the road as they say.” Acting wasn’t something Harewood grew up doing. The idea grew slowly, leading to years of study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Ideas that weren’t tangible as literature, are given form on the stage in a way that makes them accessible. “Who would’ve thought a black kid from Birmingham would’ve ended up at a place like that—the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. So I know I was very lucky.” Even as a faerie king or a super hero, the stage is still where Harewood finds his magic. You get much more the immediate reactions of the audience. You’re interacting with them, you’re all looking into the same lights, it’s really quite ritualistic almost spiritual at times.”
“Thirty years I’ve been doing this,” he chuckles with disbelief. “It’s been a long, long journey.”
Photograhy by Antar Hanif
Stylist Nati Perez
Assistant Amanda Avello
Producer Andrea Del Frate