Ariyon Bakare has known hardship in his life. From homelessness during his teens in East London to losing family members in quick succession while juggling a 2015 West End stint, now he can add COVID-19 to that list.
The British-Nigerian actor, who returns to screen this month in season two of “His Dark Materials,” was struck down by the virus during the earliest stages of lockdown in the U.K. The uncertainty about the illness at the time, Bakare tells Variety, coupled with being home alone, made it a “terrifying” experience.
“I didn’t know I had it because they wouldn’t even let me go to the hospital to be tested, but I got every single symptom you could think of and got very ill,” he says. “It was hard. The sense of isolation, the sense of what your mental state would be. And I found it really difficult [because] I couldn’t see my friends or my family. I was always on a plane, but my life just stopped dramatically.”
It was a fraught period for Bakare, but as he’s done for most of his life, he picked himself back up and came out the other side with renewed creative resolve. The actor has since shot two films back to back and, in his downtime, written poems and recorded music. He’s currently penning a film script for an all-Black cast of under-25s that has the flavor of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” while exploring psychosis in the age of social media.
“I like writing big stories and making big worlds,” he says. The resulting script, he hopes, will subvert stereotypical portrayals of the Black community. ”It’s this really young, Black high-end movie that’s not based on an urban story: it’s based on people who are educated.”
The police deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked global outrage, reinvigorated the Black Lives Matter movement, and forced every industry to confront its own complicity in racial discrimination, including the entertainment world. Now with Kamala Harris, a Black-Indian woman, on her way to the White House, Bakare is hopeful that the conversation around race will prompt effective change in attitudes and prejudices, but he’s still sceptical.
“We’ve got the next four years of a woman of color as the vice president and that’s a big move forward, so there’s a big need for change,” he says. “I feel positive but I’ve also got slight trepidation because I’ve seen it in the past where people made all these initiatives and it has literally fallen to the wayside.”
Youth are the real catalysts of change, says Bakare. “We’ve been fighting for so many years, then we get tired, and then a new generation comes in,” he says. “It’s almost empowering for us oldies to go, ‘We’re going to stand behind you and we’re going to say no as well,’ because you can’t be in the same place over and over and over again. It’s like Groundhog Day, but I think it’s a massive move that’s happened this time around.”
After a 25-year struggle to avoid racial typecasting in the arts, the 49-year-old has slowly begun to reap the rewards of a concerted push for representation.
He played an ex-biologist in sci-fi horror “Life,” a werewolf in Amazon series “Carnival Row” and currently stars as the sharply dressed antagonist Lord Carlo Boreal in “His Dark Materials,” the primetime HBO and BBC drama based on Philip Pullman’s fantasy novel series.
The show takes place across multiple universes, both in “our world” and an alternative world where humans have animal manifestations of their souls as companions called daemons. Season 2 is led by Dafne Keen and Amir Wilson as Lyra and Will, respectively, two special kids caught up in a prophetic mystical battle with Bakare playing a high-ranking enforcer of the Magisterium, a theocratic authoritarian power in the world of daemons, who spends more time in “our world” in the pursuit of power.
Boreal is making moves for himself — a drive for autonomy Bakare can understand.
“I’ve had a rollercoaster of a life with exceptional highs and exceptional lows,“ he says. “In the Magisterium world, Boreal is a backbencher. But here in this world, he feels as if he’s got power, so I drew on me being a guy who has watched people have everything and wanting what they have.”
“His Dark Materials” boasts an impressive cast comprised of characters from different ethnic backgrounds to reflect today’s multicultural Britain. Bakare, certainly, is less interested in all-white productions and says “it feels alien when [stories are] completely whitewashed.” Nonetheless, he still faced criticism when his casting as Boreal was announced.
“The first few comments were, ‘Oh my God you’re not supposed to play this part because you’re a Black guy and the character’s definitely a white man,’” the actor says. “Well I’ve read these books and I didn’t see what color he is, I saw the character. At the end of the day, it’s about truthfulness within the story as long as it serves the text and serves the drama.”
Ultimately, Bakare believes the pushback against diverse casting is the product of a loud “minority” and not representative of audiences who are increasingly willing to enjoy stories presented with a broader range of color.
“It takes time for people to change their perspective of something but there will come a point where people will just look at drama and say, ‘These are great actors, this is a great story, and it represents my world.’ And the world is full of people from all diverse cultures,” he says. “That’s what I’m excited about. I want to see all different walks of life. I love the rainbow effect of it.”