Alt A Review managed to talk to Fraser James who plays George Padmore in the new Frances-Anne Solomon film Hero. With a career taking us back to 1991, James is one of the UK’s in demand actors whose resume spans from popular TV to stage and film roles. Most recent film roles: we can see him in Terminator; Dark Fate with Arnold Schwarzenegger to be released late 2019. He was in Idris Elba’s Yardie, Resident Evil, Sometimes in April. For TV he has been in Loch Ness, Holby City, Law and Order, Origin, Babyfather, The Affair, to name a few. The actor talks about his 2008 exhibition Underexposed which he said was a response to the conversations around the lack of black role models in the UK leading to crime and underachievement particularly among young black men. James stated: “I just think it is a nonsense. I mean we absolutely have black role models here they are just not exposed in the same way they are for example in America”. He also talks about working with Hero Director Frances-Anne Solomon saying “… you know there aren’t too many directors that do what Frances-Anne does”…. and of his “discovery” of Pan-Africanism and Ulric Cross. You can catch the film at Picture House cinemas from 22nd June 2019. Full cinema link below: watch trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjZkecxkAfQ
ALT: Tell us about your character George Padmore?
FJ: You know, when I originally spoke to Solomon about playing this guy I had no clue who he was. So yeah, after having a brief chat with her about that I went away and did my research which is something I really enjoy doing as an actor. The first thing I do is if anything is to be researched I get stuck in. And so, I tried reading up about who he was, and I was absolutely amazed at you know this guy’s peers. His trajectory from leaving Trinidad to going to Russia to being in the States living in France and then in London. That movement across the world for someone who is black at that particular time I thought was amazing anyway. But then when I start to look deeper into what he was, who he was I mean C.L.R James described him as the father of the Pan-African revolution. You know it’s like this guy was constantly in the background of whatever was going on with Pan-Africanism, that was intriguing to me. When you start looking at what he was doing and how he was pulling the strings you can see how governments had issues with him because this was someone, you know Padmore his ultimate aim was to deliver the United States of Africa. And obviously there were various governments particularly European governments at the time who did not want to see that happen because of the strength Africa might have. I mean he was someone who was an immense brain I mean his thinking was, his political thinking was exceptional. And you know I think he really was responsible for the independence of Ghana which was at that time was the Gold Coast but also in terms of black culture he was at the forefront. I think what’s great about the movie is that you know a lot of people have no clue. Like I didn’t, they have no clue about who George Padmore or Ulric Cross was or Kwame Nkrumah. The movie Hero really gives a good insight into who those guys were, and it was an absolute pleasure, I can tell you that once you come across a character like that you immerse yourself into it. You are only interested to do it justice, to play the role and serve that man the way that he deserves to be served. I hope I did just that. So yeah I mean I really enjoyed playing him and enjoyed being a part of the movie as a whole.
ALT: And what did you like about that character, his motivations?
FJ: I liked the scenes that we did in London because they were like lower key. They were thinking scenes he was working on stuff that he was working on. They were in a smoky room with everyone talking about the next steps, how to proceed and how to make the agenda of the United States of Africa happen. And so, I love those scenes, they were thinking scenes, but they were also pressurised scenes because the way we were working with Frances Anne she had a kind of a little script. We improvised around that constantly and in order to do that you have to again do your research, you have to know dates and figures and moments in time and anchor them in your memory so that you can call upon them when you are in the middle of a scene. And so those things I particularly loved but I also enjoyed very much being in Ghana and the scenes where Padmore went into villages and of course once you arrive in #Africa and then you start to understand the problems of creating a United States for Africa and the fact that the villages and the elders in that village were very kind of territorial and didn’t have really any interest in associating themselves with other villages and then becoming united and so he was fighting against that. But trying to nail down the most chilling thing for me was when we went to the castle where the gates of no return exists you know on the coast. And that was where this was the final stop before the slaves went to America you know. And when you walk into that castle there’s a vibe there immediately. But when you walk through this tunnel where those holding rooms, holding cells, ruins are I mean concrete, it is just cold and damp and the vibe was just unbelievable. Just thinking about it now gives me chills. And just to be walking through there and then walking out to the tunnel and then into the sea. So that was very emotional I suppose. So, if I was to nail it down to one thing it would be that.
