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Interview: Nonso Anozie actor

15 November 2013

'I feel my career is helping me to do work for my belief'

At the beginning of last year, I knew I was going be in LA filming [Enders Game], and I had just a week before I was due to travel. So I went to my family church in Hendon. My pastor often gives me things to read from the Bible, and it just so happened that she gave me a piece from Judges to read out to the congregation, and it was a passage about Samson.

At the time, I didn't realise how significant that was going to be. Anyway, we filmed for months in LA and New Orleans, and right at the end of the job, I had a phone call from my agent. He says that I've been offered a role in The Bible, this series they're shooting in Morocco, and it's Samson. 

I felt like God's hand was on it. It was a real moment when your career meets your faith.

Often the cast would meet on balmy nights by the pool. We had very interesting conversations, fiery conversations - how this can't be true, etc.

Some of the non-believers gave the best performances. That says to me that God will use everybody. Even though people said they didn't have any faith, they were still being used, and that to me was a beautiful thing.

You could feel the presence of God on the set. It was such a quiet, peaceful set: it was really unusual. It really felt like the Spirit of God was moving. There's a scene where I'm in the stocks, and I was praying and I was acting, as a character and as me. To me, that wouldn't have taken place if God wasn't involved. 

I hope the series will reach people in this country who haven't picked up their Bible in a while, or maybe atheists or humanists, and ask them the question about their faith, or lack of faith. I hope they'll reach for a Bible, or say: "I don't remember that. Let me see. . ." Make them more inquisitive. Make them ask questions more. If we can do this - if a few people have a conversation, ask a question, then we've done the job.

The parts of the Bible I know most are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We studied them at school and that's where you'll find the greatest concentration of the word "faith" in the Bible. Then there's the passage in Corinthians - I'm not exactly sure which verse - about when I was a child, I did childish things, and so on. It says that you can have all the things in the world, but the greatest thing is love. That's one of my favourites. 

In Ecclesiastes, there's the story of an old man in a city besieged by an army. He wanted to advise the king about how he could defeat the army, but because he was an old man, they wouldn't listen. People ignore wisdom if it doesn't come from a person they respect. A lot of the time we don't listen to people unless they're shiny, pretty successful.

Job is also one of my favourites. It perplexed me a for long time: why did he go through all this suffering? You have to go back to it and see how faith is the key. He lost everything, and he still remained faithful. No matter what you have been through, this man went through ten thousand times worse and still remained faithful. . . I've read and re-read this book so many times.

I have a personal relationship with God; so that has a big say in what I get involved with. I definitely know I'm putting images out there, saying words, being involved in something; so I'm responsible, to a certain extent. As long as I'm happy in my spirit with what I'm doing and where I'm going, then I will do it. I pray on it, talk to God about it. I do this with everything. It can't be just a business. 

I feel my career is helping me to do work for my belief; so that is the thing I'm most proud of. But I'm very proud that I played King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the first thing I ever did, straight out of drama school. They are sometimes accused of not giving opportunities to young actors; so they formed a company of young actors. John Gielgud played King Lear at 26, and I was playing it at 23. That's some kind of a record. And I played Othello with Cheek by Jowl Company.

I'm very proud of playing Cass, in the film about the football hooligan who turned his life around after being negative for many years. It was a true story: he grew up in east London, with extremely racist people around him, with no role-models, and he grew up to be a very violent young man. He took himself down a really rough road, but eventually, instead of getting consumed by it, he turned his life around, had a family, and was able to provide for them without being violent. It was a great thing to be part of.

The difference between live theatre and filming - it's a big difference, and it's not. My friend on Enders Game said: "The difference between filming and the live theatre is that on stage you're painting a landscape, and with a film you're painting portraits. Same paints, but a different kind of canvas." I still can't decide which is my favourite. 

I grew up wanting to become an actor, from the time I was about eight years old, when my teacher pulled me out of class to improvise part of a story. We had an assembly every Friday afternoon, when he would read a Bible story, and explain it, and we would improvise it. I was picked to be the father, putting on glasses and a big coat, and it was very funny. Everyone reacted to everything I did, and I loved it, and thought this is what I want to do. But I wasn't sure how I'd get involved, as a young black man in the '80s.

I started going to the National Theatre when I was doing GCSEs and A levels. . . They had lots of mixed casts, which was really great to see. I thought, "I can do it!" 

At that time I started coming back to church. I had spent some time away, because I felt I was just going for the sake of it. I was baptised a Catholic, but you have to pull away and make the decision for yourself. So I started to build confidence in myself and in my faith, and made the concrete decision to be an actor. I only wanted to get into Central School of Speech and Drama, because I'd visited them all and talked to people. I didn't get in the first time around; so I went off and did another course for a year, and then I auditioned a second time. I joined the RSC straight after that.

I really look at things that happen in the past as stumbing blocks. I don't regret them: I learn from them. They are the steps you need to make to be the person you are now. If you want to be someone who does things that change the world or your community or your family, you can do it. You just have to make the decision and have the faith to do it. Free will is the gift God gave us. We just need those stumbling blocks to shape us as persons, not to regret them later down the line. 

I'm filming Cinderella for Disney. It is a live action film in which I play the Captain, the Prince's best friend. We're shooting that at Windsor and Pinewood Studios, and it's really good working with that cast. I'm also looking foward to Jack Ryan coming out on Boxing Day. It was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also is directing the Disney film.

I like moments in films. I don't have favourite actors, though some actors give you more of those moments. There's a film called A Time to Kill, and a moment when Matthew McConaughey delivers his final speech as a lawyer, and he cries. For me, that's a great moment. And in The Godfather, the opening-scene tension between actors is palpable.

I was taught at drama school that, as an actor, your job is to control the breath of your audience. When you watching something great, you're holding your breath. That's the mark of a good scene, when it makes you hold your breath for a few seconds.

I really like books. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy books like The Lord of the Rings, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read Michael Gladwell's Ten Thousand Hours recently, and Half a Yellow Sun, which is a fictional account of actual events in the Nigerian civil war. And I love ThePurple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When We Ruled by Robin Walker is a really fascinating history of African civilisation before slavery.

My parents were from the south-eastern Igbo part of Nigeria. They met there, and grew up there, but came to Britain to study in their twenties, and eventually got married. I was born, with my two younger sisters, and here we are. One sister is a make-up artist and she's working on Cinderella with me. The younger one is becoming a drama teacher.

Most Nigerian parents are old-fashioned. They say to their children: "Doctor, lawyer, engineer. Pick one. That's your choice." My mum was very supportive of my stage career, because she wanted to be a singer. She was very good, actually. She was asked to join different choirs and bands, but her mum put a stop to it. My dad wasn't that keen, but I've included them every step of the way. It has changed their view of what showbiz is. They understand it better - it's not this monstrous thing.

I try to go to the gym as much as possible - three to four times a week. My dad is quite a big guy, and I've got the same genes.

Locked in a church? It would have to be with Jesus Christ. Martin Luther King: I'd like to have seen him when he was alive and see what it was like in Alabama, and understand that more. When you read about something, it doesn't hit you as much as when you see it. When it's visual, audible, you feel like you're in it. I hope that's what will make the Bible series successful in this country. 

Nonso Anozie was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
The Bible will be broadcast on Channel 5 next month.

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