Giles Terera didn’t play the main role in Hamilton in London – but his performance still won him the 2018 Olivier award for Best Actor in a Musical. After a year in the physically demanding show Terera knew he wanted a different challenge. Now he’s in an intense drama of politics and morality – set in Norway in the 1880s.
He’s also writing a book for young actors, imparting the kind of wisdom he “would have liked to have heard at that age from a working actor”.
Revivals of classic plays often lay claim to special contemporary relevance – it’s good marketing. But Terera is certain that, even 133 years after it first appeared, Henrik Ibsen’s drama Rosmersholm fits the bill.
“I play the brother-in-law of Pastor John Rosmer, whose wife – my sister – has recently died,” he says of his new production.
“Rosmer undergoes a crisis of political ideology and a crisis of faith, which disturbs some of those around him. In the play there’s an election coming up which gives focus to the drama.
“And of course there might be – although maybe there won’t be – an election during the run of this production so that’s going to be in the minds of the audience.
“Part of the genius of Ibsen is that he doesn’t tell the audience what to think. He sets up a moral dilemma and then says well what would you do? The main characters are debating if we’re living life the best way we can. Have we found the best way to run society? That finds such an echo in the big debates now, whether it’s Brexit or huge ecological questions. The plays asks how people can be free and fully realise themselves.”
In the production, directed by Ian Rickson, Rosmer is played by Tom Burke of the BBC series Strike. Hayley Atwell, currently in Avengers: Endgame, also stars.
Terera comes from Hertfordshire. The surname is Zimbabwean, though he says people tend to guess Portuguese. He was in bands growing up and when he went to drama school he thought he was heading for a career in musical theatre.
“But after a year you have to decide what to specialise in and I chose the acting course. Partly it was that I was discovering Shakespeare and the beauty of language. So now I’ve done 10 or so things at the National Theatre but I’ve also been in Avenue Q and then Hamilton.
”Being in Hamilton meant having almost a monk-like way of life. You have to take care of yourself: you need to keep fit and you can’t really go for a drink or party. But Lin-Manuel Miranda created something extraordinary and like nothing I’d been in the presence of before and we all wanted to get it right.
“Lin-Manuel had thought I’m not really seeing myself represented on stage so he created the kind of show he wanted to see. That’s what I tell young actors who are starting out: create your own work because you can’t just sit back and hope people will cast you.”
Acting is a tough profession to get started in. But did being a black British performer make it tougher?
“It’s as difficult to be an actor of colour in this country as it is to be a person of colour in this country. It’s exactly the same. But when I started out it would have been much rarer for a black actor to be cast in the role I’m playing in Rosmersholm. So things are better in that regard.
“But I feel that where we are now is where we should be anyway. In terms of representation there’s still a long way to go. It’s a work in progress but that’s true of society generally: it’s not only what’s on stage or on TV.”
Six years ago Terera co-produced a documentary called Muse of Fire which looks specifically at why so many people find Shakespeare hard to get into and decide it’s not for them.
“It’s something I found when I was younger but I think it’s pretty common. So with Dan Poole, who I was at drama school with, we did a road trip and talked to all kinds of people like Judi Dench and Mark Rylance and Tom Hiddleston. Without fail they all said coming to Shakespeare had been a journey – it takes time. So we wanted to say to young people that Shakespeare is for you too – all the ideas of love and family and age.”
Currently he’s busy with two writing projects. He’s writing a book of advice for young actors, provisionally called The Balancing Act.
“There are lots of books about theatre but they tend to be by directors. When I arrived at Mountview (his drama school in London) I know I was a bit green. I hadn’t come to London as a teenager to see plays – though I went to movies a lot. So I thought what would I like to have heard at that age from a working actor.”
Terera hopes the book will be out next year – when also his play The Meaning of Zong should be on stage. “It’s set in 1783 and it’s about a trial which took place in London after a massacre two years earlier on a slave ship in the Caribbean. The trial led to the foundation in Britain of the abolitionist movement.
“We hear a lot about the transatlantic slave-trade and America’s involvement but not much about its place in British history. I’ve been working on the play for a couple of years with the Bristol Old Vic. It’s about trying to right a social injustice and it’s a real piece of history which no one I know had ever heard of.”
Terera is energetic in taking his career beyond just acting. So does he plan to move further into writing and producing?
“One of the great things about having been in Hamilton and winning the Olivier is that now I can have really interesting conversations with different people about projects. I feel like I’ve always had lots of stories I’d like to explore. So that’s what I always say to young actors: make your movie, make your film.
“You can have a camera, you can have editing equipment, you can have a sound mixer and these days it’s all in your own bedroom. There’s nothing stopping you.”
Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York’s theatre in London until 20 July.