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McMafia - Clifford Samuel interview (exclusive)

Clifford Samuel

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CLIFFORD Samuel talks about playing the role of Femi, the boyfriend of Katya, in BBC drama McMafia and why it was great to be able to show an inter-racial relationship within the confines of such an ambitious drama, while also serving as one of the few honest characters.

He also discusses his career to date, including his time with the Royal Shakespeare Company, working with Andy Serkis on Sex & Drugs & Rock n Roll and what lies in store for the future…

Q. I’d imagine that 2018 has already got off to a pretty good start for you with the success of McMafia?
Clifford Samuel: It’s been lovely. I’ve been inundated with lovely, positive messages and it’s so nice to be a part of it and to finally be able to share something that we’ve been shooting for the past five months… and something that [director] James Watkins has been filming for the past year!

Q. So, what attracted you to the role of Femi? I’d imagine the appeal was manifold?
Clifford Samuel: What I loved about Femi is how he fits in to this huge, sprawling story. When we were discussing the character [co-creator] Hossein Amini told me that while there are so many ‘bad people’ in this, Femi is one of the few honest, dignified characters in this story. And yet he’s surrounded by people who are the opposite. I also liked the fact that it’s a three dimensional part. He’s a Nigerian who is going out with a Russian. But I’m not being shoehorned in to play a character. It’s not colour blind casting. He’s in there for a reason. So, it’s a positive, non-stereotypical part. I love the way that the show explores multi-racial relationships in a natural way.

Q. And is that something that’s developed further as the series progresses? Will we get to see more of the tensions this creates?
Clifford Samuel: I think so. There’s already been a hint of that from Episode 1, when there was quite a prejudice slur from a Russian. But there will be more hopefully because that’s what I filmed [laughs]. I remember we [James Watkins, Hossein and I] talked quite a bit about his back story while we were developing the character and how his relationship with Katya, played by the brilliant Faye Marsay, came about. We decided that they had to have met at university because they’re both outsiders. One is Russian and not able to speak much English, and the other is a black person in a predominantly white school. So, they were like a magnet, holding on to each other, whether subconsciously or consciously. But they’ve become stronger as a pair throughout the piece.

Q. It’s one of the other things that impresses about McMafia – the diversity of the cast and the fact that you have a multi-cultural cast rather than well-known British actors playing Russian roles with dodgy accents…
Clifford Samuel: It’s bold and it’s brave from James Watkins. But it was always a stipulation. You could get brilliant British names to play these roles but audiences are far too savvy and too ahead now. It takes something away from the authenticity when you do that. So, the brilliance of what we have done by casting more authentically is that we can also show global artists and global talent. It really is an all-star cast. I mean, we have the Meryl Streep of Russia in Mariya Shukshina, who plays Oksana Godman [the mother]. There’s also an Indian story, a Tel Aviv story, a British story, obviously the Russian story. But that in itself is not trying to be diverse. It’s representative of the world today. Everything is so interwoven. Global money laundering, for example… it’s not just one race involved, everyone is involved and complicit. It’s so complex.

Q. How much did you know about the modern Mafia before you took on the role? Or did its global reach surprise you?
Clifford Samuel: Sadly, I did not. I knew a bit. But what I knew was just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t realise just how interwoven and connected they were. I thought the Yakuzas were just Yakuzas and the Mafia just dealt with the Mafia. But it’s all inter-connected. The Russian-Israeli connection shown in the show, for example, is huge. And then you have the British story, where everything is being done from a desk… but it goes goes out like a spider’s web. People grab as much as they can – meaning money. I really didn’t know as much as I thought. I wasn’t naive to it. But I had no idea about the scale of it.

And what’s shocked everyone about this series, without giving away any spoilers, is the human trafficking element, which is a huge part of the story. We all know about it but the way that part of the story unfolds is incredible and I know a lot of people who have been affected by it – friends and family. It’s put the issue on a lot of people’s radars and they’ve been upset at seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes. The character of Lyudmilla [played by Sofia Lebedeva] has an incredible journey ahead.

Clifford Samuel, McMafia

Q. Going back to the subject of diversity for a minute, and talking about the industry as a whole right now, how do you view this moment in time? Have the headlines about women’s rights, sexual harassment in Hollywood and opportunities for ethnic actors opened up new opportunities over here? Is it an exciting time in spite of some of the terrible headlines we’re reading?
Clifford Samuel: It is an exciting time. I think news like this, and certainly the exposure it’s giving in terms of the conscious effort to now be more inclusive, is always a positive thing. Yes, it’s slow in Britain. But I think it’s still forward movement. We’re evolving. And part of that is because of the way that TV has changed, with alternative platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. It’s made TV more ground-breaking, in that lots more TV stations are making co-productions. McMafia, for example, is tied in with the AMC network in the States, while I’ve also found out that Amazon Prime has bought McMafia to show in over 200 countries.

