'Life' Star Ariyon Bakare on Wanting to Be America’s "Elegant Black British Guy"

Credit: Dennys Ilic
Ariyon Bakare

The British star talks losing out to Mahershala Ali on 'Hidden Figures,' swapping London for L.A. and how he landed a part in 'Rogue One' without having seen a single 'Star Wars' film.

The U.K. could soon lose another one of its acting talents to the lures of the U.S.

Ariyon Bakare, after a career spanning two decades on British TV in shows such as Doctors, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Dancing on the Edge, alongside some acclaimed stage performances, has Hollywood in his sights.

While the Londoner has already notched up a number of smaller roles in some major blockbusters — most notably The Dark Knight and Rogue One (playing Blue Squadron pilot Blue Four, no less) — in Daniel Espinosa’s sci-fi thriller Life, released by Sony on Friday, he’s found himself with something he’s really been able to get his teeth into.

Starring alongside Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson, Bakare plays Hugh Derry, a paraplegic biologist on board the International Space Station who helps uncover what appears to be the first known existence of life on Mars. It’s a pivotal role with huge consequences, and one that gives the actor some of the best scenes in the film.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Bakare talks juggling auditions for Hidden Figures and Fences at the same time (and losing out to newly-minted Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), not having watched a single Star Wars film before he got the Rogue One call and why he’s contemplating a move to L.A.

There was one element of Life that stood out for me, as a Brit, in a bad way: the line about Brits not showering. What’s that about?

Yeah! What is that about? You’ll notice that I don’t actually answer!

So how did the role come to you?

I flew to L.A. and was meeting for several projects, including Hidden Figures and Fences. And then this film script came. This was my first audition out of all three of them. And I’d been on second auditions for each one. I was like, “I’m going to land a big Hollywood movie,” but I didn’t know which one I was going to land. And this was the one that I really liked the most … but I did love Hidden Figures … but I really wanted to work with Denzel Washington!

Which roles were you up for?

In Fences it was to play the brother Gabriel, and in Hidden Figures it was to play Mahershala Ali’s role. Mahershala’s so good looking. Me and him standing next to each other … ha! But at least an American got a part and not a Brit, which is a bone of contention! I might complain about that! Why did an American get an American part?

How did you find out you’d landed Life?

My second audition was a Skype call and then finally I had to do a screen test. It was April 1, April Fool’s Day, and I’m getting ready and in the zone. The night before I’d put the candles down, ha! That’s how I’m going to get the job … put a bit of candle! Scented! Such a weird thing to do.

So the next day I was getting ready to go and got a phone call, it was, “Yo! You got the job man.” I thought it was my friend putting on an accent, so was like, “Yeah, I got to go for my screen test, shut up,” and put the phone down. It was Daniel, the director. He phones back and says, “You got the job, it’s not April Fool’s.” And then I kind of fell to the floor and rather than praying said every expletive you could think of.

So do you now have plans to move to the U.S.?

Yeah. Now I’ve got the card — I got the card! I’ve been a champion for Britain for so long. I fought to stay in Britain and it’s done very well for me, especially the BBC, who have been really good to me and helped me carve my career. But it’s always a rollercoaster. One minute you’re up and the next you’re down.

It’s just that the material is never there. And I don’t blame anyone for that. If you want the material, maybe you do have to write it yourself. There was never the material, the know-how of how to make films with stories that would suit me.

I did [BBC drama] A Respectable Trade … I was the first black man in a period drama, and to play the lead. To do Jonathan Strange, to get the response from doing that. But then it’s, what can we do for you next? I’m not a boy. So yeah, I think I might. But I’ve had some really good roles, I cannot complain.

But is there a certain ceiling for black actors in the U.K.? It’s something that has been discussed a lot here.

Yeah. It’s like, where can I go afterwards? I know that conversation has been had so many times, but I do applaud what people do about diversity. But at the same time I cannot complain. I’ve done all right.

But this role is potentially the platform to something else …

Thank you! I hope so. I’d love to be the British guy in American films. I want to be the black British. Because Americans for a long time didn’t realize there were black British people, so now it’s like, "oh." When I go over they expect me to speak in an urban accent, and they’re like, “I understand you.” And I’m like, “You really patronizing lovely person.” But if played the elegant black British guy, I’m all right with that. Bring it on. Sign the contract.

How did Rogue One come about?

It was really weird. They said, “Do you want to be in this one or do you want to be in the next one?” And I thought I might never get a chance to be in another one, so I should just take it now, please. I was so excited. I have never been so excited. And weirdly enough, I hadn’t watched any Star Wars movies.

What?!

I know! Don’t, I felt so bad. You know what I did, I had the best time not having watched it. I was like a kid, because I watched every single one back to back. A day! I walked out afterwards and was like, why why have I not watched this before! I was phoning up my friends going, "Have you watched Star Wars" … and they were, “Yeah.” I was like someone who had just had sex for the first time. I remember just thinking, thank god for box sets.

So many characters were killed off in the film. Did yours make it through to the end?

I can’t say! But it’s good. I seem to be the sci-fi king at the moment. I also did Jupiter Ascending.

So how do you feel about The Matrix being rebooted potentially without the Wachowskis?

I don’t know how they’d do that. They’re really clever, the Wachowskis. I know they had a dip, but they push the boundaries of technology when they’re filming. And they’re risk takers. Massive risk takers. And that’s what we need in filmmaking. They should carry on. Whatever they come up with there is something within it that is really exciting. After working with them, they’re the two directors who in my career I’ve been completely in awe of. It’d be weird to do The Matrix without them. 

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