The desire to be challenged has propelled Giles Terera to an impressive CV of performances and an Olivier award-winning turn in Hamilton. He tells Holly Williams about his new role in the Henrik Ibsen play Rosmersholm and future projects including a series of concerts, an album and a musical project with Cameron Mackintosh
When Giles Terera began training to be an actor, he wanted to get into movies. But that all changed after he landed his first job out of drama school in 1999 at the National Theatre, then run by Trevor Nunn, in an ensemble performing six shows including Troilus and Cressida and Candide.
No one told him working in the ensemble wasn’t like drama school, that he only had to come in to rehearse his scenes. And so the young Terera sat in on all the rehearsals for months, watching the likes of Simon Russell Beale, Sophie Okonedo, Henry Goodman and Clive Rowe, listening and learning. “It was just the most brilliant apprenticeship,” he says, “and a beautiful time as a person, a real joy.” By the end of the 15 months, he’d got the bug – and British theatre had got him.
Terera proved a bright talent, and one determined to maintain the breadth of that first season. He has continued to do Shakespeare, playing Horatio to Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet in 2010, Caliban opposite Ralph Fiennes’ Prospero in Nunn’s The Tempest in 2011, and internationally touring The Merchant of Venice with Shakespeare’s Globe in 2016. But he also starred in musicals, including Rent, The Rat Pack, Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. Most recently, he gave an Olivier
award-winning performance as American founding father Aaron Burr in Hamilton.
Did that win change the sorts of parts he is offered? “I think so,” he says, pausing before continuing carefully. “Certainly, I’ve had more interest from interesting projects. Which I’m very happy about. We all like to do different things, things that will challenge you and stretch you.”
If you had to find an obvious driver for Terera’s career, the desire to be challenged and stretched is surely it. He’s serious, high-minded, even, about his work, but only because he’s so deeply in love with the theatre. Terera speaks thoughtfully, guardedly, at first – it’s only once we’re into discussing how and why the greatest works of art, from Hamlet to Hamilton, actually work that he warms up. Then there’s no stopping him: he answers at length, determined to go deep. When excited about a topic – as when discussing co-stars he admires, from Roger Allam to Jamael Westman – he has an endearing habit of clapping his hands between each word for emphasis, as if those words just aren’t enough.
Terera’s next role is a lead in another West End show, a new version of Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm by Duncan Macmillan, directed by Ian Rickson. Tom Burke stars as Rosmer who, after his wife’s suicide, becomes politically radicalised by a young woman called Rebecca, played by Hayley Atwell.
Terera plays Andreas Kroll, brother of Rosmer’s late wife and a committed conservative, determined to halt the rise of left-wing politics ahead of an upcoming election. Hoping to win his former brother-in-law’s support, he is horrified to find him so altered in ideology.
Macmillan’s script is “fantastic”, Terera says. “It jumps off the page.” While the playwright retains the symbolic imagery of the original – white horses as ominous omens for example – he also “manages to make it very direct, very streamlined, and very focused”. It is a period production, but the 1886 play – especially in Macmillan’s lucid new version – would certainly pass the Arts Council’s relevance test. The political division is pure Brexit. There are embittered debates over the future of the country, of patriotism versus progress, whether the country’s past is a source of glory or guilt – not to mention the machinations of manipulative popular press, selling extreme rhetoric and dredging the gutter for character assassinations. What starts as pure ideological difference gets very nasty, very quickly.
“It is so timely,” says Terera. “So many of the things that are said within the play could be said now. Right now. What the characters are going through will directly correspond to who is sitting in the audience: there will be people who voted Leave, people who voted Remain, all these divisions and splits.”
He hopes the show will provoke as many arguments and discussions between audience members as those played out on stage. “People say: ‘Can theatre change things?’ It can be really good at making people have the conversation, examine themselves. Theatre is really good at provoking.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in a butcher’s when I was a kid, as a Saturday job.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I got bumped up in Troilus and Cressida at the National Theatre. I was cast as Troilus’ boy, but they hadn’t cast Alexander, and the assistant director was like: “Trevor [Nunn], who is going to play this part?” And Trevor said: “Um, you – could you read this?” And I ended up playing it.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That being brave is scary sometimes, but the best thing for growth and progress.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Trevor Nunn. He really influenced me across the board in terms of storytelling, acting, language, directing – music, even. I saw him stage the second half of Porgy and Bess in an afternoon. It was dazzling to watch.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
You can’t know what you’re going to meet in the room. But what you can know is what you feel about the piece and the story and the character. I would always cling to that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
In Hamilton I would go up the stairs behind the set, where you could look out and see the audience, in order to spy someone – usually a young person – to remind me who I was telling the story to.
