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My First Job: Cleo Sylvestre – ‘There will be rejection, but that ‘dream job’ is waiting around the corner’

Cleo Sylvestre. Photo: Rupert Palmer Cleo Sylvestre. Photo: Rupert Palmer
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Halfway through a degree course in French, I decided to change over to my first love, drama.

My former headteacher was horrified when I told her I wanted to be an actor. “Cleopatra, there are no parts for coloured (sic) actresses in Britain, I see you as a headteacher.” So I duly obeyed her.  Between the ages of seven and 10, I went to the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts on Saturday mornings.

The local authority was very understanding, promising to transfer my grant if and when I got into drama school. Those were the days.

I joined a theatrical agency, which arranged an audition for a new show opening at Wyndham’s starring Alec Guinness. That was 50 years ago. The play was by an unknown author called Simon Gray and directed by John Dexter, who had a formidable reputation and was reputed to be unkind to actresses.

To prepare the accent, I visited a (white) friend who worked in a record shop with a large West Indian clientele. He was an invaluable coach. I went to the audition aiming to do my best, not at all expecting to be successful, and was very nervous. I was thrilled when the agent rang my mum’s council flat late the same afternoon to say I’d got the part.

During rehearsals I watched the three other actors, Alec, Gordon Jackson and Simon Ward, like a hawk and learnt a great deal from them. Alec was playing a man on the run, who disguises himself as a woman to avoid capture. I relished watching him perfect his walk.

Halfway through rehearsals I confessed to Gordon how nervous I was. Immediately he said he felt the same. I think he was being kind, but I do know that even experienced actors can feel vulnerable. One of the joys about acting is that there is always something to discover and learn, even now at my ripe old age.

I found John Dexter wasn’t the monster people had led me to believe and to this day I try to judge people not from what I’ve heard about them, but from how I’ve found them.

To young actors, I would say acting must be a passion; there will be rejection, but that ‘dream job’ is waiting around the corner.

CV: Cleo Sylvestre

Age: 72
Training: Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts
Theatre includes: The National Health (first black British actress to play a lead at National Theatre), seasons with Young Vic including tours to Broadway and Mexico, regional rep, community theatre, fringe, children’s theatre
TV includes: Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home, Coronation Street, The Guilty
Agent: Ben McDougall at RBM

Cleo Sylvestre was talking to John Byrne

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