ALT: Wow I was gonna ask what you found the most challenging, but you just covered that, you mentioned Solomon. What was it like working with her as a director?
FJ: It’s very interesting. You know there aren’t too many directors that do what Frances-Anne does, there just aren’t. Normally when you walk onto set you are filming, everything is very structured, you know precisely prior to arriving on set you know these are the lines were doing, these are the lines we have. And so, it’s really just a situation of how we’re going to bounce around on the day, move it around a bit establish where the camera is going to be and how the actors are going to respond to each other. But if you are working like Frances-Anne which as I say essentially that you have a script but it’s a skeleton script, it’s quite loose, she’s not super attached to it. So, she wants you to do your research and investigate who the characters are and then come back with your take, your honest take on who these characters are. When you arrive on set you know roughly what the scene is, but you have no clue what someone else is going to say and how you’re going to react as that character. So, it’s quite taxing as an actor because we like structure, we like to know that we are going to have a relatively easy day. But when you walk on set and you don’t know what’s going to happen that throws everything else in the air but it’s very enjoyable.
ALT: In the film after World War II Cross was really disillusioned about how much he’d given to this country and what he was getting in return so fast forward 2019 we are dealing with the Windrush scandal. What do you think needs to happen?
FJ: There’s no easy answer to that. I’m the founder of an organization called Underexposed, we launched an exhibition of portraits of black duel heritage British African Caribbean actors at the National Portrait Gallery and in Peckham in 2008 and we’re reviving it now and that’s the premise of that exhibition and the reasoning behind doing it. We had 30 portraits of Black British Actors and essentially it was my response to this perceived notion that the reason why there’s violence in the black community and low achievement for a black school leavers is because we have a lack of black role models which I just think is a nonsense. I mean we absolutely have black role models here they are not exposed in the same way they are for example in America. So, you can’t come back 10 years later to this project which I’m doing this year and a lot of exactly the same situations, exactly the same issues that were there in 2008 are here in 2019 right now. We’ve got a crazy situation where the same level of knife crime that we had in 2008 and prior to that which is kind of where the project genesis was because I’d been listening to a radio show and the premise of that radio show was all this violence is happening because we don’t have any black role models so that again is the same conversations that are happening now. And yet there’s a push back against diversity at the moment. So we ..I think just in terms of what I am doing I’m standing here again and actually in Black History Month again when I deliver this exhibition which will be at the National Portrait Gallery and again a permanent site in Peckham and then Elephant & Castle and I hope to inspire in the same way that this project inspired John Boyega who is now leading Star Wars and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out and Black Panther who were young men growing up in Peckham who saw those portraits and looked at them every day on the way home from school and said I know what I want to do, that. So I think that the Windrush scandal is just absolutely a disgrace and what we can do is again just put ourselves in the face of people and yeah we deserve to be at the National Portrait Gallery. But we also have to be on the street as an installation so that young guys can see reflections of themselves and aspire to that, you know.
ALT: When did you start acting and what attracted you to this profession?
FJ: I went to drama school in 1988 and I left in 1991. To be honest, I was a bit of a TV addict. I was working in advertising at the time and I would come home every evening and know exactly what was on each channel, one summer, late summer I decided I was going to do something else with my evenings. I went to do a sword fencing class at the City Lit in Covent Garden and unfortunately the places were already taken up and I was just about to leave the building that night I stopped at the threshold of the building and someone tapped me on the shoulder and said look there’s other things you can do here. So, I turned around and saw drama on the board on a list of subjects and I went to the drama dept and I met a woman by the name of Valerie Colgan who was the director of the Old Vic Youth Theatre. I applied for a part in a play she was doing, I auditioned and she gave me the lead and that really was what kind.. of.. I bumped into acting. After that I decided I wanted to go to drama school, so I got out of advertising and spent three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the rest is history, you know I was lucky.
ALT: So, what attracts you to a script?
