Culture

David Harewood: 'I would tell my younger self to get prepared. Because life is tough, isn’t it?'

Forgetting his opening line in Othello taught David Harewood about focus, but it was a serious breakdown that led him to lose his fear

David Harewood

David Harewood. Image: © Rii Schroer / eyevine

David Harewood was born in Birmingham in 1965, the son of parents who had moved from Barbados to England. He was a member of the National Youth Theatre, and at 18 gained a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Harewood’s acting career began in 1990 and has seen him play Nelson Mandela [in 2009 BBC drama Mrs Mandela], Martin Luther King Jr [in James Dacre’s 2009 play The Mountaintop], director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre David Estes in the first two seasons of Homeland, and Hank Henshaw in Supergirl. In 1997, he became the first black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre in London.

Married with two children, Harewood was made an MBE for services to drama in 2012 and an OBE in 2023 for services to drama and charity. He is an avid Birmingham City supporter.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, Harewood reflects on a groundbreaking career that hasn’t always been easy, with spells of unemployment and two nervous breakdowns. But he still has big, unfulfilled ambitions.

The end of my school life was an absolute joy full of laughter. I sometimes wish I could laugh like that now. Every day at school was an absolute gas. I had six or seven really close friends. And whether it was playing football, sitting around giggling or listening to music – we were big into Heaven 17 and lots of exciting new electronic music – life was fun. They were good days. But I had no sense of the future. I was too busy living for the moment. So I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Maybe a football goalkeeper? That would have been nice. 

I was working in a wine bar in Birmingham. I worked in the kitchen and my brother was a DJ. So hearing all the music of the day, staying up until way too late, seeing the slightly seedy side of life and people getting drunk was exciting. This was the early 1980s, wine bars were everywhere, and people seemed to have money after the frugality of the 1970s.  

Cyrille Regis was one of my big heroes. I’m a Birmingham City fan and he played for West Brom but we knew racism was the reality. So to see him on Match of the Day smiling, banging in goals, being tough, was such an inspiration. Because you knew he would be targeted in football stadiums with 40,000 people there. So to see him every Saturday night, not being afraid, made me very proud. 

Drama school was a beautiful awakening. I could do anything, play anybody. One week I was a Russian sailor in a Dostoyevsky play, the next I’m a French romantic in a Molière. I was able to access all these different realities. Those days were a flowering. I was paying attention to literature and ideas.

David Harewood as Othello
1997: David Harewood made history playing Othello, with Claire Skinner at the National Theatre. Image: Donald Cooper / Alamy Stock Photo

But I would tell my younger self to get prepared. Because life is tough, isn’t it? You have no concept of it in those days. So I was totally unprepared for the political significance of my decision as a black boy to join a profession which is all about image and was all about whiteness. I had never seen the complexity of that racial question. Moving to London and going to drama school was a decision taken in innocence – then I came out and was met with that sense of rejection, the reality of ‘You’re black so you can’t do this. You are not an actor, you’re a black actor.’

Understanding the political significance of my colour contributed to my breakdown at 23. We grew up in a cosmopolitan, diverse world. My area was predominantly Irish, plus English, Jamaican, Indian and Bangladeshi. There was no sense of race. We knew there were skinheads, the bad guys. But it’s a lot more complex than getting chased down the street, and that really spun me out. So I’d tell my younger self to be aware of that. And maybe give him a couple of books to help him prepare.  

My younger self would never believe what lies ahead. I still don’t believe it. If you’d told me I’d get an OBE or play in goal for England against a World XI in front of 75,000 people [at Old Trafford for Soccer Aid 2018] – no chance! I’ve travelled the world, played wonderful characters, met incredible people. I think sometimes he dreamt about it, but I don’t think he would believe it. 

David Harewood playing at Old Trafford
2018: David Harewood in goal for England vs World XI at Old Trafford for Soccer Aid. Image: Reuters/Andrew Boyers

As an actor, if the phone doesn’t ring you’re not working. You have to be prepared for rejection. But there was another sense of rejection, because I had to go away to find success. Thankfully now, a generation of young Black talent doesn’t have to go away. I look at Daniel Kaluuya, John Boyega and David Johnson. So many wonderful Black actors getting great opportunities in movies or on TV shows that are global. We never had that. It was either The Bill or Casualty and maybe a few muggers in between. 

