Culture

Adjoa Andoh: 'The generosity of other Black actresses was amazing'

The Bridgerton star was a teenage punk fanatic whose glittering acting career came as a bit of a surprise

Adjoa Andoh

Image: © Suki Dhanda / Guardian / eyevine

Born in Bristol in 1963 and raised in the Cotswolds, Adjoa Andoh has been a staple of British stage, screen and radio since the ’90s. Her father came to the UK from Ghana, where he earned a living as a journalist. He struggled to get work in the UK – so became an accountant. Her mother is English and was a schoolteacher.

At age 21, Andoh dropped out of a law degree to pursue what would turn out to be an illustrious acting career. As well as portraying the shrewd Lady Danbury in Netflix’s Bridgerton, she has starred in Doctor Who and Casualty alongside leading roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

In her Letter to My Younger Self, Andoh reflects on gut instinct, cleaning toilets while she waited to land her first role, and growing up surrounded by music.

I spent most of my 16th year being a punk and trying to survive my exams. I was a punk from when I was 14, when I saw The Clash in 1977. I loved going to gigs – we lived in the Cotswolds so I usually went to Bristol for gigs. By the time I was 16 punk was coming to its close so I was moving more towards The Specials, The Beat, 2 Tone music. I love classical music, so I was really into that as well. I was the average tortured, depressed teenager. Everyone I thought was interesting was a bit like that – New York Dolls, the Ramones, Nico, The Velvet Underground, John Cooper Clarke. They were sort of upbeat in their own depressed way. And I loved that. I only went out with boys in bands, they were the only boys I found interesting.

When I was very little I used to dress up a lot. I used to put on my own plays and choreograph my friends in the neighbourhood to dance to classical music or jazz or blues. Then I was in all the school plays. I did drama O level and I absolutely loved it. Doing assignments, going to see plays, performing, thinking about performance; I loved it all. Where I grew up there was nothing to do with drama going on, there was no future outlet for it. I never remotely considered it as a career or even anything I’d be able to keep doing after I left school. So I did it as much as I could while I was still there. 

adjoa andoh
At the launch of the BBC spring and summer season in London, 1998. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Being an obedient daughter I went to study law after I left school. When I started, I had an idea of being a radical lawyer helping people who needed support. I worked part-time in a place called the Bedminster Centre, and I would help qualified people to research things like housing benefit and immigration rights. I really loved that aspect of the work, but I really wasn’t interested in studying contract law or land law, which actually would have been the things that would have supported that sort of radical perspective better. But I just didn’t want to do it. When I was in my second year, I just thought, I’ve had enough. Then I met a woman through a Black woman’s group at the uni who ran a drama club in Bristol. So I started attending her classes. And she told me about a show in London and said I ought to audition for it. So I went up to London, I auditioned, and I got the job. 

I came up to London in April 1984. I thought I’d be away for two months and then I’d go back to Bristol and carry on working part-time in the law centre and work out what I was going to do with my life. But I loved London. I moved to Brixton, I lived in a squat, and I signed on. I rebuilt the squat with the other people who lived there – we laid concrete floors and did the ceilings and built door frames and did the rendering. And slowly I got to hear about auditions from other Black actresses – the generosity of allowing me to go up for the same audition that they were going for was amazing. After a year of cleaning toilets and modelling for life-drawing classes, I got a job with a company called Theatre Centres, who were a left-leaning young people’s socialist feminist touring company. I started in September 1985 and that was me off.

Adjoa Andoh
Alongside Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela in Invictus, 2009. Image: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock

Getting the part of Barbara Masekela [Nelson Mandela’s close political aide] in Invictus was a moment I’ll never forget. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman played Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon played François Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team who won the Rugby World Cup [in 1995]. When my agent called to say I’d got that job, I had to put the phone down. I was working at RADA, auditioning for a three-year undergraduate course. I had to stop and run around the room and swear a lot, I was so excited. Not just to be working with the best people in the industry, but also because it was a film about Mandela. I understood apartheid as a child. My parents explained it to me – my mum is English white and my father is African Ghanaian. And they explained to me that apartheid meant that our family would be illegal in South Africa. So to go and do a film in post-apartheid South Africa about Nelson Mandela to me was just the most wonderful thing.

One of the things I’d say to my younger self is, trust your instinct. Your instinct is the thing you live with your whole life through. Trust that your instinct is there to help you survive. Pay attention to it. Two, only worry about the stuff you’ve got power to control. Three, understand that we’re on this planet for two seconds, and then we’re gone. Value everything that feels miraculous and joyful, and steer clear of people who make you feel bad about yourself. They’re really not worth your time. And value kindness. I think value kindness probably above everything else.

I think every freelancer has a worry about their future work. Even when I was doing Invictus, Morgan Freeman would be saying, so Matt, what are you doing next? Everybody worries about it, it doesn’t matter what accolades you’ve had or how successful your past career has been. Push all that to one side and you’re just a tiny human being, hoping they’re good enough to get the next gig.

ADJOA ANDOH
In Bridgerton as Lady Danbury alongside Ruth Gemmell’s Lady Violet Bridgerton. Image: Netflix

I would never call myself a musician, but I took up cello when I was young and I fell in love with it. I loved the fact that it’s like a body – you have to wrap yourself around it to play it and you can feel the vibration in your body. It’s different to the bass and the viola and the violin. It’s got this tenor quality to it and I just loved that. But I would never call myself a musician, although obviously, if I had my first dream come true, I would have been a bass player in a punk band.

If I could go back and re-live one moment in my life it would be when my husband and I first discovered this little Greek island that we fell in love with 15 years ago. The joy, the peace and the simplicity of it. Just hanging out and swimming and eating nice food and reading books. The slowness, the sunshine. The peace. I just wanted every day to be 72 hours long.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my stepfather. He died very suddenly. He just went out of the room and fell down the stairs. I’d been in the room with him, so it was a real shock. We had a very good relationship, we’d talk about anything. He was involved in religious education, so we talked about religion a lot. We talked about jazz – he was an amazing jazz pianist. He was incredibly well read; he loved books and films and art, so we talked about all of those things. He loved walking, so we’d go walking. We both loved The Archers, we both loved doing The Guardian quick crossword. He was interested in everybody and everything. He was man with an appetite for life and everything it offered. He was a very gentle man. He was very kind, and very nonjudgmental. And I miss him.

Adjoa Andoh directs and stars as the lead character in Richard III at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until May 13.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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