Shaun Parkes on Building his Flawless Performance in ‘Small Axe: Mangrove’

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Photo Source: Nathan Arizona. Pictured – Shaun Parkes

“It’s mad, isn’t it, how these things come along every now and again – it’s kind of crazy.” This is how Shaun Parkes describes the extraordinary way Steve McQueen’s BBC masterpiece Small Axe: Mangrove has touched so many people, but it could equally apply to Parkes’ own performance in it. He plays reluctant activist Frank Critchlow with such suppressed intensity that it’s no surprise it’s earned him a BAFTA nomination, alongside a raft of other awards.

We sat down with Parkes to hear why his lead role in Small Axe grabbed him from the start, how he approached building the character of Frank, and how he’s always been mesmerised by performances where actors have cared enough to put their souls into them.

What first drew you to the role of Frank Critchlow in Small Axe: Mangrove?
You know, I could play a cop – brilliant, bully for me. I can be in space – fantastic. We could watch GoodFellas, or all of those films where our lives have nothing to do with any of the characters in that film. And we can love those films, but every now and again, a role comes along where you kind of get it, and it speaks to you. Now, that’s me as an individual ­– I wouldn’t expect maybe 90-odd percent of the people listening to this to understand, or particularly care, because it’s down to the individual. A role like this, it’s in my DNA. I can think of my dad – he wasn’t Trinidadian [like Frank]; he was Jamaican – but I can think of my dad and his generation.

“Some roles speak to you – some roles turn up that you get, straightaway. I think when people play those roles, something happens in them.”

And I remember the energy: I remember what it was like to have that dream of what the future was going to be. To be rubbing one’s hands together thinking, we’re going to be all right here, in England – we’re going to be OK. And then, the trials and tribulations – as we call them – that come with just trying to exist on this planet sometimes.

So, some roles speak to you – some roles turn up that you get, straightaway. I think when people play those roles, something happens in them. It’s different. It’s just a different expression – a lot more personal. And I like being in that mode.

Frank is a kind of reluctant leader, which makes him all the more heroic. How did you approach building his character?
Well, the good thing about this whole business is that there’s all kinds of actors in it. Some went to drama college, some didn’t – it really doesn’t matter in the end, because people got into this business through all kinds of means. But I went to drama college. So, when we look at building roles, we look at Stanislavski: you try and understand people, who they are, and why they are who they are, and how they got to be there. You have to understand the maths, the psychology that this plus this, divided by that usually ends up in that area over there. The long and short of it is that you learn everybody has their story – the next person we see come in that door, or the next person we see when we walk out on the street – they’ve all got their story.

And there’s a beginning, middle, and an end, essentially. So, you can focus on that arc, that journey. And the thing with every journey is that you can mark positions, you can mark things within a journey that aid you in its development, like a blueprint; and then you build on that blueprint. You know how to do that as an actor, so when a role like this comes along, it’s a sensical – it makes sense: very proud man who’s excited, who stands up for himself; tries to do something from the pureness of his heart, in terms of wanting to cook food for the community. You know, just like everybody else in this country.

And then get that gets threatened. That little bubble he’s trying to set up gets threatened. Well, you know, a lot of people on this planet know what that’s like, when you’re trying to do something, and then you’ve got an outside force coming to upset the balance. And more often than not, most people, when people are on you physically – they defend themselves.

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We all know that – we all grew up like that, even as a baby, even as a four-year-old child. So again, a role like this comes along, and you don’t really have to do too much to understand the journey, as it were. The thing about acting is it’s all about muscle memory. As in, you observe life, you observe people around you. The people who are around you when you’re growing up, whether that be parents, guardians, friends.

Because you know the blueprint, you know the story – this is where it starts, this is where it ends. Like with our particular journey that we’re talking about [in Small Axe], you also know there’s a journey and a story that goes beyond that – that started before these two hours [of the film], and carries on for another 30 years or whatever. So, this is a little snippet – a year in the life of, if you like. It’s about marking that journey.

What was the audition process for the role?
The thing about auditions is that these days, everybody’s having to put themselves on tape. But this was a live audition. And what I loved about it was that Steve McQueen was there – it wasn’t someone’s assistant. He cares – he wrote it, so he has a horse in the race. And that brings another level of attention to detail in the audition. I love that.

And he actually filmed the audition on film as opposed to digital. What was great about Steve is that he wants you to be an actor, meaning he wants you to do well – he really wants you to nail it. What he did with me, specifically, is that he allowed me some space and time by myself to do whatever I needed to do. Everybody had to get out of the room; he gave me a few minutes and then came back in very quietly. And I was able to get all the other thoughts, all the other energies in the room, all my nerves or whatever it is we’re thinking when you’re in a room with three strangers, not quite concentrating on the matter at hand.

And again, that said to me: Oh, you want this to be real, don’t you? You really care. At that point, I thought, whoever does this role, even if I don’t get it, it’s going to be demanding. But I love that – I’m that type of dude. And when I meet people who care as much as I do, then we’re good.

What’s the best advice you’ve had from a fellow actor?
Oh, gosh, there’s been some nuggets, but I’ve just kind of assimilated them – they’re just in me now, and you forget that someone told you.

“If you don’t really care for the role, don’t believe anyone else is going to care about watching it.”

But I do remember someone saying about theatre – though I would say this about anything – is that if you don’t really care for the role, don’t believe anyone else is going to care about watching it. That was a RADA nugget – a legendary teacher that we had who’s passed now, bless her.  

What one piece of advice would you give your younger self?
I wouldn’t need to tell myself this because I’ve known it since I was four years old, but love anything that you do. Really! If you love it, that’s one version. If you don’t really love it, it could be a difficult journey. Because it doesn’t matter whether you love it or not – until the trials and the tribulations turn up. Those can go on for like a week, a month, a year, sometimes a decade, my friends – and sometimes longer. And they let you know whether you actually do love this thing, or you don’t. If you don’t, it could be tricky for you. But if you do, you weather those storms. And if you love it, don’t let anyone push you off your gut feeling.

What I’ve discovered with this business that we call show is that if you love it, it will love you back. Not necessarily in the way that you want it to love you, sometimes. But definitely, it will – it will love you back.

What’s one performance you think every actor should see, and why?
Well, that’s easy, if you’re in my generation. I was talking to Stephen Graham yesterday [about his role in The Irishman]. And I said: “Dude, you were in a room, absolutely having it with De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Martin Scorsese. Are you kidding me?” And he’s like: “Ah, kid – I’ve got some stories... got some stories...”

I love Great Expectations [1946] as a movie. I don’t know why to this day, but I loved it. The black and white films used to turn up and they were mesmerising. I love Jimmy Stewart. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favourite films, because Jimmy Stewart cared. The long the short of it is, I always loved watching actors really care. And Jimmy Stewart always cared.

And then I watched Raging Bull. I watched that film and my jaw was on the floor, when I realised it was the same actor at the beginning of the film, as it was at the end of the film. I couldn’t believe it. And, again, Robert De Niro – there’s just something about De Niro where he doesn’t just care – his soul is in some of those roles. Every now and again, it just feels like someone put their essence in the role. And De Niro always did that.

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Pete Martin
Pete Martin is Backstage's London-based UK Editor.
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