Josette Simon is acting royalty! Having already made her mark on stage, film and TV, the 59-year old thespian is at time of writing, playing the female lead in Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) Antony & Cleopatra at the Barbican in London.
Josette’s accolades include being the first leading black actress in the history of the RSC in 1984, winning Best Actress in the Evening Standard Theatre Award in 1990, and accepting an OBE for services to drama in 2000. So why is she not as much a household name as Vanessa Redgrave (CBE), Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench, all of whom went to the same drama school as her, Central School of Speech and Drama in London?
Born in Leicester, (her parents are from the Caribbean – mother is from Anguilla and her father Antiguan), her story is certainly inspirational, much like many of the pioneers and role models we admire. We managed to catch her in between performances to bring you our frank interview where she shares her thoughts on representation in the acting world, her journey into acting and what drives her.
How did you get into acting?
My intention was to study languages at university. I was going to do French, German and English and then at the age of about 13, a friend of mine at school saw an advert in the local paper for kids to audition for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat at the Leicester Haymarket Theatre. She did a lot of ballet, tap and stuff on Saturday mornings but I had no interest in any of it. Anyway, she wanted to go to the audition but didn’t want to go on her own, so I went with her. We both ended up getting into this children’s choir at the theatre and the show kept being revised every year and we revised with it and then the director started casting me in plays there. I liked it but still wasn’t interested in being an actor. Then other people at the theatre, including the now late Alan Rickman, said to me, “You should be an actor, you’re really, really good.” It wasn’t until some years later that I knew with complete certainty that I wanted to be an actor.
What does playing Cleopatra in the RSC production mean to you and how did you prepare for it?
Well, this is my fifth season with the RSC, over 25 years, and for each part you try to get to the absolute core of the character you’re playing, the truth of the character you are playing; whoever it is. Now Cleopatra is indefinable. She is an extraordinary woman and politician and is very hard to define because she has so many extraordinary qualities. A lot of characters, you could say they are this or they are the other, but you can’t say that with her, because she is everything. She is so mercurial, and she has so many parts to her character. I think she is the most extraordinary person I think anyone could ever meet.
Hollywood and TV usually cast younger women in the role. What would you say to that?
It has mostly been played by old people because that is what Shakespeare has written. It is a play about mature passion. This is the greatest love she has had, and they are older and she has run this country on her own. She is a remarkable politician. I keep saying that because people always suppose she is exotic and mercurial. She had all those things but actually the one thing I think often doesn’t get pointed out is that she has an incredible brain. You can’t be the leader of such a country for so many years and lead it to prosperity, especially being female and not be somebody who is incredibly intelligent, as well as having all those qualities. She is not just a sexy queen.
So, how did it feel to receive the OBE?
It was great. It was amazing actually. I know some people question this sort of Order of the British Empire thing and I can understand that, but for me, when I got this letter from the palace saying they were going to award me the OBE for services to drama; it was a wonderful thing because it is a very special thing to receive. Not many people do. It was a great affirmation of the body of work I have done and the barriers that I spent my career trying to break down in terms of what parts people of colour can play and not to be restricted and always challenging assumptions and, you know, I’ve done a lot of work, really good work and it is great to be appreciated.
That leads us really nicely on to the next question. What is your view on colour blind casting and how far have we come in your opinion?
Well, I hate that term for a start – ‘colour blind casting’. I don’t know who the hell termed it that.
What would your term be?
It would just be casting. I don’t feel that you have to put a label on it. That is just my opinion. I also don’t like the term ‘black actor’ or ‘black actress’ because people have more of an emphasis on the first word than they do the second. The fact is, you’re an actor, you’re an actress and you happen to be black. Which I am very proud of. For me, it is a bit of a ridiculous term. ‘Black actress’ and ‘black actor’. You don’t say ‘white actor’. He is just an actor.
The thing about it is I have always had in my career people say to me, “You can’t play this, you won’t be able to play that,”.
My take on it has always been that unless the predicament the character is in or the description of the character is that she has got long blonde hair and porcelain white skin; if that comes up in the story; then obviously I can’t play it. However, my whole thing is about playing human beings and not being restricted to black stereotypes. This is something I have fought for and so all the predicaments and experiences that we go through life as human beings regardless of our colour, we should be able to play.
You talked about having to fight for this for a long time. Not everybody has your perspective. And so, you kind of have to have these unfortunate labels until we get to the point where it is just casting, wouldn’t you say?
It has always been a fight. It still is a fight, we haven’t come as far as I would have thought we would. When I was the first leading black actress in the history of the RSC in 1984, there had never been one and I have done a number of firsts and I would have thought, if you had asked me then, how far we would have come by 2017, I would have thought we would have gone further. The fact of the matter is even though I have done a lot of good work and received the OBE and Outstanding and Best Actress, and all the awards I have won, I still have to fight now. I still have to challenge. It doesn’t get easier. If I want to do something, someone will go, “Well, I am not sure that is going to work because of your colour.” Then I have to get my boxing gloves on.
Things are hopefully moving in the right direction though, right?
Without a doubt. It hasn’t stayed in the same place, gosh no, it has definitely moved on and things have gotten better, definitely, but there is still a way to go. I decided that I just have to confront the difficulties.
How did you find the strength to do that though?
I don’t know. When I was in my final year at Central School; the Principal called me in and said, “I just want to make you aware that obviously when you leave…” [I was the only black person in my year. I have always been the only; it is my kind of norm really] … and said “…I know you like classics and you like quite heavy serious drama and stuff, but you will probably find you won’t be able to do that very much because of being black. So, I just want to prepare you for that.”
I thought to myself, “no, I am not going to think like that”. If I am going to go out there and already think I won’t be able to do this, that and the other, then that is limiting yourself before you have done anything. I knew there were going to be difficulties and I would have to try and confront them when they happened, by not putting a block in my head. Where that came from? I don’t know, I am just bloody minded, I guess.
Find out more about the RSC production of Antony & Cleopatra or watch the trailer below.