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Gbemisola Ikumelo - The IndieLondon interview

Gbemisola Ikumelo

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Double BAFTA nominee Gbemisola Ikumelo talks exclusively to IndieLondon about her career to date, including her work on FAMALAM, David Hare’s upcoming Roadkill and last year’s critically-acclaimed independent film The Last Tree.

She also discusses coronavirus and lockdown, Black Lives Matter and how Faith Drama Productions is doing at the moment.

Q. Hi Gbemisola, thanks very much for agreeing to answer our questions… First up, how has lockdown been for you? I hope everyone you know and love has managed to stay safe?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: I’m a natural hermit anyway so for me it’s been much of the same. But with lockdown I’ve been eating better, spending less and writing more. Some days have been harder than others but on the whole it has felt fruitful.

Q. It would almost be remiss of me not to ask you, at this point, for your thoughts on the state of the world now, with both the effect the coronavirus has had on the artistic community and on BAME communities. And, in turn, the Black Lives Matters protests. Do you feel this is a significant moment in history and that we’re standing on the edge of real change, albeit with a long way to go?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: So many people at the start of year spoke of 2020 being a time of vision and clarity and it might not be the romantic or pretty kind but I still believe that’s the case. I believe this year has certainly brought a real sense of clarity to the world, even within this chaos. The pandemic has really opened our eyes to how we do life, what and who we deem as valuable and it’s exposed the kind of people we are when we are squeezed. As for BLM, Black people have been dying in police custody and at the hands of institutions for decades and if it took the circumstances of this year to galvanise more people, to open the eyes of many to the cause, then I welcome it. I can’t speak to whether this will bring on lasting change but I’m hopeful that something significant is starting to

Q. Staying on the subject of Covid and its effect on the arts, how is Faith Drama Productions doing? You must be proud of what it has achieved so far? But what challenges does it face now, as we re-emerge from lockdown? What does it have coming up in its near future? I imagine the post-lockdown landscape offers pretty fertile territory to explore so many of the issues that have already been dear to you?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: Faith Drama Productions has always been punching above its weight as an arts organisation. We do very much with very little and so yes, I’m proud of what we have achieved. But this Pandemic has been tough on the Arts and more so on smaller organisations such as ours that are not receipt of regular funding. I do hope for the best but the truth is, the organisation’s future is not certain right now. We do hope that we will come out the other side of this with lots of exciting new stories to tell and we will fight tooth and nail to do so.

Q. You have been BAFTA nominated for both Famalam and your short, Brain In Gear. Firstly, congratulations! What do both nominations mean to you?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: Thank you! I’m still in shock about it to be honest. I’ve spent so much of my career trying to be the best creative I can be, not just one thing but multifaceted and so to be recognised by such a prestigious academy for these different facets of my creativity is a dream really.

Q. Where did the idea for Famalam come from? And what does its success and recognition mean to you?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: Famalam is the creative baby of Akemnji Ndifornyen. He contacted me a few years ago about getting involved when I was in the middle of doing theatre and honestly I thought it was just talk! Lots of creative people have “ideas” and then you never heard from them again but I was so glad to see that this was not only a real thing but also a great thing and it means the world that so many others agree!

Q. What can we expect from the third season?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: You can expect a new cast member in Danielle Vitalis who is amazing. You can expect some of your favourite characters to return as well as some brilliant new ones. I think Season 3 is going to be the best series yet. Not that I’m biased or anything!

Q. Similarly, where did the idea for Brain in Gear come from? It reminded me of Pixar’s Inside Out conceptually!
Gbemisola Ikumelo: Funnily enough, Brain in Gear originally started out as a sketch I wrote for FAMALAM. It was called Inner Fat Girl and it was based on the voice in my head that screams at me to stop killing her whenever I try to exercise! I started thinking about whether anybody else had such bizarre and random thoughts and what these thoughts would look like if they were actually people. I then met with Shane Allen the Controller of comedy commissioning at BBC and pitched it as an actual show and a month or so later we were filming it!

Q. You also have David Hare’s Roadkill coming up. Who do you play and what attracted you to the project?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: I play a woman called Steff Frost and without giving too much away, she becomes a bit of a pawn in a game she’s not really equipped to play.

Q. What was it like working on a script from David Hare? And if you did, what was it like starring alongside the likes of Hugh Laurie.
Gbemisola Ikumelo: David Hare was great. We had a meeting ahead of filming to talk through his take on the character and his vision for the series which is a real gift to get that bit of time with the writer. I spent some time with Hugh on set too and watching him work was awesome.

