Oliver Wilson is probably the most enthusiastic person I have ever interviewed. His portrayal of Christopher in the current tour of Blue/Orange has been universally applauded and speaking to the young actor it is obvious what enables him to play such a complex role. Strikingly insightful, Wilson is incredibly friendly, happily discussing his own life experiences and how they’ve led to his success. Idealistic and reflective it was brilliant to be reminded by someone so passionate how theatre can directly shape the consciousness of an audience. Wilson has a plan; to change the world through his acting and having achieved so much already it doesn’t seem too unobtainable.
Can you describe your character Christopher and the role he plays in Blue/Orange?
Well basically the play is about whether he has schizophrenia or some form of personality disorder and they’ve yet to discover what degree he is at. He is in some ways a bit of a lost soul. Doesn’t have anyone to support him, comes from a bad area, but he’s not a street kid himself so he’s someone who’s excluded from society. He believes that Idi Amin is his dad and he wants to go to Africa and find his roots. He spends 28 days in hospital and he wants to leave but equally he’s frightened of the world outside and he doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong for the police and people to look at him funny. His mental health issues amplify everything. For example if he’s being picked on it might be because of his economic status or because he’s black but he may think its voodoo or monsters. So he goes down a path to find out what’s wrong with him.
That’s a very detailed description; you’ve obviously delved deeply into this character?
Well you have to. I mean this is my first modern play with a modern black character; usually I’ve done Shakespeare and more classical work. Joe Penhall is a great writer and it’s a play, which has so many depths and levels to it. On the surface you think it’s about schizophrenia and racism and what happens with the medical industry when there are cultural divides. But really and truly I think it’s about all sorts of universal things like human behaviour and people wanting to succeed at different levels, people sometimes feeling depressed or lonely and wanting someone.
By far I think Blue/Orange is one of the best roles for a young black actor to play at the moment.
Did you do much research into the mental health services in Britain?
Well one; I’ve got a friend who’s got some mental health issues, so I could draw on that personal experience. Also I’d watch stuff on YouTube, documentaries and footage of people in psychiatric places. So I did a little bit of research myself but when we started the job we sat down and talked about the play, also we had a leading psychologist who came in and we spent a whole day talking to him about a range of stuff. But that’s the whole point of the play; the medical industry can’t pin down schizophrenia, so there’s no blue print on how to play someone who’s got mental health issues. You know it’s a case specific thing, depending on biology or your environment or the type of person you are you’re gonna develop your own mental kind of things. Obviously there are things like delusions or childlike or extreme behaviours but you try not to act as though you’re crazy, try not to be on stage twitching and overdoing it. All I can do is try and play it as though in that moment I completely believe what he believes.
So you’re putting emphasis upon Christopher being a person with mental health issues rather than being a mentally ill person if you see the difference?
Yeah, exactly. The whole joke is; what is crazy?! People show extreme behaviour all the time! If they’re angry or in relationship or they want to be silly - we all do that at different times. The only major thing I can pinpoint about the character is that he switches between different emotions very rapidly. I’m sure you have your own moments of craziness; there’s just some build up to it but with people with mental health problems it’s faster and they’re more impressionable and that’s the key in my interpretation if it. This play is great as a young black actor it’s fantastic to see a three hander with a black guy who is not what you think on the surface. He has peaks and troughs and emotions and vulnerability; I cringe every time I do a play and just because you’re black you have to have a hoodie and stab somebody.
Have you ever played a role where your colour hasn’t been intrinsic to the part?
Well up until now all of my stuff has been Shakespeare or classical. Recently I did To Kill a Mocking Bird, playing Tom Robinson, but other than that I’ve played Romeo or other classic characters rather than race specific roles but that’s a whole different story in modern drama. In terms of the Will Smith’s and Denzel Washington’s of the world what’s great is that they play characters who deal with other stuff rather than the stereotypical things that come with being black. If you’re not sexy or dumb, you’re violent or you’re broke. It’s the same if you’re Muslim or you’re Scottish and that’s the general way it goes. I’m not complaining, it’s just an observation, but by far I think Blue/Orange is one of the best roles for a young g black actor to play at the moment.
L-R Gerard McCarthy, Oliver Wilson, Robert Bathurst in Blue Orange, photo Robert Workman
It’s great to have films like Bullet Boy, that was the very first film of that genre with Ashley Walters, but that was nearly ten years ago. At the time it opened up a whole world and then films like Kidulthood and Adulthood came out making street culture acceptable, which was great but I think we’ve moved on. Plays and films are still doing the same stuff, it’s one step forward two steps back; you’re not showing a whole new generation of ethnic people who are not all from the same area and who aren’t dealing with those particular issues.
Media and theatre is a powerful thing. I see fellow black people making the same mistakes. They’re like ‘Yeah, I’m doing this play’ so I ask ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m killing someone’ and I’m like ‘Really Blood? Really?’ The producers are funding this stuff because they think this is what the people want, and some kids do and there is a place for that. There is a whole culture that needs that, but there also needs to be something other. It’s important.
Statistically speaking a black person is over three times more likely to be admitted into mental health care than the rest of the UK’s general population. Do you have any ideas on why that might be the case?
