Having worked at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, Clifford Samuel appeared in BBC1’s McMafia earlier this year. Now starring in A Guide for the Homesick at London’s Trafalgar Studios, he tells Matthew Amer how embracing new challenges spurs on his career
Clifford Samuel has tried to build an acting career on the basis of working with “incredible people and challenging myself in different ways”. That mantra has led him to collaborating with directors including Declan Donnellan, David Farr, Deborah Warner and Peter Brook and appearing in plays by Kwame Kwei-Armah and Suzan-Lori Parks. He has toured with Royal Shakespeare Company and Cheek by Jowl and performed at the National Theatre and Shakespeare’s Globe.
The latest challenge for Samuel, familiar to fans of BBC1 drama McMafia, is appearing in the European premiere of A Guide for the Homesick at Trafalgar Studios. As a mark of how far he has come, it was the first time he was offered a leading role without having to audition.
“I was flattered,” he says, recalling the moment his agent rang with the news while he was celebrating his birthday on a Paris rooftop. “But straight after, I was suspicious. You always think there’s a catch. But my career is getting to the level where I’m discovering that people like my work and what I do, and just want to work with me. That’s surprisingly hard to accept.”
Samuel is appearing in Ken Urban’s thriller opposite The Riot Club star Douglas Booth. Set in an Amsterdam hotel, the taut two-hander is the tale of two strangers drawn together and consumed by their own secrets.
Samuel is reticent to be drawn further for fear of spoilers. “I can’t even tell close friends what happens,” he laughs. The play received its premiere in Boston at the Huntington Theatre Company last year, when the Boston Globe described it as a “probing, multilayered study of guilt”.
His love of acting was sparked early on. “I saw, as a child, how quickly I could change and affect someone. It was thrilling,” he says. Samuel attended the Anna Scher Theatre in Islington, north London, but he was destined for a different career entirely until an epiphany on the day of his A-level results.
With an offer to read medicine at University College London, he had second thoughts as he opened the envelope containing the exam results. “I had an introspective moment. I started worrying about committing to medicine but always thinking: ‘What if I had tried acting?’ That worry scared me.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Paper boy. It was great – I could buy CDs.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Julius Caesar and The Two Gentlemen of Verona for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Work, work and then work some more.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
A doctor. For a long time I wanted to be a gynaecologist. It was a very innocent thing. I wanted to understand how a baby came along and be part of that process.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Brushing my teeth at the five-minute call. I have to get that feeling of minty freshness.
Samuel says his parents “were not pleased” with his decision. But he simply had to prove to them that performing was a serious vocation – another challenge, and one he rose to. He graduated from Guildhall School of Music and Drama early to appear in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2004 productions of Julius Caesar and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The sudden change was surreal, he says. “You’re pulled out of the mix of drama school and thrown into the real world. It was like I’d won the lottery.”
Samuel performed with the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon and on tour. He describes rehearsing two different productions simultaneously and getting to grips with the logistics of touring life as a “baptism of fire”. With voice teachers and movement coaches on hand, it served as his “finishing school”, he says.
The second part of that finishing school came with Cheek by Jowl, with whom he performed in The Changeling in 2006. “It was everything I wanted as an actor,” Samuel says – by which he means delving into an acclaimed classical piece, touring the world with his friends and working with “one of the best directors we have in this country”, Cheek By Jowl co-founder Donnellan. “His way with words is incredible,” Samuel says. “You understand what he says not just in cerebral terms, but in your body too.”
Donnellan’s recommendation led to Samuel working with the legendary Brook on workshops of his show Tierno Bokar. “What an extraordinary mind,” Samuel says of Brook. “As actors, we project so much on to that man. You end up desperately concentrating because you just want to get it right… whatever right is.”
It was another experience that altered his view of performing. “Simplistic approaches are so hard because we always think we have to do more.” But Brook asked him to strip everything away: “To stop trying so hard and remove the clutter from the work you’re doing.”
A stark contrast was the ambitious production of Boudica at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2017, written by Tristan Bernays and directed by Eleanor Rhode. Samuel played Suetonius. “I wanted to see if something of that scope was achievable,” he says. “It was.”
While performing at the Globe comes with particular challenges, Boudica’s fight sequences presented a physical test. Half of each rehearsal day was spent in the gym or practising the fight choreography. “All our bodies changed in a positive way, and we got used to the pain. The pain became our friend,” he laughs.
Much of Samuel’s career has been spent on stage, though there have been the odd forays into television in productions including Holby City and The Bill. That changed with McMafia at the start of this year, a globe-spanning thriller that pulled in millions of viewers and sparked widespread media interest. It was, he says, “the biggest-budget set that I’ve ever worked on” and it was a door-opener of a show. Or, as Samuel puts it, he’s now been “seen in the right office”, which he hopes will lead to greater opportunities.
A second series of the show is on the way. While no casting has been announced, Samuel can be confident of returning. “No spoilers, but I didn’t get killed, so we’ll see what happens.”
Returning to theatre, Samuel says he was delighted by the appointment of Kwei-Armah as artistic director of the Young Vic. They had worked together when Samuel was cast in Kwei-Armah’s play Statement of Regret at the National Theatre and he says it’s a huge step forward for the representation of people of colour within the arts. “It’s important because it’s a genuine reflection of London and of the rest of England. This country is a mixed bag. We should try to reflect that more in the arts.”
That is a challenge the industry must continue to work on, while Samuel continues to look for his own challenges to drive him forward. “There’s no point in taking the easy road,” he says. “I’d be bored so quickly.” And if that happens, he will not stick around. “From childhood, acting was always fun. It always has to be fun. The deal I have with myself is that the moment it stops being fun, I’m going to walk away.”
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
• Julius Caesar, Royal Shakespeare Company (2004-05)
• The Changeling, Cheek by Jowl (2006)
• Statement of Regret, National Theatre (2007)
• Boudica, Shakespeare’s Globe (2017)
• McMafia, Cuba Pictures/BBC/AMC (2018)
Agent: Kim Donovan at the Artists Partnership
A Guide for the Homesick runs at London’s Trafalgar Studios from October 16 to November 24