The many faces of Lenny Henry: From acting to academia

Posted on 12/08/2013

As one of Britain’s best-loved entertainers, Lenny Henry’s| career has spanned comedy and drama from writing and starring in the hit comedy Chef! back in the nineties, to more recently astonishing audiences by playing the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello to critical acclaim. He is also well-known for being one of the founding figures of Comic Relief.

But Lenny also has another relatively unknown string to his bow; the world of academia. He is a dedicated student here at Royal Holloway’s Department of Media Arts| and is about to embark on the final year of his PhD looking at the representation of black people in the media. Indeed, this follows his MA in Screenwriting for Television and Film|, for which he received a distinction.

In between wowing critics once again, playing the lead role of Troy Maxson in the West End show Fences, we caught up with Lenny to find out about his inspirations.

Who has been your biggest inspiration in your career?

There have been many people who have inspired me. My friends Mac Cooper, Martyn (Tommy) Thomas and Greg Stokes were the first people to tell me I had talent, so they have to feature in there somewhere. Tony Hatch, one of the judges on the talent show New Faces which I won when I was 16, told me that I wouldn’t always be an impressionist - which is what I was doing at the time - and that I’d be a storyteller one day. So I went out and bought the Bill Cosby back catalogue and was fascinated by his perfect memory and ability to make it seem as though everything he remembered about his past was funny. 

What are the biggest challenges playing Troy Maxson, a former baseball star turned garbage man consumed by bitterness?

Troy is a very flawed but likeable protagonist. At the beginning of the story the audience enjoy his prodigious storytelling talents, but as his actions behind the scenes are revealed and we see the effect they have on his family, we begin to like him less and less. I guess the biggest challenge was playing someone who the audience do not like by the end of the play. He’s an easy guy to admire but very tough to like. Having played Othello (let’s not forget… a guy who suffocates his wife with a pillow at the end of the play!), I felt that if I trusted our brilliant director Paulette Randall, she would equip me with the right emotional journey to make Troy’s actions believable for the audience. Since we’ve begun, we’ve had people of all ages and gender coming up to us after the shows and telling us that the characters remind them of people they know. August Wilson’s writing has such human insight. It cuts through race, colour and creed – really wonderful stuff!

How have you found the transition from comedy to acting?

I’ve actually always acted, even though I never went to a drama college. I acted in sketches and half-hour film dramas, before creating Chef! with Peter Tilbury. I also played the lead role in Lucy Gannon’s Hope and Glory, which was pretty much a straight role, playing the part of a head teacher in a failing school, which I enjoyed immensely. I would say acting in drama is very different to comedy. With comedy, you can hear the reaction from the audience, whereas with drama, silence seems to be the thing you’re striving for. When you can hear a pin drop with no coughing, sweet papers or fidgeting, you’ve pretty much got them!

After completing your MA at Royal Holloway, what motivated you to come back to campus and study for a PhD?

I did pretty well on my MA and my tutor Sue Clayton|, suggested that I continue with my education at Royal Holloway. The Practice-based PhD at the Department of Media Arts offered the ideal opportunity, giving me the scope to mould and shape a subject that had some breadth and that is genuinely interesting to me.

What have you picked up so far during your studies?

I am learning how to be a better screenplay writer by making use of all the research facilities to hand at Royal Holloway. I’m also getting to grips with just how much research I have to do for each article – it’s astounding! As I already have a career that I enjoy, the PhD is for my own pleasure and it is a challenge I am determined to complete.

You are involved in the Warwick in Africa| project that Royal Holloway students have taken part in this year. What difference do you think they will make to the lives of young Africans?

I know from personal experience what it means to go out to Africa and give my time to help others - to offer help without thought for your own wellbeing makes you feel good. Africans both young and old will appreciate Royal Holloway’s students working alongside them and giving them a “leg-up” rather than just a hand-out.

Fences will run at the Duchess Theatre, in London’s West End, until 14 September. For more information, click here.


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