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Joseph Marcell: Cry Freedom, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, Shakespeare and More….

Exclusive interview by Karen Beishuizen

We all know Joseph Marcell as Geoffrey the Butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air: a role he played from 1990-1996. He starred with Denzel Washington in Cry Freedom and with Chiwetel Ejiofor in The Boy who Harnessed the Wind. He currently plays the exorcist in a new movie called The Exorcism of God, viewable on various streaming platforms in America. Joseph Marcell is on the board of The Shakespeare Globe Theatre and lives in London.

KB: You played Moses in the movie Cry Freedom: How was it working with Denzel Washington in such a powerful movie about Steven Biko?

It was a very important movie, especially at the time with Sir Richard Attenborough he was then directing it. I was one of the first modern actors to play Othello in London in 1984. Richard Attenborough saw it and offered me the role in Cry Freedom. Interestingly enough I never met Denzel on set.

I know, it was extraordinary. All the meetings stuff were done before my bits. My bits were done on the border of Mozambique – Zimbabwe border in a place called Maputo. I didn’t get to go down to Harare at all to see any of that. But I have met Denzel before when he was working on the TV series “St. Elsewhere”. Just being in a film with an icon like Denzel as he has become and as he was, it is just … I dined out on it many times. It is one of the high points of my life. Another actor I spend a lot of time with on the set, and acted with in the film, was the great Kevin Kline. He had just played Hamlet for Joseph Papp and I had just played Othello in London, so we had a lot to talk about. He said, “You were a very young Othello” and I said, “You were a very tall Hamlet”.

KB: You played Geoffrey the butler in Fresh Prince of Bel Air from 1990 – 1996: How did you get this role and how did you make it so hilariously funny?

I didn’t really create the role. It was written for my character. About how I got the role: I had been touring in the USA with The Royal Shakespeare Company. It was part of a reaching out system of theatre created by Sir Patrick Stewart and Professor Horner Swander of the University of California and Santa Barbara. And what it was that actors who played leading roles at The Royal Shakespeare Company would take productions to the university of Southern California where they worked and performed with local actors. We took a production of “Measure for Measure” and “Endgame” by Samuel Beckett and did lots of talks about our last leading roles and I did various talks about playing Othello at a very young age and very successfully I might add. We were playing at UCLA in Los Angeles, and it is always a big event when The Royal Shakespeare Company goes to California or goes to any part of America, and I happen to be playing Angelo in “Measure for Measure” and Nagg in “Endgame” and somebody saw it and that was in 1987. Three years later “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” came up and NBC and the creators Andy and Susan Borowitz, who created the show, and Quincy Jones decided to go a different way. They were going to find a British actor who could play the butler. They wanted a black butler. Somebody said “Do you remember, when The Royal Shakespeare Company came, there was this guy who played Angelo? Maybe he’s the man”. So, it was like “What’s his name?”. “I don’t remember”. So, they went searching for me. I was playing at the premiere of August Wilson and Joe Turner’s “Come and Gone” at the Tricycle Theatre (now Kiln Theatre) in London in 1990. The thing came up. They said, “put it on tape”, so I put it on tape.

It flew back to America on TWA. They got it a day and a half later and they said “Okay, these are the directions: Can you do this, this and this?”. So, I did it again, we send it back and they got it a day and a half later and they said, ” Can you be in Los Angeles tomorrow morning?”. I said “No, I can’t because I’m in a play that finishes in ten days”. We didn’t have the system where we had an understudy, so I had to finish the contract. NBC Television agreed. After ten days I flew to America. I was picked up at LAX and taken to my hotel near the Universal building in North Hollywood. Everybody knew me and I knew no one. The next day the car picked me up and took me to NBC Studios in Burbank where I met the wonderful Mr. Will Smith, the incomparable Quincy Jones, the magnificent James Avery and all the people who were involved and that’s it. That’s how it happened. And the director of our very first episode was of course Debbie Allen who had done the television show called “Fame”. About my creation of Geoffrey: it is more 50/50. The creators were very clear what they wanted. They wanted a witty person, somebody who took a lot of pride in what he did, his job was important to him, he had empathy for the family, all those things. So, what I did, I simply created a character that fitted all those qualities. And of course, the writers wrote for him. I can tell you, on the fourth season I would say my audience knows how my character will react and respond in situations. We don’t need to say anything, all we need was to look. And you will notice that a lot of looks would bring the house down. It was a dream. And there wasn’t one day that I worked on the show that I wished I was doing something else. Many years later it continues to be one of the top selling shows on American television.

KB: You played Chief Wembe in the movie The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: How did you like working with Chiwetel Ejiofor who not only played the lead but was also the director?

He did also the adaption of the novel. It was a very interesting thought. I was in Oregon in the US play “Titus Andronicus” and my agent said that Chiwetel was directing “The Boy who Harnessed the Wind” and that he would like me to play Chief Wembe. I didn’t know anything about the book, I never read it. My agent said she would send me a copy so I could read it and let her know my thoughts. I asked why Chiwetel wanted me and what his involvement was, and my agent told me that he did the adaptation, and he is directing. I said, ” Oh Good Grief, yes, I want to be in it”. I had acted with him in 2000 at The Royal National Theatre in London in “Peer Gynt”. The actual character Peer Gynt was played by three actors: Young Peer, Peer the businessman and Peer who returns home after his world travels. It was magical. The most extraordinary production. It is one of those things where if you were there you were happy and if you hadn’t seen it you wanted to know why people would make such a fuss about. Chiwetel was brilliant.

