Clare Perkins is an English actress currently on stage as Cynthia in Sweat the Lynn Nottage production which is now the number one play in the West end.
Life on soaps for Perkins has been as the perky Denise Boulter in Family Affairs which was on Channel 5, with Idris Elba and EastEnders as Ava, the daughter of Cora Cross. Some might remember her in Screen Two in 1991 as Opal. As Perkins pointed out “I have been lucky I tend to be working a lot”. And she has. She was in the BAFTA awarded Pigheart Boy (best children’s drama), Casualty, Eastenders, Men Behaving Badly, Big Women and Clapham Junction.
As a seasoned actress she has performed at many of the best theatres from the Royal Court, Young Vic, National Theatre to Soho Theatre. Some of her earlier productions include How to be Immortal (Penny dreadful Th.Co) Twelve (Janet Steel Kali Theatre company). Surprise (Micheal Kofi Tricycle Theatre Education). Earlier screen credits include Ladybird (Ken Loach), Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh), Bullet Boy (Saul Dibb) and 7lives. More recent screen credits include Been So Long, 2018 Wale (Short) 2018, Death in Paradise (TV Series) (2018).
Her radio credits, The Winter House 2012 (Marc Beeby BBC RADIO4 extra) Corrinne Come Back, Landfall and Gone Best Intentions, BBC Radio 4 2011. Her professional training was at the Rose Bruford College from 1983–1985 where she studied Acting/Musical Theatre.
Since we spoke the 2019 Oscars has nominated the short film Wale in which she plays Wale’s mum. (more on Wale check back with us)
AA: Tell us about your career, when/why did you decide to go into acting and what was your first job?
Well I always wanted to be an actor as far back as I can remember since I was really small, since I was about five I reckon. I went to drama college I went to Rose Beaufort college in 1983, when I was 17 I did not finish the course I left in 1995, because I got an acting job, got an equity card which meant I could start working so I did. You needed an equity card in those days to work and I was like shall I take my equity card or take my diploma?
AA: What was your first professional job?
It was in a play called Stamping Shouting and Singing Home (Gwenda Hughes) at Watford Palace theatre an education company. It is a play that has been done a lot since then but I was the first person to play the role of Lizzie Walker who is the fictional great grand-daughter of an American women who was a slave her name was Sojourner Truth and she gave a speech to congress I believe that speech is called “Ain’t I a Woman”(1851) it is the famous speech about “I can play the field same as a man I can” and it was really well received it was great.
AA: Been So Long was recently screened at the BFI LFF and is on Netflix, a British film with a black female lead, Nine Night black female director, female director and Sweat three strong female characters. Do you think all the conversations we are having regarding women and race, the #Metoo’s are creating these opportunities, are we making progress?
I think is something that it is just happening because it is due, when I left school we had the Theatre of Black Women we had the Woman’s Theatre Group, we had Red Ladder, we had radical feminist theatre groups, we had female theatre groups and so to put it all down to the #Metoo movement and the #TimesUp, is sort of dishonouring all the hard work that had gone into theatre, grassroots theatre, community theatre, fringe theatre. The theatre run by and for women from the 60’s/70’s. When I left school in the 80’s theatre there was a lot of companies that don’t exist now run by women. The Womens Theatre Group was womans collective some great actors have passed through there and it did some really great work, so I think what we are seeing is those women maturing and going from setting up young radical theatre groups to maybe moving into BBC radio, to moving into directing into theatre and TV and taking over big spaces. I do think this it is part of a swell, part of a wave that I have sort of seen grow alongside my career. Yes hashtags the #Metoos and the TimesUp obviously they are timely and there are things I do believe need to happen but I also believe that woman have been forging a path already if you look at Paulette Randall who has been around, I think she was above me at Rose Beaufort, she started the Theatre of Black Woman she has been directing in theatre and TV for the last 30 years, if you thing of Indu I think she has been running the Tricycle for a few years, Jodie Walker at the Donmar and before that she ran the Bush, I do think that sometimes in the midst of these arguments we forget to acknowledge our pioneers and our heroes. Sometimes you can think this is all new, but we are riding the quest of a wave that began a long time ago. So, I think it very important to acknowledge all the hard work and effort that has gone in, there has been many female directors that I have worked with, there has been Claire Grove. There has been lot of people especially in BBC Radio like Jessica John Jules who are producer directors who employ women and they are well respected they are out there doing their stuff and they might not be names that we know, and they might not be that many women running buildings as I mentioned Indu, etc and now Lynette is going to be taking over the Bush. It can be done, and we should be looking at that saying to see where we are going we also need to acknowledge where we came from, acknowledge those women whose effort paved the way for us.
