As he prepares to open in Manchester Royal Exchange’s revival of Guys and Dolls set in Harlem, Ray Fearon talks to Bridget Minamore about leading an all-black cast, working with Gary Oldman when he was a teenager, and how he made history at the Royal Shakespeare Company
What constitutes success? For many actors it’s a difficult thing to quantify. But for Ray Fearon, whose theatre career spans three decades, the answer to whether he considers himself successful is clear cut.
“I would say I’ve made a very good living out of the job that I do. I’ve been to a lot of those big companies, and played lots of the parts that I would have loved to have played.” He pauses and smiles. “Yeah, I would say I am a success at it.” He pauses again, and looks more thoughtful. “It depends how you describe success as well, do you know what I mean? Someone could define being a movie star as success, whereas others would describe working all the time as success. I would say I’ve earned a good living.”
A good living is perhaps an understatement. As one of the youngest of 10 children, Fearon was born to Jamaican parents in north-west London. At school, Fearon readily admits acting wasn’t his ‘thing’ – that would be tennis. He played tournaments as a junior with “a coach and all that stuff”, but soon found himself getting more into acting before eventually setting up a small theatre company with his brothers and friends.
“We used to tour plays around the borough. The councils [and] leisure services used to pay us to go to venues for two or three nights, and we’d hire lights and hire a director ourselves.” Despite his mother’s hopes that he would grow to be either an accountant or work at Heathrow Airport, the actor instead chose to go to drama school.
Age and versatility
He eventually left Rose Bruford College just before his final third-year showcase, because he had been offered a job. Fearon has not stopped working since, and is probably most recognisable for his two years on Coronation Street, a well-received turn on Strictly Come Dancing, and a lead role as Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe  in London last year.
It is perhaps his multiple roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company that have been the most impressive. Fearon has done “countless” Shakespeare plays over the course of his career, and while he claims not to have a fixed favourite, it was his Othello in Stratford in 1999 that hit the headlines. Fearon was the first black actor to play Othello on the RSC’s main stage and the role is deemed a turning point away from the days actors playing Othello would black up.
Fearon remembers the controversies about the fact he was deemed ‘too young’ to play Othello by some critics, saying “I had just finished playing Romeo, and I think [critics] thought, ‘How can he step up and play Othello?’ But the thing was that I’d played it at drama school, and I’d played it at Liverpool Everyman. So, I knew the play, and… I’m an actor.”
When it comes to good acting, for Fearon, age is incidental. “Othello is not supposed to be some older man – it’s his age to Desdemona [that matters]. Desdemona is young, only something like 16. Back then people only lived until they were about 40. Someone like Burbage would have been in his 30s playing that part. So for me it made no difference, you just go out there and do what you need to do.” Does he feel as though he might have grown into the part 18 years later? “Maybe I’ll do it again. It was great, I had a good time, and I went on to play many more [Shakespeare roles] afterwards.”
Fearon seems at ease no matter if the medium is television, theatre or film. “I’ve done a lot of film,” he says. “I have one out now called The Foreigner with Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan. There’s another film called Origin Unknown, which comes out soon, and Beauty and the Beast came out this year.”
Three major releases in a short amount of time, and alongside his ongoing work on stage, suggest he has been busy. But while Fearon reveals he does not know what he’s doing next work-wise – “with the career that I’ve had, I just sort of wait to see. I don’t do everything that I get offered” – he knows he won’t be taking a break. “No. That stuff doesn’t bother me. I work. I’ve always worked. I have a very good agent.”
That agent is Pippa Markham, who spotted him in his final year at drama school and has represented him ever since.
Together from the start
Fearon’s approach towards talking about his acting is as straightforward as his attitude seems to be about everything else. He answers each question in two parts: at first simply and directly, and then elaborating with a series of asides and add-ons to the original point.
