You’re about to star in perhaps the biggest play of all time: 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'. So why make your directorial debut immediately beforehand?
‘It just all fits – I start “Harry Potter” rehearsals straight after. There was a phone call from the Royal Court last year saying, “We’ve had a great idea: we want you to direct.” I was like, “What? What the fuck? Excuse me?” It was one of those moments where you just go with it. I’ve hit week four and I’m in panic mode now, or not far off.’
‘I See You’ is a culture-clash drama about a young black man who grew up outside South Africa returning home. Does that feel personal, your parents being South African?
‘I was in South Africa recently, and I met my dad for the first time in over 30 years with my mum and my daughter. I was like: Oh my God, this is where I’m from, but I’m not of this place. The playwright, Mongiwekhaya, is the same. He grew up outside of Africa, then went back and that’s where this story came out of – this incident that happened to him, where a policeman saw him as an outsider.’
Was anyone in South Africa resentful of you, you know, this big star actor swanning in?
‘I love you for saying that but I’m just an actor. When I went to South Africa I’d won an Olivier ten years before, but it hadn’t made me famous. Now a change is going to happen. That’s why you’re here, because of “Linda” and because of “Harry Potter”, this huge fucking thing – I’m so excited.’
Let’s talk about about the Court’s big Christmas show, ‘Linda’. You won massive acclaim for replacing Kim Cattrall, script in hand, at almost no notice – what actually happened there?
‘You know those stories where the understudy steps in? I wasn’t even the understudy, oh my God! I’d worked with the director [Michael Longhurst] before and there’s a phone call from him on Wednesday evening at something like 8.30, and by 8.45 I’m off the phone thinking: What have I just said? I think I’ve said yes. Really, my body said it. Don’t fucking think about it, you’ll deal with this shit later on. A week later I did the first preview and I’d had no time to learn my lines.’
It must have been gratifying to get such good reviews.
‘Look, it was what it was: rabbit in the headlights. I think it was already acknowledged that I’m a good sight-reader – don’t talk, just speak.’
So I know you can’t talk about ‘Harry Potter’ directly, but…
The web basically exploded when it was announced a black actor would be playing middle-aged Hermione Granger – how was that for you?
‘I wasn’t aware of this shit and then my Twitter handle just went “wham” and I was like: What just happened? That and there was a couple of text messages going “This character is breaking the internet". Then it was just realising that, oh my goodness, this has caused something, and I was just excited to be doing it.'
Were you happy with that?
‘I am so proud of the reactions I got and I really mean that, but ultimately it’s a piece of theatre. It became about “black Hermione” – I’m playing Hermione and I am so fucking excited about that.’
Actors usually become famous in their twenties – are you all right with it not happening until your forties?
‘My Lana Turner moment? I’m going to enjoy what’s happening. It’s hard; this business of acting is hard. I am loving this – please God it’s the beginning of something, not the end of it. I’m buzzing. I’m buzzing!’
‘I See You’ is at the Royal Court Theatre until Mar 26.