I admired him then. For him to come up with an offer like that. I thought “Yes I do it. I do it absolutely”. I had the most amazing time. Because he is an actor, he had a way of soliciting a performance from an actor, he could speak to you as an actor would and understand the words he was using. To be given the opportunity to go to Malawi and spend all that time there. It was pure magic. He is a wonderful creative director. Incredibly intense. When we were on set, he concentrates. That’s all he does. It must be so tiring. As you know, filming is tiring as well. To watch the rushes that evening and all the decisions a director makes: extraordinary. One of the most interesting things about the film was when I said “Chiwetel, all this accent stuff, should I have a Malawian accent?” He said: “I don’t want you to have that. This is not written in the novel”. The Chief is a man who comes from the time of colonialism so he would have been educated at a Malawian English public school and everything about him would reflect colonialism, so that’s why The Chief is almost like he needs more than just being Solomon, more than just being a Daniel. It was marvelous. I had a pleasure doing it. It was wonderful challenging as well. It’s the old actor’s saying: “I was in this film, and I died man, I died”

KB: You were part of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air reunion: How was it to see everybody again?

We usually get together over the 30 years every two years when we are not too busy. We spend a day together, we have lunch, bring our families. So, we had seen each other many times. But it really was the first time we had actually been on the set after 30 years. It was the most extraordinary re-activating terrifying thing. Firstly, we have changed, we have become 30 years older: Tatyana (Ashley) has 2 children, Karyn (Hilary) has 2 children, Daphne (Aunt Vivian) has grey hair, my hair is grey, Will is much taller and older, Jeff (Jazz) has transformed himself into an older man, Alfonso (Carlton) is a 50-year-old man and of course there was one of us missing: James (Uncle Philip) wasn’t there. It really was quite an emotional moment for all of us because one of the things, as you noticed, how we ended. We all ended from different places. I think that was intentional by the producer, so we didn’t see each other. It really was, it had a certain beauty and magic to it. But there was always something missing. When we began to talk to each other, the entity or presence that was lacking, was there. In due course, it became more animating and relaxed, it was truly a magical moment. It was sentimentality without the artificial television. It was simply that we know we liked each other and spend time together: “WOW, here we are in the place that made us all famous”. Extraordinary. The audience will see that we liked each other, and we still do.

KB: You are on the board of The Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London: I read that you spend your time in pandemic shutdown to prevent the famous theatre from closing permanently.

I probably exaggerated that a bit. I believe in what The Globe stands for and what it is trying to achieve. Sentimentality aside, I am a professional actor, that’s how I earned my living most of my life. To be part of an actor’s dream and to have me invited to be part of this back in the 80s is extraordinary. You must remember, there is a team of people: our artistic director Michelle Terry, Chief Executive Neil Constable and of course the chairman of the board Dr Margaret Casely-Hayford. All I did was get involved in seminars about Shakespeare, but I always mention the Shakespeare Globe whenever I am asked about it. Two things I mention all the time: firstly Shakespeare Globe, secondly St. Lucia in the Caribbean where I was born. I feel extremely flattered that the little contribution I have made is useful. I am pleased. The Shakespeare Globe is the most extraordinary resource, not only nationally but universally. There is a Globe in Bremen, Germany, there is one in New Zealand. The most important thing again is the word, the plays as it is written by Shakespeare. It is marvelous. I am also on the board of Shakespeare USA.

KB: Do you prefer to be on stage in a Shakespeare play or to play in movies/series?

I like theatre for my soul. Films for my bank balance. I like television because I get a little soul and a little bank balance from it. I have a film that opened in USA in the cinemas and on the streaming platforms, it is called “The Exorcism of God”. Directed and written by Alejandro Hidalgo. It is a Mexican/Hollywood production. It is getting some good notices. I play the exorcist. It is scary as what Cha ma call it. A lot of fun to play it. It is quite a movie. You can watch it on demand on various streaming platforms in America.

KB: If you could choose your favorite Shakespeare play and star with your favorite leading lady: who would that be and what play?

Oh My God. Does it have to be one play? (Me: you can do two). Okay, my favorite play, only because I studied it when I was a teenager, is Julius Caesar. The tragedy of. I would love to play it again. I played it once. I don’t mind playing Caesar, but I love playing Brutus again.

I would like Cush Jumbo to play Portia, Brutus’s wife. And I would also like to do “Othello” and I would like Cush Jumbo to play Desdemona. She is great. We did a production of “Hamlet” that finished last November at The Young Vic in London and she played Hamlet, the first non-white lady to play Hamlet in Britain and in the world. She is extraordinary. She is up for an Olivier Award for it. (Update: Unfortunately she did not win)

Check out the website of The Shakespeare Globe Theatre in London: HERE