I had two nervous breakdowns and was in a mental home for a week and got back to build the career I’ve had. I’d say that was a pretty darn good success story. I realised on the journey that I’m stronger than I thought. I’d like to tell my younger self that. I’d counsel that the experience in itself provides you with the resilience to survive. It proved to me I’ve got the resilience to not only survive that experience but thrive after it. And I draw on that resilience all the time.  

I didn’t intend to talk about my breakdown when I did. It started with a tweet and then snowballed. I didn’t do it to be a guiding light or anything. But the consequences have been tremendous, people thank me on the street. I’m also glad I did it for myself, to really understand why it happened. It has made me a lot less frightened. Once you’ve run naked through the village, there’s really nothing that can frighten you. And I feel like I ran naked through the village for a couple of weeks.

Playing Othello at the National Theatre made history. I was thinking so much about the significance of the moment [in 1997, he became the first Black actor to play Othello at the National Theatre] that before my first entrance, I completely forgot my first line. I had to ask Simon Russell Beale. “’Tis better as it is”, I think it was. So I had to get back into the reality and not think about the significance. 

Getting into Homeland was a very exciting time. I’d never seen drama with such importance and intensity. We hadn’t even finished shooting the first season when it was nominated for a Golden Globe. We all flew to LA and won. The year before I’d had 80 quid left in the bank and hadn’t worked in nine months. I was done. So to be standing on the stage in Hollywood as a Golden Globe winner was fantastic. I’d love to go back to that night.  

If I had the confidence then that I have now, life would have been even more fun. When it comes to girls, I’d tell my younger self don’t be afraid. My friend Louis had so much confidence. If he saw somebody in the bar, he’d say “I’m gonna talk to her” and nearly always left with her. I looked up to him and wish some of his confidence had rubbed off on me. 

Talk to your parents and really listen to them. I always talked to my mum but didn’t listen. My mum is really wise. I talked to her this morning – so it’s not that I don’t listen to her now. But I wish I’d been able to talk to my dad like that.  

I always knew I was working class. And I certainly knew I was part of a minority ethnic group. My parents voted Labour. It was a Labour house, Labour stronghold. And my views are to the left. But I’ve just played a white, right-wing conservative [in Best of Enemies]. And it’s shown me they can be inspirational figures too. I’m not sure we have those figures currently. But again, it is always important to listen.  

David Harewood and daughter
2022: David Harewood with his daughter at the Black Panther: Wakanda Forever premiere in London. Image: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

The only reason my name is Harewood is because of slavery. My great, great, great, great grandfather was enslaved by the Harewood family. That’s powerful and very deep. It is difficult history. But now my portrait will hang in Harewood House in Yorkshire and something’s telling me that’s important. I’ve been on this journey about my identity and who I am.

The initiative that Diane and David Lascelles [the eighth Earl of Harewood] have started at Harewood House stemmed from a comment in my documentary [1000 Years A Slave] – that there were no pictures of black people or reference to any black person in the house. Every figure in every painting was either a horse or a posh white person. Trying to redress the artistic balance and create conversation is important and brave on their behalf, because it is uncomfortable. A lot of people don’t want to engage with it because it brings up feelings of shame and grief. People can get very defensive when discussing that history. But this forces you to.

I’ve had a great career, but I’m yet to play the big role on screen that would really impress my teenage self. On stage, Antony and Cleopatra was fun but The Mountaintop is the one that would blow my younger self’s mind. It’s a wonderful play and to experience playing the great man, Martin Luther King Jr, would blow me away. Maybe I’m fortunate I haven’t had starring roles in movies for the last 10 years because I wouldn’t have had time to write my memoir or make documentaries. But I still want to be in big movies and telly. There are roles I’m dying to do on screen.  

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It has been great to talk to my younger self again. But he is familiar to me. I have a conversation with my teenage self every day, that’s what my therapist says. I’m trying to look after my younger self now. I just wish I loved him as much then as I love him now. Because I don’t think I had the belief in myself that a good arm around the shoulder from my older self could have given me. 

David Harewood’s documentary Get on Up: The Triumph of Black America is on BBC Two and iPlayer from 9pm on March 30

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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