Mentioning his agent leads to the tale of how he met Markham when she judged the Carleton Hobbs Awards while he was training at Rose Bruford – an award he won. He chose to apply to the school because he admired alumnus Gary Oldman, and because of Fearon’s brief time at the Royal Court Theatre as a teenager with Oldman, as well as with Caryl Churchill and Alfred Molina.
“I was part of the Royal Court youth theatre, and the Tricycle youth theatre. The Royal Court was auditioning for Serious Money. They called me in, and I got a part in it. It was Max Stafford-Clark directing, with Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina, Meera Syal and Lesley Manville.” For a first professional job, few could have asked for better. However, in the end, he left the production.
“We had to go and rehearse the play. We would devise what we’d seen, and Caryl Churchill would be writing. But we were on non-Equity contracts. Then all of a sudden I got an Equity card, because I was doing this one-man show, and it was going to go on tour. I came back and said, ‘Look, I’ve got an Equity card,’ and they said, ‘We can’t pay you an Equity rate.’ So I left that production just before they were going to tech, and then I went and did the one-man show tour of The Invisible Man.”
Fearon feels no regret, emphasising just how much he learned in the space. His experience “really gave me the impetus to go to drama school, because I was watching and thinking, ‘Bloody hell, they’re good’.”
Years later, things came full circle, when Oldman came to do a talk at his old college. “He was doing a talk with us, and I remember, he was looking and looking. At the end he went, ‘Is that Ray?’ and I went ‘Yeah, I decided to come to drama school,’ and he said, ‘Good on you’.”
Fearon is a natural storyteller and delights in explaining the hows and the whys, as well as the whats. The stories almost tumble out of him, and his new role as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls makes more sense the longer he speaks.
Fearon is playing Nathan Detroit, the good-hearted but scheming gambler at the centre of Frank Loesser’s 1950s musical, at the Manchester Royal Exchange this winter. Meeting Fearon in an upstairs rehearsal room, he greets me with a firm handshake before discussing his first musical role. Rehearsals have been going well, he says, although it isn’t easy putting together “the different strands. There’s music, choreography and the actual acting, and how you amalgamate the three of them”.
So why Guys and Dolls? Fearon laughs. “Because I was asked! I’ve worked with Michael [Buffong] before. I love Michael as a director, and he was doing something different with [the play]. You know, I’m always up for doing something different if it appeals to me. He wanted to set it in Harlem, and I thought, ‘Yup, that sounds pretty good. I’ll do it’.”
Buffong, the artistic director of innovative, black-led touring theatre company Talawa, has similarly good words to say about working with Fearon.
They worked together, also in Manchester, on the director’s lauded production of A Raisin in the Sun  in 2010. “We had a great time,” Buffong says, “just an understanding”. But why do they work so well with each other? “I don’t know if I can put my finger on it. It’s just a kind of shorthand we have, possibly a way of seeing things. I think we’re very into our characters, what they look like, what they may represent. I think that’s very important.
“And the perspective, of course. As black theatremakers you obviously do see the world – not just racism, all the world, love, hate, dishonour, the whole spectrum of human emotions – similarly. And obviously Ray’s got a sense of humour. He plays it straight a lot of the time but he’s a very funny man. We like to joke a lot.”
Q&A: Ray Fearon
What was your first non-theatre job? When I was 16 I worked as a maintenance person in Neasden. I used to go and paint things and clip hedges.
What was your first theatre job? It was with the theatre company I set up [as a teenager]. We did some plays in Stonebridge and the councils [and] leisure services used to pay us to go to venues for two or three nights.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Someone advised me to train, and I did. If a young actor asked me for advice, that’s the advice I would give them.
Who or what was your biggest influence? I used to go to theatre quite a lot, and saw the greats: Gary Oldman, Mark Rylance. But it was the women, the actresses that used to really get to me. Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Mona Hammond, so many. There are a lot of young guys now, too, like Anthony Welsh and Ashley Walters.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Professionalism.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been? I have no idea. When I was younger I had an interest in business, so business consultancy I suppose. Maybe working with kids, my brother and sister work with kids quite a lot.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I love quietness backstage. I love to be in silence. Rituals? Not really. I just make sure that I’m ready, that I’ve done a voice warm-up, that I’ve done all the things I need to do to prepare to go on and do a performance. I used to sometimes, depending on the part I was playing, pick up and carry my dad’s gravestones, these blue crystals he has on his grave. Just to remind me that he’s still there.
