Meet the Membership: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith

You’ve just won an Olivier Award for your portrayal of Ike in Tina; the Tina Turner Musical, which was your first Musical Theatre role. How did you find making the leap into Musical Theatre?

I felt totally enhanced by my year in a musical. The stigma about musical theatre is sort of about shine over depth but that’s breeze. The work is taxing and complicated. But maybe it’s a victim of its own excellence because musicals are usually so enjoyable. And also because the best professionals in any industry make their work look easy.

Before playing Ike you’d mainly played good guys – has the experience made you want to play more damaged characters?

Ha. I’m definitely all about the bad guys, now. I think there’s more detail to feed on. Or perhaps I’m just in love with detail. Kinder, friendlier characters seem to have fewer obstacles to play against. Wait. Maybe I’m playing them too plainly!

Have you got any upcoming projects you are particularly excited about?

Nothing I can talk about yet but then I’m completely clear. Literally nothing for the latter half of the year. So I can wait for something extra specially phat.

Have you seen anything recently that has really stuck with you?

I’ve been out of the loop for a year, so really haven’t seen much but... the recent film Mary Queen of Scots was very lovely, and I was lucky enough to catch Downstate at the National. Both very ‘adhesive’.

Who’s been an inspiration in your career?

So very many people. Just for this, just for now, just citing Brits, here is a massive list of people whose work I’ve stanned and/or bitten outright: Henry [Sir Lenworth], Hunter [Kathryn], Ejiofor, Oyelowo, Varla, Rylance [Mark], Terry [Michelle], Wong [Benedict], Kwei-Armah, Amuka-Bird, Turner [Lindsay], Gough, Warren and Lloyd [Adrienne and Phyllida], Whishaw, Kaluuya, Ahmed [Rizwan], Niles, Noble [Cecilia], Heap [Mark] and tucker green. And tucker green again, because she’s that special. And August Wilson even though he’s not a Brit. That was too long an answer. Don’t @ me.

You wore an ERA 50:50 campaign ring to the Olivier Awards. What’s the campaign about, and why do you support it?

E. R. A. Stands for Equal Representation for Actresses. They advocate for 50:50 gender-balanced approaches across our work in the industry – casting, directing, programming and staffing. ‘Statistical frequency’ shouldn’t and doesn’t indicate human value but, in this case, it’s a damn fine starting point. I support the campaign because it’s [very] right. The benefits of patriarchy and supremacism are narrow and false ones. 

You’ve recently spoken in response to The Stage’s report on diversity in the West End. Have you noticed much change over the course of your career?

I honestly don’t feel qualified to make pronouncements... but... I have heard changes made in rhetoric and policy and outlook but the real world shifts seem too slow in coming. I’m truly glad conversations are happening, though. But they are all literally just air until people also act.

As well as supporting ERA campaign you have in the past been a member of Equity’s Screen and New Media Committee and Vice Chair of The Act For Change Project. Have you experienced an increase in activism in the industry in the last few years?

The short answer is ‘yes’ but I only sense that rather than know it beyond dispute. Basic ways of making active changes are becoming the norm and it seems people increasingly want changes of all sorts, but don’t feel that can always be left to randoms to figure out. Perhaps the original activism is forming or joining a union.

Equity Committee Elections are coming up – what would you say to people unsure about whether to vote?

If they don’t vote they might not even read this! I’d say: “You know that you are your union, right?” Real talk, Equity is not perfect. Fine. But how can it be? By people joining it and engaging with it. What other choice could there possibly be?