Cornelius MaCarthy – interview
The Long Road South
Cornelius MaCarthy is a man of many talents and a walking dichotomy. An intelligent man who is most comfortable being guided by his intuition, Cornelius is an actor who prepares completely for his stage, screen, and TV roles, yet prefers to use his experience as a session-singer to guide him through the rhythms and tones of the various texts and scripts.
Oh – and that was after he gave up a place at Cambridge to study medicine!
This most interesting of Sierra Leonean actors is performing in ‘The Long Road South’ at the Kings Head Theatre, north London until January 30th 2016. We managed to track him down to gather some of his thoughts and insights.
‘The Long Road South’ deals with the US in the middle of the ‘60’s Civil Rights Movement. Do you see any parallels between the play and what is happening in The States today?
Of course. [In the play] we are dealing with people who are sidelined, or disenfranchised in some way, and how they deal with it. Some are more conscious of it than others. Of course there are parallels now. Take, for example, the fact that you have a whole community that regularly has members being shot! Ultimately, it is about being disenfranchised… sidelined… singled-out… it is about people being indoctrinated and not realising what it’s all about. It’s about people not understanding that there is a bigger picture at stake. The play, in some ways, deals with that. I’m hoping the audience will get this as well.
I think the UK is arguably the best place in the world to train to work on stage in the theatre. Just because of its traditions, with Shakespeare, Jacobean dramas, and farces. I’m not saying it’s not rich in the US; it’s just different. There are so many theatres in the UK, and there’s just so much happening, theatre-wise
In this production, you play the lead (alongside a strong cast including Imogen Stubbs and Michael Brandon). What do you think you bring to this pivotal character and his journey?
What I’m hoping I bring to the play is the intelligence of this character. Andre is fiercely intelligent and socially aware and – at the same time – naïve, and idealistic. I would like to think that I bring an open mind, and a fierce determination not to be presumptuous in thinking that I (necessarily) know what (his) experience is. I believe the actor’s job is to tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is not easy to tell because life is often about how well we can displace ourselves from being truthful. That’s what ‘art’ is about; it’s about reflecting humanity back to itself. Obviously, it requires working with people who understand that too. (Ultimately) I think it’s more about what people see, no matter what I think I’m bringing.
Having had credits in radio, TV, film, and stage, what’s your favourite medium to work in, and why?
I don’t do ‘favourites’ (ha-ha). I started off with theatre, (but) I’ve found myself increasingly drawn (to) working on screen at this juncture. I’m fascinated with the delicacy, subtlety, and sophistication that I believe is a necessity working in film. You can be robust, and direct but, as a medium, there is a beautiful balance of elements that are required in order to make a good film. I’m really fascinated by that process and would love to work more in that field.
So far, what has been your most impactful experience as an actor?
I worked on a piece of live theatre called ‘Conquest of Happiness’ . It wasn’t a traditional theatre production – it was humungous! There were 110 of us on stage. It was an international production directed by an amazing Bosnian director called Haris Pasovic. It was performed in Sarajevo, Slovenia, and in Belfast. It was based on the writings of Bertrand Russell – the philosopher – (whom) I played… in the piece. (Haris) pushed me in ways that no other director has. He taught me – amongst other things – what it means to be socially responsible as an artist. He (also) taught me what it means to be a leading actor in a production and the responsibility that comes with that. He taught me that there is good theatre, great theatre, and then there is transcendent theatre; performances in which you are connecting with the material – the audience – on a level that goes beyond the story that they’re watching or the music that they’re hearing. It’s something I was aware of in my way but, to see it happen in such a clear way… I was forever changed.
Many black, British actors have achieved great career success in The States. I’m thinking of people such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, David Oyelowo, David Harewood, and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, for example. What are your thoughts, and do you imagine doing likewise?
I say “more power to them”(!) Ha-ha. Essentially if you feel that working in America is going to give you the opportunity to explore more of the things that interest you then, by all means, do that. I’ve been fortunate to have travelled all around the world, and worked in lots of different places so it was always at the back of my mind that America would be an interesting place to work. Fortunately, I’ve been given more and more opportunities to work there and now more present themselves to me – it just seems logical to explore them.
There are a lot of black actors in the US; what do you think that black-British actors can – and do – bring to the American table?
We’re talking about African-Americans versus black-Britons. That suggests a different sensibility just because they’re from a different part of the world.
I think the UK is arguably the best place in the world to train to work on stage in the theatre. Just because of its traditions, with Shakespeare, Jacobean dramas, farces. I’m not saying it’s not rich in the US; it’s just different. There are so many theatres in the UK, and there’s just so much happening, theatre-wise. It’s about training, what you’re exposed to, and what tradition you feel drawn to. There are these schools of thought that say: “They’re both the same – working in theatre is exactly the same as working on screen”, which is absolute nonsense in my book!
The physical demands are different – the technical demands are different. There’s an incredible amount of stamina required for working on stage. There is (also), for working on screen – it’s just a different type of stamina. What a tradition of theatre often gives you is the ability to play outside your range… your realm of experience. If you’re playing a king in a Shakespearean play, there is a weight, a gravitas that you bring to that is easier to explore on stage. In terms of telling the truth, that will always be the same; you tell the truth wherever you are, no matter what the technical demands of the medium.
Do you feel that there is a lack of roles or opportunities on stage, TV, or film for black actors based in UK?
