British-born Nigerian actor Emmanuel Imani is the latest in the wave of young Black British talent primed for an unforgettable Hollywood entrance en masse. Media darling and BAFTA winner John Boyega takes the lead with his Star Wars stint. The latest UK GQ lists as one to watch Arnold Oceng for his definitive role in The Good Lie alongside Reese Witherspoon.
Imani’s acting career in 2013 began in theatre with the play A Thousand Miles Of History. He first starred in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit in 2014, with Chris Pine and Keira Knightley, then went on to star in the Channel 4-supported Invisible Men last year, which premiered at the British Urban Film Festival. The Afrobeats musical he stars in Oliva Tweest, will debut at the Lagos Theatre Festival, after premiering at London’s West End in 2013 and a short run at Hackney Empire last year.
We spoke to the amiable South Londoner on the cusp of his Hollywood debut in Criminal with Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gary Oldman.
Is moving to Hollywood on the cards for you or nah?
Last year I stayed in LA for about three months and I am not super fond of the layout. It’s really big and coming from London everything is so close it took some getting used to. But on the other hand everyone is nice, the casting directors are so nice. I could see myself being out there maybe for a couple of years.
How about the discussion about diversity in Hollywood going on right now?
I am excited that it’s happening. It’s been needing to happen for a while. In the UK we are even further behind on that which is a shame. That’s why a lot of our actors run off and never come back. I don’t know if we are ever gonna see Idris and David Oyelowo again. (Hollywood) is great cos there are more opportunities for actors like us out there but this debate certainly shows the issue. It’s still a glass ceiling.
I graduated from drama school and I was under the illusion I would work all the time. I would wake up and go to the casting and too many times there’s too many actors with my profile vying for one role. All these execs ever write for are white people. Asians, Blacks, all people of colour – we are all at the same disadvantage.
How do you think the film industry could better portray the lives, struggles and joys of Black people?
I read this article the other day which was saying that they are only interested in making black films when it’s about Martin Luther King and Mandela. No one takes notice of us if we play the ordinary man. It’s as if, if we are regular no one is interesting enough. The other thing is we can’t sit around and wait for people to write for us. We have to take control and tell the stories so that we can actually play the guy next door not just the Ugandan warlord.
And how about Nollywood. D’you have a taste for it?
I am a big fan. I get teased quite a lot about the Nollywood films I watch I don’t think it’s a secret. They are taking steps to improve. Their scripts are improving. Some of the acting and style is leaning towards America which doesn’t always work. I played an immigrant in this feature film last year called Invisible Men which deals with immigration and it was great. The director let me put my own spin on it. He let me own what I was doing.
What prominent black entertainment figure would make a great late night host of a talk show and why?
I think Funke Akindele who does Jenifa’s Diaries would be great, she is really funny. I could see her flourishing if she got her own chat show. She should do like an African SNL.
Are you a Netflix binge watcher?
Yes! I have to now pay for multi-screen. It’s a great way to watch independent cinema. Apparently it’s quite difficult to get your film on there though – the whole who you know and what not.
What was the last great series you saw there?
Umm so many. The last great series was house of cards with Kevin Spacey. It was really great but it got to an episode that become really disrespectful to my faith and I had to pull the plug. I don’t expect non-Christians to be reverent to Christ but I didn’t expect the disrespect I witnessed so I stopped watching it.
Does your faith ever come up when you’re negotiating work?
Oh yeah 100% it comes up. Every once in while if a script is potentially huge they’ll run it by me even knowing the things I won’t do are in there.
Is there a role you might never play?
Being in the industry I think there’s no role I wouldn’t play. I wouldn’t want to be nude I couldn’t handle being nude. Sex scenes too. It would be really awkward to have to explain that to the kids I have down the line.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to face in your career?
I think doing Invisible where the character I played was an immigrant. My aunt who helped to raise me was deported from the UK a year before I shot the film. I remember when I read the script it felt a bit more real. When we read things in the paper it’s one thing but when it’s close to home it’s another.
How is she doing now?
She’s fine. Similar to the film sometimes a large part of the issue is thta not knowing what happens when you go back home or what it will feel like. What’s it gonna be like? Are we gonna be ashamed? That kind of thing. But my aunt is back in Nigeria and she is flourishing. Sometimes going back really is the best thing even when you don’t see it then.
What should every actor coming up know?
I think you have to be nice. It’s important. When you get booked for a role they’re making that decision knowing in some cases they have to work with you for an extended period of time. It just works in your favour if your energy is good.
How did you start believing in your own work and talent?
I think when I booked my first job which was in 2013. Before that I was getting a lot of recalls but I wasn’t booking a thing. And I kept thinking, “Crap! Am I even good at this thing?” It was when I auditioned for the lead character in the play 1000 Miles of History. I looked nothing like the lead character Jean-Michael Basquiat, it wouldn’t have been great casting at all. The director met me and liked me so much that he tweaked part of the play, and essentially wrote my character (Basquiat’s confidante) into the play.
What was going to happen if this never came along? What was your plan B?
I never had one. I am really stubborn. I grew up always thinking this has to happen cos this is the only thing I want to do day in and day out.