When growing up Hammed Animashaun knew he wanted to be a performer. But he assumed an actor’s life would never be open to him until an insightful teacher started him on a theatrical career. Now in his 20s, Animashaun is suddenly on directors’ must-see lists.
For one critic reviewing the Bridge Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer he was “the best thing about the show by far”. Another named him “Man of the Match”.
His current role is in an intense three-hander at the National Theatre set in the apartheid South Africa of 1950.
Master Harold… and the Boys is a 1982 play by Athol Fugard. It might seem remote from Shakespearean comedy but Animashaun says what the productions have in common is a lot of dancing.
“People don’t expect a pretty big dude like me to move about the way I did playing Bottom in the Dream. But there was a lot of dance and movement because the way Nick Hytner did the show it was pretty much a rave.
“I kept expecting Nick as director to tell me to pull my performance back and bring it down a couple of levels but he never did – he let me go for it.”
In Master Harold the dances are different: he and co-star Lucian Msamati have been acquiring ballroom skills.
“We rehearsed every day for six weeks and it was so difficult. I have so much respect now for ballroom dancers: there’s a level of intricacy I just didn’t expect. Playing Bottom I had the time of my life and sometimes I would ad lib and go a bit trippy but ballroom is totally self-discipline.”
Animashaun was born into a Nigerian family in Whitechapel in London’s East End. His father’s a bus driver and his mother a voluntary worker. “I always loved making my mum laugh in the living room. But I was the only clown in the entire family – my brothers have corporate jobs.”
Watching TV as a child it never occurred to him he could make it as an actor. Was that a matter of race? “Partly yes but also, as a kid, I was tall and skinny and I thought there was no one on screen who looked like me or who spoke like me.”
He says he was incredibly lucky when at Sir John Cass School in Stepney his drama teacher Fran Cervi spotted a spark. “She persuaded my mum to let me get involved when I was 11 with the Half Moon young people’s theatre in Limehouse. It was about building confidence and self-esteem.
“As well as acting at the Half Moon eventually I started to work there as an usher and in the box office. So that was my big introduction to acting and to the theatre and I was blessed. I will be forever grateful.”
He didn’t go to a drama school but at 18 went to the University of Greenwich to take drama. By then he had an agent and he dropped out in his second year to accept a role at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester in the drama Mogadishu.
“Looking back now this was never realistic but at the time I thought maybe I could put uni on hold and pick it up again the next year. It never happened.
“But as an actor starting out you want to move on but also you want some sort of stability. But in the end going for the play was the right thing, even though after it I was working in a bar for months.”
He now also has a healthy list of screen credits. On TV he’s had roles in Black Mirror and the forthcoming Breeders, among others. On the big screen he co-starred with Joe Thomas in the comedy The Festival.
But above all Animashaun loves theatre. “What I really liked at the Bridge was seeing everyone have a good time. The thing for me was seeing people, some of them young kids, who might not normally go to Shakespeare understanding what was going on and really getting into it.”
He feels theatre is an oversubscribed profession and also that it’s become harder for someone from a working-class background to make a career out of acting.
“I’ve worked hard but also I know I was very lucky with my family being so great and with all the passion to help me from my drama teacher and from my agent.
“But people shouldn’t give up. If you’re in your teens you need to find out what your nearest young people’s theatre is. Going to a well-known drama school isn’t for everyone and that may be financial but it could be for other reasons too.
“When I started off I think things were a lot easier because there have been cuts – there used to be more platforms. Becoming an actor isn’t easy but there are things like (the non-profit organisation) Open Door which supports certain people in their training.
“The thing I’ve done which probably I’m most proud of is Barber Shop Chronicles at the National two years ago. So that’s 12 black men on stage talking about their lives and talking about what’s important to them. That was such a great thing to be in.
“I do think there’s a new breed of fresh, vibrant and exciting actors coming up now and it’s more racially diverse. Maybe with casting 10 years ago things were more tricky but there just weren’t enough people who’d banded together to make noise about what’s going on in this industry.
“If we come together and say we can do these things too then people upstairs will listen. It’s not just acting – it’s writing and directing too. And if they don’t listen we’ll keep going because that’s what we’ve been doing for a very long time. If people don’t cast us we’ll produce our own work.
“If you really want to change things you’ve just got to keep pushing and driving.”