St. Lucia’s Joseph Marcell: “Some say it’s luck”

St Lucia-born actor Joseph Marcell on his path to the stage, his celebrated role on a hit US sitcom, and the value of both “grace” and “rivalry” for performing artists — as told to Joshua Surtees

Joseph Marcell in the lead role of the Globe on Tour production of King Lear. Photograph by Ellie Kurttz

There’s a point in King Lear when I ask, “Does any here know me?” And at least once a week someone in the audience calls out: “Geoffrey!”

I’m currently on a world tour playing Lear, in the Globe Shakespeare production of King Lear — but, the world over, people remember me as Geoffrey, the well-mannered butler in [the US TV comedy] The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Last year we were in Adana, Turkey, just two hundred miles from the Syrian border, and people were going mad. Yesterday I had tea with a friend in Mt Vernon, on George Washington’s old plantation, and the servers were going beserk. It’s endless, but you just have to be thankful. If somebody is brave enough to come up and say hello, you should be polite.

Fresh Prince began in 1990, and twenty-four years later, it is still shown four times a day, seven days a week in America. The achievement of the show is beyond anybody’s imagination. It came on at eight o’clock on Monday nights. In the States that means football. [TV network] ABC ruled the airwaves, but people would switch over in the middle of a game for twenty-eight minutes just to watch Fresh Prince — that’s never happened before or since.

I got the part in the show while doing what I’ve done for decades, playing Shakespearean roles on the stage. In 1987, Patrick Stewart, of Jean-Luc Picard fame, invited me to go on a US university tour of Measure for Measure, after seeing me play Othello in London. We were at UCLA [in California] for three weeks, and it was a hit. Three years later, Andy and Susan Borowitz, the writers and creators of Fresh Prince, decided to work with a young rapper called Will Smith. A casting director remembered they had seen me at UCLA, and decided I was the person they wanted.

They tracked me down at a small theatre called the Tricycle in Kilburn, north London, where I was performing. They asked for an audition tape, so I did one. They said, “Can you be in Los Angeles by tonight?” And my agent said, “No he can’t, he’s in a play, it finishes in ten days.”

Thankfully they waited for me, and when I got there I met Quincy Jones — the show’s producer — and I met Will Smith, and we recorded a pilot over four days. I came back to England to do a BBC television play by the Nigerian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka, called Madmen and Specialists. My agent rang me and said, “Darling, do you remember that thing you did in LA? They want you to be in the series.” I got on a plane, got a house in Sherman Oaks, and the rest is legend.

I had no idea what the future held for Will Smith. I knew nothing about rappers — he was just a pleasant young man, and it looked like it was going to be fun. But the role of the butler could quite easily have gone to James Avery, who played Uncle Phil, God rest his soul. I was up against him in the audition.

Will was a good leader, conscientious, worked hard at what he did, but most of all we liked each other. We’d spend time together, take our families out. My family — I have a wife, a son, and a daughter — would fly out to Hawaii or Jamaica for Christmas. Will and I got on very well — we were both very new to it all, so we stuck together.

I now live in LA and London, but I was born in St Lucia and grew up there until I was eight. We lived in Castries, and I went to St Aloysius, a Catholic boys’ school. The memories I have of the island are romanticised — people tell you things from your childhood, but it was a long time ago, and life has changed so much in my sixty-seven years.

I’m a Londoner, really. My parents moved to Britain and brought us with them. I remember it was the first time I’d ever seen denuded trees — I was amazed. I’d never seen so much smoke and dirt, and everything you touched was black with soot. I once lived in an apartment overlooking London which Winston Churchill had used as a shelter during the Blitz.

I began acting in my early twenties. I had been told I was going to be an electrical engineer, so I studied at college and got qualifications. Then one day while I was doing industrial training I happened to take a day-trip with two friends — we were going out to meet girls, as young men do. We crossed Waterloo Bridge, and I suddenly saw this huge billboard with black actors on it. That was the first time I’d seen that. It was a group called the Negro Ensemble at the Aldwych Theatre, presenting something called Black New World as part of the world theatre season founded and managed by a French director called Michel Saint-Denis. When we saw that production — that was it, really, I gave up my degree and became an actor.

I did drama school and got my first role in an episode of a television sitcom called Please Sir when I was about twenty-two. It was a non-speaking role — they just needed black schoolkids — but it got me my equity card, which gives you membership of the union, and is key to getting work.

I’ve been lucky — my second job in acting was with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and within months I was on Broadway. I’ve had the kind of career most actors dream of. Some say it’s luck, I believe it’s grace — but there you go.

When I speak to [St Lucian Nobel laureate] Derek Walcott, he asks me when I’m coming back [to the Caribbean]. When I’m in the Caribbean, I am a foreigner in a foreign land, but I’ve never pretended to be anything other than West Indian. I try to maintain links with the region, although finding time to involve myself in St Lucia is not as easy as it ought to be. I’ve just finished shooting a movie called Hero by British-born Trinidadian filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon, about the life of World War Two hero Ulric Cross.

I’ve been on the artistic directorate of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London for thirty years. This year we staged Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, which I acted in. Walcott came and it was good to see him — the play went incredibly well.

Things have gotten harder for actors [in Britain] — there are less avenues. When I started, non-white actors were simply fodder, and things haven’t changed — they’ve just become more so. Black people aren’t represented as much as we’d like in Britain, and there’s a “black ceiling” — but in my experience it’s not the employers who have the problem, it’s your fellow workers, who find it hard to accept they have to take instruction from someone who doesn’t look like them. It’s a deep-seated problem.

That said, there’s also rivalry between black actors, and I believe in rivalry — it’s the only way to keep you strong.