Cool as a cucumber

Glass was delighted to catch up earlier this week with Fisayo Akinade, the actor who plays Dean in Channel 4 TV shows Cucumber and Banana (whose season finales air tomorrow). Dean is an effervescent, sexually adventurous 19-year-old with an active lifestyle and an overactive imagination; Akinade, while perhaps more reserved, is an intelligent and sensitive actor who made his name playing the eponymous Refugee Boy at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Cucumber and Banana, along with Tofu, comprise a multi-pronged programming event that uses sitcom, drama and documentary to explore the lives of gays, bisexuals and transgender people in modern Britain.

How long have you wanted to be an actor? Was it a childhood dream, or did you stumble into it?
It didn’t become a tangible dream ‘til college, really. I’d done plays, and drama at high school, and loved it; but I used to want to be a teacher, or a gymnast. Then I got to college, and one of my teachers told me I should consider doing [acting] professionally. She made me read a lot of plays. And there were people a few years above me who’d got into RADA, and so I [realised acting was] a real career, and all these people had gone to drama school … and with their help, I auditioned and got in [to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama] on my second attempt. I’ve never looked back, really; I love it.

What would you have taught if you’d realised your teenage dream to become a teacher?
Probably drama. Drama at college level. Or English. But I probably would have made a terrible, terrible English teacher; dyslexia is no friend to me.

Your voice now seems a lot deeper than Dean’s. How similar are you to Dean? Where do you two differ most?
The thing we share is our openness. We don’t judge. Dean likes to give people a chance, and is very open, and will accept anyone and everyone, no matter what their background is. I think we share that. But the more sexually charged, sexually adventurous side is more him than me. You won’t catch me wearing a chastity belt.

Dean is younger and freer. He really has no inhibitions. He likes to think he doesn’t care what other people think of him, but everything he does is to combat the massive boredom he feels as a teenager without that much to do or say. So he forages for these adventures, so he can say, ‘Oh, I did this last night’, or ‘Oh, I’m doing this thing with some nudists’. It’s so he has something to say. Because really, he’s just a bored teenager. It was quite nice for me to play that slightly innocent, slightly raucous type of person.

He builds up this story about how he was kicked out of the house by his parents because of his homosexuality; but when we meet his parents halfway through Banana, we find out that they’re actually lovely people who have always been understanding of his sexuality. Why is he the way he is around his parents? Why does he rebuff them?
So he works in this workplace with Henry [the protagonist of Cucumber], an older gay man. And he and Henry have probably had conversations about Henry’s generation, and how hard it was, and how [homosexuality] had to be kept a secret. It wasn’t something you could be proudly. There was so much stigma around being gay when Henry was coming out. And obviously now, things have progressed so much that coming out in some families isn’t a big thing at all. They just go “Oh right, Ok”. And I think Dean wanted drama.

He wanted a big coming-out story, and he wanted to say “My parents kicked me out”. But what he got was “Oh, that’s nice.” So he crafted this lie in order to live out this fantasy of being thrown out of his home, because that was glamorous and dangerous and interesting.

When he does go home, all of the drama is caused by him, because his parents are so normal. He creates an argument out of thin air so he can go back to his flat and say, “My parents are dicks.”

That’s so interesting, how he fabricates so much tension just to inject glamour and excitement into his life. Do you know anyone that’s done similar things?
Yeah, yeah I do. I mean, I don’t think Dean has a problem or an illness or anything. He just loves a good story and a good fantasy. Because [ultimately], he’s a mail boy. He gets up, delivers some mail for a bit, and then goes on Grindr. It’s all not that interesting. So he needs some stories to tell, since otherwise he’d get bored.

How old were you when you got your first agent?
I left drama school in 2011, so I was … 24?

Wait, how old are you now?
I’m 27.

I had no idea.
[Laughs] Yeah, a lot of people are quite shocked by that. I’ve had quite a few teenagers come up to me and say, “It’s nice to have someone our own age [playing that role]”, and I feel bad when I say, “I’m actually nearly 30.” [Laughs] So yeah, I got my first agent four years ago.

What was the first big role that gave you some serious exposure?
I got the lead role in a play called Refugee Boy, in the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I’d worked there the [previous] year in Waiting for Godot, [but Refugee Boy] was my first lead role in a play. It did incredibly well, and became quite important to me. Last year, we decided to take it on tour, and it did so well, and the reviews were so good, that I thought, “This could [become my career]”… because, you know, [actors are] in and out of work, and months go by before you get your next job. It can feel very disheartening. But I think that was the point where I thought, “If I can maintain this momentum … .”

And then Cucumber and Banana came along as we were coming to the tail-end of the tour. I had about three weeks’ [break], and then I started Cucumber. So I was very lucky that Refugee Boy came along, because I think it was the thing that propelled me into people’s consciousness a little bit. I owe a lot to that play, and to the West Yorkshire Playhouse, who really, really supported the show. It was lovely. A special period in my life.