Well if you’re schizophrenic for example, you feel paranoid, like people are watching and judging you. Now if you put that into someone who’s black in an environment where everybody looks at you because you’re a part of this street culture and thinks you’re going to rob them, then that paranoia becomes amplified. Also people argue the fact that black people are less successful, less educated; find it hard to get a job. You have fewer options to get yourself out of the bubble and you’ll become more insular and turn to drugs or whatever. That’s very broadly speaking! People argue schizophrenia is passed down through the genes and twins often have it; but studies show that with black twins if one is raised in a well brought up area and has a good education they’re fine, but the one who’s brought up in a bad area develops more symptoms of schizophrenia.
Joe Penhall is a great writer and it’s a play, which has so many depths and levels to it.
A lot of it's environmental and speaking to the psychologist supposedly we’ve all got tendencies. We could all have stuff dormant in us, it might be three generations removed but we could still be carriers of these mental health issues but it’s about how you develop as a person. So I think that’s the link between racism and what’s going on with black people and society and the stress of struggling in this capitalist world really.
What sort of upbringing did you have?
I grew up in Edmonton, north London, I lived with both my parents and brothers and sisters.
I did alright. I went to the normal school-bit rough, then I went to another college which was a bit rougher. Then I got offered to do psychology and drama at a few universities, but I also got on the list for E15 acting school and they offered me a place. I changed it all up and it changed my life.
In what way did it change your life?
It just got me out of the bubble. A lot of universities are just big colleges now; you tend to mix with the same 15 people for the next three years. But with drama school you’re mixing with people of all different cultures with different aspirations and there’s continual change ’cos you’re working on different projects – just a different environment, which I found fascinating.
You’ve also got some military experience, what did that involve?
I was in the Air Force Cadets for about four years, I got to the rank of sergeant, got to fly the planes and I think that helped me get out of the bubble as well. I was focused on doing something other while I was at school and got my head straight about stuff like discipline. There was a point where I wanted to join the Air Force or do something military wise, but I didn’t want to become a little puppet so I went into acting instead!
Was there a specific moment when you realised you wanted to do drama?
My mum forced me to do a little weekend drama school thing which I refused to do, I was like ‘I don’t want to do ballet! No no no!’ But being honest, I saw loads of girls going in and hardly any guys, so I thought I’d try it out and I loved it. I didn’t do it much in school, I kind of shied away from it but when I was about 14 it all kind of clicked. I still wanted to be in the army at that time and do politics; I’m very much into world affairs and that geared me into acting. Really and truly I want to use this as a tool to change the world.
L-R Oliver Wilson & Robert Bathurst in Blue Orange, photo Robert Workman
What is it that you want to change about the world specifically?
Oh my God, that’s going to be the headline of this article, ‘I Want to Change the World!’ (Laughs). Well I just started to re-educate myself. I was alright in school, I loved history and I loved politics, but I wasn’t loads of A’s and all that kind of stuff. But over the last kind of four years I’ve really tried to re-educate myself about the last hundred years and the way the world clicks on the more practical levels. I’m a black guy from London, my family is from Jamaica and I’ve got family in America but I don’t really feel like I’m from London, don’t really feel like I’m from Jamaica and don’t really feel like I’m from America and so I’ve no clue what I am. But on television I’ve got people from my area and people who are not my colour telling me who I am. So as part of a new generating we need to redefine that.
I think there’s gonna be a massive issue society wise; this is a general thing and it includes acting. You see a modern young actor speaking the street talk, that’s only a ten or 15 year thing. So anyone who’s above the age of 35 who young people can aspire to i.e. anyone who’s got authority either in the news or business, they don’t sound like a modern young person. So what does that do psychologically? You will hardly ever see someone in authority who sounds like a young person because the general perception of a young person who’s black is somehow streetwise and not necessarily financially stable unless they’re a footballer or celebrity. It’s really generalised but this is a major factor.
You said that you don’t feel like you’re from anywhere that sounds very isolating?
Well it depends how seriously I think about it. London is my home and if people ask me where my family is from I say I’m Jamaican, but I guess if I’m blunt I’m here because I was born here and I’m very aware that that’s just sod’s law. I’m only here as a by-product of history and migration or slavery depending on how far back you look. Anyone who’s English, dependent on how far back you look through history you will have come from somewhere else, you’re just a subject of the time and the land you’re on. So if I was maybe white and I was brought up here and I had more historical time here then I might feel more based here, but I love to travel and I’m very lucky to do a job which appeals to an audience and I’m able to tell stories. There’s seven billion people on the planet and I want to travel and experience different things, I’m not ingrained to where I’ve been born, so I find it hard to understand where I’m from if that makes sense.
One final question, why should people go and see Blue Orange?
Because it makes the audience work. It challenges you, makes you think about the issues brought up in the play and it also makes you think about your perception of yourself and about people with mental health problems. It challenges your idea about the hierarchy system, the class system and colour and how everything works and what's great is that it doesn’t give you answers it serves up debates. Also surprisingly, it is very funny, there’s a lot of humour in it. I think it’s one of the great things about the play; it deals with hard issues and there are deep emotions in it but it is very funny and it is very well written. It’s a play that moves you.
Info: Blue/Orange is on tour: The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham until 27 October, The Churchill, Bromley from 30 October – 3 November, The Theatre Royal, Glasgow from 6 – 10 November, The Richmond Theatre from 13 – 17 November, The Opera House, Manchester from 20 – 24 November, The Regent Theatre, Stoke-On-Trent from 27 November – 1 December.