Further down the road
Buffong also highlights Fearon’s skills as a storyteller. “Ray comes with a wealth of experience of stagecraft, and knowledge of the world. He brings all that into the rehearsal room. Some of the rest of the cast are like ‘Yeah, we’ll watch him, he looks like a person who could lead a group of people’ – just like Nathan Detroit does.”
The news Buffong would be taking on a musical like Guys and Dolls with a large cast of black performers was met with much approval from those championing more diverse and representative theatre.
Fearon, however, bristles a little at the mention of the media’s preoccupation with the cast’s racial make-up. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m in an all-black cast and it’s terrific, I’m for it 100%. But I think people sort of run away down that track and start going, ‘They wanted to put all black people in it’ and you go, ‘No, that’s not the point’.”
The point, according to both director and main actor, was to set the play just further up Broadway, in Harlem. Ray adds: “It’s got to be set somewhere, otherwise just saying, ‘I’m going to do an all-black cast’ is neither here nor there. Harlem is about streets, it’s about music, it’s about hustling. It’s all those things that are in Guys and Dolls. Come on, you can’t have 1930s Harlem with a white cast. It’s where black people are.”
Bouncing between stage and screen is a busy life, but one the actor thoroughly enjoys. Similar to his dismissal of the idea he works too much somehow, Fearon describes how the constant movement is an ideal way of having a career. “That’s what you want. Theatre is always the place you want to come back to, because theatre is the actor’s medium, and stage actors will always come back to the stage. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy. It can be quite tough out there, and it’s a lot of hard work, so I’m grateful.”
Gratitude is a sentiment that has come up often during the interview. Fearon has a way of making his gratitude seem obvious. Of course he is thankful for his success. How could he not be? “I’m grateful that things have happened for me in that way,” he says.
Luck be a lady
“There are a lot of people I went to drama school with who don’t do it any more. I think lots of people don’t take that into account. There are lots of people who leave drama schools every single year, or come into the profession and are not lucky. Sometimes it does need a bit of luck to just give you the right part at the right time, or you get a job and all of a sudden people come and see it, and you take off from there.”
He holds up his hands, as if gesturing to the Royal Exchange around us as proof of what the unlucky are missing out on. “Some people don’t get this chance.”
Fearon leaves the interview with a certain polite abruptness – it is clear he is not the type of man, or the type of actor, to waste time. However, 15 minutes later he rushes back, and asks if we could go back on the record.
Earlier, he explains, he spoke of who his inspirations were, and in hindsight realised his list had fewer young actors – particularly young black male actors like he once was – than he’d like.
He mentions Anthony Welsh and Ashley Walters as people he has “loved” working with in the past, as well as fellow RSC actor Sope Dirisu, among many others. Fearon might recognise the role luck plays in an actor’s career, but he is also someone who respects hard work, and seems committed to helping bring a platform to performers he has seen are as committed as he is.
CV: Ray Fearon
Born: 1967, London
Training: Rose Bruford College
Landmark productions: Othello, RSC (1999), Coronation Street (2005-06), A Raisin in the Sun, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2010), Macbeth, Manchester International Festival (2013) and Shakespeare’s Globe (2016), Guys and Dolls, Royal Exchange, Manchester (2017)
Awards: Manchester Evening News Theatre Award for best actor (2010), Best actor in a visiting production, Julius Caesar, RSC, Manchester Theatre Awards (2012), Best supporting actor, Macbeth, Manchester International Festival, Manchester Theatre Awards (2013)
Agent: Markham, Froggatt and Irwin
Guys and Dolls runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester , until January 27, 2018