Still fondly remembered as Fresh Prince’s butler Geoffrey in the US sitcom, actor Joseph Marcell also has an impressive stage CV, with a number of Shakespeare credits to his name. He talks to Rosemary Waugh about swapping engineering for theatre, his dream role and playing a Nazi for the first time
It has been almost 25 years since the final episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air first aired in the US but Joseph Marcell is still regularly recognised, wherever he is. “Every day somebody reminds me of it,” he laughs. “I was in Istanbul with my wife, walking down the street and this guy came up and was like: ‘Are you, are you… Geoffrey?’ ”
The world of American television was something of a “culture shock” for the actor. “Working in that kind of high-pressured showbiz environment was something I’d never experienced before,” he says. Yet despite its unfamiliarity, he built a loyal fan base playing the dry, sardonic Geoffrey Butler on the show, which starred a young Will Smith, from 1990 until 1996.
But Marcell’s extensive acting career is much more Shakespeare than sitcom. Born in St Lucia in 1948, and raised in Peckham, south London, from the age of nine, his CV includes a wealth of credits for the Royal Shakespeare Company, along with multiple roles at the National Theatre, in the West End, on Broadway and on international tours.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Marcell says with a smile when asked how his approach to performing has evolved. “I thought that the more experienced you became, the easier it would be. But instead it’s much more difficult, in the sense that you are getting a much clearer idea of what perfection could be… and it’s just very odd.”
When we meet, Marcell is rehearsing for Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, adapted for the first time for the British stage by Alistair Beaton and directed by James Dacre. Fallada’s acclaimed novel, set in Nazi-era Berlin, is about a factory foreman and his wife who join the German Resistance following their son’s death. Their actions attract the attention of Inspector Escherich – Marcell’s character – who meticulously plots to catch them.
Acting becomes much more difficult, in the sense that you get a much clearer idea of what perfection could be
Its success, as a book and a stage play, resides for Marcell in its universal qualities. “It’s the human dilemma,” he says. “It’s like when you describe, say, what the Cambodians suffered under Pol Pot. People say: ‘Well not me, I’d find a way out of there.’ But until it happens to you, you have no clue.”
Escherich is a fascinatingly flawed and contradictory character fighting for his own survival. He’s also a member of the Gestapo. What originally attracted Marcell to the role? “As a non-white actor, I don’t get to play Nazis,” he says, before dissolving into laughter. “That in itself is a terrific boon…”
For Marcell, the inspector is best understood as “in it, but not of it. He’s a survivor; he has personal integrity… He works for the Nazis but he doesn’t realise he is a Nazi”.
Marcell’s journey to becoming an actor started with an act of serendipity. He was training to become an electrical engineer – “I’m the son of an immigrant and, in the 1950s, it was expected” – with a course that included monthly trips to Southampton Power Station. On returning to London, he and his friends would head to a club on Kingsway for, as Marcell says with a smile, “drinking and chasing girls”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I was training to be an electrical engineer and in the summer months I worked as an electrician.
What was your first professional theatre job?
My first theatrical job was at the Place in Euston, working on two plays by Alan Passes. They had a had a kind of Beckettian outlook. One was called The Sapping and the other was an anti-war play.
What’s your next job?
I’m going to Los Angeles to continue with something I was working on earlier this year.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
It’s about being as malleable and open as possible.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
James Earl Jones and the late John Wood. I played Lucius in Julius Caesar at Stratford in 1972 with Wood and I had a terrific admiration for him. In the course of my career he was very helpful to me.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
You must push the need or the desire to get the job to the back of your mind. Instead, think that this is an instance to show yourself in your best light, so that when it’s over you cannot say: ‘Argh! If only I’d done it this way…’
One day, walking across Waterloo Bridge to the Strand, they saw a billboard for a play that intrigued them. “It was the first time in London that we’d seen really big posters of non-white actors in a drama. So we decided: ‘Hmmm… let’s go and see it.’ We paid, I think, half a crown, went up to the gods and watched this thing. It was amazing and that was really it for me.”