FJ: Well what attracts me to a script right now is very different to what used to attract me to a scripts. These days what attracts me to scripts is a script that gives me the possibility to be great. A script that allows me to flex, a script that when I look at it I think yes this is something I can do something with this character I can deliver. I can deliver something that’s great with this guy you know, because of course over the years you play lot of different characters in different kinds of mediums. And I think at the phrase I am at now I know what I deliver. I know I can deliver really good work and so therefore that’s the starting point for any job is to deliver good work. But the ultimate aim for me to deliver great work and so I’m looking at scripts I’m looking at something that’s really well written hopefully. And then the characters were really well defined and there’s something about that character that appeals to me and therefore engages me in greatness. That’s what it’s about and it’s something I say to young actors I mentor, don’t be afraid to be great because that’s what this scheme that we’re in is about. You can go on for years as a jobbing actor or you can define yourself and the space that you are in by doing great work and being known for doing great work. So that’s really what it is about for me.
ALT: You have a role in Terminator how did that happen and what was it like working with Arnold Schwarzenegger?
FJ: I was in Cape Town last year doing a series called Origin for YouTube Premium and my agent contacted me and said look we want you to audition, put your stuff on tape for Terminator but it’s just one scene so it’s up to you. I thought it’s Terminator. And at that time, I didn’t know my scenes would be with Arnold. As it happens after several auditions for this one scene it turns out that the one scene kind of became more like five or six scenes and then my particular scenes were absolutely all with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Linda Hamilton Sarah Connor Terminator franchise. So, all I can say is I had the most wonderful time. I had some of the biggest pinch yourself moments ever in the history of my acting career when you are dodging bullets and helicopters flying above your head and Arnold Schwarzenegger is running and jumping into a van and firing shots and you just have to lie there and think is this really happening. You know I had the best time and that’s the biggest takeaway from it for me was that both Arnold and Linda and everyone on that movie, really in particular those guys who are icons in the film business were the nicest people you can imagine they were just so generous so welcoming and I can’t say enough great things about them. I ended up going to the gym with Arnold on a regular basis. So, I have some pictures of me and Arnie at the gym training and we were riding a bike together around Budapest. We would go to the gym on our cycles and then do a session and then jump back on the cycle and go back to the hotel and have lunch. I had the most amazing time. It’s not heavy plot, it’s a cameo but I really I’m looking forward to seeing it. It will be sometime later this year. I don’t have release dates yet.
ALT: What are the two most important messages in Hero?
The first one would be the fact that we do have heroes and we have and have had real life heroes. And they are those guys in the movie you know from Kwame and Padmore to Ulric Cross. These are some of our heroes from the past,some of our role models from the past and that’s huge. Because it’s important that we are aware of who these guys were, that we know our history. I was having a conversation with someone yesterday just saying what’s really interesting is that if you talk to most black youth in the UK the reality is they’ll know more about American history than they do about UK history. If you’re talking about black history, when it comes to Black History Month and people are pushing back against this saying well why do you still need that, you guys are so advanced from where you were. Again, it’s a nonsense because the reality is most of the black culture here it’s kind of connected to the US so therefore we’re going to know more about the US and their heroes. And George Padmore spent a lot of time in the UK as did Cross. And you know these are guys that we need to know about. That’s the first one. And the second one I would say is the style of the movie which I just think is just epic really because the way that Frances-Anne managed to merge the archival footage with the stuff that we shot. It’s just done so wonderfully; a movie should take you somewhere, when you walk into the cinema from doing your everyday stuff a movie should completely take you somewhere different and that’s what Hero does. So yeah it’s a phenomenal two-and a-bit hours.
ALT: What advice would you give from the experiences you have learnt along the way about acting?
FJ: One of the things that we did with Underexposed and the portraits we had in 2008 alongside each portrait I had every actor give a gem of knowledge that they kind of lived by in their daily life. Some people said things like, acting is grafting, don’t forget to breathe and my particular one as there is no deodorant for this desperation because you when you walk into a room wherever it is, especially if you’re going for an audition you need to be relaxed, you need to be breathing in order to stand a chance of getting that job as if you’re breathing if you’re relaxed you are thinking and if you are thinking then you can stand a chance. If you are in a moment of desperation you stand no chance as people sniff that out but that was 2008. In 2019 I’ll repeat what I said to you a short while ago which is don’t be afraid to be great. You know get out there and don’t be afraid to be as great as you can be.
For all Hero screenings go to: https://www.picturehouses.com/film/hero-plus-qanda
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