BBC One has added a new show to its schedule Dark Money hits our screens tonight 8th July at 9pm. This four-episode drama is the “dark” story of a struggling family whose child has suffered abuse and they accept a huge pay-off from a Hollywood big-wig to keep quiet. Actor and mentor Ellen Thomas is among the all star cast: she plays Maggie Mensah. Alt A caught up with the in demand Thomas to talk Dark Money, women’s roles and the “casting couch”.
ALT: How do you think the writer dealt with such a delicate subject matter?
Ellen: The Mensah family are a little bit up the creek, whether to take the money or not. It is skillfully written. You know it puts you the viewer snap bang in the position of oh my god what would I do if this happened to my child. What would I do? And then when the power is taken away from them by the offer of money it changes the whole integrity of the family. But Manny’s (Babou Ceesay) character I think that he (Levi David Addai) has written that well.
ALT: Max Fincham plays Isaac Mensah what’s it like working with him as a young actor?
Ellen: He is totally a delight both him and the actor who plays the other brother. One is the prince and one is the rascal. It is so good watching them work and how easily they took direction. I think I see a future I see a great future for the two of them. They are both good, lovely boys. No problems whatsoever. No diva behavior ever, none whatsoever. They are very well brought up. You know when you see children that have had good home training what we used to call it back in the day. They have respect for their elders, but they are also fun as they are young kids, but we were all impressed that they had a good home training. You know when mum said stop and they listened that impressed all of us.
ALT: You play Maggie Mensah can you tell us who she is and how she handles what happens to her family?
Ellen: Maggie Manny’s mum, I am sure you have seen all of it (laughs). I don’t want to give too much away. But she is the kind of African woman who her family is it, Manny is an only child so the love that she has for him and her grandchildren is typical, typical of that sort of West African mother. And she’s got sons so she’s totally crazy about her sons and grandsons. She is not an interfering mother which I loved about it. She is there not to do the babysitting as they are not babies anymore but you know she takes her grandmother role seriously. She knows when to be there for there for them you know. She is that kind of grandmother and mother. And I love that when Manny needs her later down the line, when it comes to crunch time when he needs her, she tells him exactly, you know I brought you up to have a backbone and do the right thing and you should do the right thing man up. Which is exactly what he needed to hear. Man up and he does, he did (laughs). That’s Maggie really, she is easy going and she not does not interfere which is nice. She is not the African mother who is in there in the family business the whole time. And you know, being the third wheel in the marriage. No not Maggie. She is like you are grown up and I brought you up well when you need me to help you, I will help. Which is a change because usually I get to play the interfering mother-in-law who is running her children from far and near, it’s nice not to play that for a change.
ALT: We can’t talk about abuse in Hollywood without thinking about the Metoo movement. How much do you think it has done towards exposing this culture of abuse. Or do you think we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg?
Ellen: I think it’s the tip of the iceberg, really, seriously. There’s a lot that goes on that women, as a straight woman I can only talk about women and surviving what we used to call the casting couch. You know I think that there’s a lot that hasn’t been spoken of there is a lot of women, but particularly female actors have overlooked, have taken as, have been told this is part of the business. I mean I remember being told about the casting couch. Being told you know there’s a couch in the office when you go for the casting, if anything happens that’s part of the business. Being told it is up to you if you want the job enough to you know make a decision based on that. It was taken for granted for the longest time. So, I am just grateful that we have come around to where we are now where people are saying no, you’re not going to do this to me. I refuse to have this be the reason why I got the job, it’s not happening. I love that totally but it can go too far when people are afraid to hug somebody.
ALT: You have a very impressive resume what would you say attracts you to a script or a role.
Ellen: I am still waiting for that role (laughs). But seriously I’m so lucky when I went up to pick up an award at the Black Magic Awards about a month ago for Richard Blackwood who played my son in EastEnders, Kojo introduced me as the UK’s Claire Huxtable. I thought that was really sweet except that I think I played just about every brilliant actors’ mother in the UK. I think I have done Claire Huxtable a little bit. I had the honor of playing so many wonderful young actor’s mothers, older actor’s mothers from Lenny Henry, Idris Elba, Jimmy Akingbola. Babou Ceesay, Richard Blackwood. I was looking at the list and I just thought oh my goodness this is a very impressive list. And that’s just the boys and I have done all the girls. as well. You know Kwame Kwei-Armah also, have all played my sons and daughters whether on television, film or on stage. I just feel wonderfully lucky.