After this initial trip, Marcell and his friends started attending the theatre regularly and, after completing his Higher National Diploma, he gave up on electrical engineering and committed to becoming an actor.
“I was told that if you wanted to become an actor you have to live in West Hampstead. So that’s what I did, I left home and I moved to West Hampstead.”
His father was not pleased about his sudden desire to become an actor, but his mother supported his new plans. Once in Hampstead, he met drama teacher Nina Finburgh, who became “my mentor and my guide. She helped me along, showed me what to do and suggested schools”.
When Marcell landed the role in Fresh Prince, he had “no clue” it would become such a big part of his life. He originally thought he wouldn’t be able to make it to Los Angeles for the pilot because he was performing in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Tricycle Theatre (now Kiln) in London.
I was told that if you wanted to become an actor you have to live in West Hampstead, so I moved to West Hampstead
His audition had been recorded on tape but he approached it as one option among many having previously worked on two screen pilots that didn’t result in work. He simply thought of this type of work as potentially “a nice job”.
The show’s creatives, however, were highly committed to Marcell and agreed to wait for this play to finish. They flew him to LA on a Saturday and by Tuesday morning filming was fully underway.
But despite his screen success, he wasn’t tempted to make the break from stage permanent. It’s the “scholarship” that attracts him to theatre, along with its collaborative nature. “There’s a sense of home and belonging in theatre that you don’t have with film and television.”
He also prizes the opportunity to work with specific directors. Indeed, it was working with Dacre, a director “who can read a character’s mind”, that drew him to Alone in Berlin.
Trevor Nunn pops up repeatedly in his list of credits, and he’s also worked with John Adams, Dominic Dromgoole, Bill Buckhurst (another of his favourites) and Michael Boyd. His career highlight, however, was the premiere of A Free Man of Color at the Lincoln Center in 2010, directed by George C Wolfe. “This was really extraordinary for me. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
And then there’s all the Shakespeare. Marcell, who sits on the American board for Shakespeare’s Globe, has performed with the RSC, the Globe, US Shakespearean companies, and taken the title roles in King Lear and Othello.
It’s the “immediacy” of Shakespeare that captivates him and the way it “requires a different muscularity of mind to, perhaps, a modern play”. He also believes that “a hunger” still exists for Shakespeare’s work. “If you listen to Al Pacino talk about Shakespeare, then you think: ‘Oh my God, why are you a movie star?’ Because at the drop of a hat he will perform in a Shakespeare play.” Of the Shakespeare roles he hasn’t yet tried his hand at, Marcell is keen to perform Prospero from The Tempest.
Off stage, he’s recently been made a cultural ambassador for St Lucia. He’s incredibly proud of the accolade and says it’s something he plans to “give my fullest attention to” over the coming years. But ultimately, he has no plans to stop performing. “I’m an actor. I still don’t think I can do it very well. So, you know, I’m still pursuing that lost chord.”
Born: St Lucia, 1948
Training: University of Sheffield, Central School of Speech and Drama
• ‘Master Harold’… and the Boys, National Theatre, London (1983)
• Julius Caesar, Haymarket Theatre, London (1988)
• Peer Gynt, National Theatre (2000)
• Hamlet, Haymarket Theatre (2005)
• Gem of the Ocean, Tricycle Theatre, London (2006)
• A Free Man of Color, Lincoln Center, New York (2010)
• King Lear, Shakespeare’s Globe, London (2014)
• King John, Shakespeare’s Globe (2015)
• The Tempest, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London (2016)
• Macbeth, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (2018)
• Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-96)
• Lifetime achievement award, Black Entertainment Comedy Awards UK (2009)
• Screen Nation Edric Connor Inspiration Award (2012)
Agent: Markham, Froggatt and Irwin
Alone in Berlin is at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate until February 29, and then transfers to York Theatre Royal and Oxford Playhouse. Details: royalandderngate.co.uk