Most UK fans would know Martina Laird as the tough and sassy Comfort Jones in the BBC’s ‘Casualty’. She was in ITV’s The Bay and has appeared in 7 Shakespeare plays: other credits include The Governor, Dangerfield, Peak Practice, Jonathan Creek, The Bill, A Touch of Frost, Holby City, Shameless, Doctors and The Dumping Ground.
Born in Trinidad, the British actress recently took to the stage in August Wilson’s King Hedley II alongside Sir Lenny Henry. Alt A Review spoke to her about her career, diversity and playing Ruby in King Hedley II. The play runs until 15th June 2019.
ALT: What a great performance all round! Were you familiar with the play before getting the role and what do you like about August Wilson’s work?
Martina: Hey, thanks so much. Really glad you enjoyed it. Before the production, King Hedley was one of The August Wilson Pittsburgh Cycle that I did not know, so I was very excited to discover a new gem. I love the lyricism of his work: the marriage of history and magic realism with a sharp socio-political observation of the era.
ALT: Can you give us an insight into who your character Ruby is?
Martina: I’m not sure how my interpretation of Ruby differs to how she may usually be done. What I saw was a vulnerable woman who has battled depression and loss all her life. In the play we see her try to insist on the respect that she is due as a mother, but the truth is she surrendered King, her son, for the sake of love when he was just a child. She is infantilised in their relationship now and has to ask him for money. Whilst awaiting the security that the state may provide her when she’s old enough for social security, she suffers emotional rejection from him. She comments that she looks forward to when she “won’t have to ask nobody for nothing”. For me there is a childlike quality to her dependency on those around her even as she battles to find her strength. I was also struck by her numerous though indirect references to lost periods of her life and suicidal moments. Mental health is a serious issue among black people in the diaspora and so often goes unaddressed. Ruby’s despair and isolation is quite painful but understandable. She is on the verge of being broken by a life of murdered partners, lost children, poverty, abandonment and abuse and yet she lives with hope and decides to give it all one more chance. Also, what I love is that as a woman in her early 60s she is still a sexual, poetic, romantic character. It’s amazing that Wilson has written such a complex, challenging, multi-faceted part for a mature woman.
ALT: We know you for the many roles you have had on TV and stage, from Casualty, Doctors, Corrie most recently on The Bay. What was your deciding factor to become an actor?
Martina: The deciding factor to become an actor came for me at the end of university when I was contemplating what came next. I knew I wanted to act but worried that I should be doing what was expected of me, whatever that may have been. I had an epiphany moment when I absolutely realised that I didn’t want to reach old age with regrets and wish I had ‘given it a go’. At that moment and at a young age I realised that Life was about the risks you take to be true to yourself.
ALT: What was your very first professional job, did you go down the conventional drama school route?
Martina: From university I decided to go to Drama school. I can’t quite remember my first professional job,: it may have been EastEnders or The Bill, which I always think of as what used to be the television training ground for British actors. It was a sad loss to the profession when they cancelled it.
ALT: Let’s go back to King Hedley II for anyone coming to see the play what would you say the key themes are?
Martina: There are so many powerful themes to this play. Violence, Loss, Love, Death, Legacy, Parenting, Economics, Journeys, Confinement, Growth – Oh, it’s rich.
ALT: What is it like working with Sir Lenny Henry?
Martina: What’s great about working with someone like Lenny Henry is when they are an equal part of the team and just join in with all the challenges you face together as a cast.
ALT: You are not shy when it comes to talking about diversity: are you optimistic that things are changing for women?
Martina: The answer is for some. It’s great that we are seeing so many new artistic directors and directors. But women writers are still underrepresented, as, of course are black writers. My own identity means that I am always focussed on both these aspects of “diversity”. And it has always been a concern of mine, not just now that I am directly affected, the scarcity of representation of black actors and certainly black women as they get older. What happens is that Blackness is often used in a youth context- it brings something sexy or vibrant or dangerous. This is of course limiting to a truthful or holistic representation of Black life. We are denied the opportunity to see ourselves as more mature, leaders, or just facing the continuing complexities of life. It is also limiting in the workplace: there is an accountability that can be expected with experience and maturity in any profession. The absence of seasoned actors of colour in the room (at the proverbial table) means there is no accounting for the lack of progression or balance or representation. Where are our senior statesmen and women? Our Ian McKellens, Judi Denches, Vanessa Redgraves et al? Young actors and the Black public are missing out on the pride that comes from seeing your elders receive their due respect.
ALT: Who are your role models?
Martina: I am blessed to have had many role models. Growing up in Trinidad I had the example of the iconic Beryl McBurnie, a pioneer and anthropologist of Trinidadian and pan Caribbean culture. As well as my own teacher Noble Douglas whose legacy of Theatre and Dance continues today. What strikes me about these, and other female role models is how much of their lives are given over to the art they serve, often even committing their own homes to the preservation of the cause.
ALT: To new actors entering the industry what advice would you give based on what you have learnt along the way?
Martina: I would say, have a vision for yourself: who are you as an actor, what do you believe is the value of what you do? Where is it you want to go? Treat yourself as your own project.
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