Arts audiences still tend to skew towards leftie liberal. How does Terera approach playing the morally and fiscally conservative Kroll? “You have to try to find out who they are without judgment,” he says. “It’s about trying to really bring out what the character is fighting for and why it’s so important to him. I’m trying to look through his eyes. The man is not an ideology. And then it’s for the audience to say what they think about that person, his actions.”
He sees Kroll as someone who cares about his family, who fears how the changing political situation will affect them. And actually, most characters’ motivations come back to this, he says – to “who you love, and family”.
Terera’s family was certainly not theatrical, although he adds that they are storytellers. “My grandmother was an amazing storyteller – she lived to be 101 years old – and my mother was a brilliant storyteller: no ideas of acting at all, just as a human.”
Terera was brought up by his mother in Stevenage in Hertfordshire, with three sisters; his father died when he was a baby. His mother also died when he was 30, and Terera dedicated his Olivier Awards speech to them both. “As a single-parent family there wasn’t a lot of time or money,” he says, but his mum would take the family to the cinema occasionally, which Terera always loved. Growing up, he was the class clown, and the one who stood up to read in assembly. But he wasn’t aware that acting was a profession until much later.
Luckily, he had friends who were. “Someone said: ‘We’re going to do a BTec in performing arts’ and I thought: ‘Oh right.’ And then after that: ‘We’re gonna go down to London to audition at the drama schools’ – and I didn’t know that you had drama schools. But once I got there, it all sort of fitted into place. Then I was very clear, very driven.”
He speaks warmly of his time at Mountview, of soaking it all up like a sponge. “I felt green, and like I was catching up. Because everyone else’s mummy and daddy would take them to Stratford,” he remembers wryly. Today, he is on the drama school’s board.
He had studied Macbeth at school but did not really connect with it; the great love affair with Shakespeare began at Mountview. “I had a great teacher, Claudette Williams, showing me how language can affect people – an active thing, as opposed to something you just recite – and that opened up my whole world. I became obsessed with Shakespeare. Lots of students have that period where you go around with Hamlet in your hand: ‘My God, that’s me! He understands!’”
Later in his career, Terera and an actor friend, Dan Poole, decided they needed to share this love, making a documentary speaking to actors about Shakespeare, hoping to de-mystify it for young audiences. “People are told that Shakespeare is difficult, or it’s not for them, it’s something for a certain class of people. And actually, we don’t feel that.”
Muse of Fire was released in 2013, but the full-length interviews – with an impressive list of talking heads, including Ian McKellen, Tom Hiddleston, Baz Luhrmann, and Ewan McGregor – are available to watch for free on the Globe’s website, and make for a sizeable resource.
“What was really fascinating was that no matter who it was – Judi Dench or Mark Rylance or James Earl Jones – pretty much all of them said actually, at one point, they were quite intimidated by Shakespeare, but if you persist in it you’ll make headway,” Terera says. “That was a really useful thing, not just for acting or Shakespeare, but as a kind of metaphor for life: it is difficult, it is hard, but persistence will pay off.” What he found – still finds – in Shakespeare is a profound insight into what it means to be human. “Shakespeare is obsessed with going as far as you can possibly go into the human experience,” he says. “He really, truly understands what it is you go through, not just in the big moments, but in the tiny moments. I love the corners and shifts, often in the soliloquies, where people hear themselves or understand themselves in a very private way – I find that really moving. You go: ‘I’ve totally felt that.’ I’m always blown away by it.”
Are there any roles he’d love to play? “Actually, I’ve never said this, but at the time I was auditioning for Hamilton, I was asked to do Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus. It was a part I’d always wanted to play. There was this one week where it was like: this Aaron – or that Aaron?”
