Hero returns for Black History Month: Talking to lead actor Nickolai Salcedo

“What immediately struck me about Hero was the way in which it unashamedly highlighted the invaluable contributions that Caribbean people have made to the world. I am all for representation. That seems to be a sensibility that the film/art world is constantly trying to come to terms with”. Salcedo

Hero: Inspired By The Life and Times of Mr Ulric Cross the film by Frances Anne-Solomon returns to the UK with nationwide screenings throughout BHM. Alt caught up with lead actor Nickolai Salcedo who plays Ulric Cross about his character, his career and more.  The film features Joseph Marcell (Fresh Prince of Bel Air), as writer CLR James; Fraser James, as George Padmore and  Jimmy Akingbola (Holby City),  as Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah. For screening dates and venues check here. (Main image credit Lola Flash)

Lead actor hero
Lead actor Nikolai Salcedo with Pippa Nixon

ALT: What made you decide to become an actor, what was your first professional acting job?

I think I’ve always been fascinated by performers. The ability to shed one’s own skin and assume that of another person always seemed somewhat magical. For a long time however I resisted the call besieged as I was with self-doubt. My friend Timmia Hearn however back in 2013 when we first met, asked me to join the Trinidad Theatre Workshop as an in-house actor. She had been working there trying to pump some new energy into the Trinidad & Tobago theatre scene. The result was my first real professional acting job. We did a few stage productions of pieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Fool for Love by Sam Sheppard. Through that experience I got the chance to start truly exploring performance. It became my profession, and that allowed me to focus on its many facets. Soon after that, film came calling.  Both disciplines have given me so much.

ALT: Did you go down the conventional route of drama training?

I had originally started a minor in Theatre Arts while pursuing my bachelor’s degree in Visual Art at the University of the West Indies. It didn’t take long before I dropped the minor as I wanted to get into music and history and other areas that I felt would colour my creative self.  I would say that most of what I have learned about acting has been gained through experience and from observing my mentors as well as other actors.

ALT: Let’s talk about Hero: how did you land the lead role?

The same way that all heroes begin their journey to self-discovery. I got a call, and I answered it. It’s so funny, a couple of months before auditioning I had cut my dreadlocks which I had been sporting for about 6 years. Suddenly, I found myself eligible for more roles. Someone put my name forward for the Hero audition and I went to it. My fingers weren’t crossed or anything as I didn’t think I would get the part. I figured I was too far removed from Ulric’s personality. After doing a couple readings, the production called and said, “Nickolai, we choose you. We need you to be in London in a couple weeks.”  From there began the most epic and life altering journey I have ever been on.

ALT: When you got the Hero script what did you like about it?

What immediately struck me about Hero was the way in which it unashamedly highlighted the invaluable contributions that Caribbean people have made to the world. I am all for representation. That seems to be a sensibility that the film/art world is constantly trying to come to terms with.

There is a beauty about the Caribbean people that the rest of the world can learn. We are a melting pot of cultures and ethnicity which, though created by a very ugly and savage past, has nevertheless given birth to a people capable of blending into all societies. I also appreciated the fact that the script focused on the evils of colonialism and attempted to portray what people like Ulric and his cohorts were doing to change things. It felt ambitious, and in a very good way.

ALT: How much did you know about Ulric Cross?

Before assuming this role, I knew absolutely nothing about the man. I had scarcely heard his name mentioned far less for knowing any of his achievements as an RAF service man, BBC Producer or any of the towering things he accomplished in his years as a lawyer working for the Pan African movement.

ALT: What were the challenges to playing this character?

For starters, he was a real person and I sadly never got the chance to meet him. I think if I did, I would have more intimately understood who I was trying to portray. Secondly there was the fact that he left such a huge mark on all who knew him. I was constantly concerned about doing justice to his legacy through my portrayal as I wanted those that knew him to see him again through me. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I was stepping into the shoes of a man who was known for being debonair, articulate and very scholarly. I’m a bit rougher around the edges as well as blunt with my speech. I prefer the messiness of my paints and the study of my guitar and song writing rather than the company of law books. Top that off with a bit of social anxiety and you get Nickolai the anti-Ulric.

ALT: What is it about the character of Ulric Cross that resonates most with you?

I really resonated with the character’s desire to keep moving. I hate being stationary, it drives me insane. I like to be on the move. There is always something to be done. There is always somewhere new to go. There was a quiet restlessness to the character that I immediately clicked with. Throughout the film’s narrative we see his movement through the years; as Frances-Anne said many times throughout the process, “This is a road movie.”

I also resonated with how unattached he seemed to remain through everything. It must be a thing of that era. My grandfather was the same way and he in many ways raised me. Perhaps because of this, I have always had that in my personality and through the film’s character, I got to live it without judgement.

ALT: Who are your “Heroes” of stage and screen?

First and foremost, there is my biggest performance mentor and teacher Wendell Manwarren of the Trinidadian Rapso band 3 canal. Wendell has been extremely instrumental in me getting to know and trust myself as a performer; in terms of both theatre and music performance as we share that juggle. He has a very charismatic, larger than life personality that always translates well on stage. His control and ease are something I always try to study and understand. He taught me about the choices that we make as performers from moment to moment and the way in which one must follow through on each choice one makes on a stage. As a teacher, he has never shied away from imparting his wisdom and I could only hope to one day be that for someone else.

In terms of film, I love Anthony Hopkins. He has a very theatre like approach that feels large even while dancing within the confines of the camera frame. Gary Oldman has a rather unique ability to sit in the difference of a character to the point that the actor himself disappears. Then there is Daniel Day Lewis, the absolute chameleon. Lewis transforms time and again, with each successive role he assumes, which is my goal as a performer. Again, it goes back to my earlier point about the magic of performance.

I would also say here that through Hero I got to meet quite a few heavy hitters as well, and they each taught me new things about film acting; not only by their willingness to impart what they know but also just in their being. Joseph Marcel, Pippa Nixon, Eric Kofi Abrefa, Fraser James, Jimmy Akingbola and Peter Williams all taught me to feel, flow, relax and be.

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