Life could have turned out very differently for the rising star of stage and screen, who opted for a career in acting rather than in the City while studying economics at university. Now playing the lead in the RSC’s Coriolanus, he tells Bridget Minamore about his long association with Shakespeare and championing diversity
In another life, actor Sope Dirisu would be working in the City. “There was this eureka moment,” he says. “I was in my second year at university finishing off a report on child labour in third-world countries, and realised: I can do this. This isn’t difficult for me. But if I had to do this for the rest of my life, my life wouldn’t be long.” He pauses, and begins to laugh. “Maybe after a couple of years I would have found joy in the pay packet. Who knows?”
Candid and charismatic, Dirisu is a good fit for his star turn in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new version of Coriolanus .
At only 26, and in his first professional leading role, the actor is a relatively young choice to play Shakespeare’s tragic hero, particularly in light of Tom Hiddleston’s early 30s turn at the Donmar Warehouse in 2013, and Ralph Fiennes’ cinematic portrayal at 47.
On stage, however, Dirisu seems older, his Roman general’s barbed remarks vibrating with charged anger each time he faces his main foe, James Corrigan’s equally forceful Tullus Aufidius.
Age has never been something to hold the actor back. Joining the National Youth Theatre in 2006 at 15, he was the youngest person on the adult course that year – a course that is officially for over-16s. Yet, it was five years and an economics degree at the University of Birmingham before Dirisu would turn to acting professionally. Why the wait? “I almost signed my first agent off the back of the NYT when I was 17, but the reason it didn’t happen was because my parents were like, ‘What? Acting what? Go back to school and finish your books’.”
Dirisu likes to talk about his family. The son of Nigerian immigrants and with one sister, his relatives creep into many of the answers he gives in the RSC’s cafe.
He mentions his sister’s unwavering support, how he got into the NYT on his mum’s birthday, the fact that his dad keeps the Coriolanus programme with his face emblazoned across it on his desk at work, and the pride he felt when his parents – “not Shakespeare people” – came to see Coriolanus and understood every twist and turn.
That Dirisu’s parents weren’t initially thrilled at the idea of their child working as an actor is a common scenario among many second-generation West African immigrants in the creative arts.
Yet it was his mother who eventually took him aside and encouraged his acting when she saw that economics wasn’t making him happy. These days, “they’re great”, he says, adding that his parents are “becoming more and more settled in my [choice of] profession”.
Born in north London and schooled in Bedford – alongside the star of Spielberg’s War Horse Jeremy Irvine – the actor lives with his family in Luton. That is, when he’s at home, which hasn’t been often recently.
Over the past few years, Dirisu has bounced between stage and screen, appearing in Tom Attenborough’s The Whipping Man  at Theatre Royal Plymouth in 2015, Hollywood blockbuster The Huntsman: Winter’s War the following year, and the first series of Channel 4’s Humans.
Barely a year after his professional stage debut in Plymouth, Dirisu’s turn as Cassius Clay in the Donmar Warehouse’s One Night in Miami  was lauded as a highlight of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s stellar production.
As soon as Kwei-Armah ’s name is mentioned, Dirisu smiles widely and shakes his head, as if even he cannot quite believe he had the chance to work with the director.
The day before our interview, Kwei-Armah was announced as the Young Vic’s new artistic director  and Dirisu’s excitement, like many in the theatre world, is barely contained.
“I would work with Kwame in whatever he wants me to do. Working with him was a blessing. The atmosphere he fostered in the rehearsal room was incredible – it’s not anything I’d ever experienced before. The guy is a genius, and he is a gentleman,” Dirisu says.
The actor is a member of a WhatsApp group for young, black British male actors, with members that also include rising stars including Ken Nwosu, whose An Octoroon  transfers to the National Theatre next year. Rather than just a group, Dirisu refers to it as a “family”. He continues: “We’re very aware that historically speaking, there’s a mentality that is put on performers of colour that you’re supposed to strike out on your own. The industry hasn’t made space for us, so we’re in competition.
“But this group came along and it [shows it] doesn’t have to be like that. We can create better work, encourage each other, and not see every job as competition.”