Q. What does appearing in a show as big as McMafia do for your own profile as an actor?
Clifford Samuel: It’s been incredible. I mean, acknowledgement is what you want as an actor. And people are being so positive about the show. Hopefully, that will help me secure more roles based around good stories. It’s all you ever want as an actor – to tell good stories and to be involved in high end dramas as often as you can. So, thanks to the profile McMafia has given me, I’ve been seen by and am having meetings with really serious filmmakers and screen professionals. And going back to the point I made about AMC and Amazon Prime, what a way for me to be seen in all of those countries! And for the issues it raises to be seen by so many more people. It’s educational.

Q. You’re no stranger to high end productions, having done some amazing stage work already. When did you know that acting was the thing for you?
Clifford Samuel: Well, acting was never forced. Maybe it’s a naive thing to say but I’ve always loved acting. And it came as a natural thing in terms of playing dress-up in front of my family as a kid and seeing how much you can move someone. A lot of it was through comedy. But I found it a very powerful thing to provoke any emotion in a human being. So, I thought ‘let me explore that in more serious, porofessional way’. And it was fun… and still is fun. I’ve always said, even to my agent, that the moment this whole thing stops being fun, then I’m out.

But drama school, and being at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, was an incredible start for me in trying to understand theatre and theatre craft. It provided me with some incredible training. I still think it’s the best training for any actor globally – not just the Guildhall but in terms of British theatre training in general. Stage work then happened for me. I graduated early, in my final year, and was actually picked out by the Royal Shakespeare Company and – coincidentally – by David Farr, who is now one of the staff writers on McMafia.

So, that was a lovely silver lining to have left drama school early to be with David Farr and to then be playing Octavius Caesar in Julius Caesar as my first job. I was 20, I think, so still quite young to be given such a huge responsibility. But it really gave me the chance to practice my craft and I learnt such a lot during that time.

Clifford Samuel

Q. You seem to be focusing more on screen work at the moment… Is that a fair assumption?
Clifford Samuel: Yes – although there’s a but to that because any good work, no matter what medium, is important. If it turns your head around, if the writing is good, it doesn’t matter. But in terms of my immediate focus and energy, I’m trying to concentrate on the screen. It’s a good way of balancing the CV and I enjoy it. I find it to be another powerful medium.

Q. How easy, or hard, has it been to make the switch from theatre to screen?
Clifford Samuel: It’s been pretty seamless because the craft of approaching any script is the same. I do the same preparation for any character, so it’s the same amount of work for me in terms of building a role. Yes, it’s now in front of a camera and there are new techniques to learn. But I found it came naturally. And I’ve done some screen work before…

Q. You played a Blockheads drummer in Ian Drury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
Clifford Samuel: That was an incredible experience. In fact, it was almost like theatre. We rehearsed for weeks because of the music element. We all said on our CVs that we could play the instrument of our characters and I remember we had this early rehearsal in a huge recording studio. The producers, the director and everyone was there, and I remember them saying: “OK guys, no pressure, but can you play one track off the Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick album. And the room was elated afterwards because we all played our instruments. But the whole experience of that movie was incredible. We also got to do diving at Pinewood.

Q. And how was getting to work with someone like Andy Serkis?
Clifford Samuel: Incredible! He’s my kind of actor. He’s very focused and it was a privilege to watch and really observe and learn how he works. I remember for that part, Ian Drury had polio and Andy’s preparation involved going to the gym for months beforehand and training one side of his body, so that one half was smaller than the other. He had recaptured Drury’s body shape by the time we started filming and that was extraordinary to witness. I hope to have a career that’s somewhere close to his.

Q. What does the immediate future have in store? Have you got anything lined up?
Clifford Samuel: I am auditioning and I’m excited about some of the projects that I’m hoping will materialise. But I can’t talk about any of those at the moment. So, I’m just enjoying the phenomenon that is McMafia and meeting such lovely creative people to talk about other projects.

Q. When you look back on your career at this point, what are your highlights?
Clifford Samuel: There’s not one… there’s so many. I mean, McMafia has to be up there. It’s a break… in fact, it’s my biggest foray into this [screen] medium. So, it’s been a true highlight. But Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was another one, partly because we did everything (play music, act, diving, rehearsing and meeting so many wonderful artists). And obviously the RSC! And there was this lovely theatre company, Cheek By Jowl, run by Declan Donnellan, who is amazing. That was finishing school and one of my first jobs. It goes on tour all around the country [and the world] but we were in London, at The Barbican, for two and a half months. It also meant that I got to see world at 21! I got paid to travel and do an incredible show. It was the most glamorous form of back-packing!

Read our verdict on the first two episodes of McMafia

McMafia airs on BBC1 on Sunday nights from 9pm. It is also available on iPlayer.