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Ayesha Antoine: ‘Having been in Grange Hill and done a degree, I naively assumed I could jump straight back into the industry’

Ayesha Antoine

After her first professional role in TV series Grange Hill aged 12, the actor, currently playing multiple roles in Told by an Idiot’s Napoleon Disrobed, tells Giverny Masso about her route into theatre after study for a degree…

How did you get involved in theatre?

I grew up near Theatre Royal Stratford East [in London], where I remember seeing the panto and The Invisible Man, which was full of stagecraft. That really piqued my interest in the magic of the theatre. Also, [actor] Josephine Melville is my godmother. She took me backstage and got me involved in the productions. Then I was cast in Grange Hill when I was 12 – it was my first professional job.

What was it like working on Grange Hill?

I was impressed by how professional everything was on set. Everyone was treated equally. Being a 13-year-old black girl from east London, seeing everyone working together for one purpose, that was when I decided this was what I wanted to do.

What happened after Grange Hill?

I went to university in Manchester and studied psychology and English. I took a break from acting as I’d always wanted a degree. I naively assumed I’d be able to jump straight back into the industry. I wasn’t interested in getting back on television, but I was interested in theatre. If I wanted to be considered a serious actor, I felt I needed to do more theatre.

Why did you find it a challenge to get into theatre?

I wasn’t prepared for how much weight is put on drama school training. Coming into TV, nobody ever asked me about training. In theatre, it came down to the training and the support network I didn’t have. At the time I didn’t realise it but I think, looking back, that my lack of training may have affected certain jobs. But I wouldn’t change anything for the world – I’d do it all again. What’s been amazing is the generosity of people who have recommended me or put my name forward; I can never thank them enough for thinking of me. They say it’s about who you know, but actually it’s about how you work with people.

How did you get involved with Told by an Idiot?

My first professional theatre job was with Told by an Idiot in The Firework-Maker’s Daughter. Paul [Hunter, co-artistic director] gave all the actors props, and before he left the room he said: “Make a firework display.” That is what I always envisaged theatre was: playing. So that did spoil me for the next couple of years, when I realised it wasn’t all like that.

What is it like working on Napoleon Disrobed?

I can tell you my character count is up to 22 – that’s a different character every three minutes. I am a bit of a sadist. For each character I think, ‘What do you need, who do you need it from and what are you doing?’ And I am finding that a useful hook. You don’t want to be doing lots of funny voices. I definitely believe that theatre should be challenging; as an audience member I want to be challenged.

CV: Ayesha Antoine

Training: None
First professional role: Poppy Silver in Grange Hill (1993-8)
Agent: Michele Milburn at Milburn Browning Associates

Napoleon Disrobed runs at London’s Arcola Theatre from February 14 to March 10