AA: Can you tell us about your character in Sweat, what motivates her?
Cynthia is a hard worker, she has got aspirations, but it has taken a long time to realise them. She is also a black women fighting for her son to have a better life than she can, she has got a husband who has been the love of her life, but he has let life and circumstances weigh him down, she is a very strong character she is quite a moral character who faces quite a big dilemma in the play to do with loyalties and friendship and her aspirations. She has to ask should I put myself before anyone else, should I advance myself, should I continue to advance my own goals, or should I stop and maybe look at what is happening around me. It is funny because with all the characters in Sweat nobody is right and nobody is wrong, sometimes some characters are more right than others, but it is great because it is a very very human play in that way. It is about all the choices we face every day and are we being manipulated and controlled by forces above and beyond our control, what decisions do we make in the heat of the moment when it is about our lives and when our lives connect to other people’s life.
AA: What would you say Sweat is about, what resonates with you?
There are so many different levels but for me I think the friendship level because growing up in this country as a black person, a British black person, I think it is inevitable that someone you know even if it is your friend is going to say something racist. They may reveal an opinion or belief that does not fit with your image of them whether that totally destroys that relationship or whether it leads to a greater conversation and greater understanding between those two people it I think that is a really really interesting aspect of the story you have got two women who have been friends since they were teenagers, they started work together and have worked at the same factory for more that twenty years, their sons are best friends and they were at each other’s weddings, then economic situations and the advancement of one causes a rift, we would hope that friendship would see us through everything. And there is the love aspect between the three women and how that is not broken. It is the stuff of drama isn’t it?
AA: Do you prefer the screen or stage and what are your most memorable roles?
I am always growing. My mum and I were great readers and I got to read Alice walker’s book Meridian, I think I studied it. It was one of my favourite books and then Paulette Randall ended up doing it at the Contact Theatre in Manchester and I actually got the part of Meridian and that was amazing for me to play. And it played in London for a couple of nights. Alice walker actually came to a performance and she loved it so that was great. I also did a play along time ago called Ragamuffin which was the time when dancehall music was big, and it was sent in a court it was a black production and the women were the prosecution and the men the defence. It was kinda of putting the young black ragamuffin on trial. It was amazing it toured the whole country and was at the Hackney Empire, it was sold out which was something because the Empire it is was massive and this was a play, sold out. I think we toured that production two or 3 times and the same company did it again with a different cast and we did it live on BBC Radio. It was a black landmark production and I was only 22 at the time but people still remember and that was another highlight if my career and of course Bullet Boy, the film was an amazing opportunity as it opened around the world and won loads of awards and was screened at the London Film Festival and I was riding to Leicester Square in a car. I love theatre but Bullet Boy was one of my favourites and Sweat of course and another play called the House Could Not Stand which I did at the Tricycle and it was about black women of colour in New Orleans. Yeah I have been really lucky. Touch wood I seem to work quite a lot. I always wanted to be an actor and I can not remember ever wanting to be anything else. In terms of preference for stage or screen I love the stage. Having said that have sort of done non- stop theatre for like 3 years now, and I about to do a major show called Amelia and that is going to the Westend after Sweat. But (laughs) I think after that I would like to do some telly.
AA: Let’s talk about Eastenders what was it like working on a soap?
It was hard work we were filming the equivalent of a film in one week and a film would normally take months to make, on Family Affairs it was a much smaller cast so it felt like a theatre company but in Eastenders it was a huge cast and it could be quite isolating at times as you would come in and do your bit and not know who else is in the scene. I think you had to be in there for a while to feel like part of the family. It was a good experience and it was good to walk down the road and for other black women to be so overjoyed saying oh my god we are so happy to see you there and it felt like I was doing something important terms of maybe being a role model and maybe just being visible so that young people can say in your area “look she is from Lewisham and she can do that”.
AA: Where do you call home?
AA: Any advice to anyone interested in acting?
Read books, read.
Sweat is at the Donmar Theatre until 2nd February 2019 donmarwarehouse.com
41 Earlham Street
London WC2H 9LX
Main image credit: clare-perkins-cynthia-in-sweat-at-the-donmar-warehouse-directed-by-lynette-linton-designed-by-frankie-bradshaw.-photo-johan-persson-
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