What were the challenges of taking on the role of Kamal Hadley?
I have been writing and researching the black presence in the UK since the Roman times, and with this drama we have an incredible story that is almost in reverse, looking at what it is like to be the oppressed if you are the majority. When I took on the role of Kamal Hadley it was a question of – how do I depict a racist who is black, in a country where he is in the minority, but also where they are ruling?
That is somewhere I have never had to go with any character I have played before, so that fascinated me. Kamal is a slick politician with a very firm idea of what he wants the country to be and that country is black ruled. The white population, or as they are referred to in our story, the Noughts, have no say in how things are run.
People who read Malorie Blackman’s books are of an age where they are now the adults watching it at home and we wouldn’t want to disappoint them with something so different. But at the same time they are not children anymore, they are fully grown participants in society and they want to know about the politics, the food, the music and fashion, how people negotiate work and what the class system is like.
That is what we are attempting to do with this adaptation – to broaden it out for a more adult audience, so we can see that this is the way the world is structured. And that is why Sephy and Callum are going through what they are going through.
Can you describe the alternative world that this drama is set within, and how it was created?
We have a visual representation of England after 800 years of colonial rule from an African nation. Everything had to be thought out properly. We were filming a scene in Kamal’s diplomatic car with Sephy, and we had extras driving in cars around us and someone pointed out that the woman in the Porsche Estate was white, and if we were picturing a world where white people didn’t have any money that would look strange. We had to reshoot the whole thing.
It’s politically quite hot. Filming in South Africa you are in an ex-apartheid country doing a show about apartheid in reverse. There are so many small moments that a lot of people wouldn’t think about, like the fact that flesh coloured plasters are not the flesh colour of anyone but white people. It is an insidious, tiny, incremental knock to you as a citizen of any country to be told what normal is in those casual ways.
There a lot of tiny things like that: the clothes you wear, the colour of them, the way you speak, things that are so important to us in Britain particularly when designating who is who, where they have come from, what their job likely is, where they live, their level of education and all the things we break down just from hearing someone speak or seeing them come into a room. Working on this drama has exercised all of our minds and made us super aware of everything.
Do you have a stand-out moment from the shoot?
My favourite scene to film was in the first week of shooting, and it was Kamal’s wife, Jasmine’s (Bonnie Mbuli) birthday party. There were about 80 supporting artists in this huge garden with a beautiful swimming pool, it was amazing. Just seeing that many black supporting actors dressed so finely, a lot of them in stunning African clothing, was thrilling.
What is your understanding of Kamal, and how do you make sense of his heinous behaviour?
As an actor you try to find reasons for actions taken by your character, which is what I did with Kamal, so he is not just a two-dimensional villainous character.
Starting with his name, Hadley – this is such an English sounding name, I figured there must have been a white man who was part of his family line. Knowing that could, if you become radicalised about race, lead you to want to reject it, and that is part of his motivation. It was part of my justification as to why he has that blind side to the Noughts. He is denying a major part of his DNA in order to – he believes – fulfil his bigger destiny which is the establishment of a black superpower.
The other factor is his emotional past. That story is about something to do with his own heart and having to kill a part of himself in order to fulfil what he thinks is his destiny, which leads him to be a cold character towards most people except Sephy.
Tell us about the relationship between Kamal and Sephy.
Masali is a great performer – she broke my heart three times during filming. We filmed scenes that a lot of fathers would relate to when they realise that their daughter has grown up and is no longer going to tell them everything, and in fact is going in a very different direction.
That was heartbreaking because our relationship is very close and warm, unlike Kamal’s relationship with Minerva (Kiké Brimah), Sephy’s older sister, and Jasmine (Bonnie Mbuli), his wife, which are casual and almost cold. Sephy brings out the joy of fatherhood in Kamal, she is smart and sensitive, and she is obedient up until this story kicks off. Her ambitions are likely political which Kamal is very pleased about, and then it all turns sour because of, in Kamal’s eyes, the McGregors – the bane of his life.
Are you prepared for audiences to dislike Kamal?
I am prepared for how unpopular this character will be because he is horrible to some very nice people. Playing a character who will be seen as villainous will be fascinating, because a lot of the characters I have played are reasonably affable. Kamal however is cold and Machiavellian, and it is thoroughly enjoyable playing him because he is all these things yet charmingly, whilst wearing a smile…
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