When I grew up, saying you wanted to be an actor was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut. I grew up in the Cotswolds in the '70s - people didn't become actors. If you were bright, you might join the civil service or work in a bank. But it was what I loved. When I was 16 I went to Bristol to see David Hare's play Plenty, and there was something about it that captivated me. I thought: 'I wanna do that'. But I was a good African daughter so I did a law degree.
Eventually I bailed on that degree because I hated it and wanted to be an actor. I joined a black women's group and one of the women there was an American actress. She took me along to audition for a play she was in. I got it and never looked back. From there I cleaned toilets and modelled for life-drawing classes because I didn't get any work for a year. Sometimes I'd be sat in my bedsit in Brixton and think "I'd just like to be in a house that's warm". But I was 21 then, and I felt invincible.
It wasn't until I did Invictus that my dad thought: 'maybe she's not going to finish that legal qualification'. He just wanted his daughter to have a proper profession. I hadn't done a Hollywood film before that. When Clint Eastwood hires you for a job he's very open to ideas. If you show him an idea and it's better than his, he'll do it. It was a really encouraging process, and a lot less intimidating than other jobs I've done.
A lot of young people may know about Assata Shakur through the rapper Common. In 2013, she was the first woman to be added to the FBI's most wanted list after she was broken out of jail. She is adamant that she did not murder the state trooper she is convicted of killing in 1977. This play is set around the time that President Obama was rebuilding relations with Cuba, and it was thought her extradition to the States might be part of the deal.
Assata Taught Me is an imagining of Assata meeting a young Cuban man who wants to go to Miami. For him, America is freedom and Cuba is slavery. For her, it's the other way around. The play is about how they come together. It's funny, you've got the woman who's a bit grumpy and this young boy who's like an annoying puppy - "love me, teach me". But things take a turn.
I've been learning a lot about the young people's music. Kenneth Omole [who plays Fanuco] is just out of drama school and full of energy. We've been swapping Kendrick Lamar and Common for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. I was a punk in the '70s so it's great hearing all the new stuff. It's a joyful time.
Assata Taught Me runs at the Gate Theatre until 27 May.
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