Lolita Chakrabarti: ‘Acting is my first love and writing fits around it’
Award-winning actor and playwright first started writing as a student at RADA. “I was in a scene for my final showcase and I didn’t think it was good enough,” she says. “So I used to go home each night and rewrite parts of it and bring it in and we’d work on it.” And which play was that? “Oh I couldn’t tell you that,” she exclaims with a warm chuckle. “The playwright is a great writer, but... this one, this one wasn’t so good.”
This might not seem like usual behaviour for a graduating actor, but when Chakrabarti puts her mind to something, she gets it done – convention or not. Her first full-length play, Red Velvet, took seven years to write (and 15 to research), and saw her unearthing the story of an unsung theatrical hero, won numerous awards, conquered New York and is now coming to the West End as part of the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company’s season at the Garrick Theatre.
“Everyone said: ‘Don’t do a historic biopic as your first play,’” she says. “But maybe because I didn’t know any better, I thought: ‘I can be the one to do it.’ So I set off and it was laborious, but it had to be done right and I think the legacy of the play makes me think that it was done right.”
Red Velvet examines the story of Ira Aldridge. Born in America in 1807, he made his career in Europe as a hugely successful Shakespearean actor and Britain’s first prominent black actor.
“I heard about Ira back in 1998. Adrian [Lester, Chakrabarti’s husband] had read about him and we both hadn’t heard of him before. Yet he was awarded the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences from King Frederick William III, the Maltese Cross from Berne, Switzerland, and many other honours,” Chakrabarti explained in an interview with Words of Colour in 2014. “As I started to dig and research him, I found out about his extraordinary life. He lived in south London. I am a south Londoner. I found out that he lived not far from my house. As an actor, you look for role models who have trodden a path you would like to emulate.”
When I remind her of this quote, she speaks strongly about the continued importance of role models. “Now that I have two children, I feel very strongly that they need to have people on stage who reflect them,” she says. “When I was growing up, actors of colour were quite rare, so I looked to Sidney Poitier. He was in some really important seminal films where race was obviously part of his story, but wasn’t the story.”
She believes that showing the piece within the traditional framework of Kenneth Branagh’s West End season is a great opportunity to get this classic tale with a new story at its heart in front of a whole new audience. “We were quite a late addition to the season, but we’re absolutely thrilled to be part of it. To be in the middle of this illustrious set of work and performers is great, absolutely great.”
Q&A: Lolita Chakrabarti
What was your first job? It was productions of The Recruiting Officer and Our Country’s Good at the Swan Theatre. I just remember being so excited about being surrounded by professional actors. And I got to take home about £90 a week!
What is your next job? A new play that the Tricycle has commissioned, which is about motherhood and chaos. It’s a contemporary piece, so that means I don’t have to check any historical facts, which is fantastic, because for Red Velvet I had to check if they had gas or paraffin, or did they have water from a well or from a tap? But this one is completely imagined, which is very freeing. And then I’ve written a film that I’m producing with my company that I run with Rosa Maggiora, and that is about four seemingly unconnected people in London who are all at a point of crisis, but they’re all linked by a tragedy from the past and they have to look at and address that tragedy in order to move forward. It will be directed by Adrian Lester.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s the most exhilarating profession when it works, but I think you work hardest when you’re not working. They call it resting, but that’s the hardest part of all and the thing to do is to work yourself harder than you can imagine when you’re resting, because then that informs your work.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Along with Sidney Poitier, it was watching Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. I caught Patricia Routledge in a hospital and I remember it vividly. I thought: “Gosh, this one person is holding my attention” for however long it was, and I realised that was the power of writing as well as performing. There was also Cherie Lunghi, who I worked with on Death in Paradise and could finally ask: “What was the TV show in a white room with you and Omar Sharif?”. I caught that halfway through and was totally gripped by it.
If you hadn’t been an actor and a writer, what would you have been? When I was eight I wanted to be an air stewardess and have a little steward’s trolly. Not very PC. I should have been a doctor really, but drama got in the way.
To write the piece, Chakrabarti combined her own experience of acting and touring, with all of its hardships and highlights, and transposed it on to Aldridge’s life. “Acting is my first love and what I’ve done for 25 years, so I consider myself an actor mainly and the writing fits around that,” she explains. She also undertook a laborious research process that involved correspondence with historians and specialists that moved from letters to emails. “That’s how long it took,” she says with a chuckle.
She first knew she wanted to act when she was six years old. “I was in a school assembly and we were doing something on friendship and were in groups of three. I was in one with two boys and I played an old woman, and they knocked me over and had to pick up my shopping,” she says. “I remember bringing in my mum’s fur coat with a black fur collar and I brought lots of empty food boxes in plastic bags. They knocked me over and I was doing lots of ‘oh dear’ old acting, and the teacher thought that what I did was good. And then I became a thread through this whole assembly, so this old lady sort of tottered through everybody’s friendship story. I didn’t know that was drama at the time, I had no idea what that was, but it felt great.”
When she was 13, she saw her first show – the Birmingham Youth Theatre performing The Walking Class with a 14-year- old Lester among the cast. She says she really knew she wanted to act when she was 14. “My drama teacher was amazing – Maureen Stack – and so she just encouraged me,” she explains. “I did a lot of public speaking, I was in plays, I did a lot of LAMDA exams, and lots of drama at school. It was then that I knew what acting was called and I thought: ‘Ahhhh, it was an actual thing.’”
Her acting career has spanned roles in high-profile TV shows such as The Bill, critically acclaimed dramas such as JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and stage roles at the National Theatre, Almeida, Royal Court, Donmar Warehouse and the Tricycle Theatre. She is currently appearing in ITV drama Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, which she filmed over six months last year.
“I love balancing out the acting work with writing, because acting is so sociable. There was an entire army of crew and cast on Beowulf that I felt part of and could work off and with,” she says. “When I go and write, it’s just me in a room battling away, but then when I’m writing I have complete freedom, I can create anything on the page.”
Chakrabarti comes across as warm, intelligent, determined and incredibly good at multitasking. As well as acting and writing, she runs a company called Lesata Productions, making independent films.
When she writes, she feels a responsibility to give audiences stories that they want to hear, and believes accessibility and diversity within the profession should be seen as being as simple as that.
“People will come and see things that they see themselves in and stories that interest them,” she says matter-of-factly.
How does she balance such hectic careers? “Well, Adrian’s an actor too, so we have to be very fluid about who’s free at what time and who can take what on,” she says. “But I’m very disciplined too. When I’m doing one of them, I’m doing that full-time and I just have to realise it’s going to take me longer,” she continues. “I mean, when I look at full-time writers, they’re so productive and I do look in awe and think: ‘Wow, I could get so much done if I was just writing.’ But I love acting too much, and anyway I’m a Gemini, so I’ve always been more than one thing at once,” she concludes with a grin.
CV: Lolita Chakrabarti
Born: 1969, Hull
Landmark productions: The Great Game: Afghanistan, actor (2009), Red Velvet, playwright (2012), The Casual Vacancy, actor (2015)
Awards: Critics’ Circle award for most promising playwright for Red Velvet (2012), Evening Standard award for most promising playwright for Red Velvet (2012), Asian Women of Achievement award for arts and culture for Red Velvet (2013)
Agent: Maxine Hoffman at Curtis Brown (acting), Katie Haines at the Agency (writing)
Red Velvet runs at the Garrick Theatre, London, until February 27