Tell me a bit about your onstage experiences. How does it shape up against working in TV?
Well, with theatre, especially with Refugee Boy, which was an incredibly physically dynamic piece – with huge movement sequences alongside more traditional scenes – you have to get healthy! It’s not “gruelling”, but you have a rehearsal process for four to six weeks, where you’re mining the character and the plot. Whereas in TV, you may get an afternoon with the director before you start shooting, but that’s about it.

So all of those decisions and investigations you can do in theatre, you have to do by yourself [in TV], and then just turn up and hope you’ve made the right choices. In theatre, you can try and fail, again and again and again for weeks until you click into something that feels right. In TV you’re on your own – you hope for the best. That was the most nerve-wracking thing: to not have a director to talk [creative] choices through for a few weeks.

The most terrifying thing about TV is that you have a read-through before you start shooting, where you read a couple of the episodes you’re shooting. You turn up on that day, and all the cast and crew are there at these tables – Russell [T. Davies, the writer] was sat at the head, and all these [producers] were there. This was the first time we heard the script spoken by the people who play the roles. I was sat next to Julie Hesmondhalgh [who plays Henry’s sister Cleo], and I was really glad, because she was just as nervous as I was. So I thought, if this was a woman who’s worked in TV for years and she’s as nervous as I am, there must be hope.

Ultimately, the job is the same [in theatre and in TV]: you’re just trying to be as truthful as possible. But in theatre you have the luxury of having four weeks to fuck up a bit before an audience sees it.

Would you ever consider being a writer or a director? Or do you want acting to be your sole career from here on out?
Acting’s the thing I’m focusing on at the minute… I think every actor has ideas. I have ideas, but I don’t know how good a writer I am, so I think I’ll have to get someone who’s a better writer than me, and tell them my ideas. Then they could write it. I could just tweak it. I’ve never tried to write anything substantial. But I’ll focus on acting for the time being, and we’ll see how things play out!

I suppose acting’s pretty demanding as it is.
[Laughs] It can be. I mean, it’s really joyful, but at the same time it’s a weird thing … You’re a bit miserable [when] you’re not working and you’re unemployed, and then you get an audition, and then you get the part, and then you worry about being good in the part, and then you start work and people [praise you], and then about halfway through you realise that if you don’t have anything new to go on to, you’ll be unemployed again. And then you get really sad because you’ll miss everybody, and then you’re unemployed. So there’s only a small window of joy when you’re an actor.

[Laughs] Obviously, that’s not quite the case. When you are working, it’s great, and when you’re not, you just have to stay busy. You have to. I go to a gallery, or stay with friends, or just keep busy so I’m not just sat at home waiting for the phone to ring.

Do you have a secondary job, or is acting your sole breadwinner?
Sometimes I go back and teach at my old college [Xaverian College, Manchester], doing workshops with some of the students. When I didn’t get into drama school the first time, I became a teaching assistant there, and I really enjoyed it. I have a passion for teaching. I really enjoy seeing somebody come in and leave with a new skill or point-of-view. So I did that for a year, and now I come back and do workshops on things I learned at drama school. It’s really lovely that they asked me back.

What’s been your most challenging role?
Alem, in Refugee Boy. He’s this 14-year-old, half-Ethiopian-half-Eritrean boy abandoned by his father in England; his father was trying to protect him from the war back home. He’s got this innocence about him. The challenge was bringing out the joy of being in another country, with this sadness of being abandoned there, and the fear of what might happen if he were to get sent back. It was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster; there was no interval. We were all on stage the whole time. It was quite a challenge to maintain the through-line of the story with as much energy as you had at the start, for an hour and a half.

And Dean, too – even though he was a joy to play, it was a challenge to maintain that character for that long. He’s so bubbly and fun and cheeky; it takes a certain level of concentration to stay in that sort of headspace. I think he talks a lot faster than I do.

When playing him, there was a lot of things I had to constantly remember. On Monday, [Dean] might have said, “Come into the flat”, and then he would have opened the door. But then the scene might not have been shot for two weeks after that. So I had to remember what hand I’d used to open the door, and what I’d been thinking as I opened the door… you have to make those links as clear and sharp as you can, so that the through-line makes sense. Those have been the main challenges. I’ve not had anything too painfully strenuous.

You’ve spoken about the availability of sex these days, of having it “in the palm of your hand”. What do you think about this development? Is it something to celebrate, or something to be wary of? How have you reacted to it?
I feel these things are what you make of them. Actually, they’re quite individual. I think people assume Grindr is all about meeting people for sex. And a lot of people do use it for that, of course, but there are other people on it who just want to meet other gay people. Like people who have just moved to a new city, and they’d like to know where the safe places are to go out if you’re a gay man. So there are people who just want sex, but there are also the “Does anyone fancy a pint?” people.

