David Harewood: ‘On stage I played King Lear and Othello – on TV I had three lines. It really upset me’
As he publishes a new memoir, the actor talks about the psychotic episode that changed his life, the lack of opportunities for black actors in Britain and toxic masculinity
But as a young, black graduate he was caught between wanting to fulfil his potential as an “actor” and navigating expectations placed on him as a “black actor”.
Harewood’s mind started to spiral as recreational weed smoking collided with difficult and demoralising work experiences where his skin colour preceded his performances; on his professional debut in an all-black production of Romeo and Juliet at Manchester’s Contact Theatre in 1988, one critic said Harewood “looked more like Mike Tyson than Romeo”.
He suffered a psychotic episode which was characterised by him hearing the voice of Dr Martin Luther King Jr instructing him to go to Camden, north London, to realise his post-racial vision as set out in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Two of Harewood’s friends later took him to hospital, where he was restrained by six police officers, given a large dose of sedatives and detained under the Mental Health Act.
“I mentally collapsed. I was broken. I could see this young, confused black boy who had lost his way,” Harewood says. “It was the most extraordinary experience of my life. I rebuilt after that but with firmer foundations which have carried me through to the person I am today.”
Today, Harewood is one of Britain’s most respected actors with string of stage, film and television credits to his name. He was the first black actor to play Othello on stage at the National Theatre in 1997 and was later cast in BBC Two’s Babyfather, an adaptation of Patrick Augustus’s novel charting the lives and loves of four, 30-something black men in Brixton, south-west London.
A decade ago, he travelled to the US in search of the “three-dimensional roles, parts with nuance and character” he couldn’t find in the UK. The 55-year-old reached new audiences as David Estes, the director of the CIA’s counter terrorism in espionage thriller Homeland. And for six seasons he played J’onn J’onzz/Martian Manhunter in the American superhero series, Supergirl.
Outside of acting, Harewood has presented several hard-hitting television documentaries including, most recently, BBC’s Why Is Covid Killing People of Colour? Now he is publishing his first book, Maybe I Don’t Belong Here, out today. The memoir follows on from his Bafta-nominated BBC documentary, Psychosis and Me, which was screened in May 2019.
In Maybe I Don’t Belong Here, Harewood investigates his own experience of psychosis and explores the intersections of race, identity, breakdown and recovery. He is clear that he wrote the book “not to look back at what happened to me over my 55 years but as an attempt to understand why it happened”.
In the UK, psychosis affects one in 100 people and 80 per cent of all first psychotic episodes take place before the age of 24, according to the British Journal of Psychiatry. Figures show that black men experience psychosis 10 times more frequently than white men, and are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act, according to the charity Mind.
Now, Harewood hopes he has an opportunity to contribute towards the changing narrative around mental health by “demystifying psychosis”.
“We talk about bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression but no one talks about psychosis. It’s the one where you lose your mind and get taken away,” he says. “It’s very common and happens to a lot of people. I don’t think there’s any reason why people should feel ashamed of it.”
In one section of the book, Harewood writes that his Barbados-born father, Romeo, who died in 2016, suffered a breakdown and was hospitalised several years before his own crisis. “In a sense the book became a love letter to my dad,” he says. “I was too young to talk to him about it before. We were never in the same space to discuss both of our breakdowns.”
The book is frank and, at times, harrowing, and begins with Harewood recounting his days as a schoolboy in Small Heath, Birmingham, where he was obsessed with making his friends laugh and watching Hollywood heavyweights on Michael Parkinson’s chat show.
“I laughed my way through school and enjoyed it,” Harewood tells me, via video call. “But I did get a sense some of my black peers were suspicious of that.
“People were giving me the side eye because I was doing plays and pretending, and not fighting and being aggressive. That was tough to deal with.” In what respect, I ask.
“By going down that route you were deemed a ‘coconut’ [a derogatory term to describe a black or Asian person who is perceived to conform to white culture]. I can play King Lear and the head of the CIA; that’s why I ironed out my Birmingham accent and precisely the reason why I attained this neutrality – not because I want to be white but because I wanted to give myself the widest spectrum of parts I could play.”
It speaks to the youthful desire of not wanting to fit into a box, and not caring how the world sees you, but simply wanting to see the world, I say.
“Why is it that young black men are expected to be tough, smoke weed and be ‘gangster’? he asks. “It’s a shame so much [of the discourse] around being black and male is toxic and misunderstood.”
In the book, Harewood is seven when he first asks himself: “Maybe I don’t belong here?” when he is racially abused by an “older, white gentleman” outside his house. It crops up on the first day of his acting course at Rada and again in 1989 when black theatregoers walk out of a production of Entertaining Mr Sloane, at the Derby Playhouse, for which Harewood played the lead role. “Here was a character who was a bisexual villain and they didn’t like it,” he says.
I ask him where he feels like he belongs now. “The only place I feel like I belong is on stage. On stage I feel 10 feet tall. If you give me a character, I’m indestructible, I feel invincible,” he says. “It’s when I step off stage that I get my questions… it’s when I’m unsure.”
On the morning we speak, the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University published a report that revealed that more than half (55 per cent) of ethnic minority actors have experienced racist behaviour at work. The survey of 1,300 actors also found 71 per cent felt hair and make-up departments had been unable to cater to their heritage, hair or skin tone.
The latter point resonates with Harewood, who tells me about his experience during a make-up test for a new UK show the previous day.
“There wasn’t a black person in the room. [The make-up artist] did a good job and I’m always open to giving someone a chance but when the hair person came in, I said: ‘I’ll go and get my haircut at the barbers.’ I was nervous saying it, but she understood it.”
Harewood, a father to two daughters, continues: “I find it astonishing that there aren’t black barbers in the union. There should be someone on set saying, ‘We need a black barber, someone who can do black hair’. It remains a big issue for black British actresses. By the looks of it, this is still a major discussion to be had in this country.”
Our conversation turns to comments made by the comedian London Hughes, who shook the TV industry with a brutally honest Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival last week. Los Angeles-based Hughes, who has three Netflix shows in the works and is about to star in her debut Hollywood feature film, said: “It’s shocking how far behind America the UK is on diversity. George Floydshouldn’t have to die for Alison Hammond to get a slot on This Morning.”
Harewood nods as I read him lines from Hughes’ lecture. I ask him how change has affected his industry – after all, it has been 14 months since production houses and broadcasters pledged to increase representation in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
Channel 4 has underlined its commitment to “championing underrepresented voices” by putting black talent across its entire schedule, including adverts, for next Friday’s ‘Black to Front’ initiative. “They asked me to do it and I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to…’,” Harewood says carefully. “It’s not because I think it is a bad idea, but they wanted me to host a comedy show.”
He continues: “I think we’re making progress but it’s a cottage industry here and unlike America – where they have black heads of department, black newspaper editors – we still don’t have our hands on the lever of power.”
I ask Harewood if this is one of the reasons why black actors and entertainers continue to decamp to the US. “I didn’t want to live in America but I go there because it’s where I get more work and respect as an artist. Those leading roles haven’t existed for black actors [in the UK]. I know because that’s one of the reasons I went crazy.”
Harewood, who after almost 10 years is due to return to the London stage in an as-yet to be announced play, says: “I came out of drama school and on stage I was playing King Lear and Othello and then I went on to TV and had just three lines. I got very frustrated… it really upset me.
“As I said to my white peers, who are friends of mine, it wasn’t them I was jealous of – it was their opportunities.”
‘Maybe I Don’t Belong Here’ by David Harewood is published today (Bluebird, £20)