And Shakespeare continues to come up when discussing Hamilton, in answer to the big question: why did that musical connect so strongly? “I’ve been asked that question a few times,” he says, but rather than sounding weary, Terera is still keen to dig in, recalling seeing the show on Broadway before auditioning. “Why I connected, as someone watching it, is because yes, it’s about this massive geopolitical earthquake, the War of Independence, but Hamilton is a story about people. In that, it reminds me of Shakespeare.”
He points to Troilus and Cressida, a play about “one of the most massive events in human history, the Trojan War and yet Shakespeare starts it with this young girl. He brings it down to the human, the individual, a metaphor for what’s going on. Hamilton does a similar thing. It’s about people and their relationships and what they’re prepared to do to get what they want. What they are struggling for, what they’re fighting for.”
What’s also remarkable, I suggest, is that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics manage all that while also being absolutely virtuosic in their complex, crackling rhymes. It’s rare for an artist to marry such breathtaking cleverness with heart, insight – and banging tunes. “The play is packed densely with line after line, image after image, rhyme after rhyme,” Terera says, adding that even in the last week of performances he was hearing new details he’d never previously noticed. “Miranda’s relish and joy with language also reminds me of Shakespeare. I have no bones about saying that.”
But it was also a special project on a personal level: Hamilton was like joining a family. “Tommy Kail is the director, and he’s really interested in people and the energies they bring. So subsequently, we had a room full of really brilliant people,” he says. “It was also a very funny group of people – we just laughed and laughed and laughed. I miss being in the presence of that energy. Not least Jam, who plays Hamilton. He had just graduated, and yet he’s got this real self-knowledge, this incredible mind. Very humble. Very funny. Brilliant rapper.” Much was made in the press of the fact Westman and Terera went head to head for various awards – but there’s clearly only love between them. “That’s my brother,” says Terera, hand on heart.
Terera also used his Olivier Awards speech to celebrate being part of a diverse cast, pointing out: “Diversity is not a policy, it is life.” When asking if he is seeing genuine change in the industry – a question couched in something of an apology, a concern that he might be bored with endlessly being asked this – he responds carefully: “I’m not bored by the question. I’m frustrated it isn’t a two-way conversation. It tends to be one side that’s asked whether the progress is happening. Let’s have a situation where the people in charge of our institutions and who programme our theatres get together – they need to be included in the questions.”
Given recent outcry over, for instance, the heavily male season announcement at the National, does he think artistic leaders are at least held to account now? “You can feel the sense of pre-emptive checking,” he says. “Because you know that on Twitter tomorrow, someone will say something. Which I think is a good thing, because people can no longer have the excuse of: ‘Oh, no, we didn’t really notice that it’s an all-white cast’.”
He certainly feels it’s an exciting time for the musical, Hamilton having opened up the field, and Terera has various musical projects in the pipeline himself. Music has always been important to him; he plays drums, guitar, piano and – since learning the instrument for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the National – the standing bass. He played in bands as a teenager, and has continued writing music ever since.
Next month, Terera will be performing songs from musicals and his own material at Crazy Coqs at Brasserie Zedel in London. Does he have any plans to release an album? “I’ve been thinking about doing that for a while, it’s just a matter of time. We didn’t do a cast recording of Hamilton, so people are always asking when the album is coming out.”
Even more intriguingly, he is working on his own musical – with Cameron Mackintosh, no less. He met the legendary producer at the first Hamilton meet-and-greet, and they discovered they both wanted to do a show about a particular – yet to be revealed – historical figure. It’s early days yet, but he’s excited to be writing a musical. “We’re in a world where the boundaries are being pushed in terms of how you tell your stories and how you use music,” says Terera. “I’m really fired up about it.”
Born: 1976, Hackney
• Hamlet, National Theatre (2010)
• The Tempest, Theatre Royal Haymarket, London (2011)
• The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, London (2013)
• Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, National Theatre (2016)
• Hamilton, VictoriaPalace, London (2017)
• Olivier award for best actor in a musical for Hamilton (2018)
Agent: Simon Beresford, Dalzell and Beresford
Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until July 20. Full details: rosmersholmplay.com