Treva Etienne of Falling Skies fame, the latest black Briton to find success in America, fears a generation of domestic talent is being wasted
A London actor who has won a lead role in Steven Spielberg's television sci-fi series Falling Skies has joined calls to increase opportunities for aspiring black and mixed-race British actors.
A future generation of screen and stage talent is being wasted, says Treva Etienne, who is the latest in a line of black British actors to thrive in America – following Idris Elba in The Wire, David Oyelowo in The Butler, Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Without a Trace, David Harewood in Homeland, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film 12 Years a Slave. Speaking to the Observer this weekend from Hollywood, Etienne called for a better balance of parts for black newcomers at home.
In recent years a number of actors who went to top public schools have become household names, such as Damian Lewis, Dominic West, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, the Downton Abbey actor Julian Ovenden and Harry Lloyd – who has made the forthcoming film about Stephen Hawking's life with a fellow Old Etonian, Eddie Redmayne.
Etienne believes these talented actors are there because they had more chances as teenagers. Actors should be drawn from as wide a pool as possible, he said.
"We will be destroying a generation of actors if we give these opportunities just to one kind of kid at Eton and not to others," he said. "And these two kinds of kids are going to meet each other in later life and they are going to see the difference. Acting should not just work for one class of kids. It should work for all kids."
Etienne, 49, who plays the role of Dingaan Botha in Falling Skies, is the son of a bus driver and learned his acting craft by joining youth drama schemes in the capital, including the National Youth Theatre, the Anna Scher Theatre, the Royal Court and the Black Theatre Co-operative's season at the Riverside theatre in Hammersmith. Although some of these groups are still going, many have lost funding, and Etienne argues that all Britain's bigger cities should have projects like these.
"Young people need a place to go to create something. It develops your confidence, whether you are going to be an actor or not. It helps you build up your personality."
Before leaving for LA, Etienne worked with the former film council to increase diversity in British cinema and he believes there have been improvements. "You have got to keep pushing open the doors. Every new idea has to keep knocking until somebody listens. At some point it will change."
As well as criticising the lack of opportunity for black youths, Etienne urged British TV producers to take more risks. Echoing the recent comments of black actors and writers, such as Kwame Kwei-Armah, who have found more scope in America, he feels that a greater mix of drama is needed: "There should be more diversity to the projects – not just the same tried and tested, familiar things. Otherwise we will get an even greater domination of American television drama."
He would love to come back to Britain to produce or star in a series that tackled life in Britain in the 1980s, he said. "I was at school in Kensal Rise [in north London] then and we had punk rockers, skinheads and reggae boys. There was such a mix of cultures and so much going on. Everybody had their own style based on the music they liked."
The greater opportunities in Hollywood are a reflection of the size of the entertainment industry there, Etienne admits: "It is just a bigger place, so there is more of everything going on. But they always want to try something different out here."
The actor, who starred in Black Hawk Down and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, grew up in a big family. His parents were originally from Dominica. His father drove buses and his mother worked for McVitie's. "They did their best to keep us focused on school, but I was always wandering off. I was interested in the arts."
Etienne had sensed no resentment from Hollywood about the succession of Brits taking leading black roles on TV. Tinseltown is used to arrivals from England, going back to Charlie Chaplin, he said. "To the everyday person my accent seems strange, but Hollywood knows the training is good in Britain. They know we do it properly, and learn Shakespeare."
Etienne plans to return to the British stage one day – he once played Macbeth at the National Theatre – but he is waiting to hear about the next series of Falling Skies, which he filmed alongside fellow British actor Scarlett Byrne in Vancouver. "I would love to do more classical stuff," he said. "If you can learn to dance with the classics, then you can always dance out and do something contemporary too."
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