Yes and no. Let’s start with the ‘no’ bit first: That wasn’t my experience and – last time I checked – I’m still black. When I left drama-school, I got the opportunity to work at the most wonderful theatres in the country… working with these brilliant companies. They were just looking for good actors. Because my intention was to work on the stage and to learn my craft, I was open to going wherever the work was. I just wanted to play good roles! The ‘yes’ part of the question refers to the fact that it’s changed. We live at a time when people are understandably worried about arts cuts – where it’s about economics, and so the focus is on bums-on-seats… getting the highest-profile actor in your show so [that] you can sell it. As such, it just narrows the opening for everybody – not just black actors. One thing I have learned as an actor, though, is that we have more control than we give ourselves credit for. We give up that control when we make it about how many auditions we’ve had and whether our agents called us in the last three weeks or not. I’ve never allowed that to get in the way – ever. So – ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
We give up that control when we make it about how many auditions we’ve had and whether our agent called us in the last three weeks or not. I’ve never allowed that to get in the way – ever.
Tell us a little about your experiences as a singer, and how this influences your work.
I never intended to be a singer at all. Shortly after I finished school, I spent some time in the U.S. and came back to London with the thought that I was going to be involved in music. I remember being at church – New Years Eve, 1995 – just as we were doing the countdown, just having a very strong feeling. I opened myself to it. A few months later… I [attended an audition and] sang. Don’t remember what I did. … It was pretty mediocre. But there was a lady there who introduced herself to me. She said: “I think you’ve got a lovely voice. What are you doing with it? I sing with the London Community Gospel Choir, and they’re always looking for new singers. Here’s the director’s number. Give him a call and see what happens.” I spoke to the director, who invited me to a rehearsal, took me to a side room… and said “Do you know any songs from church?”, so I said “Yeah”. I sang a song and ten minutes later, I was being introduced to the rest of the group as a new member. Soon, I rose through the ranks and became one of their lead vocalists. We performed with lots of artists. I travelled the world… doing it full-time. Then, I started doing session-work. I started doing backing-vocals for anyone and everyone. I did ‘CD-UK’, ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘Later with Jools Holland’, ‘Pop idol’, ‘X-Factor’ – you name it.
What you’re describing, in terms of how it influences your work as an actor, is that – although you’re very learned and you prepare diligently – when it comes down to performing, you ‘feel it’?
Absolutely! Which is why I talk about the ‘bigger story’ and ‘energy’ and all those things, because the intangible aspects of the work are what make the difference between something good, something great, and something that transcends itself. It’s the energy – the intention with which you go into something. I’m grateful for my training because it gave me great tools – foundational tools – but, in terms of feeling my way through a story, being instinctive, being open – that definitely comes from my singing. The more you understand it – the more you embrace it – the more you realise (that) you are just an instrument. That’s why… you want to keep your valve open so that whatever it is that’s happening in that particular moment can flow unobstructed.
What prompted you to become an actor?
Boredom! Ha-ha. I’d been a professional singer for a number of years and – to all intents and purposes – was doing well. In that moment, it started a thought-process: What would I like to create? It took me a while before I could answer that question, but that’s where it started. I was touring with a big artist, was staying at this exclusive hotel… sitting by the pool… and I thought “What am I doing?” – “I’m bored. I’m not being stimulated in the way that I would like to be”. At one point, I’d been offered a conditional place at Cambridge to study medicine. For reasons I won’t bore you with, I walked away from it. So there was always a part of me that felt I’d let my family down by not doing the decent thing by not going to Cambridge, not becoming a doctor, not getting a degree in anything.
I thought: “I wonder if actors get degrees?” That’s how it started.
You’re originally from Sierra Leone. Has this informed your outlook towards your work and career?
Of course! It informs the intangible aspects of my work, more than the physical. I don’t necessarily know what it is, but I know when it’s there. It’s the feeling of living in a part of the world that’s nothing like the UK or the US. It’s different. The air is different. The sun on your skin is different. The soundscape is different. It’s just part of who I am so, when I am being truthful all that is in the mix.
Do you have a specific training regime, and do you consider that a strong physicality helps with your work?
The actor’s body is his instrument. I do believe that great stamina is required to be effective on stage and, it’s with that thought, that I maintain the level of fitness that I have. I took things one stage further. Last year, I went off and became a [certified] personal trainer – met some wonderful people, learnt a new skill. And, again, I believe the more willing one is to give oneself over to the world of the character, and to the energy – the essence of that character – you’ll find that it will affect you physically.
What is the difference between a ‘leading actor’ and an ensemble actor?
In terms of preparation, there shouldn’t be any difference. Whatever you need to do to embrace the character – and the world of the character – and the relationship he has with the other characters… that process should be as complete as possible, regardless of the amount of time on stage.
I believe that actors – in fact, all artists – work in the service industry. I believe that art is providing a vital service. Specifically, from the actor’s point-of-view (his) job is to tell the truth and – in doing so – they are serving the text, the vision of the creative team and, ultimately the audience. You can’t be arrogant about it, because you’re providing an important service. If anything, you’re humbled by it because you’re lending yourself everything that is you: your talents, your abilities, your intelligence, your emotions, your body – your instrument.
You’ve played many different kinds of roles in major stage productions– ‘Peter Pan’ at York Theatre, ‘Tom Robinson’ in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, you’ve performed in Shakespeare adaptations, and Bertrand Russell. Why do you think you’re drawn to such eclectic roles?
I like being surprised. I enjoy the unpredictability of life. Someone once pointed out that, what makes a joke funny, is ‘not knowing the punch-line.’ To me, playing things which are – quote unquote – ‘within your range’ is like knowing the punch-line to a long joke. For me, acting was always going to be about something bigger than just having a career. It’s about ‘living life on purpose’!
Info: Cornelius features in the current season finale of FATHER BROWN, starring Mark Williams as the priest, this month (Friday 15th Jan, BBC1), and shall be appearing as Andre in THE LONG ROAD SOUTH at The Kings Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, London, N1 1QN, until January 30th 2016.