“I’m a guy who cries. I’m a guy who shouts. I’m a guy who screams. I’m a guy who is in touch with every single part of every emotion. And they are raw. I share them as much as I can on screen.”
Ariyon Bakare cries more than once during our interview. I almost join him. The rollercoaster we travel on heads to great highs – playing as Lord Boreal in His Dark Materials, returning for a second series on BBC One – but also lows, as the 49-year-old actor recalls the months he spent sleeping rough and in hostels as a teenager in East London.
Lately, Bakare has been accessing his more malevolent emotions as Lord Boreal, who has formed an axis of evil with Ruth Wilson as Mrs Coulter – with both actors revelling in their dastardliness.
I remember how, when you’re homeless, you’re always in your head
“My inspiration came from my character’s dæmon, a snake,” he explains. “He speaks quietly to draw people in, he’s hypnotic in the way he stares at people, he never shows his emotions until he strikes.”
If Bakare’s excitement is palpable as he talks about “the best character I have ever played”, then little wonder. There have been a few false dawns in a long career to date, roles that should, perhaps, have sent him skyrocketing into the big leagues only to fizzle out and return him to the ground with a bump.
There was a lead role alongside Jenny Agutter and Richard Briers in A Respectable Trade back in 1998, playing Chiwetel Ejiofor’s manager in Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge, and Bakare was outstanding in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – a magical tale that oddly failed to capture the public imagination.
“At the beginning of filming Jonathan Strange, my sister died. Then six weeks later, my mum died, right in the middle of it,” says Bakare. “I poured my whole heart into it. The pain on my face was a pain I was going through in life.
“All these times I thought it was going to happen for me, and for some reason it didn’t. So if the doors open now, I keep thinking that the back door is literally just as open and someone is going to come in and kick me out.
“I feel a bit wary that this could only be my moment of fame, my little five minutes – and if it is I’m grabbing it as best as I can.”
If his profile is higher then Bakare is putting it to use. During lockdown, the actor created a new digital platform – iC4re.com – to encourage conversations around racial equality in response to the emotional turmoil he felt witnessing George Floyd’s death in the United States.
“It came about because of a black man seeing the death of another black man under the knee of a white cop,” he says. “It came out of that and thinking about all those other times in my life, whether it was watching my father being beaten up by the National Front – oh, the stories I could tell – or being passed over for stuff because of the colour of my skin, being accused of things, making myself invisible so that other people can accept me.
“So many times I have quieted my voice, changed tack or even lied to fit in to a society that wasn’t accepting of me. That’s where it came from – and the idea was to encourage conversation about racial equality. I wanted people to be able to talk about this from an honest place without any judgement.”
The website includes contributions from actors David Gyasi, Eddie Marsan and Karla Crome, plus His Dark Materials writer Jack Thorne. Each offers insights on a topic that remains difficult to discuss.
“I did all the [Black Lives Matter] marches,” continues Bakare. “I wrote my placard, I marched every single day. I went out, I saw all the youngsters out there fighting. And I thought, I am older, I’ve been through this so many times over so many decades. And I am tired. I am absolutely physically tired of it. If I don’t make a change or do something, then what’s the purpose of me? What legacy am I leaving to my nephews, to my godchildren, to people I care about? What world am I saying that I want them to live in?”
An article written by me now there’s a career highlight for sure. https://t.co/8MsbapT0fC
— ariyon bakare (@ariyon69) October 25, 2020
As a teenager, he was kicked out of his home in London and experienced long months of homelessness. The scars remain.
“My father is Nigerian. A very strict man. He brought us up on his own, and he struggled,” says Bakare. “Back home, he had a great life. But he came over here and it was very hard. He brought me up with the sensibility to be a strong black man, a man who’s a lion. But the outcome is that two lions can’t be in the same house. We fought and that culminated with me finding myself homeless. I was very young.
“That was my place of complete invisibility. That was the place where I did see people just walk past me. Even my own father did it. He walked past me one day. I watched him just walk past. And it sends you into an emotional state that has never really left me.”
Bakare recalls with a hollow laugh being so hungry that he stole some meat and ran away from the butcher, before the crushing, ironic realisation that he had nothing to cook it on. Soon after that wake-up call, and following three months sofa surfing, sleeping rough in doorways, and walking up and down Lea Bridge Road in East London in tattered espadrilles, Bakare went to the authorities for help.
“They found me a hostel in Finsbury Park – I remember the single bed could touch all the walls, my room was that small,” he says.
“There was lots of screaming, there were prostitutes, I was literally a kid. I remember sitting on the bed, I had never felt that much fear. You got into fights, people stole your stuff, you struggled hard. And no one saw how young I was. I wasn’t a child struggling, I was just another person who was struggling. And the only thing I could do, the only escape I had, was to read. I remember reading Maya Angelou there.”
Bakare found solace in words and creativity. He still does. He has written a poem a day throughout lockdown and is writing a screenplay.
“I remember how, when you’re homeless, you’re always in your head,” he says. “You spend half your time having conversations with about 20,000 different people. That happened to me a lot. Conversation after conversation after conversation. It wasn’t until I got much older, when I went through this grieving process, that I thought to myself, how do I stop them?
“I found it was through writing. It was about getting it out. Letting the story hit the page, seeing where it lands – don’t worry about the grammar, don’t worry about spelling. Just let it land. I found there was an honesty in it. So that’s where I started with my poems every single day.”
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Bakare has previously balked at opening up about his life, “But that person has grown into this person I am today,” he says.
The determination and resilience he attributes to his father meant Bakare still took his exams. And eventually he and his father were reconciled, before Bakare went to New York to follow his dreams to become a dancer. “Alphabet City – walking through there back then was basically was just tents after tents after tents. Now you go there and it’s the most gentrified place in the world,” he grins. His dance training led to acting. And then the long, slow route to somewhere near the top of his profession.
“For ages I genuinely believed that no one liked what I was doing. I genuinely believed I was doing all this work and no one was seeing it, that I wasn’t good enough,” he says. But some of us were watching, I tell him, and reel off performances of his I have enjoyed over the past 20 years since first watching him in Channel 5 soap Family Affairs.
“From the bottom of my heart,” he says, those raw emotions returning to the surface. “From the bottom of my heart that makes me feel good.”
His Dark Materials is on BBC1 on Sunday nights and on iPlayer
Adrian Lobb his on Twitter @adey70