You hear about people becoming a massive group of friends who all met through Grindr, which I think is really lovely. You have this really nice community feel sometimes. There are dangers and risks with anything. On the whole, I don’t think [these apps] are that damaging.

I think it’s great that you’re a gay man playing a gay character; but I feel that a lot of gay/trans people are played by heterosexual actors. Eddie Redmayne, having just played Stephen Hawking, has recently been cast as a transgender man in upcoming movie The Danish Girl; what do you think about straight people cast in non-straight roles? Do you think there should be more sexual/gender minorities playing  “their own” roles?
[Thinks for a few seconds] So the thing about being a gay man playing a gay man … I think people should just get the best people for the job. Gay or straight, disabled or not, trans or not, it’s all about the best person for the job. I don’t think [the actor’s identity] makes a difference.

I understand where people are coming from. But with Eddie Redmayne playing Stephen Hawking, [Hawking] was a physically able man who then got ill, and you’re charting the story of his life. If there was an actor who was disabled who could have played the role as well [as Redmayne did], then yes, of course they should have been given a chance to audition.

But I don’t think people should think, “We need more gay or black people, let’s [cast] some gay or black people”, just because they are a minority. I think that’s sort of reductive. You’d end up with people who aren’t right for certain roles, playing those roles simply because they’re a minority. And I don’t feel like that’s progression at all.

I feel like it’s better to go to the producers and writers and say, “YOU need to pick and write more diverse work.” That’s why Cucumber and Banana are so brilliant: [the Dean storyline] isn’t about “a gay black man”. It’s about being a young gay man in Manchester, who could have been played by anybody of any race. The minorities in the show – none of their scenes and none of their stories are about their race. It’s about them as people. That’s what’s important.

You have to go to the producers and writers and say, “OK, so we have this amazing new spy drama. Why can’t this character be a Scottish woman? Why can’t that character be an Asian man? What is it about that character that means they have to be a middle-class white male?” And if there’s no other reason than ‘I just didn’t see the character that way,” then just make the character different.

I know one writer who said, “But I don’t know how to write black [characters].” It’s just a prejudice. Why can’t you comprehend a black man being a lawyer? Just write the role, then cast a black person or an Asian person. Dean could very easily have been played by anybody. He’s not race-specific at all. Henry could have been a man from Asia. Russell deliberately wrote it that way. It’s down to the writers and producers to diversify it from the beginning, rather than just throwing some minorities in to make it look better. Because those people wouldn’t necessarily be right for the role.

Speaking honestly, do you prefer Cucumber or Banana as a TV programme?
[Laughs loudly] Erm … I dearly love them both. The wonderful thing about Banana is that what you get is a self-contained nugget, an LGBT story that isn’t necessarily about the characters being LGBT. And that’s wonderful. It’s easily accessible and digestible. But what I love about Cucumber is that it’s a huge, sweeping epic that covers a whole range of topics in a similar way to Banana, but over eight hours and concerning older gay men. Which I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen a drama about gay men in their 40s or early 50s.

I don’t know. I’m a big fan of half-hour shows, because I like that they give you complete little stories; but I love big, epic art, like Game of Thrones and House of Cards – these dramas that draw you in and make you wait and wait and wait until episode 16 blows everything out of the water. It’s a very diplomatic answer, but I do love them both!

Daniel from Cucumber is obviously a very complicated guy; I was pretty shocked by what he did in Episode 6. He’s a very interesting character, and I feel he represents neuroses about homosexuality and some people’s uncertainty about their sexuality. What do you make of the character of Daniel, and do you think he’s an important symbol?
Daniel was dangerous from the off, and a bit weird from the get-go … There’s such a weird “Oh, you’re gay?” reaction when you tell someone you’re gay. I think Daniel’s representative of an attitude [in people who find homosexuality] fascinating, because they don’t know much about it, but also scary, because they don’t understand it.

Daniel [had] a really conflicted soul. He was a straight man, married to a woman, and that was that. But there was always a desire to be with men. I don’t think he’s representative of straight men – I think he’s representative of an attitude of curiosity to what [homosexuality] is, and why men are compelled to it.

Not everyone goes, “Oh, I’ve realised I’m gay, and I’m happy about it.” There are some people who genuinely wish they weren’t, but are compelled to [like men]. I think he wanted it, he really wanted it, with Lance; but at the same time he was terrified of it, and hated himself, and hated Lance.

I don’t think Daniel is representative of a particular type of man; he doesn’t represent an attitude. What he represents is quite specific: the conflicted man who realises he’s gay and is both enticed and disgusted by it. So that’s why he behaves the way he behaves; that’s why he lashes out.

By Arjun Sajip

The finales of Cucumber and Banana air on March 12 at 10 p.m. on Channel 4 and E4 respectively.