Q. Last year, you were also a big part of the success of the critically-acclaimed [and brilliant] The Last Tree? What attracted you to that project? And how did the subsequent acclaim surrounding it – beginning at Sundance and including BAFTA and British Independent Film Awards recognition – feel?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: I loved the story of a single Nigerian parent struggling to raise her kid. It was a story I understood intimately and the script really excited me. I remember reading over scenes the night before
filming them and thinking that I was so blessed to be able to play a role like this. It’s such a beautiful and special film that I’m not at all surprised by all the accolades it’s received. It also got me to the Sundance, which was a real bucket list moment!

Gbemisola Ikumelo

Q. You’re actively involved in theatre, too, so tell us about some of the challenges of bringing The Den to stage and why you wanted to do it? And how did the acclaim and support from The Barbican feel?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: I wrote the play originally as a seed commission for Theatre Centre, writing the first 20mins of a
play responding to the question: How will children shape our future? Then Mark Duggan was killed by the police, the 2011 riots started, lots of young people were being scapegoated and I re-imagined the play. It became a meditation on what children would become in a world where they felt they had no future; A world where these riots never let up.

The Den was probably one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I had writing and directing a play. It was an incredibly ambitious Site-Specific piece set in a huge 29000 square foot space taking place both indoors and outside, with audiences experiencing different parts of the play at different times and then needing to come together for another scene at just the right moment! It also had a cast of almost 50, many of whom were young kids. Super crazy! The Barbican gave us an initial development grant under their Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award and it was very useful in those early stages to get that support from them. I do think however there is a glass ceiling of support that a lot of these schemes will give to smaller organisations and so in the long run it can feel a bit like giving a hungry person a fish rather than giving them tools to fish for themselves.

Q. As for writing and directing, how do you go about choosing your projects and themes? And which ones you’ll direct, or just write, or direct, write and star in?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: It really depends. The Den started off as a brief and then evolved into something else inspired by what was happening in the world. Some plays are just a small germ of an idea. One of the earliest plays we produced in Faith Drama was called Life On The Stairs and it was literally in response to the local kids who hung out on the stairs of my local estate and wondering what life was like for them when they went home but by the time I had finished writing, it had evolved into a piece on revenge. The Bible also inspires a lot of ideas and themes. It’s a never ending source of drama!

And as for my role in pieces, usually that decision is down to circumstance. Often I will write something and realise there is no part for me in it as an Actor so I won’t force myself into a story that doesn’t fit! Brain in Gear was actually a first for me where I wrote, directed and starred in a project at the same time!

Q. What do you like most about directing? And, in turn, acting? And how tough is the director you on the acting you? Or the writing you?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: Writing appeals to the daydreamer in me, the version of me that likes to be alone in a room and imagine worlds. As a writer, I can create those worlds and populate them with people. It’s the closest I will ever get to being God! I love the all-encompassing nature of directing. You are exposed to so many other parts of the story than anyone else. You get to engage with characters and help shape them but also you are looking at stuff behind the scenes, like the costume department or lighting. You are responsible for the world that the audience will come into and I love that.

Likewise, I love that as an actor you are more singular and get to focus on your character’s journey and that character in relation to the story. It’s a small and necessary slice of the pie and that specificity is challenging. And then on top of that you get to play! You get to inhabit other people’s lives for a season and there is nothing like it! I think because I have been able to take on all these different roles, I’m a lot more respectful of these roles when I’m not in them. So Gbemisola the Actor doesn’t feel the need to direct myself. I know the importance of the role and usually fully give myself over to the director or writer’s input.

Q. What inspired you initially to pursue a career in the arts? And did you ever dream you’d become so successful?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: I remember the first time I thought I could actually do this as a job was when I was 15 and got into the National Youth Theatre. I spent weeks with other young performers who were talking about going to Drama School (which I had never heard of) or doing acting jobs and I was like, Wow! This is something people my age are doing outside of school? So I decided I would go for it. I took away my safety net. I didn’t think of back up careers (like so many advised) I just went in head first. I basically didn’t really give myself an opportunity to think I would be anything other than successful. Risky move but so far so good!

Q. And what do you consider to be some of your most valuable lessons? And best experiences? What advice would you give to anyone wanting to emulate you?
Gbemisola Ikumelo: The most valuable lessons I’ve learned in this industry is that my voice is important. My stories matter. My vision matters, my talent matters. It might not always feel like that when there are constant no’s or doors shutting in one’s face or even when you start to work and are constantly forced into a box or to be one thing. In the midst of that, I have become dogged that I will do this on my terms, in my way and I will be heard! That has not always been so easy but I have learned it with time. Some of my best experiences have been in jobs that have enabled me to build a network of friendships and family I may have never known. Also filming scenes of The Last Tree in Nigeria was an absolutely beautiful experience. I remember being told that as a black Nigerian woman I would not be able to become a successful actress, so to be able to actually act in a film in my own country of birth felt really affirming.

Advice for people wanting to emulate me: Don’t! Be the best version of you instead. That’s far more interesting.

Famalam series 3 coming soon to BBC Three and iPlayer.