While race politics in British theatre is something the actor does not shy away from, he’s also clear that the conversation is bigger than just skin colour. “It’s also about supporting each other gender-wise, as well as everything else. It’s about intersectionality and really championing representation and diversity in whatever way we can,” he says.
For many black people who work in and around the world of British theatre, Dirisu’s Coriolanus is another small step towards showing that Shakespeare can be for anyone, and that anyone can land a lead role at the RSC if they have the talent. Still, Dirisu admits he was not expecting to land a lead role in Stratford at 26. “I wanted to work my way up, to ‘earn my equity card’ even though that doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “So I would have been happy to be here in a smaller capacity. But to be here, doing this, now? It’s mad.”
Q&A: Sope Dirisu
What was your first professional theatre job? The Whipping Man at Theatre Royal Plymouth – a three-hander directed by Tom Attenborough, with James Northcote and Gary Beadle. We did it for a couple of weeks.
What was your first non-theatre job? When I was doing Pericles, I worked as a barista round the corner. Before then my school used to run holiday camps for children, activity courses, and in my last few years at school I would work as a supervisor for the kids.
What is your next job? I don’t know. Hopefully something comes along, but if not I’ll go and see my family in Nigeria, and take some time out.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? I used to play American Football at uni, and they said you had to have a short memory and just focus on the next play. If you drop the ball it doesn’t matter, next play. Having that mental strength is important. If you fluff a line, you just have to move on.
Who or what is your biggest influence? My father. What he did to make life possible for us as a family. I know the sacrifices that he made for us, so if I can make him proud with my work, if I can repay him in any way with this, then I would love to be able to.
What’s your best advice for auditions? If you want to go again, ask to go again.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done? I’d be working in the city. A lot of my friends work in the City.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Working very, very hard.
Shakespeare – as well as the RSC – has been a recurring theme in Dirisu’s life. “My memories of Stratford are very clear from a young age. I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor, but I did my first Shakespeare at school. I had some wonderful teachers, so wonderful they came to support me at the second preview of this show, having basically started that journey for me. In those first years of [secondary] school, my teachers brought me here to see plays.”
Dirisu talks of play-fighting with the willow leaves by Stratford-upon-Avon canal, of seeing Tamsin Greig’s award-winning Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing as a teenager, and the many times he has found himself playing one of Shakespeare’s leading roles before turning professional.
“I played Prospero in The Tempest when I was 13, then I did Macbeth after that for Shakespeare Schools Festival .” That production, Dirisu says, was a turning point. “I was 14, and it was at the Cambridge Arts Theatre. I think it was the first time that I had performed outside of school… it was the first time the stakes were up a little bit. Acting started to work for me – it was fun, it was good.”
Shakespeare provided another stepping stone for Dirisu’s acting career in 2012, when he played Pericles as part of the RSC’s Open Stages programme for amateur actors.
“I think the RSC wanted to prove with Pericles they could put on a production of equal standard to professional actors,” he says. “The opportunity they gave us to work on the courtyard stage, as it was then, was incredible, and I had an RSC credit by my name at a really young age.”
After a month on Stratford’s thrust stage, the production has transferred to London’s Barbican, a shift Dirisu feels “excited” about. “Working with the cast has been such a good process. I’ve loved this company. That’s not a platitude, I’ve had such a good time here and I’m blessed that my first show playing a lead was with such wonderful people.”
There’s a certain romance in his return to the RSC. “Five years later, almost to the minute, I would have been on stage after I first performed here. It does feel like a homecoming.
“The time I had here in 2012 was amazing, and being back here as a professional is a bit of validation. At least I know they rate me, that I have some friends here, that I wasn’t awful back then and I’m hopefully not awful now.”
He pauses, looks around and smiles softly. “I think theatre is exposing. You’ve got nowhere to hide so you’ve got to do it all there. But I’m very, very happy.”
CV: Sope Dirisu
Born: 1991, London
Training: Royal Shakespeare Company Open Stages programme and National Youth Theatre
Landmark productions: Humans, Channel 4 (2015), One Night in Miami, Donmar Warehouse (2016), Coriolanus, RSC (2017)
Agent: Markham, Froggatt and Irwin
Coriolanus is at the Barbican  in London until November 18