I’m still even with all that and still waiting to play the mother or all mothers, I have played Caribbean mothers and I have played African mothers I have played east end mothers. I’ve had to fight for the backstory for most of the mothers that I play. They’re usually written in the one dimensional. No, it’s not just about their children. They are mothers who have a great love for their children. But that is not the be all and end all of their lives. They have a life. You know what I mean. They work, they have a husband and sometimes they have a sexual life. They have a social life, they have a life. They usually want me to play this one-dimensional character that does not have a life outside of her children. I always fight against it, some of them go to university, some of them work two to three jobs, they have friends. They go to dinner with friends, they have partners, all this stuff that makes us human. Which is all the stuff that they usually allocate to white mothers, to white families. Luckily, I didn’t have to do that in Dark Money, they had recognized that and has given Maggie a full life which we get to see more of in episodes 2 and 3.
ALT: So, do you think that is synonymous with female roles, where they play the mother, the girlfriend you know in a sense almost invisible. So, you think again with the Metoo movement that we’re seeing more women being center stage or women playing the lead. do you think in the last 10 years it is getting better?
Ellen: Yes, women are now directing a lot more writing a lot more being taken seriously a lot more being paid the equivalent of the male actors a lot more. And if not being called out. Absolutely. And, because women are now writing stories about women it’s resonating in the most amazing way. Look at the stuff that Ava DuVernay is doing in America she is bring in women writers women director and Oprah Winfrey. All that stuff there is a lot more happening in America and trickle-down factors causing it to happen will make it happen in the UK a lot more too. The story for now and the other aspect we’re seeing is stories about older women before there were no stories about anybody over 40. You know Hollywood basically told women that once you get to forty that it’s over. Forty plus women dominate going to see movies who is writing stuff for them. What are they going to see that doesn’t resonate to them? The stories about their children their sons and their daughters having a life no they too have a name. And I’m so happy that stories are becoming much more complex much richer and more diverse. The ripple effects of Metoo has been amazing. It’s just the beginning.
ALT: So, what would the accomplished Ellen say to the Ellen who was just starting out in her career?
Ellen: Oh, I have this conversation with the young people that I mentor I always say to them the thing that everybody says is just relax it’s gonna be okay. But apart from that I also tell them have a life. Have a personal life as well. You know, have the boyfriend, the husband, the baby. If that’s what you want as well. Have the family because it is an amazing grounding effect because otherwise the industry would drive you crazy
But I’d say write your story be uniquely different because your story. You don’t know who’s it going to resonate with it. how it is going to empower and inspire so write. And you will never be too old for this industry. Luckily you know you won’t get put out to pasture and we need somebody to play mom and then grandmother than grand aunties. So, you can have a long career if you know if you work it right. Yeah well, I’d encourage her to write her story stories about what her community what she sees around her. Yeah definitely do that.
And I’d encourage her to be as truthful about her story as possible because the truth of the story is what’s going to resonate with people and bring her the success that she’s looking for.
ALT: I must ask because you were talking about the representation of black women and families. What do you think about the new black family in Coronation Street?
Ellen: 40 years and it’s now in 2019 that they’re bringing in the black family in Manchester England. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s long overdue. And I can’t wait to see and hear the stories. I’m hoping against hope it’s not the stereotypical I want to say BS family. I hope we get like the rest of the families on Coronation Street. We get to see their highs and lows their cultural integrity. In order to do that they have to employ some black writers. Do you know what I mean and how open are they to it I don’t know? That’s what the hope is because what’s that will make them last, that is my concern and a lot of black people’s concerns. I was sharing Dark Money to my networks and everybody was really surprised, and the hashtag finally was trending. We’re all hoping that they make them unique wonderfully who we know they can be. As opposed to a black family that are white, white writers claim they don’t know anybody black. The way that the Asian families on Coronation Street have being written and they are you know typically Asian. I’m hoping that the black family can be typically Caribbean or typically African as well. That’s what is going to resonate and get viewers, so I hope ITV is s on board with that. I hope it not a novelty either, not just the ticking of the box, before they are called about this 40 year on that box is checked. I hope that is not the case.
ALT: What next? We have just seen you in Casualty and you have just finishing shooting In The Long Run with Idris Elba?
Ellen: I am of to Bulgaria to work with David Williams. He has put a comedy spin on it by asking what happens after ever after Cinderella in the story. I play the fairy of bling with a twist. She has a Caribbean tinge. It’s hilarious. We had a read through about four weeks ago and laughed and laughed. I join the cast next week in Bulgaria. So, I’m looking forward to that. I hope the weather in Bulgaria is like this afternoon London. So, after that a holiday a much-needed holiday. In The Long Run the chances are that will be on in the autumn by the time they finish everything. It is an October like schedule when everybody is back from their holidays. As we filmed series 2 and 3 and the Christmas special. I loved that I got to speak my native tongue on television. That’s been one of my bucket list things to do speak Creole on television. It was written in English of course as there is not any Sierra Leonean writers. But we do have Caribbean and black British writers.
Babou Ceesay and Jill Halfpenny, are also joined by, Susan Wokoma, Olive Gray, Arnold Oceng, Joseph May, Rudi Dharmalingam and Gary Beadle. (images credits BBC)
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