I grew up on a council estate in Birmingham. My bedroom window opened out onto the A38 and out of the kitchen window was the area where everyone pegged their washing. The estate was our stomping ground. We knew every nook and cranny.
I occupied three worlds as a teenager. I travelled half an hour on the bus to get to school, so the kids there were disconnected from the ones in my area. And the people I did youth theatre with were disconnected from the school and the estate. I didn’t go into an industry that people I grew up with went in to. I went to Rada at 18, and that was me effectively leaving home. That is what it felt like. I settled into London slowly but it has been my home ever since.
I didn’t go into an industry that people I grew up with went in to
Backpack, baseball cap, T-shirt, baggy jeans and trainers – that’s me. When I was 15 nobody wore that unless you were into American hip hop or the UK Fresh stuff pirate stations were playing. I didn’t go as far as getting a flat top but I did have an excellent pair of MC Hammer trousers. The clothes I was wearing as a teenager are the same clothes I wear now, although I get dressed up a lot for my job. But I would tell my younger self not to worry about the MC Hammer trousers. There will be a day when you don’t wear them.
The idea of performing hit me at about 14. I was already singing in the cathedral choir at St Chad’s in Birmingham and joined the children’s opera company at Birmingham Mac – which is an amazing place that SHOULDN’T HAVE ITS FUNDING CUT. Print that as large as you like! I got into the opera, puppetry, dance, theatre – all of it fired my imagination.
My heroes all came from America. They were people who made me laugh, made great films or were great singers and dancers. Birmingham in the 1980s was a very different place – there wasn’t a sense of feeling like you belong, or are appreciated and celebrated. We weren’t taught about the heroes here.
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Looking back at my younger self I feel the incredible insecurity of this teenager who was throwing himself out of a plane hoping the parachute would work, in terms of life choices. That is what you do going into our profession without a degree or A-levels. If my school had been more open to what I wanted to do, a place I could explore drama, music, singing, I may have stayed. But because I had been shown that formal education had no place for my passions, I turned my back on it.
I wouldn’t advise my younger self on his love life because when I was 19 a student from Birmingham turned up in the first year at Rada. We started hanging out and four months later were really into each other. Lolita [Chakrabarti, actor and playwright] and I have been together now for 30 years. Everything along the way, all our ups and downs, has been human and messy and good and strong and powerful. So, no advice, it is coming; you just have to go for it.
I would tell my younger self to believe in what you can do if you get the chance. Don’t wait for the acting industry to tell you how valuable you are. Actors are always waiting for somebody to think we can do the job. People look at my career and think I have chosen my path quite well. But there have been loads of jobs I have auditioned for, turned myself inside out for, even recently. And, truth be told, I hear “no thank you, Adrian” far more often than “we’d like to offer you the part”. Each time you are putting your emotions and hopes on the line.
Shakespeare is a voyage of discovery. I didn’t study him at school. But there he is, at the top of the tree, this one writer who has managed in poetry and drama to encapsulate what it is to be human in words that are some of the most profound, beautiful and moving that we have in the English language. Every job, every play, every character I start with a blank page because I don’t have a formal education to fall back on. My education is ongoing. I have a couple of honorary degrees but I didn’t have to do any homework for those.
While I was doing Othello one night, it hit me: Flippin’ eck, I’ve played two of Laurence Olivier’s greatest roles. On the Olivier stage. At the National Theatre. Nicholas Hytner asked me to play Henry V in his first production there and asked me back to do Othello in his final production. Before that, my breakthrough was doing As You Like It in an all male production with Cheek By Jowl. I played Rosalind.
I thought Primary Colors was going to be the start of something big. If that film and that performance happened now, it would be a very different story. It was my first major screen role [alongside John Travolta, Emma Thompson and Billy Bob Thornton] and afterwards I met everybody in Hollywood. I sat and waited but the phone just didn’t ring. The opportunities for an actor like me at that time, we are talking 1998, in America, were minimal. And in this country onscreen there was nothing. I came home and waited until my really good friend Lennie James wrote Storm Damage for the BBC. But before Hustle [pictured above], the public didn’t know who I was. Once the billboards for Hustle went up – back when the BBC used to advertise – in 2004, suddenly everyone was going: “He’s that guy, from the posters!”
We have had to say, you can’t provide a product that ignores a percentage of the populace
In Britain, in order to make the industry look at itself, we have had to petition, have meetings, write letters. I remember a poignant moment when my daughter was upset after watching one of her favourite films. She’d enjoyed it but burst into tears and said: “I don’t see me up there.” Actresses stepping forward and saying “we are not going to work until we get equal pay” was important, and we have had to say, you can’t provide a product that ignores a percentage of the populace. The Oscars were embarrassed about it, so were various channels here. These events kicked off productions we’re now seeing onscreen. The Britain on TV now is different to five years ago.
I could have been more political when I was younger. I’m getting more into it now but you’ve got to be careful in my profession about how you stamp your persona on things in public. People want to use your face to promote a cause but that can start to destroy your chameleon nature on screen. So I have to be a political animal with a small ‘p’, support in letter form, with money or advice from behind the scenes.
I would love to have one last conversation with Peter O’Toole. I would just like to thank him for what he told me when we were working together [on The Final Curtain]. He commented on our profession from a unique point of view. I’d also like to thank Mike Nichols. One would be over a Guinness and the other would be a glass of wine – I’d love to hang out with them both one last time.
Adrian Lester stars in Riviera, which is on Sky Atlantic and Now TV